Next, Cutcliffe addressed “his intention to release,” the subtle moment when a quarterback, looking downfield, makes a decision and begins his first movement to throw to a target. Great players in a secondary don’t just try to break on the ball; they try to break even earlier, on the “intention” of the quarterback. Manning worked on shortening the time between his decision and actual release. He got quicker and more accurate by the day.
“When he saw himself getting back to his normal, when he could get the ball into his arm slot, and felt it, God, that was fun to see,” Cutcliffe says.
“He just flat out got better”
In February 2012, Watkins declared Manning’s neck firmly fixed and fully healed, and cleared him for NFL play. He was no more at risk of injury than anyone else on the field. But Manning still had weakness in his triceps; the nerves hadn’t completely regenerated and the question of whether they ever would remained. Manning would simply have to work around it, Watkins told him. “It’s your job to learn to compensate for that,” Watkins said. The key would be to get his legs, core, and other arm sections as strong as possible.
“What he kind of said was, ‘I think you can still be a thrower with a weak triceps, but everything else needs to fire pretty good,’ ” Manning says.
But that prognosis wasn’t good enough for the Colts, who on March 6 released Manning and announced their intention to go young and draft Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick. Now a free agent, Manning’s workouts gained an added intensity — and became a source of national theater when he announced he would conduct a series of private auditions for clubs of his choice. He and Cutcliffe went into intensive preparations for them. “It was a full-court press situation,” Manning says.
On the surface, Manning seemed in charge of the process, from his gracious farewell at a Colts news conference to his cherry-picking of teams he was interested in, settling on the San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans and Broncos. In reality, Manning was anxious. On March 15 he had his first audition, in front of 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. He was as nervous as he had been as a collegian at Tennessee trying out for pro scouts. “Maybe even more so,” he says. “I haven’t felt like that in some time, because I really wasn’t sure of my physical state, I was still learning what I could and couldn’t do, and now someone who was not a friend was going to come and watch.”
Harbaugh and the rest of the NFL coaches wouldn’t sugarcoat anything, Manning knew, and he didn’t want them to. After months of secrecy and clandestine workouts, it was time to expose himself. He wanted the harsh truth, a final judgment on whether he could still play the game. He stripped down and underwent a full physical like a horse on an auction block, showing everything.
“I wanted them to see me in person,” he says. “All of them felt my muscles. You could see the atrophy in my arm and right pectoral. I wanted to put it all out on table, and have them say, ‘Here’s what we think,’ rather than show them a video of me. I wanted them to tell me, ‘Hey you look good enough to play for us.’ ”
By the end of March, the Broncos decided he was good enough and awarded him a five-year deal worth $96 million. But even then, Manning still had huge strides to make. In July 2012, he went back to New Orleans to join his family for their annual football camp, and he did some throwing with his father looking on. He was three weeks away from his first training camp with the Broncos. Archie thought he looked . . . just okay.
“Wasn’t bad, wasn’t ugly, but it wasn’t Peyton,” Archie says. “I thought he could play, but I didn’t know how his game was going to change. I knew what made him the quarterback he was, but he had a new team, a new system, and a new body he was playing with. So I had no idea he could be as productive as he was.”
Manning continued working on the program he had drawn up with Cutcliffe, and the long awaited dramatic jump in strength finally came. And then kept coming. As it turned out, his spectacular debut season with the Broncos, with 37 touchdown passes, was merely an appetizer. How could there be room for improvement? But there was. “This year at age 37, he got better,” Archie marvels. “He just flat got better.” He pauses. “We been at this a long time,” he says. “But yeah, we are very proud of him. Let’s keep it going. Just keep him healthy.”
Cutcliffe says that the Manning of this season is much stronger than last, and in some ways than he has ever been, given his new emphasis on legs and core. And he still may not have found his best form. “It’s going to do nothing but get better as he continues to regain strength,” Cutcliffe says. Add to his physical improvement the fact that the Broncos have surrounded him with more weapons and the best supporting cast he has ever had.
Cutcliffe believes the injury forced Manning to be more exacting in his habits than ever, and that the Broncos’ explosive numbers this season reflect the fact that he has exported those habits to his teammates. He developed an almost intuitive relationship with his primary receivers, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, after a summer of “hard, hot work” with Cutcliffe at Duke. “The entire mentality is catching on and it makes everybody play better,” Cutcliffe observes.
Nevertheless, it is scarcely believable that the NFL passing leader is a 37-year-old with metal in his neck. Here is an even more incredible fact: To this day, Manning’s right arm remains slightly weaker than his left. He still works on that right triceps and nerve, but is resigned to the possibility that they might not ever come fully awake. “I couldn’t tell you whether they’ll come back, and until I stop playing I won’t stop trying,” he says.
He makes up for it, he says, with other things. Like timing, recognition, and disguise. He got some advice from Bill Parcells, the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach who is now an analyst for ESPN: Parcells, a big baseball fan, told Manning not to worry so much about throwing strikes, but to think more like a pitcher and throw junk. “Can you still get ’em out?” Parcells asked. Manning replied puzzled, “What do you mean?” Parcells answered, “There are different ways to move the chains. Can you get it in the end zone is what matters.”
So these days he thinks less about throwing missiles or glamorous arcs, than about just tricking the opposition and delivering the ball to the right place. The golden boyness has faded; in its place is a man with a fighter’s face, narrow eyes and a slightly hooked nose that keeps him from being pretty, hair mowed short as a putting green, and expression closed shut, refusing to give anything away to the opponent. Defensive backs describe trying to read Manning’s face as he scans the field, nothing moving under center except his predatory eyes, “flicking back and forth,” as Eagles safety Earl Wolff says.
He has become an expert in replacing natural gifts with compensatory skills. He’s learned he doesn’t need the old velocity, that he can drive the ball strongly enough with his legs, and win as much with good decisions as great throws. “Maybe certain throws you don’t make anymore,” Manning says. “Or you throw a little sooner. You learn to adjust your mind, have maybe even more of a sense of timing.”
The result is that he now views his career as a sort of split image, before and after. There is the Before Manning and the After Manning — and this one plays entirely in a grateful present.
“I really don’t compare myself anymore to how I was before,” he says. “I’ve learned to throw in this state, and I’m just trying to do the best I can with the way things are.”
Which may end up being better than anyone has ever done it.