Peyton Manning will return in '15, but he'll depend on RBs more than ever
It was the 0.1%, the moment that happens one in every thousand. Peyton Manning was hollering at his Broncos' offense in that Tennessee-twanged Cajun accent all his own, and C.J. Anderson thought his quarterback was seeing the play all wrong. Denver’s season-finale against the Raiders was essentially over, the Broncos leading 33-14 in the fourth quarter, and on this play, Anderson, the tailback, didn’t think that Manning (who he says is right 99.9% of the time) had read the defense quite right. He alerted his quarterback but failed to convince. Manning stuck to the play call, waiting too long in the pocket and eventually taking a hit from linebacker Miles Burris.
Dropped in protection, Anderson didn’t see anything but the incomplete pass downfield. But when he turned around and saw what had happened, he couldn’t resist. “Ah, man, I tried to tell you,” he yelled to Manning, allowing himself a split second to gloat. “I’ll take my 0.1% when I can get it,” Anderson said, recounting the play the next day. He knows how rare those moments are.
In the second half of the 2014 season, Anderson emerged as one of the NFL’s better running backs, averaging 108 yards over the final six-regular-season games. The Broncos rode a No. 2 seed into the playoffs, but on Jan. 11, despite an 80-yard campaign from Anderson, their season came to a surprising end at the hands of the Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs. And in the hours and days that followed, speculation began: would Manning, the man Anderson credits with much of his success, retire?
On Wednesday, the NFL got its answer when Manning, after 51 days in limbo, agreed to a restructured contract, taking a $4 million paycut. He’ll be back in Denver, back under center, but with a new coach, Gary Kubiak, and a tweaked offense—likely without slot receiver Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas, both of whom played a large part in Denver's record-setting 2013 offense. Manning is healthy, but he’ll also be 39 years old when the 2015 season kicks off, and to expect the 300-yard performances that defined his first two-and-a-half years in Denver would be delusional. If the Broncos are going to get their aging quarterback his second ring, their hopes will lie in Anderson’s hands as much as those of any receiver, especially in Kubiak's system, which places a heavy emphasis on zone blocking and stretch run plays. And so Anderson will have to live up to his six-game breakout and take the next step—or else it'll be the next man up in Denver. If he does, though, he'll become the latest in a long line of running backs who have thrived under the future Hall of Fame quarterback.
But to flourish in that role isn’t about brawn or pedigree. It’s about learning to see the game as sharply as Manning does, to anticipate his decisions, to somehow read what many call the greatest mind in football.
On a summer afternoon in 1997, between two-a-day practices at the University of Tennessee, freshman running back Jamal Lewis heard a knock on his dorm-room door. Into the tiny lodging strode Manning. He’d played an active role in Lewis’s recruitment, but with the Volunteers’ focus on the passing game (Manning had been All-America in ‘96, after all) and with several returning backs to beat out, Lewis expected limited time with the hotshot senior.
Manning, though, believed the freshman could contribute after Tennessee’s rushing offense had lagged a year earlier. So that afternoon, he ducked out of the sticky Knoxville heat with a handful of papers and laid them on Lewis’s bed. “Learn these,” he said as he explained the protections that each sheet outlined, “and you’ll be starting by our fourth game.”
Lewis did, and he was.
In the years since Manning left Tennessee, dozens of NFL backs have found themselves in similar teacher-student situations. With the exception of Marshall Faulk, every back who’s played significant time with Manning has been younger, less experienced. There was Edgerrin James, Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai with the Colts, Knowshon Moreno and Anderson with the Broncos—Manning rattles off the names of his best pupils, and for each there’s a story of extra drills or film sessions.
When a running back joins a Manning-led team, his first realization is often that his quarterback has done his research. When Hillman was a rookie in 2012, Manning greeted him by name at his locker and struck up a conversation about his background. Hillman was wide-eyed, baffled, and when the quarterback asked him to put in some extra work, it was as if the decision had already been made. If you are nobody and Peyton Manning knows your name, you do what’s asked.
The makeup of those after-practice sessions (which are typically limited to young backs) varies from player to player. Manning and his pupils hone pass patterns, hand signals, protections. Some days, they’ll go over a play where routes steer one way in the red zone and another way outside of it. Other days, they’ll learn solely about timing, about a game that’s plotted down to the millisecond. “It’s [about] the minor details and why you’re doing something,” says Lewis, who went on to win a Super Bowl with the Ravens. “[Peyton’s] a student of the game and he knows the defenses just as well as he knows the offense.”
Eventually, Manning expects the same of others. In Denver, he asks his starting running back (and sometimes his No. 2) to attend a special film session each week alongside key offensive linemen. This one’s a quiz session, with Manning doing the drilling. If I do this, how do you react? But class doesn’t end at the bell. Tony Dungy, Manning’s coach of seven years in Indianapolis, says that the QB was known to dial up a running back at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday to talk about a play that he’d just drawn up or a blitz that he’d considered. To ignore the call was not an option.
Dominic Rhodes had always been the man, first at Tyler Junior College and then at D-II Midwestern State. Even after going undrafted in 2001 and inking a free-agent deal with the Colts, the running back remained confident that he’d succeed. But after his first minicamp in Indianapolis, Rhodes returned, despondent, to his mother’s home in Abilene, Texas. “I’m done,” he told her. “I don’t know nothing about football. I’m an idiot. I cannot get it.”
“I didn’t understand,” explains Rhodes, who played eight seasons in the NFL and finally retired from pro football in 2013. “In college they said, ‘Take the football and go make plays.’ They didn’t say [anything about] a 4-3 defense, a 3-4. I didn’t know anything about that.”
Rhodes came to the NFL with only a rudimentary idea of how to protect his quarterback, how to read blitzes and block. He’d never had to do those things before; his job had been to power his offense. But in the pass-happy NFL, running backs are more often treated as jack-of-all-trade accessories. Typically, only the players who accept the complex realities of their new jobs and who defer celebrity to receivers will succeed—particularly in a Peyton Manning-led offense.
[daily_cut.nfl]Rhodes learned that lesson when he returned for his first training camp. It was fine that he’d come in clueless; as long as he was willing to learn, Manning would teach. The quarterback and his Colts coaches had realized early on that they were asking more than the usual from their young players; even if they were moving at 100 m.p.h., they had to ease rookies in thoroughly. “It’s beautiful, the football that I learned because of that guy,” Rhodes says of Manning.
“I’ve always felt like Peyton was a coach playing on the field,” says Addai, the Colts’ first-round pick in 2006. “If [the field] is the classroom, Peyton will give you the answer to the test. He’s not going to try to make it harder.”
That help, Anderson says, may not always be delivered calmly, but it’s help nonetheless. “He might make you feel horrible when you don’t know the situation,” adds Broncos runner Juwan Thompson, a rookie in 2014. “You need to grow with him and listen to him. He’s going to make sure everyone knows when you messed up. You just need to move past that and get it right the next time.”
That’s the thing with Manning. He wants to move on immediately, to be unencumbered by his teammates’ mistakes. He sees the next play while the defense is still reacting to the previous one. That applies to practices as well. “Every throw, every handoff—everything was at game speed,” Lewis recalls of his days with Manning at Tennessee. “After watching one practice, it just changed my whole outlook on the game.”
Preparing as if he will face the NFL’s best defense each Sunday, Manning is constantly ready for disaster, and he expects his team to operate with the same worst-case-scenario mentality. In Indianapolis, the Colts would open the walls of their facility to let in the cold. Before games that call for rain, Manning has been known to wet the football and hand it off slippery—and Lord help the back who fumbles. Says Rhodes: “I think that guy just sat at home and thought, thought, thought about every intricate thing that could happen.”
Thompson claims that he moves past his own mistakes and the ensuing jabs—but he can’t forget them. “You went to Duke, right?” Manning often yells at him after slip-ups in practice. “What did you major in?” Thompson has learned to dish it back (he responds with his major, sociology, and minor, education), as he wants his quarterback to be confident in his mind. In the end, it’s often the deciding factor in whether he plays.
“As a running back in the offenses I’ve played in, you have to be cerebral,” Manning says. “Certainly you’re going to be talented [if you’re playing] in the NFL, but you have to have pass protection down pat.” He cites the ability to process information quickly; at the line of scrimmage, his offenses change plays on a dime, each with its own potential duties. Manning’s backs must be tough enough to handle the additional blocking, and they must be fast enough to do damage as pass-catchers; Manning has always preferred players who allow him that wrinkle, and over the past three seasons his backs have caught 226 balls. Vision, too, is key, according to Adam Gase, who was the Broncos' offensive coordinator from 2013-14 before departing to Chicago. As defenses react and evolve, Denver’s offense relies on its backs to perceive and weigh in, just as Anderson did against Oakland.
Physically, though, there doesn’t appear to be such a thing as “a Manning back.” James stood 6'0'' and weighed 219 pounds. Hillman is listed generously at 5’10” and weighs 195 pounds soaking wet. Anderson is two inches shorter than Hillman—but he’s five pounds heavier than James.
“Can you run fast and think?” Rhodes asks. “If you can’t, you out of here.”
It should surprise no one that the player who will likely handle the majority of the Broncos' carries in 2015 is the same one who has developed a reputation based on the books he reads (his favorite author, Robert Greene, writes about social manipulation and power), his 3.5 GPA at Cal and the complex questions he’s always the first to answer. Anderson is the team’s “little baby genius,” Thompson says. “He understands football better than a lot of people. He has a wider vision on the field.”
Manning tempers his praise—but barely. He’s proud of the speed with which Anderson picked up Denver’s offense, despite the slim odds that he’d play. Reserves tend to observe without learning, Manning says, but not Anderson, who early on asked questions of his quarterback, his coaches, even of cornerback Champ Bailey. Last season, Anderson figured the future Hall of Famer would have something to offer, even if he played on the other side of the ball. During their talks, Bailey shared his distaste of tackling, one that he told Anderson many cornerbacks harbor. Now, every time Anderson encounters a corner, he goes right at him, with Bailey’s advice in mind.
Largely, though, the cerebral trumps the physical with Anderson, who has come closer than any Denver back during Manning’s tenure to getting inside his quarterback’s head, seeing the game like he sees it, anticipating the next play. Anderson doesn’t brood over his mistakes. Instead, he turns to his notes—he filled an entire notebook during training camp alone—and to Manning, who welcomes the inquiries.
After just eight games as a starter, Anderson isn’t quite yet at the level of James or Addai or Rhodes, but he’s on his way. To succeed with Manning, Rhodes says, is to succeed at muscle memory, and with every rep Anderson earns, his muscles learn. His legs know where to go, how fast to churn. His arms instinctively grip just right. And his brain picks up on his quarterback’s tendencies; it learns to anticipate, to predict.
“It’s that connection you [build],” Manning says. “They are the last guy you talk to when you break the huddle, and you’re always on the same page.”
Read Manning’s mind? Gase laughs. “I’m not going there,” the coordinator chuckles. His eyes appear ready to squeeze out of their sockets, so hard is it to fathom this concept. The man behind Denver’s offense tries to imagine himself in his young running backs’ cleats, and it leaves him with a look of pity. “It would be interesting, if you had to be that guy for a minute,” Gase wonders aloud, ”just how much you have to do.”
But there are advantages, too, to being—trying to be—the guy inside Manning’s mind. Midway through his career in Indianapolis, the quarterback began playing what would become his signature prank: He’d take a teammate’s cellphone, hack into the settings and change the language to Chinese. Ten years ago, the work was much harder to undo, and when Rhodes one day found his own phone incomprehensible, he wanted payback.
It was too easy. After years of study, he knew Manning’s routine to the minute, knew when he’d be in meetings, knew he never took his phone along to those meetings, knew the precise cubby where that phone would be. That day, Rhodes worked quickly, scanning his quarterback’s contacts for anyone important and then sending them all the same text, a fabricated detail about Manning’s love life.
The replies began to ping just as the quarterback returned to the locker room. The biggest names in the NFL responded, some conveying shock, others congratulations. The quarterback was bewildered, and as he looked around for the culprit, Rhodes sat at his locker, bent over laughing.
For years, Manning had demanded that his running backs anticipate his every move, that they be a step ahead. On that day, Rhodes was flawless.
Anderson got his moment of glory in the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Colts in January. It was a seven-yard run on fourth-and-one at the end of the third quarter, and it kept his team in the game, if only for a few more minutes. On the run, Anderson bounced first off Cory Redding, then shed a tackle by LaRon Landry. It was one of the Broncos’ few signs of life all day, but what he did a minute earlier was even more remarkable.
It was a passing play, one of Demaryius Thomas’s five receptions. After the ball was blown dead, Denver offensive lineman Orlando Franklin found himself pushing at a pack of Colts defenders, jawing. He was certain to be hit with a penalty until Anderson sprinted over from the sideline, somehow wedging himself between the scrum and the man 100 pounds heavier—and a foot taller—than he. Anderson kept Franklin separated, kept the penalty at bay, kept the Broncos’ drive from stalling.
It’s that kind of maturity and leadership the Broncos will look for next season, from Anderson and from the rest of their backs. Because while the state of Colorado celebrated the Day Peyton Returned like an unofficial holiday, for the Broncos, it marked the day the work began again. They’ll have to integrate their quarterback into new coach Gary Kubiak’s offense, or perhaps Kubiak into Manning’s, but regardless, an era is shifting. The Broncos are still Peyton Manning’s team, but he can no longer be their Superman. His arm can no longer lob an entire franchise toward February. And so Anderson better keep looking for his 0.1 percent. The quarterback who is always right will need the running back who reads his mind more than ever.