Working with and coaching Peyton Manning, the NFL's new record holder for most career touchdown passes, is an interesting experience.
Manning may know everything you know. And, he may know more than that, too. If you have too much of an ego, it might be an issue because Manning will remember everything he's seen and everything you've done.
And it's one of the most intriguing things about one of the most interesting characters the NFL has seen.
"It is very difficult to describe him unless you've worked with him," said Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell, Manning's former quarterbacks coach and head coach with Indianapolis. "You call those guys out in Denver, and I guarantee you, start talking to those guys that have worked with him.
How different? Those who have spent the most time with Manning try to explain exactly what makes Manning operate.
-- Michael Rothstein
Manning connection: Former Colts head coach
Mora knew he was looking at something special when the gangly, unassuming teenager with the legendary last name stepped into a huddle with the New Orleans Saints on a sweltering spring day in 1992. At the time, Mora was the Saints' head coach and Manning, then a junior at the city's Isidore Newman School, was just a youngster oozing with potential. Manning occasionally stopped by to watch the Saints practice in the offseason, standing on the sideline, absorbing every last morsel of information. It was an obvious perk of being the second oldest son of Archie Manning, the former Saints quarterback who worked as a broadcaster for the team and had asked Mora to let Peyton attend those sessions.
Mora figured it was best to not just let Manning learn while watching. So one day, Mora told him to jump in and run a play with NFL veterans. Even at that early stage of what would become a record-shattering career, Manning had the look of a can't-miss superstar. He jogged into the huddle casually, barked out the play the coaches had given him and fired a perfect spiral to a wide receiver, who had to be wondering why the kid was receiving such preferential treatment. "Even though he was still in high school, you knew he was going to be pretty good," Mora said.
It took Mora six years before he had the opportunity to actually benefit from the early exposure to Manning. By that point, Manning had attended enough practices with the Saints -- in high school and during his All-American college career at Tennessee -- that Mora had an invaluable feel for Manning's intangibles. That's one key reason why Mora said it wasn't even close when he became the Colts' head coach in 1998 and the team was deciding between Manning and Ryan Leaf for the first overall pick in the draft. From everything Mora knew about Manning, it was impossible to imagine a scenario where he would become an epic bust.
The Colts went 3-13 during Manning's rookie season, but his leadership sustained the Indianapolis franchise for the next 13 years before he was released and joined the Denver Broncos in 2012. "In practice, you typically rotate your focus between offense and defense, but Peyton never let anybody waste time," said Mora, who coached Manning in Indianapolis for four seasons. "When we were working on the defense, he would grab the running backs and wide receivers and throw balls to them on the side. He could never take it easy. He was always looking for some kind of edge that would help him improve."
Mora had never been around a quarterback so dogged in his pursuit of excellence -- he hadn't even seen veteran signal-callers practice as diligently as Manning did in their first season together -- and Manning hasn't disappointed since. His accomplishments include 13 Pro Bowl selections, five league Most Valuable Player awards, one Super Bowl win and the most touchdown passes in NFL history. Mora admits that he couldn't have forecast a career as prolific as Manning has produced when he was still in high school. But the former coach does know that it isn't surprising to see Manning take his game to such towering heights.
"We didn't hold him back from the first day he got to Indianapolis," Mora said. "He learned fast, and we treated him like a veteran. You can't do that if you have the wrong kind of guy. But if you have the right kind of guy, you can throw them in and never look back. Peyton was that kind of guy."
-- Jeffri Chadiha
Manning connection: Former Colts offensive coordinator
Peyton Manning developed into the play-caller he is today in a very Peyton Manning way: Surely and pragmatically, but in a hurry.
There wasn't one play that marked the beginning of Manning's theatrics at the line of scrimmage -- the "Omaha! Omaha!," gesturing and flailing arms. It was the product of his first three years in Indianapolis, learning under two offensive gurus.
Tom Moore, who was the Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator when they drafted Manning No. 1 in 1998, was the brains of the offense. But Bruce Arians, Manning's quarterback coach from 1998-2000 and now the Cardinals head coach, was the one who gave it the spark of electricity to make it work.
As a trio, they developed the scheme Manning has run throughout his 17-year career. But the offense was never stagnant. There were always layers and wrinkles being added.
"The whole thing evolved," said Moore, now 75 and the Cardinals assistant head coach. "We got into it the more [Manning] did it, the more comfortable he felt, and one of the things was we had the same system for 12 years."
As Moore continued to build up the offensive system, Manning would devour every addition. Moore said Manning studied tape of himself during the offseason and corrected issues he saw during OTAs and minicamp.
"The big thing is, sometimes, people mistake time spent for work done and that's never the case with Peyton," Moore said. "When he works, it's quality work. He's truly focused and he gets a lot done."
Moore knew Manning was going to be a special player because of his football pedigree, college coach David Cutcliffe and intangibles that complemented his talent.
At first, Moore gave Manning two or three plays to choose from at the line of scrimmage. The evolution? Moore started giving Manning ideas.
"You could see the progress he made in making the right decisions," Moore said. "The big thing with the quarterback position, I always put it in three phases: Your recall, your processing and then your application. Those three are big, and you get about one second for all of that to happen.
"He was phenomenal."
Those ideas eventually turned into concepts.
When Moore would radio a play, an idea or a concept into Manning's helmet, he tried to leave him with 30 seconds on the play clock. That was enough time for Manning to be Manning.
But it also gave Manning enough time to patiently wait out defenses and check out of plays at the last second.
"He lets that [play] clock go down right to the nth second to read body language," Moore said. "He kinda has a sixth sense about things."
Moore showed Manning how to run certain plays, taught him how to make good decisions and helped him produce 54,828 yards, 399 touchdowns, five MVPs and a Super Bowl win.
But Manning's other-worldly ability at the line of scrimmage, well, that wasn't something that came from Moore.
"I think," Moore said, "the Lord taught him that."
-- Josh Weinfuss
Manning connection: Former Colts QB coach and head coach
Jim Caldwell walked into the meeting in the Colts' offensive staff room with two sheets of paper. It was an Excel spreadsheet of more than half of the 81 interceptions Peyton Manning threw in his first four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.
Caldwell, now the Lions coach, and Tony Dungy were hired by the Colts before the 2002 season, and the quarterbacks coach wanted to test his pupil in one of their first meetings. On the spreadsheet detailed the time of the game, the down-and-distance -- everything but the actual plays.
Caldwell wanted to see Manning's recall while working through which interceptions were avoidable and which were not.
Then Manning grabbed the paper.
"He starts right from number one," Caldwell said. "Tom [Moore] was there, he was with him the entire time, so he's going down the list and he says, 'OK, yeah, yeah, I remember that one. That one, I threw a little bit late to the flat on that one. Yeah. Hey Tom, that was so and so,' and he'd recall the play number.
"Then he'd go to the next one, 'Yeah, I got double-dipped on that one, remember that one time he was going in and I threw the ball.' He went right down and there were three of them he said, 'Ehh, I'm not sure what happened but I think it was,' and he recounted it."
Caldwell took notes during the entire meeting alongside Manning, Dungy and Moore. He wrote down everything Manning said so he could see where his quarterback was spot on and where he erred.
Then they put on the tape.
"All three of those, when he said he thinks what happened, it happened," Caldwell said. "OK. That's without him having an idea what we were covering that day and yet just kind of shows you what kind of mind that he has."
Caldwell used the Manning recall often in their decade together. When the staff had a question about when they ran a play in the past, the refrain would be "Call Peyton." The staff did, and he would know.
He always knew.
"Tony Dungy has an impeccable memory as well. Mine's not too bad, right," Caldwell said. "But he is absolutely phenomenal. So we'd call and talk. Or he'd start thinking of a play, like, 'Hey, we ran this play at such-and-such a time,' or something he did back at Tennessee or something he saw in college.
"Just an unbelievable recall that's just extremely extraordinary. That's what sets him apart."
The recall came to meetings, too, and it taught Caldwell to leave ego behind. In meetings, Manning would test the coach during film sessions.
While Caldwell was showing one play, Manning would ask about the next one coming up, how the Colts would handle a look, and he waited for the answer to see if his opinion and Caldwell's matched.
"He'd wait for you to get a response to him," Caldwell said. "Then he would have gone through and analyzed that knowing number one, this is what you could do, this is the number one option, here's the number two option and here's the number three option.
"And he's got them all cataloged in his mind."
So were there any times Caldwell surprised his quarterback?
"I can't think of any," Caldwell said.
-- Michael Rothstein
Manning connection: Broncos executive vice president/general manager
Manning has history in the red zone.
Elway, formerly the Broncos' quarterback and currently their chief football decision-maker, points to what sets Manning apart inside the 20-yard line.
"To me, thing is that's impressive about him is that in the red zone, you have to throw the ball with a lot more touch, because really a lot of times you're throwing over people rather than in-between people," Elway said. "It's like that two-point play to Demaryius Thomas [to tie the game in Seattle with 18 seconds remaining in regulation in Week 3 this season]. That ball is in the one place where Demaryius can get it and nobody else can, and it's still in a place where Demaryius can make a play.
"People should understand just how difficult that throw was. From what you're seeing, the situation, the coverage and just the number of people that are in the end zone because you're down so close."
If there is anyone who can appreciate what it is for a quarterback to throw more than 500 touchdown passes, it's Elway.
Because No. 7 is still No. 7 on the league's all-time list with 300 touchdown passes in his Hall of Fame career. As the guy who believed Manning would have a post-neck surgery career, Elway looks at Manning's climb past the 500 barrier and beyond with some football reverence.
"You know, he may double me," Elway said. "In this job, I hope he gets six hundred."
Elway has worked behind center, thrown scoring passes, called audibles and worked in the tight spaces required to turn a play into a touchdown play. And when he watches Manning, he see what everyone else sees, the "Beautiful Mind" stuff, when Manning can recite plays from the 1998 season as if he just ran them.
"He gets in the red zone and he gets touchdowns because he's got great anticipation and the ability to go over the top of people, drop the ball in, into small spaces with the highest accuracy, rather than having to try to drive the ball in between defenders," Elway said.
"I didn't have the ability to go over the top like that, at least not very much. That was not my strength. I had to, and would have much rather, try to push the ball in between people, you know what I mean? That was instead of coming in over the defender. It opens up more things, but it takes a tremendously accurate throw with unbelievable touch."
Elway sees the preparation, the study, the fruits of Manning's experiences against almost any defense devised, but he also sees why Manning simply has turned opportunity into touchdowns more than anyone else.
"It's just so difficult to throw the ball down there, period," Elway said.
"And to do consistently, do it at game speed, with that kind of touch, over and over again, is so rare. He's so good at it, we just assume that's how easy it is, but I'm here to tell you it's difficult, it's rare and it's why he has so many touchdowns when so many other people would be kicking field goals."
-- Jeff Legwold
Manning connection: Broncos offensive coordinator
Asked to pick one touchdown pass for the Broncos that best exemplifies what Manning does, Gase says: "I can't pick one, there's so many, they're all examples of what he does and how he does it."
But ask again, and Gase won't point to a pass, progression or read. He will point to a handoff, or fake handoff. He will point to, in Manning's 17th season of what will be a remember-when career, a recent practice when Manning went through the footwork of a play-action dropback with the Broncos' other quarterbacks.
Step by step, time after time, with Brock Osweiler, in his third year, and Zac Dysert, a practice-squad passer in his second year, grinding through the drumbeat repetition of something Manning has done thousands of times.
"We were just working on how we were doing some different aspects of it, some footwork, handling the ball, and it's just enjoyable to coach him on a position coach level," Gase said. "It is fun just to watch how precise he is with the littlest things, the speed, the tempo, the focus. It's awesome. I say he's just a perfectionist, man.
"I always think of a quote from Bart Starr when he would quote [Vince] Lombardi, that when you're trying to achieve perfection, you'll catch excellence along the way. I feel like that's what he's really trying to do. He's trying to do everything so perfect that greatness, he gets it on the way there."
Gase has worked with some of the best in the game since he started as a student assistant at Michigan State. But working with Manning has been a new experience all together.
"I've said it from the get-go, there's been different stages of my career. Nick Saban was the first chapter of it, Mike Martz really brought me into the coaching realm, and this guy basically changed my career," Gase said. "He really did.
"The way that he's made me think about the game, I don't think I'd be able to learn from anybody else. That's weird for people to hear. Everything, every conversation we have -- run game, protections, routes, the way we practice, the constant communication -- is about how to get better."
Manning has called Gase, "Innovative, creative and aggressive, a guy who just works all the time to put us in position to succeed." But Manning, 38, has a different relationship with Gase, 36, than he has had with other offensive coordinators. Since they are chronological peers, Gase, with his trademark sarcasm in tow, gets in the quarterback's wheelhouse to give the him the business.
"I constantly remind him I'm two years younger," Gase said with a smile. "I'll let guys know in the room, hey our quarterback is 50, let's make sure he's not getting hit."
-- Jeff Legwold