No coach in the NFL knows Peyton Manning as well as Jim Caldwell, and no player in the NFL likely knows Caldwell as well as Peyton Manning.
The two spent a decade together in Indianapolis -- seven years as quarterback and quarterbacks coach, three with Caldwell as the Colts' head coach -- and they have remained close since.
Caldwell, now the Detroit Lions' head coach, praised Manning on Sunday in a statement after it was reported that the quarterback is retiring from the NFL after 18 seasons between Indianapolis and Denver.
“There will never be another Peyton Manning. While his records, Super Bowls and on-the-field accomplishments speak for themselves, what impressed me most about Peyton was his quest for being the very best," Caldwell said. “He was as driven and committed as anyone I’ve ever been around. While he obviously had tremendous God-given ability, Peyton’s preparation, dedication and commitment suggested otherwise. It was unparalleled. There wasn’t a day that went by that he wasn’t working to get better. In many ways, he prepared each and every day as if he were a free-agent trying to earn a spot on an NFL roster. He was driven to be the best.
“I will forever cherish the 10 years I had with Peyton. His approach and commitment to the game made all of us who coached and played with him better. And while he expected the best from his coaches and teammates, he still held himself to the highest standard of all. That approach, combined with his physical ability, made him one of the greatest to ever play the game.”
The two settled into a routine over the decade they were together -- Caldwell understanding Manning’s encyclopedic knowledge of every pass he ever threw and Manning’s appreciation of Caldwell’s instilled discipline. Manning helped make Caldwell a better coach. Caldwell improved Manning as a quarterback.
“The discipline of having that routine really made an impact on me,” Manning said last season. “I really felt like I just sort of took a step up during the years that he was my quarterbacks coach.”
That started from one of their first meetings, when Caldwell tested Manning by watching almost every interception the quarterback had thrown prior to Caldwell’s 2002 arrival. Manning remembered the play call and the mistake on almost every one. It told Caldwell the type of quarterback he was dealing with. It also gave Manning an idea of the coach he was now going to work with.
Together they won one Super Bowl and appeared together in another with Caldwell as a head coach. And a lot of that would go back to their weekly meetings when they would present reports to each other.
“We would go in and kind of present to one another,” Caldwell told ESPN.com in 2014 during reporting for a story on Manning. “Then he’d be like: ‘OK, yeah, yeah, I see that one. It’s a strong safety cheating, so you know what I’m going to do, all right, Jim, this is what I’m going to do with that one. If they show us that one, I’m going to check to this particular protection, flood protection, and I’m going to block things up, I’m going to make number 59 MIKE and I’m going to throw a post over the head.’
“He was always trying, teams blitz ya and a lot of times guys are trying to get completions. He’s trying to go deep on you and oftentimes he would succeed. So what he would do in those situations, he’d write those things down. I can’t tell you how many times it happened but it happened enough where you knew, some guys just work and take in that information for show. This guy can utilize it.”
While they were together, Manning completed 3,325 of 4,984 passes for 38,410 yards with 288 touchdowns and 117 interceptions. They also appeared as player and coach in 17 playoff games, where Manning completed another 417 of 644 passes for 4,968 yards, 28 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. The Colts made the playoffs every year Manning and Caldwell were together except for one -- 2011, after which Caldwell was fired and Manning eventually released. Manning didn’t play that year as he recovered from neck surgery.
They remained in contact, mostly through text messaging, after Caldwell was fired by Indianapolis in 2012 and then Manning went from the Colts to Denver. They faced each other as opponents in the years after, the final time coming on Sunday Night Football last season, when the Broncos beat Detroit, 24-12.
Manning had one of his best games of his final season against the Lions, completing 31 of 42 passes for 324 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. It was Manning’s best completion percentage of the season and second-best yardage of the year.
Manning’s connection with the Lions goes beyond Caldwell. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter worked with Manning in Indianapolis and Denver. New Detroit quarterbacks coach Brian Callahan also worked with Manning in Denver.
While Manning may not have expected it with the Lions last season, he told reporters in Detroit that Cooter was a “great position coach” and “eventually, he’ll be a coordinator.” Cooter was promoted to coordinator before Week 8 of last season, and Manning looked prophetic, as quarterback Matthew Stafford became a top-10 quarterback the second half of last season.
Playing against Manning was a thrill for multiple Lions players last season as well. Cornerback Darius Slay joked that if he intercepted Manning, he was going to keep the ball and then ask him to autograph it. Other players expressed their appreciation of Manning’s career both that week and then Sunday when hearing that Manning will call it quits.