DENVER – The undrafted rookie wideout who'd been plucked off the practice squad a day earlier had a suggestion for Peyton Manning(notes) at a key stage of Sunday's game, and the NFL's most exacting quarterback rightfully could have rolled his eyes and told the kid to shut up and block somebody.
Or, as veteran nose tackle Jamal Williams(notes) put it after his Broncos had suffered a 27-13 defeat to the defending AFC champions and their future Hall of Fame quarterback, "He's a monster, man. That's [expletive] Peyton Manning."
That's as good a description as any of an all-time great at the height of his powers, and one who seems to be capable of singlehandedly combating the so-called Curse of the Super Bowl Loser.
On Sunday, Manning showed up at Mile High without two key wideouts (banged-up starter Pierre Garcon(notes) and perpetually injured ex-starter Anthony Gonzalez(notes)) and with three unfamiliar newbies on his offensive line, including rookie left tackle Jeff Linkenbach(notes). As a result the Colts had virtually no running game, not to mention a shaky secondary that allowed Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) to throw for 476 yards – for perspective, more than John Elway ever did.
The emotional Broncos were attempting to honor the memory of second-year wideout Kenny McKinley(notes), who died Monday at his home near the team's training facility from what law-enforcement officials believe was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
On Sunday, that storyline became yet another casualty of Manning's cool, relentless efficiency, which endures no matter who takes the field in blue and white.
White, perhaps the rawest receiver Manning has broken in over the course of his 13-year career, was a former Michigan State walk-on who signed with the Colts (as did Linkenbach) as a free agent after being blown off in April's NFL draft. He was released after a strong preseason and signed to Indy's practice squad, earning a promotion Saturday after starting wideout Garcon was ruled out with a hamstring injury.
With the Broncos making a concerted effort to take away Manning's top targets, wideout Reggie Wayne(notes) (blanketed by Denver's star cornerback, Champ Bailey(notes)) and tight end Dallas Clark(notes) (continually detained at the line of scrimmage by a defensive end, then bracketed in coverage), White joined second-year wideout Austin Collie(notes) as prime options.
As Manning said after the game, "It's hard to play with 10, right? You have to play your reads. You try to give [White] some plays that he knows and give him a chance."
Still, with five minutes left in the third quarter and the Colts trying to extend a 13-10 lead, Manning had to be a bit surprised when White sidled up to him after Collie's five-yard catch set up a second-and-5 from the Denver 9-yard line and offered his unsolicited input.
Um, excuse me, Mr. Manning. So, uh, I was thinking that maybe, since the defender seems to be cheating to the inside that, uh, we might be able to fool him, Sir. If you think it's a good idea, that is …
Well, not exactly.
"I probably should have [called him 'Mr. Manning'], right?" White acknowledged afterward. "He's probably thinking, 'Who is this kid? Get the hell out of here.' "
What White actually said to Manning – "My guy's playing me inside. I think I can get him on the slant and up" – was enough to inspire the crafty quarterback's trust. In fact, the young receiver had already laid the groundwork when few others were watching.
After the game, Manning made a point of stressing that his familiarity with White was a product of countless repetitions during offseason workouts, a reality of modern football he hopes won't be curtailed in the next collective bargaining agreement between owners and players. Whereas a vast majority of his peers would undoubtedly relish some additional downtime in March, April, May and June, Manning is staunchly opposed to the NFL Players Association's push to place stricter limits on OTAs.
"They're trying to get rid of offseason workouts," Manning said. "They're talking about extending the season to 18 games, so they're going to cut down the offseason stuff in return. That's not a fair trade. Offseason workouts – that's how we've gotten our edge over the years. It's how you really develop a player and improve your craft.
"Without the offseason, how do we get anybody ready to play? I've thrown to Blair White since we picked him up in April, and there's no way he's ready to play [Sunday] if I don't have those reps with him. In training camp, there just aren't enough reps to get familiar with a guy [near the bottom of the depth chart]. You've got be able to throw to him in the spring – otherwise I wouldn't feel good about rushing him out there."
Even if White never catches another NFL pass, he'll feel warm and fuzzy about the nine-yard touchdown grab that put Indy up 20-10: As he'd humbly suggested, White (three receptions, 27 yards) ran a slant on cornerback Perrish Cox(notes), who bit on Manning's cold pump fake, then turned it back outside as the perfectly delivered ball settled gently into his hands.
Manning threw 43 passes on Sunday, completing 27 for 325 yards and three TDs, with no interceptions or sacks. Those are impressive numbers – granted, it's only three games into the season, but it's not too early to proclaim that Manning, who won an unprecedented fourth MVP award last year, has a solid shot at No. 5. Still, mere stats don't do Manning's brilliance justice. Neither, truth be told, does television, even of the highest-def variety.
Seeing him do his thing in person, in three dimensions, arcing balls into windows tighter than a middle seat in coach between Rex Ryan and Albert Haynesworth(notes), gives you a perspective that'll be worth sharing with the grandkids.
You know who has a pretty cool vantage point? That would be Collie, last year's on-the-spot neophyte as a fourth-round draft pick and now an established resident of Peyton's Place. On Sunday he had career highs of 12 receptions and 171 yards, including a pair of touchdowns and a 48-yard reception off a pass that was simply stupefying.
With Indy up 20-13 and facing a third-and-15 from its own 17, Manning conjured an on the-fly adjustment, sending Collie on an inside route that the receiver turned back toward the right sideline. The quarterback somehow looped a crisp pass between defensive backs Nate Jones and Darcel McBath(notes), and Collie caught it cleanly for a 48-yard gain.
"That was pivotal," Manning said, as Magic Johnson might have once said of a no-look pass to James Worthy for a back-breaking, fast-break dunk.
Four plays later, on second-and-9 from the Broncos' 23, Manning threw an equally beautiful ball to the right corner that Collie, falling backward, cradled with Cox in hot pursuit.
"That was a freakin' gutsy throw," veteran center Jeff Saturday(notes) said of Collie's second scoring play. "He stayed in the pocket and held it, held it and knew he was gonna get hit, and he just threw the ball on a dime. What can I say? That's what he does."
What Manning has done so far in 2010 is complete 69.6 percent of his passes for nine TDs and zero interceptions. The Colts, who've won 12 or more games for seven consecutive seasons, are 2-1, tied for first atop the AFC South with the Texans and Titans and well on their way to becoming just the third team (along with the '06 Seahawks and '09 Cardinals) in the past decade to make the playoffs the year after losing the Super Bowl.
A curse vs. Manning? Good luck with that.
Even though the quarterback believes offensive line changes will make the quest to establish a running game "a season-long thing," and if additional injuries strike and the Blair White Project is extended to include other dudes you've never heard of, counting out the Colts as a championship contender would be as foolish as, you know, a guy one day removed from the practice squad giving route-adjustment advice to (expletive) Peyton Manning in the middle of a close game.
As a crowd of reporters surrounded White in the Colts' locker room, Saturday, who has spent all 12 of his NFL seasons watching Manning make magic with so many supporting cast members, shook his head in wonderment.
"This is like Bizarro World," Saturday said. "I mean, you love it when young guys come in and produce like they're supposed to. But who expected this?"
Do we even have to answer that?
THE HIGH FIVE …
• Yeah, it required a shanked 29-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley(notes) in overtime to make it possible, but the Atlanta Falcons' 27-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome was a landmark moment for a team on the verge of making a major move, and neither they nor their clutch third-year quarterback (Matt Ryan(notes), aka Matty Ice) need apologize. As the architect of Atlanta's revival, general manager and former New England Patriots scouting director Thomas Dimitroff, knows so well (Tuck Rule, cough cough), sometimes it takes a bit of luck to help propel a franchise to the next level.
• Braylon, Braylon, Braylon – I alter song lyrics to make light of your recklessness, and you promptly make two huge catches on Sunday Night Football, including a 67-yard touchdown reception, to help your team to a 31-23 victory over the Dolphins. In Miami. With your old Cleveland adversary LeBron James in attendance. I don't even know what to say, Mr. Edwards, other than this: I appreciate your theatrical timing.
• Todd Haley lost his first five games as an NFL head coach and went 4-12 overall – to the chagrin of the psychic scribe who picked the Kansas City Chiefs to win the AFC West last season. Perhaps I was a year off: Kansas City (3-0) is now two games up on everyone in the dubious division after Sunday's 31-10 thrashing of The Sinking Ship Singletary and, says Haley (via text), "More guys are buying in every day."
• Congratulations to Daunte Culpepper(notes), whose second game for the UFL's Sacramento Mountain Lions on Saturday was a beauty: He completed 26-of-42 passes for 374 yards and three touchdowns in a come-from-behind victory over the Florida Tuskers, throwing the winning, 33-yard TD pass to Rod Windsor with 31 seconds remaining. Back in June, Culpepper told me a major reason for his decision to play in the fledgling league was so he could share the experience of being a starting quarterback with his five children. "For sure it is [special]," Culpepper reiterated Sunday, noting that his kids were among the estimated 20,000 fans at Hughes Stadium. Personally, I'd like to see this immensely talented player get a call from one of the NFL teams in search of quality QB play. Yes, I'm talking to you Chan Gailey, and Eric Mangini, and Jack Del Rio, and Ken Whisenhunt, and …
• Two 2009 playoff teams, the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings, staved off disaster before heading into bye weeks with decisive victories on Sunday. Dallas was especially impressive, locking down the Houston Texans 27-13 in a road effort which, stunningly, reestablished the relevance of wideout Roy Williams (five receptions, 117 yards, two TDs, tens of thousands of flummoxed fantasy players too beaten down to have considered starting him).
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The blessed existence of actual irony in a cruel, cynical world.
2. The NFL's laughable reaction to Sunday's report by Fox's Jay Glazer that league-office employees have been informed of a plan which includes pay cuts, unpaid furloughs and salary freezes in the event of an owner-initiated lockout after the 2010 season. A statement from NFL spokesman Greg Aiello tried to shift the blame to the NFL Players Association: "Our employees are aware of both the strident comments coming from the NFLPA leadership for more than a year and the union's current actions to position itself to decertify and go out of business." Say what? OK, first the obligatory qualifiers: I like Aiello, I realize he has a job to do and I'm certainly aware that the impending labor battle provokes strong rhetoric on both sides. His statement, however, defies logic. The owners, and not the players, are unhappy with the current collective bargaining agreement – obviously, since they opted out of the final two years in a unanimous vote – and they're the ones who'll initiate a work stoppage if a new deal isn't reached. As for the team-by-team votes being taken to authorize the union to decertify, that's a nuclear option the NFLPA would employ before filing an antitrust lawsuit against the league (and almost certainly in response to a lockout, if at all). If anything, decertification would make a work stoppage less plausible – if there were no union to lock out, the owners would probably allow the players to show up for work under whatever terms they impose – and the players would wait for their day in court. As Colts center Jeff Saturday, a member of the NFLPA's executive committee, said after Sunday's game: "What are they talking about? They're the ones who told us, 'We're gonna stop playing.' We didn't opt out. We are reactionary."
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I have a question for some of the New York Giants' players after their 29-10 home defeat to the Tennessee Titans: Are you trying to get your coach fired? The NFL is a tough business, and I realize that even though Tom Coughlin coached the Giants to a Super Bowl championship three seasons ago, a second consecutive out-of-the-money finish could lead his bosses to go in another direction. Yet the notion that Coughlin, once one of the NFL's most notorious control freaks, may have lost control of his team is a disquieting one. A week after running back Brandon Jacobs'(notes) helmet toss into the Lucas Oil Stadium stands during the Giants' lopsided defeat to the Colts, he and his teammates staged a three-hour mental-meltdown medley. Included were six personal fouls (one, on Jacobs, was nullified by an offsetting penalty), a pair of turnovers inside the Tennessee 6-yard line and an end-zone chop block on halfback Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) early in the third quarter. The latter gaffe nullified a 43-yard Eli Manning(notes) to Mario Manningham(notes) completion, resulted in a Titans safety and triggered a nine-point swing that put New York in a 19-10 hole.
It got better: Early in the fourth quarter Lawrence Tynes(notes) lined up for a 39-yard field goal, but the Giants were called for delay of game. Tynes then missed a 44-yarder, after which tackle Kareem McKenzie(notes) was called for a personal foul. Coughlin benched McKenzie after a second unsportsmanlike-conduct call and also sat safety Antrel Rolle(notes) after the team's prized free-agent acquisition was whistled for throwing a fourth-quarter punch at Tennessee tight end Craig Stevens(notes). "It's a penalty, a personal foul," Rolle told the Newark Star-Ledger's Mike Garafolo after the game. "Whoop-dee-doo. It's not the end of the world." No, it isn't, but it's also not the behavior you'd like to see from a player who called out teammates for a lack of passion and leadership – and criticized the Giants' travel schedule – in public comments last week. Oh, and in a story that ran in Sunday's Star-Ledger, Rolle's mother, Armelia, told Garafolo that Antrel "can't stand what's happening" with the Giants and that he's having "no fun." (Note to self: If ever fortunate enough to accept job featuring five-year, $37 million contract, instruct mother not to make public comments detailing dissatisfaction with said job.) After the game Coughlin told reporters he accepted "full responsibility" for the team's undisciplined performance, which is what he's supposed to say. Yet I'm skeptical about his ability to restore order. In the old days Coughlin's players would be in for a week of misery, maybe more, as he tried to hold them accountable for their actions while keeping his head from exploding. But remember, this is the kinder, gentler Coughlin who backed off during the Super Bowl season at the behest of his superiors, and getting his taskmaster groove back may not be quite as easy as it seems. Then again, the Giants' players might surprise him – and me – by correcting this on their own in the name of professionalism and competitive intelligence. Next Sunday night's home game against the Chicago Bears would be a wonderful opportunity to begin the atonement process.
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