Plain and Simply Outstanding
"Peyton's going to do what he has got to do. He's money. That's why I call him P-Money. He's always on point," says former teammate Edgerrin James on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
They saw it when Manning, still in high school, fit in so easily as he tossed the ball to NFL receivers on the New Orleans Saints' practice field or when he organized informal summer passing and receiving drills at Tennessee, and then fumed at teammates who didn't show up.
When reporters tried to reach Tennessee coaches late at night, it was Manning, the human tape machine, who frequently answered the phone while he was poring through endless game film. "He's like a sponge for information," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.
Manning hung around the coaches' offices before he even started his freshman year. "We couldn't talk with him then because he wasn't officially on the team," Fulmer said. "So we'd have to kick him out so we could start our meetings."
Manning's focus was so tight that his college teammates called him Caveman and his bedroom the Cave, references to a student-athlete who took game preparation and academics ever so seriously. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in three years.
"I only know one way to do things," Manning says. "There's no reason to change."
His way worked in high school, where at New Orleans' Isidore Newman he went 34-5 as a starter and passed for 7,207 yards. It worked at Tennessee, where he won 39-of-45 starts, set 33 school records, passed for 12,114 yards and became an All-American on the field and in the classroom. And it has worked in Indianapolis, where he shared the NFL's 2003 MVP award with Steve McNair before winning the honor outright for 2004. That year, he threw a record 49 touchdown passes and extended his mark of throwing for at least 4,000 yards to six straight seasons.
Despite all the records and statistics, Manning faced criticism for his failure to "win the big one," a label he removed in the 2006 postseason after throwing for a league-leading 31 touchdown passes to help the Colts to a 12-4 regular-season record. In the AFC title game he led Indianapolis from an 18-point second-quarter deficit to a 38-34 win over its nemesis, New England. In Super Bowl XLI, an efficient Manning overcame an early interception and directed the Colts past Chicago, 29-17, winning the MVP award (247 passing yards, one TD).
Modest and polite, Manning has a squeaky-clean image. "Growing up in New Orleans as Archie Manning's son, I felt like a target," he said, "and I've always known that whatever I do, people would hear about it. So I've had my guard up, and maybe that's molded my personality."
He was born on March 24, 1976 in New Orleans. The family and football had longtime links. His father, a former Mississippi star who finished third in the 1970 Heisman Trophy voting, played quarterback for 14 NFL seasons, the first 10-plus years with the lowly Saints. His mother, Olivia, was a homecoming queen at Ole Miss.
Older brother Cooper, who had to give up football at Mississippi because of a spinal condition, was Manning's main receiver in Peyton's sophomore year in high school. Younger brother Eli starred at Ole Miss and was the first pick in the 2004 NFL draft.
Archie Manning took heat when Peyton didn't go to Mississippi. "The whole situation caused some people to break off with me," Archie said. "I didn't want to interfere with Peyton's decision."
His reputation, though, took a hit when an assistant UT trainer filed a sexual harassment suit against the university. Among 33 complaints, she charged Manning with baring his buttocks in her face in 1996 while she was treating his foot. She agreed to a $300,000 settlement with Tennessee the next year. In 2002, the trainer sued again after Manning, in a father-son biography, claimed he was mooning another athlete that day and noted that the trainer had a "vulgar mouth." Jamie Naughright's defamation of character suit was settled in 2003, the details sealed by the court.
At the end of his junior season, Manning passed for 408 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-28 victory over Northwestern in the 1997 Florida Citrus Bowl, then spent two months mulling whether he should turn pro. He decided to stay in college, waking Fulmer at 1 a.m. with the news.
Fulmer's reaction: "Peyton, I love you, man."
Manning returned the love by passing for 3,953 yards and 37 touchdowns in his All-American senior season and winning honors by the bucketsful (Unitas, O'Brien, Maxwell and Sullivan awards). He finished second to Michigan's Charles Woodson for the Heisman Trophy. About the only team honor Manning didn't accomplish in college was leading Tennessee to a national championship or beating heated-rival Florida.
His next race came for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, where the Colts chose him over Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf. Manning signed a $48-million, six-year contract, a rookie record at the time, and then - what else? - went to work.
Keenly aware of how the NFL eats up young quarterbacks, he became a top student again, amassing and deciphering information. "His mind is like a projector," Colts quarterback coach Bruce Arians said. "One time, that's all it takes."
Manning lacked speed, a long-distance arm and the ability to throw off-balance like Favre. He had superb technique, though, and was an accurate thrower who could read defenses.
Over the next seven years, Manning led Indianapolis to six winning seasons, beginning with a 13-3 record in 1999. His pass completion percentage, which started at 56.7 percent as a rookie, steadily improved, reaching 67.6 percent in 2004. Manning and his favorite target, Marvin Harrison, developed into a feared passing combination.
All along, Manning pushed himself and his teammates, his perfectionist tendencies as evident as ever, as he built arm strength, spun tape and repeated practice plays. "If for some reason, I'm off a step," Harrison said, "we'll run the same route over and over again until it's perfect."
Withstanding an assortment of injuries, including a broken jaw in 2001, Manning kept playing and didn't miss a start during his first nine seasons. His 144 consecutive starts, through 2006, were the longest by any NFL quarterback to begin a career and broke Johnny Unitas' Colts' record of 92.
Higher expectations came in 2002 when Tony Dungy became Indy's coach. The team flipped a 6-10 season of the previous year to 10-6, but was crushed by the New York Jets 41-0 in the wild-card round. Having lost three straight playoff games, Manning felt "a sense of urgency" after that to win in the postseason and feared that time could run out on him - and Harrison. "He and I talk about this," Manning said. "We do have a window of opportunity."
He passed for 4,267 yards the next season, and the Colts opened the window. They went 12-4 to win their division and then Manning was almost perfect in the first two playoff games. He threw for eight touchdowns and no interceptions, completed 78.6 percent of his passes and had a 156.9 quarterback rating. Indianapolis didn't punt in either game.
However, in the AFC championship game, Manning was intercepted three times by Ty Law as Indy lost 24-14 to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
After making Manning their franchise player in February 2004, the Colts gave him a $98-million, seven-year contract, including a $34.5-million signing bonus. He responded by throwing for 4,557 yards and 49 touchdowns, one more than Dan Marino threw in establishing the record in 1984. But when the Colts lost 20-3 to the Patriots in the divisional playoffs, Manning again was criticized for his inability to lead his team into the Super Bowl.
In 2005, Manning led Indianapolis to 13 wins to open the season. He threw for 3,747 yards -- the first time in seven seasons he didn't reach 4,000 yards -- and 28 touchdown passes as the Colts finished with a league-best 14-2 record. But they again flamed out in the playoffs, losing their first game, 21-18 to the Steelers, as Manning's postseason record fell to 3-6.