The Manning Rules

David Boclair

Peyton Manning week at SI is drawing to a close, and AllTitans continues to do its part to contribute to the festivities. Today, a look at the record-setting quarterback confounded Tennessee's coaches and convinced the NFL's competition committee to implement a rule change.

NASHVILLE – Jeff Fisher remembers vividly the moment he knew something had to change.

As head coach of the Tennessee Titans, he prepared for an upcoming game against Indianapolis by watching a recent Colts contest against the Cincinnati Bengals. It was a close, high-scoring affair that featured quarterbacks Peyton Manning and it swung decidedly in Indianapolis’ favor late in the third quarter.

“Peyton gets up to the line of scrimmage and he checks to a blitz-beater,” Fisher said. “The ball is snapped, the Bengals come with an all-out blitz and Peyton throws a touchdown and beats them.

“And there is no evidence out there on the field that they’re going to blitz. No one tipped anything.”

Yet the Colts and Manning knew it was coming.

The NFL implemented the coach-to-quarterback communication device in 1994 and roughly a decade later, Indianapolis revolutionized its use, thanks to Manning’s mastery of offense.

At some point, according to Fisher, the Colts stopped using it to get play calls into the quarterback. Instead, they alerted Manning to what the defense planned to do and allowed him to call a play at the line of scrimmage that had a high probability.

“The Colts – and it’s all permissible – they would basically study your defensive signals,” Fisher said. “Nothing was illegal about it, and they matched the signal with the defensive call.

“… The guy on the coach-to-quarterback device says, ‘Peyton, you’ve got blitz,’ and he calls a blitz-beater and throws a touchdown pass.”

That led to the addition of the coach-to-linebacker communication device in 2008. Fisher was a member of the NFL’s competition committee at the time and heartily endorsed the change.

By that time, though, Manning had been in the league for a decade and rarely needed a coach to tell him what was coming. He often figured out on his own because he rushed the offense to the line of scrimmage, which forced the linebacker to shout the call to the other 10 players and to get everyone properly aligned. That left Manning plenty of time to call an appropriate play for his offense and maintain his advantage.

For coaching staffs like Tennessee’s, which faced the Colts twice a year in the AFC South, the quest to get any sort of edge was maddening. It also fueled creativity.

Just as the Detroit Pistons had the Jordan Rules for their matchups with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, the Titans had their Colts playbook. It was their plan for dealing with Manning and the Indianapolis offense and it was different than anything they used against the rest of their opponents.

“There were so many things that you had to do against them by not giving pre-snap looks and being able to disguise things,” then-linebackers coach Dave McGinnis said. “… I mean, it was pretty elaborate just because he was so good at reading, and he was a master at taking that play clock right down to the end and being able to look at you.

“So, we had a specific Peyton Manning defense.”

For a time, it included meaningless pre-snap alignments to make sure they did not give Manning something he recognized from film study. Later, the defense started every play from the same basic 4-3, two-deep shell and forced Manning to figure out what was happening post-snap.

Eventually, every Tennessee player wore wrist bands that included the play calls with corresponding numbers that were signaled from the sideline. A new set of wrist bands was substituted every quarter to keep the Colts from deciphering the code.

“That’s Peyton,” Fisher said. “That revolutionized the game, with him, with Peyton and their system and how they did that.”

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