TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – Peyton Manning(notes) has always been one to goof on his own celebrity, finding humor in the frenzy that marks his every public move. On Friday, after a morning practice at the Indianapolis Colts' training camp at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, the grinning quarterback ventured over to a fence to sign autographs for a crowd of kids – and adults acting like them – and invited me to share in the spectacle.
"Get over here and listen to some of this stuff," Manning said. "It's classic."
Peyton, can I have your wristband? … Peyton, break Tom Brady's(notes) touchdown pass record! … Peyton, can I have your helmet? … Mr. Manning? Hello? Maybe you can't hear me. … Peyton, can I BORROW your wristband? … Hey, Peyton, don't leave!
"I'll be out here all week," Manning said, sounding like a cheesy Catskills comedian. Then, after signing one last helmet and retreating to the locker room, he shrugged his shoulders and added, "I mean, where am I gonna go?"
Manning's presence at camp isn't something he's taking for granted – not after the nightmarish knee infection that kept him from participating a year ago. And his loose demeanor is an encouraging sign in the wake of the unsettledness that plagued the Colts' offense as recently as 2½ months ago, when it looked like longtime Indy assistants Tom Moore and Howard Mudd might be permanently retired.
Even among NFL superstars, Manning's penchant for perfectionism is unmatched. His prickliness when things don't run the way he'd like is well-documented, and in late May, already reeling from Tony Dungy's retirement, he was staring at the following equation: New head coach, new offensive coordinator, new offensive line coach, no Marvin Harrison(notes), and two months until training camp.
"When you're driving over to the facility to lift weights, you like knowing what you're going to get," Manning recalled Friday. "I didn't know what the plan was, and I wanted answers. So yeah, there were some unhappy drives."
An offseason of upheaval began with Dungy's retirement and continued with the decision by new head coach Jim Caldwell to replace his defensive and special teams coordinators. Then Moore and Mudd retired, reportedly out of fear that they could lose money under the NFL's revised pension plan. Moore, the only offensive coordinator Manning has had since entering the league in 1998, and Mudd, the team's offensive line coach for the previous 11 seasons, were open to returning as consultants but were waiting for a legal interpretation as to whether that was feasible.
In the meantime, receivers coach Clyde Christensen had assumed Moore's responsibilities while assistant offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars had been promoted to fill Mudd's role. And no one seemed to know if the switch would be permanent. After a minicamp practice in late May, Manning told reporters, "Somebody says one thing, then somebody else says another thing. I'm not sure everybody's on the same page in this building … I can't tell you what's going on. I will say I don't think it's been the most properly communicated scenario around here."
When the MVP talks, people listen – and things tend to get done. Shortly thereafter, Manning was assured by Caldwell and team president Bill Polian that the two coaches were expected to return, and last week it was announced that Moore and Mudd would assume their previous roles with "senior" added to their respective titles.
Still, Manning wonders whether there'll be residual effects from the months the two coaches were away.
"People said, 'Hey, it's only June,' like we had so much time to get it right," Manning says. "I'm going, 'June?' June is late! The stuff you're doing in mid-March, April and May – that's when you're doing the things that win you football games in the fall. February is the time for those kinds of changes; after that it's a problem. Finally, they made a plan and put it in place, and I feel very relieved."
Clearly Manning wields more authority than the typical NFL star, and with good reason. He has been very instrumental in Indy's success this decade, which includes an NFL-best streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances. The skeptics were permanently silenced in February 2007 when, after years of having his big-game credentials questioned, Manning won the Big One, producing an MVP performance in the Colts' Super Bowl XLI victory over the Bears.
Though he's no longer the highest-paid quarterback in his family – "Our next meal? Absolutely, Eli's buying," Manning says, referring to his newly minted little brother – the future Hall of Famer has but one peer, assuming Tom Brady makes a successful return from knee surgery. Brady still boasts a bigger ring collection than Manning, but only Brett Favre(notes) has as many MVP trophies.
That Manning won the honor for the third time last season was stunning, given his lost training camp and shaky start. After a miserable July that included a pair of knee surgeries and a lingering infection, Manning spent his training camp stashed away in a dorm room while the rest of his teammates prepped for the season.
Some players might have welcomed the respite; Manning, fearful that his career was in jeopardy and flustered by his inability to practice, was utterly unhappy.
"I was basically quarantined," he recalls. "One guy would bring me food, and because [of the infection] he had to scrub down before he came in. Who knows what they were doing to him once they left. He probably had to get sprayed like he was Jack Bauer in '24.'
"It sucked being isolated, and I'm definitely appreciating camp this year. Not just being out there for practice, but at night I'm with my teammates watching TV and playing cards. I really think that bonding wins a game for you somewhere during the season."
After a 3-4 start in '08, Manning settled into a groove and rallied the Colts to nine consecutive victories. Indy, however, suffered a crushing playoff defeat to the San Diego Chargers for the second consecutive year, losing in overtime after Manning and the offense failed to put away the game in regulation.
Almost immediately thereafter, his comfort zone eroded. Dungy retired, and while Manning was enthusiastic about Caldwell's promotion, it meant he'd have to adjust to a new quarterbacks coach, Frank Reich. The Colts also parted ways with veteran wideout Harrison, to whom Manning had completed 971 passes, including 110 for touchdowns – both NFL records for a quarterback-receiver tandem.
Manning insists all is well, but Caldwell is mindful of his most important player's affinity for stability. "Oh yeah, he likes order, as do I," Caldwell says. "Uncertainty is not his friend."
Manning still has one Pro Bowl wideout in veteran Reggie Wayne(notes) and a standout tight end in Dallas Clark(notes). He's counting on third-year receiver Anthony Gonzalez(notes), second-year man Pierre Garcon(notes) and fourth-round rookie Austin Collie(notes) to help fill the post-Harrison void. He also expects the Colts' running game to improve substantially, citing fourth-year runner Joseph Addai's(notes) return to health and the presence of Donald Brown(notes), a first-round rookie from Connecticut.
"Before the draft, I knew Bill Polian liked [North Carolina wideout] Hakeem Nicks(notes), and I thought he might pick him toward the end of the first round," Manning says. "When he picked Donald Brown, that was a message to Gonzalez and Garcon – 'Hey, you've gotta go be the guy. Get with it, and don't let me down.' "
It turns out Eli will be throwing to Nicks (the Giants took him 29th overall, two picks after Brown), while Peyton will be prodding the untested receivers on Indy's roster to assimilate Moore's intricate offensive scheme in double-time. Suffice it to say his presentation isn't subtle.
"I remember what that was like," Clark said Friday, recalling his early years in the league. "We had a lot of special players when I came in, and I was the young guy whose eyes were as big as saucers. I got yelled at a lot, and I needed it. It was rough, though now it's kind of funny to see others go through it. I look at Austin right now when he breaks the huddle, and he's just looking right through you playing the call through his mind, and I think, 'I know exactly where you are.' "
That's the precise thought that makes Manning feel at ease in the pocket. When he has faith that a receiver will follow his assignment, the result can often be staggering. Such was the case during a seven-on-seven drill near the end of a long practice Friday afternoon: Manning dropped back, went through his progressions and locked his eyes on Wayne, who was drifting to the left corner of the end zone.
Rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers(notes), a third-round selection from Auburn, was all over the savvy wideout who seemingly had run out of room. Manning shifted his gaze for a split second, causing Powers to relax and drop his head. Before the kid knew what had hit him, a brilliant spiral was arcing just over his helmet and toward the end line. Powers turned back and made a flailing attempt at the ball, but Wayne reached up and wickedly snatched it while keeping his toes inbounds.
Manning smiled and raised his arms, a pose we've seen so many times during the past 11 years, the clear sign of a man back in his element.
If the quarterback has his way, he'll be there all season.
Sign up now for Fantasy Football '09 – now with free live scoring