Today at the improv: It's Manning's call

Colts QB works hard for freedom to audible

Nfl Playoffs

January 04, 2003|By Bob Herzog | Bob Herzog,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS - At times, the Indianapolis Colts' behavior at the line of scrimmage may seem more like an elementary school fire drill than a precision NFL offense. People are moving in all directions, and one harried-looking soul is shouting and making hand signals to get their attention.

But when it's Peyton Manning doing the yelling and signaling, more often than not it's a case of organized chaos, not a ball of confusion.

"You are thinking and directing on every play, and you're as mentally tired as you are physically," Colts coach Tony Dungy said of the demands on Manning in the team's audible-based system. "It takes a great deal of preparation time, and not everyone can do it and not everyone wants to do it. But he likes the challenge, and he knows that is what makes our offense go."

Manning is pilot, copilot and flight engineer for the Colts' aerodynamic offense. The five-year veteran makes about twice as many decisions as most NFL quarterbacks, because he is given freedom to change every play called by veteran offensive coordinator Tom Moore.

Manning, 26, earned that freedom because of a skills set that includes a strong and accurate arm, an uncanny feel for which play will work and a magician's sleight of hand on play fakes. He also has a gambler's fearlessness coupled with a parent's patience, the work ethic of an unproven rookie and a well-chronicled passion for watching film. He is the embodiment of the thinking man's quarterback.

But perhaps because he is still searching for his first playoff victory today against the New York Jets, after two defeats, he has not put his career on cruise control.

"He is extremely self-motivated with a tremendous approach to film study and every little detail of an opponent you can imagine," quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell said. "He has a creative mind and is very flexible. That really helps with an offense as complex as ours.

"The position is very demanding. All quarterbacks have immeasurable intelligence, but Peyton's is extraordinary."

Manning believes a scholarly approach is mandatory if he is to maintain the high standard he has set for himself. That is why he is willing to risk hanging in the pocket a little longer than most quarterbacks. "I don't want to scramble and run for 5 yards, then get up and find out my second read was open for 60 yards," he said. "So, yes, I still take a lot of pride in studying film and being prepared.

The results could land Manning in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He has started all 80 games since turning pro. In 2002, he became the only player to exceed 4,000 passing yards in four consecutive seasons. He has the most passing yardage and most touchdown passes of any NFL quarterback from 1998 to 2002.

Opponents and teammates admire Manning's smarts as well as his skills.

"Peyton is the NFL's perfect quarterback," Jets free safety Damien Robinson said. "The proper steps, the proper release, the way he looks off his receivers until he finds the open man. He's a guy who makes big plays and big throws. He's probably the best pass faker at the quarterback position."

Added Jets strong safety Sam Garnes: "He has total control of the game, and he's very smart. It's hard to confuse him."

Unless you take away his remote and his VCR.

Bob Herzog is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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