- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning played in more games, threw and completed more balls and accumulated more yards than any of the 10 most prolific passers in NFL history did during their first three seasons. Only Dan Marino passed for more touchdowns. Only Marino and fellow legend Joe Montana were more accurate than the Indianapolis Colts' young gun.

So at 25, Manning should be the perfect Gen-X quarterback, right?

Wrong.

In an era when NFL fans are enthralled by the running ability of such quarterbacks as Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, Tennessee's Steve McNair and Atlanta rookie Michael Vick, Manning is the quintessential dropback passer. He has rushed for just 251 yards in three years and has averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. McNabb (7.1 yards per carry in his career) and McNair (6.0) combined for 420 rushing yards last November alone.

And Manning won't be looking to scramble anytime soon. He sprained his right knee in Friday night's 28-21 loss to the Minnesota Vikings and will miss his team's final preseason game. He is expected to be ready for the season opener Sept. 9.

Ask NFL people about Manning and they start with his brain, not his brawn.

"Peyton's very intelligent, not much gets by him," Colts coach Jim Mora said.

Said Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen: "There are guys with stronger arms, guys who run better and even guys who see the field better, but none of them put it all together like Peyton. He overcomes his limitations. He just understands the game."

Yet, that kind of praise gets under the skin of the 6-foot-5, 230-pound All-American boy.

"I get a little tired of people saying this is the era of the mobile quarterback and that the dropback quarterback is old-fashioned," Manning said the other day after practice with a mixture of sweat and orange Gatorade glistening on his arms. "I can't run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds like Michael Vick, but I've been the first or second least-sacked quarterback the last two years. I can move around and get away from the rush a little bit. I have a good arm. I can make all the throws. I feel real good about my abilities."

Manning also is out of sync as a rock 'n' roll guy in a hip-hop world. Asked by ESPN Magazine what background music he would choose for his highlight film, Manning picked Meatloaf's "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" which was released in 1977, when Manning was in diapers and his father, Archie, was quarterbacking the New Orleans Saints.

McNabb and McNair are nice guys, but it's Manning who is known for his clean-cut, wholesome ways.

"I try to be a spokesman for the league," Manning said. "I've always had an appreciation for the history of the game. I remember one time Coach Mora was talking about [Colts Hall of Fame receiver] Raymond Berry and one of my teammates asked who he was. I'm a little unique because I grew up in the game, but I never forget the people, especially the quarterbacks, who molded the game we're playing today.

"I consider myself a student of quarterbacks. It's an honor to be mentioned with guys like Marino, Montana and [John] Elway. I sort of feel like I'm carrying the torch."

There was a time when some "experts" thought Ryan Leaf was more likely to carry that torch. There was a debate before the 1998 draft over which dropback passer the Colts should select with the No. 1 overall pick. Three years later, that debate seems ludicrous.

While Leaf San Diego took him with the second pick was a bust on and off the field with the Chargers and now is hoping to make Tampa Bay's roster as a third-stringer, Manning has gotten better every year. The Colts were an ugly 3-13 his rookie year, but during the final four games Manning twice passed for 300 yards, twice threw three touchdowns and twice posted quarterback ratings of at least 105.

"Peyton started to light up the second half of his rookie year," Colts right offensive tackle Adam Meadows said. "That gave us an opportunity to see what was ahead for us. And he came in his second year and just picked up where he had left off."

Manning threw 26 touchdowns again in 1999, but he cut his interceptions from 26 to 15 as his rating shot up from 71.2 to 90.7. The Colts won the AFC East with a 13-3 mark that included 11 straight victories. That success made last year's 10-6 wild-card season a disappointment although Manning led the league with 4,413 passing yards and 33 touchdowns.

But January has been even more dissatisfying.

Marino never won a Super Bowl despite leading Miami there in his second year, but he was never blessed with a receiver as good as the Colts' Marvin Harrison or a running back as dominant as Edgerrin James. Montana won four Super Bowls with San Francisco. Elway won a pair (and lost three more) with Denver. Fellow Gen-Xers McNair, who broke in three years before Manning, already has taken the Titans to a Super Bowl, and McNabb, who is a year behind Manning, won his playoff debut last season.

By contrast, Manning and the Colts are not only 0-2 in postseason but also blew halftime leads in both games. Manning is just 36 of 74 for 421 yards and one touchdown in the playoffs.

However, with the Super Bowl in his hometown of New Orleans next January, Manning is driven to be in the Superdome where he used to toss footballs with his brothers after their father's games as a participant, not a spectator.

"Being successful himself and having us win is so important to Peyton," Mora said.

Said Meadows: "Peyton's the hardest-working guy I've been around. He's the first one here and the last one to leave. And he expects you to work as hard as he does."

But that hard work hasn't paid major dividends when it counts. The University of Tennessee won two Citrus Bowls and a Gator Bowl with Manning but was squashed by Nebraska in the Orange Bowl his senior year. The Volunteers then won the national championship the season after Manning graduated. Indianapolis has been further in the playoffs with journeyman Jim Harbaugh at quarterback (1995) than it has with the gifted Manning.

"We're a very motivated team," Manning said. "We've put ourselves in position the last two years, but we haven't played well in the playoffs. Having the Super Bowl in New Orleans is special. It would be great to go home and play in the Super Bowl. I really want it to happen. To do that, it's up to us to play better in the playoffs."


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