An ebullientleader and master tactician, the league's premier passer is also unquestionablyits best player. Once he gets talking, you quickly understand why
There is a PeytonManning Fan Club among NFL quarterbacks, a group effusive in its praise andadmiration for the Colts passer. Tom Brady dines with Manning a few times everyyear and considers him a good friend. "Cool guy," Brady says. CarsonPalmer has driven from Cincinnati to Indianapolis, incognito, to watch himplay. In Kansas City's playoff loss to Indianapolis last year, Chiefs rookieBrodie Croyle kept straying from the offensive area near the bench to getcloser to the field so he could watch Manning.
Usually you canfind athletes in every sport to dis a great player (off the record) for somekind of perceived fault. Not with Manning. Now that he's won a Super Bowl, he'sascended to a level at which he is practically beyond criticism. SI rates himthe No. 1 player in the NFL--big surprise there--and the people he goes upagainst have no problem with that. "It's not even close," says Broncoscoach Mike Shanahan. "He's the best."
The questiongoing forward just might be, Could he become the best quarterback who everplayed? He's durable, having missed one play because of injury in nine seasons.At 31 he's six very good seasons away from the alltime records for passingyards and touchdowns. (Dan Marino holds those marks, though Brett Favre is ontrack to overtake him in both categories.) But given the NFL championships onthe résumés of Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham and Joe Montana--not to mentionBrady, who could add to his three--Manning would probably have to win anotherSuper Bowl or two to be considered the best. Unless he puts his numbers out ofsight.
His peers see himas a guileless, innovative competitor. As he enters his 10th NFL season, howdoes Manning see himself, and his team?
"I play because I love the game, not because it's what I'm supposed to bedoing. I think as soon as I'm not excited to be driving to training camp,that's when it'll be over. You know, it's an hour-and-15-minute drive fromIndy. I loaded an oldies CD [wife] Ashley just got for me for the drive, thensent out a mass text message to all my teammates whose numbers I have, which isa large majority of them. I wrote, 'Hey boys, let's go bust our asses in campand do this thing again.' And it was exciting to see all the responses. BoogerMcFarland saying, 'That's what I'm talking about.' Dwight Freeney goes, 'Hellyeah.' Dungy gave me an 'Amen.' Priceless. So I was excited to be coming uphere again. I can't imagine thinking the day before camp, Golly, I wish Ididn't have to go."
"I alwaysworry about the teammate that comes up and asks me for an autograph. You don'treally want that. I'm like, 'Oh, this is for your brother?' And they're like,'No, no, it's for me.' And I'm, 'Man, I need you to block for me. I don't needyou to look up to me. You need to be my equal.' "
"You like tohave some guys on your offense who really bother a defense, somepain-in-the-ass guys. That's what Bill Belichick always called [wide receiver]Brandon Stokley. That's what [tight end] Dallas Clark is. Last year Clark getshurt against the Eagles, and I hear the dreaded 'ACL' on the sideline. I'mthrowing my hat down and saying, 'That's pretty much going to do it for us.' Wecan win some games, but they're doubling Marvin [Harrison] already, daring usto beat them with someone else. Dallas rehabs his ass off, and he gets back forthe Dolphins game at the end of the regular season to get the rust off andagainst Baltimore and New England plays like an absolute madman. I mean,against New England in the AFC Championship Game, he was the key to thatcomeback, those plays down the middle. Being a pain in the ass means making thedefense declare what it's going to do. If you put your linebacker on him andhave your good run defense, then you have pass-defense problems. If you putyour nickelback on him, that's probably your third-best cover guy, and thenwhat do you do with the extra receiver?"
"I'm just afootball meathead. I did Saturday Night Live just to have fun. I'm a lot morenervous for a game. On Saturday Night Live the people who are nervous aretrying to get Alec Baldwin to put them in his TV show. But preparing forSaturday Night Live was like preparing for a football game. I told them Iwanted it to be funny. I went up there on a Monday. It's the same as a footballweek: Monday and Tuesday you put the plan in; Wednesday, Thursday and Fridayyou practice, although you only do each script the one time. The nervous thingis on Wednesday, you sit around with the whole crew, cast, cameras and makeup.They give you a stack of scripts and about 30 minutes to read all 40 of them onyour own. Then Lorne Michaels reads the scene, and you have to do the reading.There's nothing about character or whatever, and you sound like a moron infront of these people. That's when they decide what's funny and what'snot."
"I'd like todo one of those reality-TV shows on the ultimate debate--what is the toughestjob in sports? You'd put a pitcher in there, a golfer, a basketball player, atennis player, a hockey player, a football player. I wouldn't have to be thefootball representative. I'd probably put Brett Favre in there, but I'd writehis material. And I would say you can't compare anything to quarterback. Apitcher has no time factor, no hurry. He doesn't like the call from thecatcher, he steps off, doesn't waste a timeout. I haven't found one job thatreally compares to what the quarterback has to go through. You take all thosethings: time, weather, noise and then you get to dealing with the rush, dealingwith the speed. And you truly have the game in your hands."
"I constantlythink about teams stealing our signals. I know New England films me when we'reup there. I know Mike Shanahan has tried. I tell our backup quarterbacks in thepreseason, 'Don't signal the receivers. If the guy doesn't know the route,bring him over and tell him.' I try to change mine up and mix it up, especiallywhen we play teams with guy who've left here."
"The bestplayers I've played against--the Zach Thomases, the Ray Lewises--they playtheir instincts. I can't tell you how many times against Zach Thomas I've hadthird-and-five, third-and-seven, and he's going, 'Watch the screen, watch thescreen,' and I call time because we got a screen called. But he's just playinghis instincts or tendencies. We played Oakland a few years ago, and after thegame [linebacker] Greg Biekert said they had our signals. Well, in the firsthalf, I think we had 375¬†yards of offense, and in the second half we hadsome turnovers and Rich Gannon got on fire, so Biekert looks like a hero. Isaid, 'What'd you do, save the stolen signals for the second half?' When youwin, you say what you want; when you lose. . . ."
"At the ProBowl, Belichick and I had a beer at the pool one day. We talked for a few hoursand somebody said, 'All they're doing is telling a bunch of lies to eachother.' There's some truth to that. But when we were stretching for practiceone morning, we were kind of waiting to see who was going to break the icefirst, and he came up to me and said, 'Now, that third-and-two in thechampionship game when you ran the ball, were y'all going to go for it onfourth down?' And I said, 'Look, on the sideline Tony [Dungy] basically said,'Don't make me have to decide.' So after that, it was like, 'You asked one, nowI have a couple for you.' "
"My firstquestion to him? I went back to my rookie year, 1998, against the Jets. We went3-13, and he's coaching under Parcells and they go 12-4. We beat them at home,my biggest win at the time. We stunk. We had a fourth-and-14 where they weregoing to blitz like crazy. Our left guard false-starts, but the ball is snappedand you see [the blitz], so we come back and go max protection, thinking theywould blitz, and he drops eight [defenders into coverage]. I'm doing what mycoach told me--you know, dump it down to your back. So I throw a four-yard passto Marshall Faulk on fourth-and-19. He gets the first down, and we go on tobeat them. I asked Belichick if he remembered that play. Oh, he remembered.'Damned Mo Lewis missed the tackle.' Unbelievable. We ended up going to dinner.I had an enjoyable week just talking football with the guy."
"If I couldplay one game for any coach besides Tony Dungy in football history, I'dprobably pick Bill Walsh. God rest his soul. So many coaches were influenced byhim. It'd be interesting to be in meetings with him. He said, 'If you're notgoing to coach it right, get off my staff. If you're not going to run it right,get off my team.' I'd say Walsh and, just for fun, Hank Stram. He had the mostpriceless NFL Films clip of all time, from the Super Bowl, when he said, 'Theol' coach called that one! The ol' coach called that one!' "
"I called TomBrady before the Super Bowl. I said, 'Give me a tip on what to do about thepostgame party.' You know, win or lose, there's a party. The Colts had a party,and they give you nine tickets. I mean, how do you pick nine people? You don'teven get past your family and your in-laws. Brady said, 'Call the hotel and geta room, and have a party win or lose. With your people.' And he always had agreat one. [Colts owner Jim] Irsay had the ballrooms, so we called the hotelrestaurant, and I said, Let's blow it out, win or lose. We go back to the hoteland I stop by Irsay's party, and then I go to our deal and we had about 100people there--friends, family, Kenny Chesney sang, we had a band. Went to bedaround six."
"The mostsincere voice mail I got after the Super Bowl was from Dan Marino. He did thecoin toss that day, and he said it was an honor to be on the field with me.I'll remember that for a long time."
"Once youwin, you don't want to quit; you want to win another one. So you have that samehunger, for sure. At least I do. I know I do."
Peter King asked Peyton Manning‚Äôs peers a question this ‚Ä®summer: If there‚Äôsone trait of Manning‚Äôs that you wish was a part of your game, what would it be?Here‚Äôs the quality that SI‚Äôs second-, third- and fourth-rated quarterbackswould want to add.
Carson Palmer: ‚ÄúThe ability to dictate to the defense. He‚Äôs the only one infootball who can do that every Sunday. I dream of walking into a road stadiumsomeday, going up to the line of scrimmage and having the defense feel about methe way all defenses feel ‚Ä®about Peyton. He puts them on their heels. He knowstheir bluffs, he knows their keys .‚Äà.‚Äà. and so he gets a defense to do what hewants the defense to do.‚Äù
Drew Brees: ‚ÄúKnowing the offense so well you can run it in your sleep.Having the same offensive coordinator [Tom Moore], the same line coach [HowardMudd] for nine years allows you to go out there and just play. You‚Äôre one withyour coordinator. I‚Äôd bet you anything that, with Peyton‚Äôs memory, he‚Äôll sayduring the week, ‚ÄòHey, remember five years ago when we played these guys, theybrought this kind of pressure? Here‚Äôs how we have to block it.‚Äô And his coacheswill know exactly what he means, they‚Äôll agree and they‚Äôll be so far ahead ofthe game.‚Äù
Tom Brady: ‚ÄúOne word—consistency. His consistency‚Ä®is something I strive for.It is incredibly‚Ä®rare when he‚Ä®doesn‚Äôt play at his‚Ä®All-Pro level.‚Äù
DREAM TEAMS See if Peyton Manning landed on any ofPeter King's Dream Teams--alltime, current or future. ONLY AT SI.COM
Photograph by Steve Jacobson
Manning could wind up the alltime leader in passing yards and touchdowns--andanother championship or two would bolster the argument that he's the best everto play his position.
BOB ROSATO (BREES)
PETER READ MILLER (BRADY)