No. 20: Colts QB Peyton Manning

Could Peyton Manning top Hall of Famer Warren Moon's run-and-shoot offense? MATCHUP GALLERY ESPN.com Illustration


ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine sought a list of the 20 current players who a 20-member Pro Football Hall of Fame panel and ESPN's John Clayton believe could excel in any era of the NFL.

Or, to put a finer point on it -- when Mike Ditka looks at today's player, whom does he want lining up next to him ... or across from him?

Which of today's players did our group of Hall of Famers deem really old school?

The playing days for our 20-member Hall of Fame panel spanned the '60s (Jim Brown) to the turn of the century (John Randle).

We'll present four players a day, culminating with our top four on Friday, Jan. 27.

Use the #NFLAnyEra Twitter hashtag to get involved in the conversation or just follow along at @ESPN or on our Facebook page.


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JAMES LOFTON: He gives you the throwback to when you didn't need coaches telling you what plays to call in your ear all the time. Not only would he have called his own plays, like Johnny Unitas, but he would have come up with his own playbook. He would have gotten the guys together and said, "We're going to run these plays." Not that you take the coach totally out of the equation, but you take the coach out of the equation.


JIM BROWN: Mental toughness is the ability to perform under duress and in the last two minutes and not to fold the tent up. With two minutes left, Peyton Manning is a terror. He's as tough as they come. He has it in the last two minutes of a game, when they have to come from behind or when he has to rally his team. And [Tom] Brady has the same thing.


MIKE DITKA: Because he's a quarterback, people don't look at him as a tough guy, but he is a tough guy. He could have played in any era. I'm surprised he's No. 20. I was probably a part of that because I didn't pick him high, but you take a guy like that for granted. Great football player. He's a combination of Unitas and Bart Starr to me. Peyton's a cerebral guy, and I look at Starr as smart as anyone who played that position. He had the ability to make the throw, and that's something that Peyton has always done.


JOE NAMATH: Until this year, Peyton Manning didn't miss games. It's taken serious, serious issues with his spine and his neck to finally have him miss a game. And you know before this he's been hit, and knocked down a whole lot, and he's been sore, and he always gotten back up. That's how tough this guy is. And watching football this year without Peyton, I have to say, it's kind of like when Elvis Presley left us too early, or when Michael Jackson left us too early. He's an artist that we all love watching perform.


SONNY JURGENSEN: Peyton Manning works so hard and is so tough. Without question, he could have played for Vince Lombardi.



Heading into the 2011 season, Manning had started, including playoffs, 227 consecutive games. But when the Colts opened the season against the Bears, Indianapolis' franchise quarterback was sidelined with a neck injury that would eventually put him on the shelf for the entire season. In October, ESPN The Magazine's Seth Wickersham explained why the inability to control what was happening to his body made for an uncertain future for the four-time NFL MVP.

"The biggest unknown, of course, is whether he's finished. Manning maintains that he hasn't contemplated that prospect, but anyone who knows him knows that can't be true. He always thinks three steps ahead. And this injury has been years in the making. [Former Colts coach Tony] Dungy recently said he believes Manning first injured his neck against the Redskins in 2006, when the quarterback was twisted between two defenders. He wiggled his arm after he stood, as if it had gone numb. Neither he nor the Colts knew it until after the season, but Manning had pinched a nerve in his neck. On March 3, 2010, Manning had surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago to repair it. For a while, the pain subsided. But this spring, the pain returned. So on May 23, he was back at Northwestern as doctors shaved part of the bulging disk that had pinched the nerve."



Manning's ability to call his own plays out of no-huddle formations helped bring the game closer to the 1970s and the eras before that when quarterbacks called plays, not coaches. When I watch him play, I often think of Johnny Unitas, another Colts superstar.

CLAYTON ON MANNING'S HALL OF FAME CHANCES: Like Tom Brady, Manning should breeze into the Hall of Fame.



CLAYTON ON CHAMP BAILEY: He's putting together a career like Darrell Green, Michael Haynes and Mel Blount for his ability to match up in man coverage against receivers. Bailey is a thicker version of Darrell Green, with a little bit of Charles Woodson thrown in. Despite his age (33), he can still probably run in the 4.3s.


CLAYTON ON ANQUAN BOLDIN: Like Hines Ward, Boldin likes to knock down defenders as much as he likes catching the ball. A former college quarterback, Boldin entered the league with the knowledge of how to position his body to attract the throw from a quarterback. He knows the holes in the zone defenses and where to position himself to make life easier for a quarterback trying to spot him. What makes him so translatable is his toughness. Jon Gruden once said he'd love to put Boldin and Ward in a room and see who could have come out alive.


CLAYTON ON STEVE HUTCHINSON: When he was young, Hutchinson dominated defenders. But his smarts have allowed him to step ahead of the current group of guards and would have made him a perfect old-school type of guard. In Seattle, he played next to a possible Hall of Famer in Walter Jones. His ability to recognize what defensive linemen are expected to do before the play develops gives him an edge that works in any era. He has fought through injuries without complaining. Because of his smarts, he made every lineman around him better. He's a classic guard in the mold of the old Hog Russ Grimm. In fact, he's a little more physical than Grimm.


CLAYTON ON CHRIS JOHNSON: Johnson has the Barry Sanders-type moves that make it hard for defenders to get the right angles to contain him. He's also dangerous out of the backfield catching the ball.


CLAYTON ON WES WELKER: Like Steve Largent, Welker is able to break routes away from defenders in the middle of the field and establish himself as one of the top slot receivers in the game. His 100-plus catch seasons build an impressive resume.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN



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Additional reporting by ESPN The Magazine's Morty Ain, Louise Cornetta, Amy Parlapiano and Alyssa Roenigk.