Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Indianapolis Colts

I have no excuse for skipping last night aside from sheer laziness, but since now it's Sunday night and my only other option is to do my politics homework (this is a familiar routine, as I constantly cannot find the ambition to do the reading, decide I won't do it, and then give in and do the reading, complete with notes, before class on Monday morning) I decided I'd do a quiz for everyone's favorite pitchman. That said, I really do like the Mannings, so this won't be much of a chore.
Indianapolis Colts (13-3): Peyton Manning

Even if you don't follow football, it's likely you know who Peyton Manning is, as he's that goofy-looking guy with a southern drawl attempting to sell you everything from Sprint to Mastercard, Sony, DirecTV, and all his various other endorsements -- not to mention the Double Stuf Racing League, dear god. The second-born son of Archie, and elder and better brother of Eli, Peyton has made a name for himself both on the football field and in front of the cameras. (His Saturday Night Live appearance after he won the Super Bowl, in which he did a faux United Way commercial, is still one of my favorites. Also check out the literacy ad in which Archie reads a bedtime story to his three eager, grownup sons -- complete with Eli tormenting Peyton, who has the top bunk all to himself -- and then, after they're asleep, shuffles out mumbling, "They've gotta get their own place.") But however accomplished he may be as a pitchman, and the fact that he will probably will endorse every product ever made before he retires aside, Peyton has that star power because of his achievements on the field. He comes from a famous family, true, but he's widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation and will probably be a first-ticket entrant to Canton when he hangs up the spikes.

Peyton, born and raised in New Orleans, attended Isidore Newman School, where for a time his older brother Cooper was his wide receiver before a spinal condition ended his football career. (Like Jon Kitna, Peyton was also a tri-sport athlete, as he started at shortstop for the baseball team and played basketball for two years). Luckily for Colts fans, he decided to concentrate on football, as if he could do anything else with his pedigree. In his senior year of high school, the team compiled an unbeaten 10-0 record, and it was widely assumed that Peyton would take advantage of his famous father's legacy at Ole Miss. Instead, he chose to attend the University of Tennessee, where he entered as the third-stringer behind Jerry Colquitt and Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. (Peyton was rooting for the Rockies last postseason because of the presence of Todd on the team. I knew there was a reason I liked him). But both of them promptly got injured, elevating Manning to the role of starter in a game against Mississippi State. He never looked back, becoming the Vols' all-time leader in career passing yards (11,201) completions (863) season passing yards (3,819) lowest season and career interception percentage (1.05% and 2.39%) and touchdown passes (89) just to name a few, while compiling a 39-6 record as a starter in the tough Southeastern Conference. Peyton set 28 records while at school there, and graduated cum laude in three years with a 3.61 GPA and a degree in speech communication, but elected to return and play his senior season anyway. When he finished, it was a hot debate as to whether he or Washington State's Ryan Leaf was the top pick. (Sorry to any Chargers fans I may have just knocked out of their seats). The Colts chose Peyton with the first overall pick of the 1998 draft, the Chargers chose Leaf with the second. One had success, and the other um.... did not.

The success did not come right away. The Colts finished 3-13 in 1998, Peyton's rookie year, as he threw for 3,739 yards and 26 TDs, but had a whopping 28 picks and a 71.2 passer rating. At the time, the Colts were still in the AFC East, so they came in solidly in the bottom (interestingly, the next highest entrant was the Patriots, at 9-7, the Bills and Dolphins both went 10-6, and the Jets won the division at 12-4. Looooong time ago). But that was the last time it would happen. The next year, the Colts finished atop the East at 13-3, and Peyton threw for 4,135 yards, 27 TD/15 INT, and a 90.7 rating. They finished 10-6 the next year, a not-so-stellar 6-10 the year after, and in 2002, joined the newly formed AFC South with the realignment of the leagues and the introduction of the Texans. Along the way, Peyton was just doing his thing -- since joining the team in 1998, he has not missed one of their 160 games, starting all 16 contests each season. The only season aside from his rookie campaign in which he did not throw for 4,000 yards was 2005, where he "only" racked up 3,747, due to sitting out the last few games with the top AFC seed already clinched. He enjoyed one of the finest seasons for a quarterback in history the year before in 2004, throwing for 4,557 yards, 49 TD (the record broken by Tom Brady this year) 10 INT, and a 121.1 rating; for his efforts, he garnered an almost-unanimous NFL MVP selection. However, the Colts couldn't get past the Patriots again that year, as New England had become their personal hex and the Indianapolis season ended 20-3 in Foxborough. For all his skill, Peyton couldn't beat the Patriots (at the time, it was his seventh straight loss in Massachusetts) and even in Tennessee, he hadn't led his team to the championship game. That was what helped fuel the talk that he couldn't win the big one.

The chance to put the doubters to rest finally came in 2006. The Colts started a white-hot 9-0, slowed down at the end to finish 12-4, then beat the Chiefs and the Ravens in the AFC wild card and divisional playoffs -- yes, times have really changed, as both those sad-sack entries this year were in title competition last year. However, the big story was the Colts vs. Patriots with a trip to Super Bowl XLI on the line, the one team that Manning had not been able to beat, against the "other" best quarterback in the game. The Colts trailed 21-3 at one point, and it looked as if it would be the same again, but Manning put together a game-winning 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter to take a 38-34 lead. The Patriots got the ball back with one minute remaining, and Brady led them to the Colts' 45-yard line, but Indy defensive back Marlin Jackson ended any chance of a comeback by intercepting Brady with 17 seconds remaining. The Colts had finally vanquished their greatest foe, went to Miami to meet the Bears in the Super Bowl, and won that, 29-17, with Peyton being named MVP for his 25/38, 247-yard, 1 TD/1 INT performance. (Of course, a scant year later, his little brother won the same honor after the same game... seems like a long time ago, huh?) That finally put to rest the talk that Peyton was unable to win the big one, and cemented the Colts' place as an AFC dynastic power.

This year, Peyton finished with 31 TD to 14 INT (the Chargers helping him out with six of those in Week 10) 4,040 yards, and a 98.0 rating, which nonetheless was his lowest since 2002 (88.8). The Colts, finishing 13-3 as the AFC second seed behind the Patriots, faced off against the Chargers in divisional play, but got upset 28-24 by a tough San Diego team, ending the Colts' chances for a repeat far sooner than they would have liked. But there's little doubt they'll be back in the playoffs next year. Peyton holds a whopping 48 franchise records, and his unique style of play means that Indianapolis' offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, has much less to do than on other clubs, as Peyton's astounding football sense and knowledge of the game are consistently allowed to show through on the field. The Colts are well known for eschewing the typical huddle offense -- instead, they assemble at the line of scrimmage without a play being called, Peyton studies the opponents' defense, and calls an audible according to what he thinks will be the most successful. To prevent the opponent from figuring out the signals, he even includes nonsense in the call that doesn't change the actual play. Since the defense has only a second or two to adjust to the formation and the defensive leader doesn't get a chance to reposition his players before the ball is snapped, the Colts are consistently one of the NFL's most prolific offenses.

The Colts have made the playoffs eight years of Manning's ten, and the difference when he plays and when, say, Jim Sorgi plays, is pretty amazing. In the game against the Titans this year that decided whether Tennessee or the Cleveland Browns got the final AFC spot, Sorgi took over early on, and upon seeing him "playing," the announcers commented, "They should just give Peyton a raise right now." Peyton, however, doesn't need a raise, as he signed a $98 million contract in 2004 and has made an additional $13 million or so with all his endorsement deals. Like fellow pass-happy teams Dallas, New England, and Green Bay, Indy can occasionally struggle with the running game, but they were ranked a serviceable 18th this year and brought in LSU product Joseph Addai in 2006 to help create a more balanced attack; he finished this season with 261 carries, 1,072 yards, and 12 TD. But at the end of the day, this is Manning's team through and through, and he'll be making commercials and leading the Colts to the playoffs for several years to come.

* Funny story: Peyton was a Pro Bowler this year, of course, and on AOL Sports, there was a story about how AFC coach Norv Turner was trying to lead practice with a bunch of bored guys who were really more interested in taking in the sun. Except for Peyton... who was busy listening attentively, making eye contact, and then running the exact play Norv wanted. It might have been a totally meaningless exhibition, but it shows how much he cares about the game and doing well. You don't think he got here by accident? Even funnier, Norv is the coach of the Chargers, the team that flipped the Colts earlier this year in the playoffs. That's just Peyton for you.

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