When tight end Owen Daniels signed with the Denver Broncos last off-season, he figured playing with quarterback Peyton Manning would be a little different.
No. A lot different. Manning invites the receivers to Durham, for a passing-game clinic under the auspices of Duke coach David Cutcliffe, a Manning mentor. So what to expect? Throw a few patterns, enjoy some good meals, maybe get tickets to a Blue Devils basketball game.
Nope. This was training camp minus the coaches.
“At Duke he had us doing two-a-days, watching film and running routes. Watching more film of the routes and then running them again. He kind of ran me into the ground,” Owens recalled. “On April 1 we’re doing all this stuff. That’s just how he works all year round.”
Manning has been like this throughout his 18-season NFL career. He looks back on his rookie season in 1998, when Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora refused to bench him for leading the league in interceptions, as a blessed reminder of not taking the easy path.
Mora told Manning to stick it out and keep learning. That somewhat sums up what will be a Hall of Fame career.
Over the last two seasons Manning has broken a bone in his neck, had multiple surgeries, suffered plantar fasciitis and was intermittently benched this season in favor of quarterback Brock Osweiler.
This had potential to end badly, like when a hobbled and marginalized Joe Namath finished out his career with the Los Angeles Rams in 1977. Instead, Manning, 39, won back the Broncos’ starting job in a January comeback against the San Diego Chargers.
The Broncos won home games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots to qualify for this matchup with the Carolina Panthers. They’re a team that’s defense-centric, but that’s OK. Manning isn’t above coming along for the ride if he can win a second NFL championship in the end.
“I think it is important to be able to adapt as a player,” Manning said Thursday. “Every coach has different styles, different philosophies. I have enjoyed learning something from all of them,”
Maybe what he’s learning from Broncos coach Gary Kubiak is to go with the flow. In the 2014 season, playing for former Panthers coach John Fox, Manning got the chance to sometimes throw 40 passes a game. But that season ended with a 24-13 home playoff loss to the Colts.
Broncos general manager John Elway made a coaching change, replacing Fox with former Broncos quarterback Kubiak. Kubiak wanted a more balanced offense, running more to complement a talented defense, and Manning didn’t initially adapt well.
He threw 17 interceptions before being benched mid-season. But since returning to the starting lineup, he hasn’t thrown a single pick.
“It was tough for him; we came in new and he had been running the (other) system for a while. We had some things we believe in; we tried to mash the two things together, so I know that was tough on him,” Kubiak said.
“This past month this football team has been his and he’s taken it back over and he’s feeling very good and very confident in what he’s doing.”
Kubiak said this is partially about Manning getting the time to heal physically. Manning said he’s as healthy this week as he’s been all season.
So following Thursday’s practice at Stanford, Kubiak said this about Manning’s performance to a reporter:
“This is as good as he’s looked all year long. You saw some big downfield throws today. This is what Peyton looked like back at the start of the season.”
Manning’s completion percentage this season – 59.8 percent – is his lowest since his rookie season, when he was 56.7 percent and led the NFL in interceptions with 28.
In 1998 Manning had all the physical tools and a strong support system; his father, Archie, had played quarterback 13 seasons in the NFL. He had Cutcliffe, his college offensive coordinator, and Phillip Fulmer, his head coach at Tennessee, as resources.
And he had that drive to improve that never waned.
Now, perhaps the circle has closed. He might not throw the ball as he once did, but his experience – this will be his fourth Super Bowl, each with a different coach – serves to compensate.
ESPN analyst Steve Young, who won three Super Bowls quarterbacking the San Francisco 49ers, says Manning still has enough to win Sunday.
“It’s amazing how he’s figured out how to do just enough,” Young said “He understands what he can and can’t do. It has to be frustrating because he was dominating for so long. I’m sure he’d love to dominate this game, too, but physically can’t.
“He just needs to hope for some help and he got that in a big way (from the defense in the NFC) championship game. I’m sure he’s praying for that again against a dominant guy (in Cam Newton). Just give me the space to win with 18 or 19 ( points).”