Manning at his Best

With a new coach, new targets and no running game, Peyton Manning is more productive than ever—and the Colts are undefeated. Here's how the league's hardest-working, most cerebral QB is getting it done
With a new coach, new targets and no running game, Peyton Manning is more productive than ever—and the Colts are undefeated. Here's how the league's hardest-working, most cerebral QB is getting it done
November 16, 2009

Maybe, Brigham Young receiver Austin Collie thought when he finagled an invitation to the prestigious Manning Passing Academy in 2008, this will be my breakthrough moment. Collie knew he could play in the NFL, but the world is full of 6-foot possession receivers who run 4.6-second 40-yard dashes. As a counselor at the Manning family's summer football camp in Louisiana, perhaps Collie would get to run routes for Peyton and Eli. Or he'd get pulled aside by one of the Mannings and be told, "Kid, you've got a future in the NFL." ¶ Well, Collie never caught a ball from either Manning at the camp.

They threw to higher-profile college and pro receivers. He never had a one-on-one conversation with Peyton or Eli either. He did get to work as a counselor for some of the budding young wideouts. "Basically," Collie said last week at the Colts' facility in Indianapolis, "it was a weekend to myself. I never thought I'd see either of those guys again."

Austin Collie has seen Peyton Manning again, all right. After several clandestine Colts' scouting missions to Utah last fall to watch Collie (who led the nation in receiving yards) and a lengthy debriefing by a team psychologist, Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian chose Collie in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. In the past three months Collie and Manning, strangers at the Manning Passing Academy, have seen more of each other than they have of their wives. The football marriage is a big reason why the Colts head into their annual November showdown with the Patriots on Sunday a very surprising 8--0.

This is a story about the great season Manning is having, one in which he has been more accurate (a 70.6% completion rate) and more productive (318.1 yards per game) than in any of his previous 11 pro seasons. Which is saying something, considering that Manning has more passing yards and more touchdowns than any other quarterback in the NFL's 90-year history has had by age 33.

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In September the only thing Manning seemed sure to lead the league in this year was obstacles. Wideout fixture Marvin Harrison was allowed to leave after 11 seasons with Manning, and into his starting spot had stepped a 2008 sixth-round pick from tiny Mount Union (Ohio) College, Pierre Garcon, the only player in the NFL with a cédille in his name. Starting wideout Anthony Gonzalez went down with a right-knee injury in the first game, forcing Collie to play much more than planned. Rock-solid coach Tony Dungy had retired, ceding the job to an unknown, Jim Caldwell, whose only head-coaching experience was an eight-year stint at Wake Forest, during which the Demon Deacons were 37 games below .500.

Compounding the problems over the first half of the season has been a feeble running game—the Colts rank 29th in the league in rushing as they work in rookie Donald Brown—that has put Manning in constant passing situations. Defenses know he's going to throw, and yet they've been powerless to stop him. "If this year's not an indication of Peyton Manning's greatness, I don't know what ever would be," says Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, a longtime Manning adversary and admirer.

To understand Manning's 2009 performance, you need to know a few tales—about a Colts charter flight in 2002, the scouting job the team did on Collie, and a pass from Manning to the rookie receiver last month. But mostly you need to know about the text message Manning sent to Brown on the Sunday of draft weekend, before they'd ever met. The message read: "Meet me at the facility at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Warmed up. Ready to go."

Manning, simply, has made Indianapolis slump-proof. The Colts have gone 112 games—seven full seasons—without losing three straight. Indy isn't the winningest regular-season team this decade (109 victories, one more than New England) by accident. Anytime Manning steps behind center and starts gyrating and pointing, history tells us, good things are about to occur. "To understand why he hasn't struggled," Dungy says, "you have to understand the way his mind works. It drives him every day that the offense will be better, not just as good as it was. The new guys will fit in. He'll make them fit in."

Qadry Ismail learned as much in 2002, his lone year as a Colts wide receiver. On the team's charter to Jacksonville for the season opener, Ismail was settling in for a restful 2½-hour flight when Manning approached. "Hay's in the barn, game plan's done, we're all set," Ismail says. "But Peyton comes up with a serious look and his notebook, and he tells me we're going to use some different hand signals at the line. He's like, 'As opposed to giving you the fingers for that comeback route, I'm going to give you the fist' or 'If you see me do this, don't even worry about it because that's just trying to get the [defense] to think I'm going to change the play, but I'm not.' He's the ultimate micromanager. He controls everything."

Ismail shares what he calls a "CIA, burn-after-reading secret" out of the Indianapolis playbook from that Jaguars game. When Manning gave Ismail a shoveling motion or said the words "Crane! Crane!" Ismail would run a dig route—a curl or buttonhook in which the receiver goes downfield a certain distance, plants his foot suddenly and turns to face the quarterback. Having seen the signal a couple of times early in the game, Jacksonville corner Jason Craft then taunted Ismail. "I know what y'all are doing!" Craft hollered. "Every time he gives that [shoveling] signal, you run that little in route!"

Now, Ismail could have said, "Are you seriously challenging Peyton Manning?" Instead he told the cornerback he didn't know what he was talking about, then told Manning and offensive coordinator Tom Moore on the sideline, "He's bragging like he knows what we're doing. He's going to jump that route!" Manning filed the information and talked with Moore about using it later in the game. Sure enough, with the ball at the Jaguars' 12 in the third quarter, Manning told Ismail that "Crane!" would be a dummy call, and instead of the dig he should run a hitch-and-go (basically a dig, stop and sprint back upfield into the end zone).

"I made a living off double moves," says Ismail, "and that was the easiest one I ever ran. Peyton gave me the crane sign at the line. I pushed upfield five yards and stuck my foot in the ground as hard as I could. The DB made a beeline to that five-yard spot and looked for the ball, but I just ran into the end zone, all alone. What a simple TD."

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The lesson: Manning trusts his receivers when they've proved they've earned that trust. Against Arizona this season, Garcon told Manning in the first half that he thought the cornerback covering him was cheating, trying to guess and jump the route. Late in the half Manning pump-faked to Garcon's side, drew the corner in and led Garcon perfectly for a 53-yard touchdown. "He always asks for information, and he puts it in his brain," Garcon says. "Sometimes he goes to it, sometimes he doesn't."

Says Ismail, "When I was there, he told me, 'Hey, I'm just a gym rat. This is what I'm about. I love the game.' He wants to squeeze out every ounce of talent he has and pour it into the art of quarterbacking, being the absolute best quarterback who has ever played."

Ismail retired after that 2002 season because of a neck injury. Want to get him morose fast? Ask him if he regrets having had only one year with Manning. "You have no idea," he says.

In our system," Polian says, "a receiver has to have speed but doesn't need to be a burner. Has to have good hands. An instinctive feel to get open—very important. Size we'd like, but it's not critical. Work ethic, because he has to fit with Peyton's demands. Maturity."

And intelligence, which should go without saying because there are no simple routes in the Colts' system. Everything depends on what the receiver sees from coverage. Take a simple 12-yard out, a staple of every passing game in football. Against a Cover Two look, with a safety over the top of the receiver and the immediate cover man on the inside shoulder, the 12-yard out might be just what it says—12 yards, then a straight cut to the sideline. With a linebacker in coverage the 12-yard out might be a 12-yard corner route, diagonally away from the slower 'backer. A 12-yard out against tight man coverage might mean the receiver cuts and comes back at a 45-degree angle. "It's overwhelming to learn," says Brandon Stokley, a slot receiver for Indianapolis from 2003 to '06.

So overwhelming that Manning speeds the learning process for Collie by spending 75 to 90 minutes every Thursday after practice watching tape alone with the rookie. "You can't be a robot," Manning says. "That's what's good about Austin—he's not a robot."

Collie was a late-round prospect at best when the Colts began scouting BYU in 2008. But juniors, particularly standout ones, are always in the back of the minds of scouts as they watch college games, and Collie (a mature junior last year after having spent two years on a Mormon mission in Argentina) certainly emerged as a standout, surpassing 100 receiving yards in each of his final 11 college games. During the course of the season, Indianapolis sent director of player personnel Tom Telesco, special assistant Bob Ferguson and area scout John Becker to watch the Cougars, and even Ferguson, a tough grader on wideouts, came away thinking Collie might fit the Colts well. As a solidly built kid with a quick first step and a willingness to be coached hard, he reminded a few in the organization of Stokley, whom Manning once called the best slot receiver of all time.

But even after Collie declared for the draft last January, the secretive Colts had no contact with him. They didn't bring him in for an interview or a workout, didn't speak to him at the combine. Not until a few weeks before the draft did they finally reach out, having a team psychologist interview him. "The one thing I did touch on [during the interview] is that I'm a perfectionist," says Collie. "Everything has to be right. Everything has to feel perfect. Maybe they thought that would be a good match for Peyton."

Maybe? In draft meetings last April, Telesco was bullish on Collie. "This is a Colts receiver," he told Polian. Arrive early, stay late, shut his mouth, do what Manning says. Because he ran a 4.63 40 at the combine, his value was mid-round, and Polian made him the 19th receiver picked. To this point only one wideout taken before him—Minnesota's Percy Harvin—has made a bigger impact.

SI asked former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, a longtime quarterback teacher, to evaluate some Indianapolis video and analyze how Manning has adjusted to his new receivers. He watched about 65 snaps, and one, against Tennessee on Oct. 11, he found particularly noteworthy. First down, Colts on the Titans' 39-yard line. Veteran Reggie Wayne wide left, Collie in the left slot, Garcon wide right. Corners over the top of Wayne and Garcon, linebacker Keith Bulluck shading toward Collie. At the snap Manning turned and faked a handoff to Joseph Addai, freezing Bulluck for a split second. By then Collie was three steps off the line.

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"I don't care if Collie's a rookie," says Shanahan, eyes fixed on the video screen. "He's spent the whole off-season and training camp running this play. No doubt in my mind he's run that play a couple hundred times. Watch. Peyton knows from his presnap read he's probably going to get Bulluck on Collie. From playing Tennessee so many times he knows Bulluck peeks in the backfield. The linebacker's got to respect the run, and so the moment Bulluck peeks he's sucked in. It's over. Now he opens his hips to run with Collie, but it's too late. Now watch Collie. He knows he's not breaking to the post until he gets by Bulluck. Look at the ball. Beautiful. Such a catchable ball. Bulluck doesn't have a chance."

In fact, what the play shows is how, in the fifth game of his NFL career, Collie gets what it took Wayne, Gonzalez and tight end Dallas Clark a year or longer to feel comfortable with. Collie was supposed to cut to the post at about 18 yards, but as is the case on all the Colts' routes, it's more important that he cut when he knows his man is beaten. So on this route he broke to the post about 12 yards downfield. And because Bulluck was momentarily frozen, Manning knew he could throw just as Collie was jabbing his left foot into the ground to make his 45-degree cut. From a clean pocket, Manning let fly with a perfect spiral traveling 29 yards in the air, right over Bulluck's head and into Collie's hands. Collie broke a tackle at the 12, another at the four, and dived over the goal line. Touchdown.

"No hesitation by Peyton," Shanahan says. "Here's why: Collie's got a natural feel out there. What are we seeing in this entire game? Peyton might have some new guys out there with him. But if possible he might be more confident than I've ever seen him. On no throw has he hesitated. That tells me he's confident these new guys know what they're doing."

The numbers tell a good story about the young receivers' adjustment. In the Tennessee game 16 of Manning's 44 throws went to his on-the-job-training guys: Collie, Garcon and Brown. Two of his three touchdown passes that night were to the newbie Collie. Particularly, the numbers say good things about Collie's adjustment. In the rookie seasons of Wayne, Clark and Gonzalez, Manning averaged 47 pass attempts to each of them, completing an average of 31. Over the first half of 2009 Manning has thrown 46 passes to Collie and completed 32. Wayne, Clark and Gonzalez combined for four touchdowns as rookies. Collie has four in eight games.

"I've heard players say they have to adjust to the speed of the pro game," Collie says. "The difference between here and college is not the speed. It's the knowledge you have to have, what you need to know about how your route is going to change and how Peyton expects you to change. When we played San Francisco [an 18--14 win in Week 8], I had a seam route, and it looked like Peyton made the mistake and overthrew me, but in reality it was man coverage and I was supposed to do something just to get separation. I did it too late, and it was my fault. When I got back [to the huddle], he said to me, 'You gotta make up your mind. You gotta do one thing or the other.'"

Collie smiled ruefully. "As a matter of fact I screwed up today once or twice in the walkthrough [practice]. I'm sure he'll bring it to my attention."

"It takes years to get true timing down," Manning says. In 2009 the Colts didn't have years. They had months. That's what makes this season perhaps the best yet for this alltime great.

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"It drives him that the offense will be better," says Dungy. "The new guys will fit in. He'll make them fit in."

"The difference between here and college is not the speed," says Collie. "It's the knowledge."