I’ve written a lot of sports commentary pieces over the years across many different platforms. Websites, forums, Facebook, etc. I’ve never found it particularly difficult to write, I just grab the keyboard and start typing.
But, I’ve written and rewritten the first sentence of this piece at least a dozen times, no matter how many times I try I can’t find the words to properly express my admiration and appreciation for Peyton Manning. What follows is no more and no less than my attempt to express an emotion that likely is not possible to express with written word.
When Manning was a senior in college at Tennessee, I was 18 years old and had just started my lifelong love affair with the NFL draft. Peyton was the first player I ever studied. At the time there was a national debate about who was the best quarterback in that draft class. Some said it was Manning, while others claimed it was Ryan Leaf out of Washington State University.
I remember even way back then not understanding how this was even a debate. On one hand, you had this guy who was a consummate professional, played all four years of college, was a prolific winner everywhere he went, and had a dad who was an NFL quarterback. On the other hand you had a guy who could throw really hard. No contest. That ended up being one of the few times in my “scouting” life that I was definitively right.
Manning has given credit to his offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, at just about every interview of his entire career. I tend to believe it was a perfect marriage of minds that developed one of the deadliest passing attacks the NFL has ever seen. The Manning/Moore offense was born out of a desperation to solve one of the biggest holes in Manning’s game. Mobility. Manning has never had much ability to evade the pass rush, so an offense had to be built that masked this significant weakness.
Enter the “levels” passing concept. All NFL passing concepts are read “high to low” by the quarterback. Meaning he looks for the deeper receiver first, then checks down to shallower and shallower receivers until he finds an open guy. The levels passing concept was a primarily a college design, used mostly by smaller schools where the offensive lines tend to not be as good. It is read “low to high”. The receiver with the shortest route is looked at first, it’s designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand as quick as possible.
Early in his career, the Colts and Manning ran the levels passing concept 20 or more times each game. Over the course of his first six or so seasons the offense slowly developed from this one simple college passing concept. The Colts first started adding wrinkles to the levels concept and eventually moved on to figuring out ways to run the other standard NFL passing concepts while making them initially look like the levels concept.
By 2006, the Colts had built an entire offense around one simple passing concept. They essentially ran 15 plays, each with dozens of wrinkles, out of seventy different formations. I know that sounds complicated, but it’s actually exceedingly simple by NFL standards.
To my knowledge, there has never been another quarterback that had an entire offense built from the ground up around his specific skill set. Over the years as I’ve spent time studying the Colts and what they do offensively, I’ve developed an affinity for both Manning and Moore. I felt I had a solid understanding of each new play or wrinkle, why they implemented it and in what situations they would use them.
By 2010, Jon Gruden had given him the nickname “The Sheriff” because of the way he controlled everything about the offense. Moore, instead of sending in plays for Manning to run, he would suggest concepts and Manning would pick the formations and wrinkles. Then, once at the line of scrimmage, Peyton could assess the defense and change to any one of a dozen or more different plays based on what the defense was doing.
Often times Manning already knew which receiver was gonna be open, and at what point in his route, before he even caught the snap. It’s a level of quarterbacking mastery rarely seen even in today’s NFL filled with other superstar passers like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
My admiration of Manning was truly accelerated when he started doing a lot of commercials and other public appearances. I remember when he first hosted Saturday Night Live, I think that was the first time we truly got to see how silly and fun he could be when not on the football field. Soon after the American people were bombarded with commercials featuring Peyton and even sometimes his father or brother. He showed us a side of him that no one knew existed.
We got to know Peyton in a way that just doesn’t happen with most other players, especially not superstar quarterbacks. So, Sunday night when Manning stood triumphant at midfield giving canned answers to canned questions like he always has, I couldn’t help but get a little emotional.
I’ve seen a lot of players retire in all the years I’ve followed this sport, but I don’t think any of them have hit me like this. Knowing I’ll never get to see Peyton in shotgun behind center screaming “Omaha, Omaha!!!” catching the snap and then delivering a strike to a receiver he knew five seconds before the snap was gonna be wide open. It tears me up a little inside.
There’s unlikely to ever be another one quite like him.