NEW YORK -- Peyton Manning is back in the Super Bowl, playing as well as he ever has. But he is not quite the same. Let Tony Dungy explain.
Dungy coached Manning in the meat of his career, the glory years in Indianapolis. On Saturdays, Dungy would let the players' spouses and children watch practice. Most players appreciated it, but most players are not competitive piranhas like Peyton Manning.
"Peyton would always come to me," Dungy said, "and say, 'We need to change this. We need to have the kids stay in the cafeteria. We need to concentrate on Saturdays. It's our last practice before we're playing.' I'd always say 'Yeah, I understand that. But this is a special routine."
Last year, before Manning's first game in Denver, Dungy talked to the Broncos' Brandon Stokley, his former receiver with the Colts. And Stokley told him Manning looked like the Peyton they knew in Indy, but something odd had happened. Manning had asked Broncos coach John Fox to open Saturday practices to the players' families.
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On the eve of his third Super Bowl, at the end of his 16th season, what makes Peyton Manning a great football player? There are many ways to answer that. Here is one: He is a master at disguising what matters and what doesn't.
This is how he fools defenders, creates openings, and leads his team down the field. He does it in many ways. Before the Colts played the Steelers in 2005, Manning told Dungy, "I know I'm going to get these guys." Assistant coach Bruce Arians had left Indy for Pittsburgh, and Manning knew Arians would share his famous pre-snap hand signals with the Steelers. So on the first play of the game, Manning signaled for a run. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor bit.
But of course, on this day, the signal did not mean what Taylor thought it meant. Manning hit Marvin Harrison for an 80-yard touchdown.
After Dungy retired, he watched Manning play the New England Patriots. In the first quarter, Manning called "Storm!" at the line: Running play. The Patriots stopped it. Dungy was confused. Why did he call for a run against that formation?
Dungy got his answer later in the game. Manning called "storm" again. The Patriots went to stop the run again. But of course, Manning had changed the meaning of "storm." He hit Dallas Clark for a long completion.
The smartest baseball hitters set up a pitcher; they will swing and miss at a pitch so they get the same pitch later in the game. You don't see that much in football, but Manning had done it. The first "storm" play was a setup. Stopping the Colts for a short gain did not mean what the Patriots thought it meant.
Sometimes Manning will change his signals or pre-snap cadence between drives. Other times, he will have words that mean players should disregard other words, essentially turning them into dummy calls.
Everybody knows Manning watches a lot of film. But did you know that he watches the network broadcasts (or asks the backup to do it), so he can find out which of his words were audible to viewers -- and to his next opponent? He climbs inside his opponents' heads and watches them try to get inside his.
"He just goes way beyond what the normal person would," Dungy said.
And this brings us to "Omaha," the word that has America buzzing in these playoffs. What does "Omaha" mean? Consider these two answers:
Manning: "Well, Omaha, it's a run play. But it could be a pass play, or a play-action pass, depending on a couple of things: the wind, which way we're going, the quarter, and the jerseys that we're wearing."
Dungy: "Omaha means a lot of things. Right now he seems to be using it for the snap count. Unless he tells them he is not using it for the snap count."
Manning was joking, and Dungy was serious. But the answers are awfully similar, aren't they?
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In 2011, Manning received two lessons in what matters and what doesn't. Dungy said they both changed Manning profoundly. The first lesson was that Manning had to miss the football season because of a neck injury. The other event occurred in April 2011, when twins Marshall and Mosley were born.
The two events are unrelated, but their effects on Manning are intertwined. Manning had been at the center of the NFL orbit for so long, and he discovered the league kept spinning without him. He had also been the center of his own life for so long, and as any decent parent will tell you, that changes when you have kids.
Dungy said Manning's attitude now is: "Yeah, we want to win, but if we don't win, I'm still going home to those two kids, and we're still going to have fun. I don't know if you play better, but you put it in perspective."
It is often said that people don't change. But of course we all do, day by day, over time. For all those years in Indianapolis, Manning had been a model employee. He was a perennial MVP candidate, an ideal leader, responsive to his coaches, active in charity work, great with the media. He had helped the Colts win a Super Bowl and build a new stadium. And in the end, what did it get him? Cut.
Colts owner Jim Irsay, meanwhile, was in a strange place: He could transition from one franchise quarterback to another (Andrew Luck), the dream of every owner. But he risked being seen as a jerk for it. After all, who the hell cuts Peyton Manning?
Irsay's father, Bob Irsay, had been painted as the worst kind of owner. He had famously pulled the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night, then rewarded Indianapolis with years of bad football. Jim took over and showed everybody how much he cared. He insisted that Dungy's father travel with the team. He built relationships that went beyond business. He and Manning had become very close. And now, because Luck was available and Manning's future was uncertain, Irsay risked being portrayed as just another callous owner.
Ultimately, everybody did the right thing, and nobody enjoyed it.
"It was stressful," Dungy said. "I talked to (Jim) two or three times during the course of it, in trying to figure out what to do. He kept coming back to: 'As much as I love Peyton, as close as we are, I just have to do what's best for the franchise down the road.'
"Does that make you a commodity? Does that make you just part of the office furniture? That's hard to say. In Jim's mind, I know he is more than that."
When Manning chose a new team, he knew one thing: He could not possibly replicate what he had in Indianapolis -- or what he thought he had. The second act of his career would always be overshadowed by the first. He is the Broncos' quarterback, but he remains Indianapolis's icon.
The one thing he can replicate is the game itself. It is his challenge, his puzzle, the thing that drives and thrills him. He has used new pieces -- Demaryius Thomas instead of Marvin Harrison, Eric Decker instead of Reggie Wayne, Julius Thomas instead of Clark -- to put the puzzle together.
Dungy said Manning looks the same to him on the field. But it is easy to imagine that Manning sees the game more clearly because of his lessons in what matters and what doesn't.
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Peyton Manning keeps changing, a little bit every day, like we all do. He went from wanting to ban kids from Saturday practices to wanting them there. Someday, he will decide he would rather be with the kids than practicing. Dungy believes that is when he will retire.
"When the twins get a little older and he wants to go to whatever it is, whether it's play practice or performance, or Pee Wee baseball, or whatever it ends up being, he'll say, 'I know I should be training, working doing something, watching film, but I have a desire to do this,'" Dungy said. "That's when he'll step away."
And when he steps away ... well, we have made it this deep into a Peyton Manning column without using the word "legacy." Hey, I'm trying to be like Peyton here. Everything is by design.
Manning said this week that he doesn't care about his legacy. He added: "I'm not 100 percent sure what the word even means." It is easy to dismiss this as a pat answer. But Dungy insists: "He never really cared about that."
If Manning is healthy next year, he will break Brett Favre's record for touchdown passes. The year after that, he should pass Favre for all-time passing yards. But Dungy points out that in 2004, Manning threw a then-record 49 touchdown passes but barely played in the final game, because the Colts had clinched their seed. A few more touchdown passes would have made his record harder to break, but Manning didn't care.
We see Manning's crazy stats and TV commercials and Tom Brady comparisons and even his postseason record, and we are just like those defensive players. We can't separate what matters from what doesn't.
But this matters: A yellow note pad. After every Colts season, Manning brought a yellow pad to a meeting with Dungy. On it, he listed the ways he and the Colts could be better. He asked Dungy to hold him to his list.
A few weeks after the Broncos lost to Baltimore in last year's playoffs, Manning told Dungy he was already excited for the 2013 season, because he knew he was healthy, could take a hit, and had the weapons he needed. He put up the best numbers of his career, an MVP season, and he may win another Super Bowl. All of those things matter to Manning. But they are not what matters most.
Dungy said Manning is driven by "Chasing, in his mind, perfection: This is what the quarterback should do. Can I play the perfect game? Can I have the perfect practice? Can I be the absolutely best I can be out here? And if I do it, can I do it tomorrow?"
That is his legacy.