INDIANAPOLIS – Peyton Manning enters his second decade in the NFL on Sunday against Chicago. Around here they talk about the ways in which he's changed from that fresh-faced, rookie quarterback out of Tennessee.
You know, like, ah … well, actually he hasn't changed at all.
"Same dude," said Dwight Freeney.
The Southern drawl may have faded a little. He's certainly more famous. And richer. Those rare occasions he liked to clown it up are less frequent – "A lot of us are older now," said linebacker Gary Brackett. "So I guess the jokes are down to a minimum."
Other than that Peyton is Peyton, still as straight as a row of Indiana corn. Mostly he is the exact same maniacal preparation nut he was when he was 22 and had a league to learn. He mostly hangs out in the film room or on the practice field taking extra snaps.
"You can't get him off the field, other than for commercials," cracked defensive end Robert Mathis.
Seasons come and seasons go. Championships are won and games lost, and here is Manning and his Colts. This year the 32-year-old enters with concerns over his surgically-repaired knee, his lack of preseason snaps and his facing the most unforgiving division in football.
Yet the expectations are the same.
He is no longer the Manning brother dominating conversation; is a bit under the radar (if you can believe it); and, whether anyone here wants to admit it or not, is facing a season where Indianapolis' championship window may slowly be closing.
Tony Dungy calls it "death by inches" and it refers to the self-induced fade that can affect individuals and teams. A Super Bowl can satisfy, a fat bank account can marginalize and all of a sudden the little details that win football games can be, unknowingly, glossed over.
"You don't think you are (being complacent)," Dungy said. "You think you're doing the exact same thing. You think you're working hard, but there is something subconsciously that says, 'I've done this before, I don't need to watch three rolls of tape. I'll watch one.' "
So he turns to No. 18, who watches five rolls. This summer Manning couldn't practice on the field, so he spent time watching film, got even more excited about meetings and wore out his teammates' cell phones with calls to discuss details.
You'll see a right turn at the Indy 500 before Manning relaxes.
"I've really prepared every single season, every single week as if I was vying for a job," said the guy who has started all 160 games of his career. "As if I was competing, as if I had to be sure I was doing my part to go out there and win the job or keep the job.
"I think as soon as you lose that, things are going to change. Maybe your play isn't going to be as high, maybe it's time to do something else."
In a league where turnover is constant, change is continuous and new challenges present themselves every day, Manning is that familiar face of fall. You don't have to follow every nugget of news to know who's calling the plays in those simple blue and white uniforms.
"It seems like there are only a couple teams that have (those) constant players year to year," Manning said.
Manning with assistant Jim Caldwell at practice Wednesday.
(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
To some, this is more than a little boring. To others, this is a role model. The league continues to be more about entertainment and pyrotechnics and the endless churn of controversy and calamity. It's the league of overreaction.
With Manning, there's little off-field action for which to react. Contract disputes? Dating supermodels? Late-night antics? Not from a guy with a car deal with Chevy.
He knows this is Year 11. He knows this is when guys start to slip, when primes plummet. It won't happen without a fight.
The Colts have one of those 10-million page playbooks. Manning may have the entire thing memorized.
"He basically could write out the whole playbook himself right now," said wide receiver Courtney Roby.
"He probably wrote some of it in the first place," said running back Mike Hart. "He's been here longer than most of the coaches."
His interest is preparation. His passion is routine.
"I still have a desire and a hunger to prepare," he said. "I look forward to driving over here every day and practicing and working hard and trying to get better. Hopefully I can be a better player this year than I was the year before. I feel like I have in years past.
"Because of my offseason work and preparation, hopefully that can be the case this year."
By the end of this season, he should rank sixth or seventh in total career passing yards. His first 10 years were more productive than anyone, ever, so an assault on all sorts of NFL career records will begin soon enough. Not that he admits to caring about those things. A seventh consecutive 10-win season is the primary goal followed by a perfect postseason.
"This is my 11th year and it's something I've never taken for granted," Manning said. "At times it felt like it's flown by. At times it feels like 10 years was a long time ago. I still feel fortunate to be playing a game."
Perhaps this is a crossroads season for Manning and the Colts. Or perhaps the quarterback will just drive straight ahead, oblivious to all distractions, as always.