Peyton Manning is on pace to pass for 28 touchdowns and more than 3,700 yards this season. That's not bad. But it's a far cry from last season, when he threw for 4,557 yards and set an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes.
Manning's Indianapolis Colts are the league's only unbeaten team, however, so the quarterback isn't complaining. The Colts have become a more balanced club this season, with a greatly improved defense and an offense capable of stringing together sustained drives when it wants. Manning, in fact, says that he regularly is changing passing plays to running plays with audibles at the line of scrimmage, as he did on both of the Colts' rushing touchdowns during Monday night's impressive 40-21 triumph at New England.
"I think people are surprised," Manning said. "People are going, 'Oh Peyton, you've got to be frustrated with all these running plays.' I'm calling a lot of them myself. [Offensive coordinator] Tom Moore is calling a lot of pass plays, and I'm checking to the runs. The fantasy football players don't like to hear that, but that was the best play in that situation . . . . As long as we get in that end zone and win the games, I'm as happy as I am throwing touchdowns."
Manning calls himself an "old-school" quarterback who gets a thrill out of outfoxing the opposing defensive coordinator, middle linebacker or safety by making the proper audible for a six-yard run. He said that defenses have resolved this season not to give up long passing plays to the Colts, so he and his offensive teammates merely are taking what opponents are giving them.
"I think they're kind of surprised that we can play that game," he said. "I think they say, 'Hey, there's no way the Colts can be patient if they have to go down the field [methodically].' When we do that, I think it does kind of drain them a little bit . . . . We feel we can play any kind of game that we have to . . . . It's more the way teams are playing us . . . . It's almost like teams are saying, 'Hey, we don't want you to throw on us. We're going to let you run on us and see if you can be that patient and try to slow the game down.' We feel like we can still put up points by mixing the run and pass."
The Colts used a long pass from Manning to wide receiver Marvin Harrison to set up their first touchdown against the Patriots. New England responded with a touchdown, but the Colts showed their versatility by immediately retaking control of the game with a workmanlike 17-play touchdown drive that took more than nine minutes off the clock.
Manning said he occasionally has to remind himself on the field to remain patient and not allow the Colts to revert to their old quick-strike offensive mentality. But late in Monday's game, with a chance to put the contest out of reach, he did take a shot, changing a running play to a passing play. The result was a 30-yard touchdown pass to Harrison that gave the Colts a 19-point lead with less than six minutes to play.
"That was a little bit of an aggressive call," Manning said. "That was a run, but I kind of got tired of handing off. I did change up . . . . But I'm doing pretty good for the most part."
The defensive shortcomings that have been perhaps the biggest factor in preventing Manning from making a Super Bowl appearance appear to be a thing of the past. The Colts rank fourth in the NFL in total defense. The signing of defensive tackle Corey Simon just before the season, after the Philadelphia Eagles rescinded their franchise-player tag from him and made him a free agent, has bolstered the run defense, and ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney have combined for 15 sacks.
"I think we are more of a team," Manning said. "We really kind of feed off each other. We've got a lot of youth and enthusiasm on defense. Practices are kind of exciting. Guys are flying around. It is a little bit of a different feeling . . . . I sleep a little better at night now knowing that Dwight can go out and get a sack at any time. [Safety] Bob Sanders can make a huge, big hit for a fumble. You think those plays are going to happen now. It used to be you were watching, you were hoping [the opposing offense would] make a mistake. Now you're kind of surprised if Freeney doesn't get a sack. It's nice to have that offense-defense camaraderie. It's definitely the best camaraderie we've had in terms of both sides pulling for each other and feeding off of one another since I've been here the last eight years."
NFL Inches Closer to L.A. Return
The league continues to inch closer to putting a team back in the vacant Los Angeles market.
Some reports out of Los Angeles on Thursday overstated the case a bit and made it sound like the league has a deal in place to put a team in the Coliseum. That's not the case. The league is close to signing a term sheet with the Coliseum. But it also is close to signing a term sheet for a proposed stadium in Anaheim, and the Rose Bowl continues to receive some consideration from the NFL as a possible venue for a prospective franchise even though the Pasadena city council has voted to withdraw the facility from consideration. The league is keeping its options open, and will pick a stadium site at some point as the process moves forward.
It remains clear, however, that the league desperately wants a franchise in the nation's second-largest television market. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been in Los Angeles this week to continue to work on arrangements. Los Angeles has been without an NFL franchise since the Rams and Raiders departed following the 1994 season.
The NFL has not set a target date for when a Los Angles team would begin playing, and it has not officially determined whether a franchise would get there via expansion or relocation. But there seems to be little support among the team owners for expansion, with the league now consisting of eight divisions of four clubs each.
Tagliabue has tried to distance himself and the league from the notion that the New Orleans Saints could end up in Los Angeles, saying the league is committed to trying to return the franchise to Louisiana. But NFL sources have said that the Saints could be moved to Los Angeles at some point if the league is not convinced that New Orleans will recover sufficiently from Hurricane Katrina to support the franchise.
The Saints are based in San Antonio this season and are splitting their home games between San Antonio and Baton Rouge, La. The league is focusing on trying to split the club's home schedule next season between Baton Rouge and a repaired Superdome in New Orleans.
Nader Wants T.O. Playing
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader sent a letter to Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and Tagliabue calling for banished Philadelphia wide receiver Terrell Owens to be reinstated by the team or released so that he can sign with another club.
In his letter, Nader called the Eagles' punishment of Owens -- a four-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team and deactivation for the remainder of the season once the suspension expires -- "misguided."
Nader wrote: "There is no question that Terrell Owens' comments have been boorish and unwarranted. However, the comments were just that -- comments.
"It should be the policy of the Eagles and the National Football League, as well as other sports teams and leagues, that players not be punished merely for what they say.
"There is a great tradition in this country of respecting free speech, and the Eagles and NFL should express those values in handling even churlish speech."
Nader conceded in the letter than constitutional free-speech protections do not extend to the workplace, but added: "It is not a matter of law, but of principle. And the principle should be: [E]mployees are not penalized for speaking out, even if what they have to say strikes management as ill-informed or offensive."
Nader argued in the letter that the Eagles' punishment of Owens is unfair to fans who bought tickets to see the club play this season.
"Fans have purchased tickets for Eagles' games, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, on the assumption that they will see one of the game's most exciting receivers, so long as he is healthy enough to play," Nader wrote. "The Eagles' action denies them this opportunity.
"If the Eagles do not want Terrell Owens on their team, then they should release him. Instead, the Eagles propose not just to suspend him for the term permitted by the collective bargaining agreement, but to make him inactive for the duration of the season. This vengeful approach keeps him as an effective hostage -- kept away from the fans who would like to see him play."
The NFL Players Association has filed a grievance on Owens's behalf, seeking to have Owens reinstated or released. The union maintains the Eagles' penalty is excessive because the sport's collective bargaining agreement allows a maximum penalty of a four-game suspension without pay for conduct detrimental to the team.
Owens's suspension would cost him about $800,000 of his $3.25 million salary for this season, and his contract contains a provision that might enable the Eagles to force him to return approximately $1.7 million of his $2.3 million signing bonus.
The club suspended Owens after he criticized the team's front office and quarterback Donovan McNabb in a televised interview last week, one day after reportedly getting into a locker-room scuffle with former Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas.
Harrington Gets Another Start
Joey Harrington is scheduled to make a second straight start at quarterback for Detroit, with Jeff Garcia still plagued by leg injuries . . . .
Ike Hilliard reportedly is scheduled to start at wide receiver for Tampa Bay on Sunday against the Washington Redskins in place of Michael Clayton, whose playing status is unclear because of a bruised knee. Clayton has not missed a game during his two-year NFL career but did not practice Wednesday or Thursday.
Buccaneers left tackle Anthony Davis, who hurt his knee during last Sunday's loss at home to Carolina, returned to practice Thursday and probably will start this weekend.