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Student vs. teacher: Wilson, Manning collide in Super Bowl

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/01/16/24/LSUGA.Em.138.jpeg|357
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) has soaked up lessons from Peyton Manning ever since Wilson was a 10th-grader and went to Manning’s passing academy.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/01/16/24/1oXBQy.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Bob Levey - Getty Images
    After four neck surgeries, Peyton Manning found his second act in Denver. He had the best NFL regular season any quarterback has ever had this season.

NEW YORK Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has studied Denver’s Peyton Manning for a long time. And wow, can you ever tell.

Wilson talks like Manning. He prepares like Manning. Literally and metaphorically, he looks up to Manning.

Said Wilson this week: “It will be great to go against Peyton. ... One day I want to be like him in terms of the way he thinks. He’s just a master of the game. I’m working to get there. I’m on a constant quest for knowledge.”

Wilson has soaked up lessons from Manning ever since he was a 10th-grader and went to Manning’s passing academy. Manning was one of his counselors, but he has counseled thousands of kids in those camps over the years, and his memories of the experience are blurry. Wilson’s are sharp.

“That was one of the better experiences of my life,” Wilson said.

They are not the same player. Wilson is 25. Manning is 37. Wilson runs better. Manning is half a foot taller and far more adept at reading defenses.

But they could both run for political office and probably win. Wilson’s teammates marvel at his study habits, which sound a whole lot like Manning’s used to be before he had children and decided he needed more sleep.

Said Manning: “There was a time when I would come home from practice and I would stay up until 1-1:30 in the morning because I had to watch all four of (the next opponent’s) preseason games that night. I thought that if I didn’t watch all four of those games, the world might come to an end. ... Maybe I was a robot early on. Now maybe I am a little more human.”

Wilson is still in the robot stage. He is young and free to devote 24 hours a day to football. Often, when you listen to him, it appears that he does. He still sounds like a graduate student in football – a really smart one working on a doctorate. Manning, though, is the full professor with the endowed chair named for him.

Gushed Wilson of Manning: “He’s so consistent every year in his ability to make plays and put his team in a great position to win. That’s what I want to be like. That’s how I’m working to be.”

‘Duck’ dynasty for Manning

Wilson starred for three years at N.C. State before transferring to Wisconsin for his final collegiate season and entering the NFL in 2012. He has kept Super Bowl week as close to what he knows as possible. He brings in doughnuts for his buddies every Wednesday in Seattle. He did that in New Jersey, too, trying to stray as little from the norm as possible.

Manning, on the other hand, has been reflective and expansive. He knows this week is different and hasn’t tried to fight that.

After four neck surgeries, Manning found his second act in Denver. He had the best NFL regular season any quarterback has ever had this season. And he took no offense when Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said again that Manning now throws “ducks.” It’s obvious to everyone Manning’s arm strength isn’t what it was, and his passes sometimes flutter.

Still, he gets the ball where it must be.

“I do throw ducks,” Manning said. “I’ve thrown a lot of yards and touchdowns ‘ducks.’ I am actually quite proud of it.”

A crash course in Brees, too

Manning once did a fine job hosting “Saturday Night Live” and remains the NFL’s top pitchman. He capitalizes on self-deprecating humor the way he capitalizes on a defensive back in the wrong coverage.

Manning has a wry veteran’s sense of humor that Wilson hasn’t perfected. Wilson answers every question with an A-student’s earnestness. Manning, slow-footed as a mastodon but still nearly impossible to sack because of his quick decision-making, delights in tweaking himself.

This week when asked about what would make up the best quarterback in NFL history, Manning said: “John Elway’s arm, Dan Marino’s release, maybe Troy Aikman’s dropback, Brett Favre’s scrambling ability, Joe Montana’s two-minute poise and, naturally, my speed.”

It’s not like Manning is the only quarterback Wilson has ever studied. He is considered a “short” quarterback at 5-foot-11 (Manning is 6-foot-5), and so he has also taken an independent study course in fellow “short” quarterback Drew Brees of New Orleans. Wilson once watched every single throw Brees ever made in a season on tape – all 657 of them. He has read Brees’ autobiography several times.

Manning met Wilson again in the spring 2012 when Wilson was on a pre-draft job interview with the Broncos. Manning had just signed with Denver and was watching film. Wilson happened to be in Denver’s building – the Broncos were considering drafting him to become Manning’s backup – and the two got to visit awhile.

Seattle instead took Wilson with their third-round pick that year, and coach Pete Carroll almost immediately installed him as the starter. In only two seasons, Wilson has done a whole lot of good things, including beating Carolina twice in Charlotte (the Seahawks visit again next season) and making the Super Bowl in his second year.

Student vs. teacher

Wilson throws the ball only 25 times per game compared with Manning’s 41, as the Seahawks rely on their No. 1-rated defense and play more of a ball-control game with running back Marshawn Lynch. But Wilson is extremely efficient.

Manning averaged 8.3 yards per pass this season and had 10 interceptions. Wilson averaged 8.2 and had nine.

The biggest difference this season has been touchdown passes (Manning had an NFL-record 55, Wilson a modest 26) and sacks. Manning gets the ball out so fast he was only sacked 18 times. Wilson, like Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, likes to hold the ball sometimes and rely on his legs to scamper away from trouble. It doesn’t always work, and he was sacked 44 times.

So there’s more to learn. But the student hopes to master the teacher on Sunday, and he certainly believes that he can. Wilson said he long thought he could be a second baseman in Major League Baseball – it was a baseball-related conflict that made him transfer from N.C. State – but ultimately thinks he can do even better in football.

“I believed that I could go to the Super Bowl and win multiple Super Bowls and do all of those things,” Wilson said. “I believe in that every day.”

Manning is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he hasn’t won multiple Super Bowls yet. This game could change that. I think he will play in 2014 no matter whether he wins this game or not – he sounds like he wants at least another year to me.

As for Wilson, he said this week: “Hopefully I’ll play 20 years.”

Wilson’s career is just beginning. Manning’s will come to an end sometime in the next few days or years. That they are intersecting at this crucial moment should make Sunday’s game a frozen beauty.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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