- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

Peyton Manning used to be too good to be true.

He was NFL royalty, the clean-cut, well-mannered, good-looking, intelligent son of Archie Manning, a southern quarterback legend who led Ole Miss to prominence and tried his best to do the same for the New Orleans Saints.

Archie's son appeared on a similar but more successful path after he led the University of Tennessee to a 39-6 record as a starter, graduated cum laude and became the first pick of the 1998 draft. In his first year he set rookie records for touchdown passes, completions and passing yards. The next season, Manning led Indianapolis 3-13 in 1998 to a 13-3 record, the best one-season turnaround in NFL history, and started in the Pro Bowl. Manning went back to Hawaii in 2000 after taking the Colts to the playoffs again.

Manning was the prototypical quarterback the anti-Ryan Leaf who got to the training facility early to view game film, worked hard and earned the respect of his teammates as well as the community.

But that all changed last season.

Manning was on top of the world when the 2001 season started. He had a 13-9 touchdowns-interceptions ratio, and Indianapolis was 4-3 heading into a showdown with Miami for the AFC East lead. But the Colts lost that game and then six of their final eight. Manning's TDs-INTs ratio crashed to 13-14, and he shockingly traded caustic barbs through the media with coach Jim Mora, whom he had known since childhood.

Manning's golden boy image became tarnished, and questions arose.

Did he have what it takes to lead a team to a title? Did he have true leadership skills? Which was the real Peyton Manning the 1999 and 2000 version or the one who played the last half of the 2001 season?

Things are different in Indianapolis these days and, the Colts' fans hope, better.

Mora is gone, replaced by Tony Dungy, who turned Tampa Bay from laughingstock to playoff perennial. The Colts are leading the new AFC South at 4-2 thanks to victories over lowly Cincinnati and Houston, but all's not back to normal for Manning. His 86.2 passer rating is just ninth in the conference, and his forced interception just before halftime of Monday's 28-10 loss at Pittsburgh was typical of a struggling rookie rather than a polished veteran.

With scoring up in the NFL, the Colts are averaging just 20 points, 10 off their usual output in 1999 and 2000, and have lost 13 turnovers, half a season's worth back then. Manning has been sacked 11 times, just six shy of the season average of the playoff years, going into tomorrow night's game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.

"We were 4-1 going into Pittsburgh and everybody was feeling pretty good, but you get beat and all of a sudden everybody has that sick feeling," said Manning, who passed for 304 yards but was picked off three times while throwing just one touchdown pass. "I am hard on myself. I want to play well. It's fun to throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns, but it's more important to win. It's definitely tougher than it used to be. We don't sneak up on teams anymore. Teams game plan for us harder, try to give us different looks that they haven't shown the previous week. It's a respect factor, but it makes it hard."

Despite his subpar start, Manning is still on pace for a record fourth straight 4,000-yard season, and his 121 touchdown passes in his first 70 games rank fourth all-time. But it's not only Manning's talent that has earned him the respect he discussed.

Redskins defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, who faced Manning twice a year the past four seasons while with Miami, said it's a pleasure playing such a fierce competitor. Center Larry Moore, who left Indianapolis for Washington this year, said Manning succeeds because of a relentless work ethic that rivals that of his coaches.

"Peyton's probably the hardest-working guy I've been around that had great ability," agreed Dungy, a teammate of Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw and an assistant coach when Warren Moon was the quarterback in Minnesota. "Peyton has rare talent, but he chooses to push himself like a guy who's not that talented. That's why he's a really special player."

Although the defense is young and his offense has just four starters over 27, Manning feels time slipping away at 26. Manning, receiver Marvin Harrison and halfback Edgerrin James are often compared to Dallas' 1990s triumvirate of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith, but that group won a playoff game in its second season together and Super Bowls the next two years. This is Year 4 for the Indianapolis trio.

"The clock is ticking," Manning said. "With free agency and injuries, you don't know how long you're going to play with the same guys, so we want to make something happen this year. In his first meeting with us, Tony told us that he's not here to rebuild or to help us win two or three years from now. That got players excited. Tony has a proven formula that worked in Tampa. Hopefully, we can get over the top with Tony at the helm."

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