ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning has a different way of looking at the Pro Football Hall of Fame these days.
“I used to watch the Hall of Fame [ceremonies] and I could remember I’d always call my dad,” the Denver quarterback said at a recent practice standing with a reporter beside a Broncos practice field. “I’d say, ‘Dad, give me a breakdown on Claude Humphrey.’ Those were the guys going in. And now, heck, I can give a breakdown, because I played against them. I played against [Derrick] Brooks. I played against Andre Reed toward the end. I know [Warren] Sapp and these guys going in.”
Even closer to home for Manning, 38, is that Marvin Harrison was eligible for induction this year, and Edgerrin James will be eligible next year. Manning, Harrison and James formed the “Lethal Weapon 3” trio for the Indianapolis Colts a decade ago.
But Manning has shown few signs of age. He is coming off his NFL-record fifth most-valuable-player award, and no one else has more than three. Despite the bitter disappointment of a blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, Manning collected a slew of NFL individual single-season records, among them 55 touchdown passes, 5,477 yards passing and nine four-touchdown passing games; and the Broncos set NFL team records with 606 points, 76 touchdowns, and five players with at least 10 touchdowns.
It all prompts the question: In a strange way, did Manning actually benefit from the neck injury that kept him out of football in 2011 and ended his spectacular run in Indianapolis?
“I go back and forth on that,” he said. “My initial reaction is I wish it never would have happened, because then I never would have missed a season playing football. It was just a bad year of football, 2-14, and you couldn’t be out there. It was a helpless feeling when you can’t be out there with your team, and you’re watching your buddies — guys like [Jeff] Saturday and Dallas Clark out there, guys who were used to winning so many games — and you couldn’t help.
“I think it’s strange to hear myself say, ‘Boy, I’m glad I had four neck surgeries and missed a season.’ I don’t think I can say that and really mean it. I guess what I can say is I’m pleased I was able to persevere through the situation. I’d never been through anything like that before. I’d had injuries before and I’d gotten through that. But until you really have something like that, you kind of say, ‘Boy, can you dig yourself out of that? Can you grind your way through it?’ Grind is the word.”
Manning said he has made a concerted effort to break from the past, in that he no longer measures himself against the version who played for the Colts.
“I’m a different player,” he said. “Mentally, what has helped me is I have stopped comparing myself to before I was injured. My baseline now is 2012 Denver, in this second chapter. That has helped me mentally, it’s given me great physical comparisons. And I’m physically stronger than I was in 2012.”
That’s particularly noticeable in his arms, which are more defined now than earlier in his career, something his teammates and coaches have noticed. (He recently needled Coach John Fox with “Foxie, are you saying I was fat before?”) And many informed observers say his passes have a little more zip to them this off-season. He’s never going to be a quarterback who can drill a ball through drywall.
“When we first got him, people kept talking about [diminished] arm strength,” Fox said. “The guy’s never had a strong arm relative to other players. But I always relate it to timing. It’s when you put the ball out, rather than how fast you get it there. To be a great pitcher, it’s not always about the heat you throw. … It’s like Joe Montana. He didn’t have the strong arm and all that stuff. But he was able to do it under pressure, and the accuracy and timing of his throws were tremendous.”
John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach and retired broadcaster, said people often overlook Manning’s “hidden quickness.”
“A guy like Peyton who’s very studious and knows where everyone is on every play, and works so hard, has a quickness,” Madden said. “There’s a thing where from the time he sees something until the time the ball leaves his hand, there’s a quickness. Some guys might need a little longer to see it, then a little longer to do something about it. So you think as a guy gets older, you think that he loses his quickness.
“I think as Peyton gets older, he gains his quickness. He’s quicker than he was six or seven years ago. Maybe not his feet, maybe he’s a half-step slower; he was never that fast anyway. But he makes up for it with that quickness that tells you that’s-where-I-want-to-go — boom.”
Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst, has studied Manning’s practice habits extensively, and uses that information in his side job working with young quarterbacks.
“I’ve stolen a lot of how Peyton prepares in all my grass-roots training,” Dilfer said. “Because almost everything he does, he creates a game-like environment. He doesn’t drop back and throw a square out. He drops back and has to kind of move to his right because the left guard got pushed back, and then throws a square out.
“Everybody thinks Peyton’s a robot. I bet he’s got a lot of left brain in him. I think he’s highly creative. I think he probably has an incredible imagination, and he creates these scenarios in his head, and he can paint these pictures in his mind’s eye, and then practice them.
“Even the B-roll we have at ESPN that shows him at training camp, it always shows him moving the ball to his left shoulder, taking a hard step to his left, shuffling around somebody or ducking. He’s never just taking a normal, what I call driving-range rep.”
Manning can’t stand wasting time, and he demands efficiency of the people around him. He’s famous for his exacting standards.
“Peyton to me is just relentless,” said his older brother, Cooper. “I’m his brother, and I’m constantly finding when I’m with him how content I am with whatever it is, and how unsatisfied he is with whatever it is.
“I just don’t think he ever thinks the task is fully accomplished, the mission is never accomplished. It’s like, if you go 10 for 10 from the free-throw line, he’s got to find something he doesn’t like about one of those shots. ‘No, that one rattled in.’ You’re constantly critiquing whatever it is, but even critiquing perfection. That’s why he is, I think, the greatest quarterback to ever play.
“I think he probably wears himself out. The drive and desire to keep improving never ends.”
That attitude is infectious around team headquarters.
“That’s what makes what he does so precise and so good, because he knows exactly what’s going on all the time,” said Adam Gase, Broncos offensive coordinator. “What we try to do as an offensive staff is help ease the pressure off of him as far as, he doesn’t have to do everything. This is our third year around him, so we ask the questions he used to ask us. So we can say, ‘Hey, if he asks us this, what’s our answer?’ And we constantly do that. It’s made all of us better.”
Sometimes, though, that relentless pursuit of perfection can reach comical proportions off the field.
“I notice it in fun-loving, easy situations,” Cooper said. “We don’t argue about anything. It’s ‘That steak was great last night.’ He says, ‘Well, it could have been a little bit bigger.’ Or, ‘Man, that’s a good drink.’ It’s ‘Maybe not quite enough ice.’ … He’s hard to impress.”
Apprised of his brother’s assessment, Manning wanted to refute it ... but couldn’t.
“I guess I’d like to disagree with Cooper on that,” he said. “I probably don’t have enough facts to back up my case. He probably has more.
“I think you owe it to the guys that you’re playing with to be out here practicing and studying like you were when you were 22 years old, trying to earn the starting job as a rookie quarterback with the Colts and trying to establish yourself as a quarterback in the NFL. I think if you ever stop doing that … I guess that’s my fear.”
How much longer will Manning play? Depends on whom you ask. He’s in the third season of the five-year, $96-million deal he signed in 2012.
“Our strength coach, Luke Richesson, I feel like he’s really set out a good plan for me,” Manning said. “He kind of jokes that he has this five-year plan for me. I say, ‘No, I’m on the 2014 plan. Let’s hone in on that.’ ”
Regardless, his head coach said he can’t bring himself to imagine Manning ever retiring.
“I don’t know that he can,” Fox said. “He won’t coach — I can see him doing what John [Elway is] doing — but I can’t see him getting away from it. I just don’t see him walking away from football.”
Cooper Manning is with Fox on that, even as those contemporaries of his younger brother are enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
“Peyton loves this so much,” he said. “A lot of veterans, they don’t get tired of the games. They get tired of all the meetings and the monotonous, repetitive stuff over and over. ‘I can’t go to another meeting.’ For Peyton, he eats up that stuff. It’s like Christmas morning.”
Elway can relate. The legendary Broncos quarterback, now the club’s top football executive, said he has been in Manning’s cleats and understands that feeling of nothing ever being quite right.
“Nothing’s good enough,” Elway said. “I think that comes once you start realizing that life’s going to slow down a little bit and you start smelling the roses and it’s OK to say, ‘You know what, this is very nice.’ He won’t allow himself to do it now while he’s still playing.
“He’s not ready to smell any roses.”