For a few hours Monday night, Peyton Manning wasn't the most important man in Indianapolis. That distinction briefly belonged to Santa Claus as the Indianapolis Colts' starting quarterback pushed aside talk of the NFL record he is pursuing and sat on Santa's lap.
"Nobody is ever too big to sit on Santa's lap," Manning said.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning needs just four touchdown passes to tie the record set by Miami's Dan Marino.
(Darron Cummings - AP)
Not even the guy who is pursuing a mark that has stood as one of the NFL's top quarterback achievements for 20 years. Manning, whose team plays the Texans tomorrow in Houston, needs only four touchdown passes to tie the record set by the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino in 1984. In addition, Manning needs only two touchdown passes to break John Unitas's 45-year-old record of passing for at least two scores in 13 straight games to open a season.
What Manning, 28, has done in his seventh season with the Colts has evoked comparisons with the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. "He ranks right up there with the very best of them," said Ted Marchibroda, the former head coach of the Colts and Baltimore Ravens who has been associated with the NFL as a player, coach and broadcaster for almost 50 years.
"He's extremely accurate. Rarely does he miss anyone open, and he always seems to hit his receivers in stride. Boyd Dowler [a former Redskins receiver] once told me that Sonny Jurgensen always hit him on the right [proper] foot. In other words, he didn't have to break stride and it was always an easy catch. That's what Peyton does."
Manning's detractors say he is fortunate to be playing in a season in which game officials have been told to crack down on contact downfield after the first five yards, opening up the passing game around the league. Of course, that rule was in place during Marino's record-setting year, too.
"It's had an impact as far as quarterbacks and offensive play and how receivers have been able to get a lot of free releasing from the line," Marino said. "But with his offense and the talent they have, they've just got everything going right now. He would have been able to do this regardless of the rules changing or not."
Manning will play 10 of 16 games in domed stadiums under ideal conditions, without worrying about wind, cold or a wet football; Marino played in only one dome in 1984. In the playoffs, Manning will have to win outdoors in January in Pittsburgh, or New England, where the Colts lost in the AFC title game in bitter cold last year.
Manning, who has thrown for at least five touchdowns in a game four times this season (including Indianapolis's 49-14 victory over the Texans on Nov. 14), was atypically terse this week when the topic of the record came up.
"Everybody knows what I'm about," he said. "I'm about trying to help our team win."
Manning's admirers say that even if he is often playing indoors, his numbers are extraordinary. No one else has come close to his 44 touchdown passes this season, with Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper (who will play 12 games in domes) a distant second with 30 scoring passes and 3,459 yards.
"He's on fire, my hat's off to him," Culpepper said this week. "I think [the rule emphasis] has opened up things some, but I won't say a whole lot because there's still a lot of contact down the field that isn't called. But that's football."
The Colts run a no-huddle offense, which gives Manning great latitude to change plays called in to his headset from Tom Moore, his only offensive coordinator in his entire pro career. Unlike most quarterbacks of the modern era, Manning essentially is calling his own plays as much as 80 percent of the time, another reason many believe he is the best player at his position in the league.
"He has magnificent confidence that spills over to his teammates," said Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy. "He is absolutely the most complete quarterback I've ever seen. His ability to think is among the best of them. He knows where he wants to go with the football, but he's also one of the best at looking off a player in the secondary and then killing him with a perfect throw. One more thing with Peyton. Boy, does he have some weapons."