Pony is thoroughbred

NFL: Young Colt Peyton Manning has burst out of the gate in his second season, putting Indianapolis in the playoff derby.

November 10, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- Nineteen months ago, the Indianapolis Colts faced this choice: Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf?

Now, it's a no-brainer. But in the spring of 1998, there was serious debate over which college quarterback should go first in the NFL draft. Tennessee's Manning offered poise, polish and pedigree. Washington State's Leaf beckoned with a strong arm and the hint of a bigger payoff down the road.

The Colts prudently selected Manning with the first pick. The Chargers got Leaf -- their preferred choice -- with the second. The difference figures to alter the balance of power in the AFC for years to come.

Today, at the age of 23, Manning is the best young quarterback in the league. At a time when most young quarterbacks struggle mightily with the nuances of modern-day offense, Manning is well on his way toward mastering the complexity of present-day defense.

Leaf, meanwhile, is serving a four-week suspension from the Chargers for yet another emotional meltdown. The gap between the two quarterbacks has never been greater. Manning plays the part of Drew Bledsoe to Leaf's Rick Mirer, two quarterbacks who went 1-2 in the 1993 draft and since have traveled very divergent paths.

"Peyton is special," said Colts coach Jim Mora. "He's got all the assets you're looking for. He's almost I don't want to say unbelievable he's so smart. He knows the game, he competes and he makes plays.

"What he's doing in his second year, you just don't see happen very often."

What Manning has accomplished eight games into his second NFL season is to pull the Colts from the dregs of consecutive 3-13 seasons to playoff contender, end nearly a 20-year search for a franchise quarterback and make Colts tickets a hot item again in Indianapolis.

A team that made the playoffs just twice in 15 years since leaving Baltimore is now regarded as an emerging force in the AFC, thanks to an offensive triumvirate of Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison.

The 6-2 Colts have already scored more than 30 points four times this season. They won three times by double digits. Their two losses have been by three points each.

It all starts with Manning, who has done what few young quarterbacks are able to -- go from Saturday afternoon hero to Sunday afternoon phenom virtually overnight.

After a record-breaking rookie season, Manning ranks second in the NFL this year in passing yardage (2,282), tied for second in touchdown passes (15), third in yards per attempt (8.27) and fifth in passer rating (91.2).

He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 21 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league.

Averaging 250.9 passing yards per game, Manning reached 6,000 career yards faster than anyone in club history -- 24 games -- to shatter John Unitas' record of 34 games.

Tom Moore, the Colts' offensive coordinator, ticks off Manning's attributes like ice cream flavors, there are so many. There is his athletic ability, his dedication to develop that talent, his knowledge of pass protections, and his ability to instantly recall events from the past and apply them to the present.

"The big thing," said Moore, "is he comes from a good football family, which was very influential on his development. He came from a very successful, high-powered college system, and stayed [his senior] year to gain the extra year maturity.

"When you throw all those things together, he's kind of done everything right. Where he goes from here, the sky's the limit for the kid. Each game, you see him get better and better."

Getting comfortable

Manning was the only quarterback in the league to take every snap for his team last year as a rookie, when he threw an NFL-high 575 passes. He has taken 1,480 consecutive snaps without missing an offensive play as a pro, and is grateful for it.

"I feel I'm using the experience I gained last year to my advantage this year," Manning said. "In playing every single snap last year, I felt like I saw a lot of different defenses and feel like a more experienced quarterback.

"Certainly, I haven't seen it all, but the experience I had last year has given me a lot of confidence, and I have a better idea of what to expect from defenses."

It shows. In his first nine starts for the Colts, he threw for 12 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. The team averaged just under 16 points a game and went 1-8.

In his 15 starts since then, Manning has thrown for 29 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Over that period, the Colts have averaged slightly more than 26 points a game and gone 8-7.

How much better is Manning this season?

"Light-years," said Moore. "And he did well last year. It's just the maturity thing. There's no substitute for experience. Each game, you could see his confidence building. The more you're exposed to, the slower the game goes. The slower the game goes, the better chance you have to perform."

Manning says he's throwing with an assuredness that wasn't always there a year ago.

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