ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Having listened to Peyton Manning go down by down, situation by situation, through a drive or two in games he played 16, 17 and 18 years ago at the University of Tennessee, it was intriguing to see how he answered a question about records Wednesday.
And it was yet another glimpse, beyond, say, wearing his helmet in the trainers’ room last week as he soaked his right ankle so he could hear what was being said to the quarterbacks out on the practice field, into why he has pretty much driven opposing defensive coaches bananas for the better part of his football life.
The memory, for what’s said, written, and played in front of him on game day, is the rarest of rare finds. Even in Knoxville, when I was just another guy in the crowd with a tape recorder – pretty much still in the crowd, the tape recorder is just digital now – the memory was staggering.
Last season we were talking about some changes that have come in defenses and got sidetracked on a Tennessee-Florida game from years gone by. Manning went through one of the possessions of the game, personnel groupings, reads, decisions he made without even a pause. Skeptical, at least a little bit, and a little mopey since I had been at the game and remembered things like it was on a Saturday, went back and paged through the play by play.
He nailed it. Every. Single. Play.
It’s why a longtime defensive coach in the NFL has, when asked about Manning, consistently told a story about how his team had dug out a look they had thrown at Manning three years before because they thought it would work in an upcoming game. They had not used that look again since, but when they flashed it at Manning on game day, he checked to another play and that play was exactly the right call at exactly the right time.
The coach still contends, to this day, Manning remembered it, had studied it and knew what to do against it.
So on Wednesday, when some folks asked him the pile of records he could put his name next to this season, Manning said this to the group:
“That is not how I’ve ever approached it before. I remember my second year or whatever, we were playing Cleveland late in the season and we had a touchdown streak going -- consecutive games. We got down there late and hadn’t thrown one and we had a pass play called. They were dropping eight guys, checked to a run and got the touchdown and the streak ended. You don’t think twice about it. You have to do your job to get your team into the end zone -- whatever that is. That’s how I’ve always approached it.”
So, I paged through some things, just to see, once again. Manning and the Indianapolis Colts did face the Cleveland Browns in the 15th game of the 1999 season, his second season as the Colts would go on to finish 13-3 and Manning would make his first postseason. And with Manning "or whatever'' really means "exactly, but you're welcome to dig around and see for yourself.''
Manning had thrown at least one touchdown pass in the final 13 games of his rookie season in 1998 and had thrown at least one touchdown pass in the first 14 games of the 1999 season, a streak that had reached 27 consecutive games. And in a game played with a kickoff temperature of 31 degrees at old Cleveland Stadium, Manning was 27-of-43 passing without a touchdown pass or an interception in a 29-28 Colts win.
Indeed, with the Colts trailing 28-19, Manning and the Indianapolis offense opened the fourth quarter with a first-and-10 at the Colts 23-yard line. In 10 plays they drove to the Browns 2-yard line.
And on second-and-goal, Edgerrin James did indeed run, up the middle, for a touchdown. The Colts later won on a Mike Vanderjagt kick with seven seconds left in the game.
If memory serves, anyway.