I don't think I fully appreciated how special and awe-inspiring Peyton Manning's accomplishments are, at the age of 37, until I watched the first of his meetings with the Chiefs, on Nov. 17. I've covered about 30 of his games as a broadcaster, and all have been entertaining, but that one, on a Sunday night in Denver, was something else. The Chiefs were 9--0 and leading the league in sacks, and Peyton was coming off an ankle injury. Pundits were saying how that K.C. pass rush was going to get to him, that this would really be a disaster for Peyton. But from the first snap, he knew right where he was going with the ball, he knew exactly which coverages he was seeing, and he took so much pressure off his line that the defense had no chance to get to him. I don't think he ever hit the ground. He got rid of the ball in less than two seconds on many throws. The box score will show that he threw only one touchdown—in a season in which he'll almost certainly finish with more than 50—but the reality is that he was a quarterback in complete command.
I know what it's like to be an aging quarterback, physically. I was 36 when I returned for one final season, with the Bengals, in 1997. Monday mornings were brutal. I'd get out of bed, try to stand up and have to sit back down because my feet hurt so badly. And all I was dealing with was plantar fasciitis. In my career I never had to undergo a single surgery, let alone four on my neck in 19 months, as Peyton did. I also only had to start five games that year (after Jeff Blake got hurt), not 16.
I also know what it's like to be an aging quarterback, mentally. Despite my body's protests, I played one of my best stretches in 1997: I threw 13 touchdowns and two interceptions, and we went 4--1 in my five starts after beginning the year 3--8. That success was partly attributable to the good young players around me, as Peyton has now. But I also had a crystal-clear understanding of what was happening on the field. I could process the game so quickly—call a play, get to the line, audible immediately, read the defense, work through my progressions, find the open man. I was like an old pitcher who could no longer throw 95, but who knew from ages of experience what he had to do to get the job done. It's a golden period that many veteran quarterbacks experience, but no one has ever done it at Peyton's astounding level—and with a new team at that. His arm strength isn't what it once was (I bet I could throw farther than he can), but in every game his mental capacity is clearly so much higher than everybody else's that it appears he has the answers to the test before he takes it.
My college roommate at Maryland was Frank Reich; he went on to be a solid NFL quarterback and remains a close friend—we were best man at each other's weddings. Frank happened to be the Colts' QB coach for several years, and I used to joke with him that he had the easiest job in the world, coaching Peyton Manning. "To the contrary, Boomer," he'd say. "This is the hardest job in the league. [Peyton's] the most demanding player. From the moment I walk in, I have to have certain film clips ready; I have to be ready to talk over and over about what's happening on the field, trying to foresee things that might happen. He has a relentless desire to be great."
No one matches Peyton for expectations and demands—mostly put upon him by himself—and we're seeing that now in Denver. We're also seeing how much the Broncos' talented young players (as well as veterans such as receiver Wes Welker) value that quality, how he has raised their level of play.
I remember when I realized that I was done: It was during my final game, against the Ravens. Their middle linebacker was a second-year player named Ray Lewis, and he was running after me from sideline to sideline, screaming. I'd never seen somebody so fast and so violent at that position. Walking off the field with my kids, I thought, I don't know if I could handle another quarter with a guy like this. Of course, had the Bengals met my crazy contract demands for one more year, I might have had to try. But they didn't, so I didn't. I don't regret that decision one bit.
I certainly don't think Peyton's sustained success has anything to do with a hunger for money. He's already made hundreds of millions. I believe he's driven like no other athlete I've ever been around, and I believe that drive was only deepened by the dark time he had when he was injured. I believe he was tested when he was finally waived by the Colts. (Waived by the Colts! I laugh when I see that.) Very few players possess what he has: the unquenchable thirst for challenge, the insatiable hunger for conquest. He's Peyton the Great. And I don't think his conquest is anywhere near over.
Has any other QB been this good this late in his career?
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