By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
Peyton the Magnificent: Every now and then somebody asks me to name the greatest player I’ve seen since covering the NFL in 1984. I’ve never answered the question until now. I’m pretty sure it’s Peyton Manning.
Other quarterbacks in my time have more championships, but for sustained excellence, historical achievement and artistic brilliance, Manning can not be matched.
Not that Tim Couch is a benchmark for anyone, but the first Browns expansion-era quarterback helps put Manning’s career in perspective. Manning entered the NFL one year before Couch was drafted in 1999, and Manning has won two NFL most valuable player awards after Couch retired in 2007.
Manning’s four league MVP awards are more than any player in history. Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas and Brett Favre each won three. Joe Montana won two.
If that were the final paragraph in Manning’s illustrious career, he would be prominent in the discussion for the greatest player in NFL history. But wait, there’s more.
After sitting out all of 2011 with a neck injury that ultimately required three surgical procedures, Manning switched teams and has transformed the Denver Broncos from a lucky, surprise playoff team to the AFC’s most dominant team.
Playing with mostly unfamiliar receivers and coaches after 14 years in the league’s most stable of situations with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning has posted personal numbers amazingly similar to the best years of his career. What’s in his grasp? A first comeback player-of-the-year award, a fifth MVP and a second Super Bowl championship.
“He makes everyone around him better,” said cornerback Sheldon Brown.
The NFL’s only player-coach: A year ago at this time, the Broncos tailored a read-option offense to the running skills of quarterback Tim Tebow, whose passing ability -- to be diplomatic – was severely limited.
Tebow performed his own style of magic, the team caught fire, made the playoffs at 9-7 and beat Pittsburgh in the first round. Club President John Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback, promptly closed that sideshow and went about enticing Manning to Denver after Indianapolis cut him to make room for No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck.
The Broncos initially intended to incorporate Manning’s game into some elements of the New England offense originally brought to coordinator Mike McCoy by former coach Josh McDaniels. But it wasn’t long before Manning usurped the offense and made it his own.
Manning runs the no-huddle offense the same way he did in Indianapolis, barking out signals at the line of scrimmage, gesticulating to linemen where he sees pressure and to receivers to get in proper alignment, changing passes to runs when he sees the safety creeping back outside the tackle box. Manning brought over the Colts’ blocking schemes, timing pass routes and play-call language.
After road games, Manning routinely is seen on the team flight getting a headstart on the next opponent by studying game video. On Tuesdays, the universal day off for NFL players, Manning joins McCoy in the office to discuss and formulate the next game plan.
“Obviously, we have tremendous respect for him, so he does have input,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “You obviously want him comfortable with what he’s doing. He’s a pro in that way.”
Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson agreed that Manning most likely has more input into his team’s game plan than any quarterback in the league.
“Why wouldn’t he?” he said. “If I have a guy like him, he’s got the keys to my car.”
Making adjustments: Adding to Manning’s epic comeback season is the fact he has had to adjust to weaker arm strength as a result of nerve damage caused by the neck injury. He pesters a defense with short, pinpoint throws to set up the longer passes that his receivers turn into big gains. Manning’s longer throws wobble and float – right into his receivers arms. He has adapted his game like a veteran baseball flamethrower learning to pitch all over again after arm surgery.
“You have to change speeds,” said Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, who can relate from his days as a minor league pitcher. “I saw it firsthand at his (annual passing) camp. Whether or not he’s got a cannon, he’s got plenty of arm to get it there. His ball comes out on time and it’s always on target. I’ve always said he’s one of the best at that. His timing is so good with those guys. He sees something … if they’re in or out of their break, the ball’s gone.”
“You understand your tools aren’t as good as when you got into the league, so he adjusts,” Jackson said. “His accuracy is unbelievable. He’s not throwing that fastball like he used to. But he’s been successful by adjusting to the game.”
Said Brown: “He’s always played the game mentally. He’s never been a guy who’s played just off athletic ability. He’s mentally sharp. He dedicates his life to this game during the season.”
Among Manning’s 152 career wins – second all-time among quarterbacks -- are five against the Browns. The most points Manning has scored against the Browns in those games is 29. The last three, he has won by scores of 9-6, 13-6 and 10-6.
In his five career games against the Browns, Manning has thrown but two touchdowns and has been intercepted three times. His passer rating against the Browns is a pedestrian 81.9 – appreciably lower than his career mark of 95.5.
Like life, some things in sports you can’t explain.
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