Growing Pains Colts quarterback Peyton Manning showed flashes of brilliance in his NFL debut, but his inexperience led to a Dolphins victory

September 13, 1998

Peyton Manning's blue jersey with the white number 18 was soaked
with sweat, and his eyes were moist with tears as he made his way
off the RCA Dome turf on Sunday evening. Manning, the
Indianapolis Colts' rookie quarterback, didn't seem to hear the
cheers raining down on him from the stands, and he barely noticed
when Colts coach Jim Mora gently patted him on the back as they
walked together to the locker room. The day Manning had been
waiting for since he first picked up a football as a kid turned
out to be a disappointment.

Sure, he'd completed 21 of 37 passes for 302 yards, a productive
debut by any standards, but his team had lost to the Miami
Dolphins 24-15, and he'd thrown three interceptions, including
one that cornerback Terrell Buckley returned 21 yards for a
game-clinching touchdown. "Anytime you lose, it's no fun,"
Manning said later. "I made some mistakes. Hopefully I'll learn
from them."

For now Colts fans will have to sit tight as the 22-year-old
Manning, who went first in last April's draft and signed the
richest rookie contract in NFL history--a six-year deal that could
earn him almost $48 million--learns his trade. If Sunday's game is
any indication, the ride is going to be wilder than a spin around
the old Brickyard. Facing a tough Dolphins defense, Manning
displayed poise, confidence and a passing touch seldom seen in a
young quarterback, but his inexperience clearly hurt his team.

Miami coach Jimmy Johnson resisted the urge to load his defensive
game plan with trick schemes and blitz packages. "My philosophy
is not to change what you do because of any guy on the other side
of the ball," he said. But Johnson challenged Manning in critical
situations, and the rookie usually read the defense and adjusted
well.

"Pretty much every time we showed blitz, he checked out of it,"
Dolphins defensive end Trace Armstrong said. "He made a lot of
good plays, a lot of great calls. You can tell the guy is going
to be a great quarterback." Indeed, Manning was brilliant at
times. In the second quarter he beat a blitz to hit wideout
Marvin Harrison for a 42-yard gain that set up the Colts' first
field goal, and in the third quarter he scooted out of the pocket
and unleashed a 32-yard pass to tight end Marcus Pollard before
being slammed to the turf by defensive tackle Daryl Gardener.

At other times, though, Manning appeared overwhelmed. His first
interception occurred in the second quarter, with Indianapolis
deep in its own territory and trailing 10-3. As he stepped to the
line, Manning recognized a blitz and called an audible for a
slant pass to Harrison. Buckley read the play and jumped in front
of Harrison when he made his cut. As Buckley returned the ball
for 12 yards, Manning looked on helplessly, and his father,
former New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning, seated in
the stands a few rows up, hung his head.

Although Manning's second interception was a fluke--the pass
glanced off running back Marshall Faulk's pads and into the hands
of Gardener--his third was a doozy. Indianapolis was trailing 17-9
and backed up to its three-yard line with 1:32 remaining when
Manning forced another slant pass to Harrison. The throw was off
target, and Buckley snared it and took it into the end zone
untouched.

On the previous play Manning had barely missed wideout Torrance
Small on a post pattern. "If I had thrown it a little higher, it
might have gone for a big play," the quarterback said. "Then I
went out and forced one, and it got intercepted."

As Manning endures growing pains, the Colts are trying to keep
the fans' high expectations from consuming him. President Bill
Polian, who was with the Bills when Jim Kelly arrived in Buffalo
to great fanfare, has made sure the team doesn't overpublicize
Manning or ask him to make too many off-the-field appearances. In
fact, murals hanging outside the RCA Dome feature Faulk and
defensive back Jason Belser, not the hotshot rookie quarterback.
Manning, meanwhile, has turned down offers to have his own local
TV and radio shows.

Polian knows, however, that the best way to help Manning is to
establish a dominant ground game. Last season the Colts ranked
eighth in the AFC in rushing. This season Mora has vowed to use
Faulk more as a runner and less as a receiver out of the
backfield. Polian and Mora also rebuilt an offensive line that
struggled with its run blocking last year and yielded an AFC-high
62 sacks, keeping only veteran center Jay Leeuwenburg. "It's
simple: We've got to run the ball this year," Leeuwenburg says.
"That's the best way to take pressure off a rookie quarterback."
Considering Sunday's performance (64 yards on 26 carries), the
Colts have a long way to go.

As bright as his future may be, Manning didn't want to hear about
it on Sunday night. After he had changed out of his uniform and
into a pair of brown slacks and a white golf shirt, he met his
father outside the Colts' locker room. Peyton wore a look of
disappointment on his face, and it remained there even as Archie
put an arm around his shoulder and they walked out of the
building together.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Rough start The Dolphins put the squeeze on Manning and forced three interceptions, including one that was returned for a game-clinching TD. [Peyton Manning being tackled by Miami Dolphins player in game]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)