There is a Peyton Manning Fan Club among NFL quarterbacks, a group effusive in its praise and admiration for the Colts passer. Tom Brady dines with Manning a few times every year and considers him a good friend. "Cool guy," Brady says. Carson Palmer has driven from Cincinnati to Indianapolis, incognito, to watch him play. In Kansas City's playoff loss to Indianapolis last year, Chiefs rookie Brodie Croyle kept straying from the offensive area near the bench to get closer to the field so he could watch Manning.
Usually you can find athletes in every sport to dis a great player (off the record) for some kind of perceived fault. Not with Manning. Now that he's won a Super Bowl, he's ascended to a level at which he is practically beyond criticism. SI rates him the No. 1 player in the NFL -- big surprise there -- and the people he goes up against have no problem with that. "It's not even close," says Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "He's the best."
The question going forward just might be, Could he become the best quarterback who ever played? He's durable, having missed one play
because of injury in nine seasons. At 31 he's six very good seasons away from the alltime records for passing yards and touchdowns. (Dan Marino holds those marks, though Brett Favre is on track to overtake him in both categories.) But given the NFL championships on the résumés of Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham and Joe Montana -- not to mention Brady, who could add to his three -- Manning would probably have to win another Super Bowl or two to be considered the best. Unless he puts his numbers out of sight.
His peers see him as a guileless, innovative competitor. As he enters his 10th NFL season, how does Manning see himself, and his team?
"I play because I love the game, not because it's what I'm supposed to be doing. I think as soon as I'm not excited to be driving to training camp, that's when it'll be over. You know, it's an hour-and-15-minute drive from Indy.
I loaded an oldies CD [wife] Ashley just got for me for the drive, then sent out a mass text message to all my teammates whose numbers I have, which is a large majority of them. I wrote, 'Hey boys, let's go bust our asses in camp and do this thing again.' And it was exciting to see all the responses. Booger McFarland saying, 'That's what I'm talking about.' Dwight Freeney goes, 'Hell yeah.' Dungy gave me an 'Amen.' Priceless. So I was excited to be coming up here again. I can't imagine thinking the day before camp, Golly, I wish I didn't have to go."
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</td></tr></tbody></table>" I always worry about the teammate that comes up and asks me for an autograph. You don't really want that. I'm like, 'Oh, this is for your brother?' And they're like, 'No, no, it's for me.' And I'm, 'Man, I need you to block for me. I don't need you to look up to me. You need to be my equal.' "
"You like to have some guys on your offense who really bother a defense, some pain-in-the-*** guys. That's what Bill Belichick always called [wide receiver] Brandon Stokley. That's what [tight end] Dallas Clark is. Last year Clark gets hurt against the Eagles, and I hear the dreaded 'ACL' on the sideline. I'm throwing my hat down and saying, 'That's pretty much going to do it for us.' We can win some games, but they're doubling Marvin [Harrison] already, daring us to beat them with someone else. Dallas rehabs his *** off, and he gets back for the Dolphins game at the end of the regular season to get the rust off and against Baltimore and New England plays like an absolute madman. I mean, against New England in the AFC Championship Game, he was the key to that comeback, those plays down the middle. Being a pain in the *** means making the defense declare what it's going to do. If you put your linebacker on him and have your good run defense, then you have pass-defense problems. If you put your nickelback on him, that's probably your third-best cover guy, and then what do you do with the extra receiver?"
"I'm just a football meathead. I did Saturday Night Live
just to have fun. I'm a lot more nervous for a game. On Saturday Night Live
the people who are nervous are trying to get Alec Baldwin to put them in his TV show. But preparing for Saturday Night Live
was like preparing for a football game. I told them I wanted it to be funny. I went up there on a Monday. It's the same as a football week: Monday and Tuesday you put the plan in; Wednesday, Thursday and Friday you practice, although you only do each script the one time. The nervous thing is on Wednesday, you sit around with the whole crew, cast, cameras and makeup. They give you a stack of scripts and about 30 minutes to read all 40 of them on your own. Then Lorne Michaels reads the scene, and you have to do the reading. There's nothing about character or whatever, and you sound like a moron in front of these people. That's when they decide what's funny and what's not."
"I'd like to do one of those reality-TV shows on the ultimate debate -- what is the toughest job in sports? You'd put a pitcher in there, a golfer, a basketball player, a tennis player, a hockey player, a football player. I wouldn't have to be the football representative. I'd probably put Brett Favre in there, but I'd write his material. And I would say you can't compare anything to quarterback. A pitcher has no time factor, no hurry. He doesn't like the call from the catcher, he steps off, doesn't waste a timeout. I haven't found one job that really compares to what the quarterback has to go through. You take all those things: time, weather, noise and then you get to dealing with the rush, dealing with the speed. And you truly have the game in your hands."
"I constantly think about teams stealing our signals. I know New England films me when we're up there. I know Mike Shanahan has tried. I tell our backup quarterbacks in the preseason, 'Don't signal the receivers. If the guy doesn't know the route, bring him over and tell him.' I try to change mine up and mix it up, especially when we play teams with guy who've left here."
"The best players I've played against -- the Zach Thomases, the Ray Lewises -- they play their instincts. I can't tell you how many times against Zach Thomas I've had third-and-five, third-and-seven, and he's going, 'Watch the screen, watch the screen,' and I call time because we got a screen called. But he's just playing his instincts or tendencies. We played Oakland a few years ago, and after the game [linebacker] Greg Biekert said they had our signals. Well, in the first half, I think we had 375 yards of offense, and in the second half we had some turnovers and Rich Gannon got on fire, so Biekert looks like a hero. I said, 'What'd you do, save the stolen signals for the second half?' When you win, you say what you want; when you lose...."
"At the Pro Bowl, Belichick and I had a beer at the pool one day. We talked for a few hours and somebody said, 'All they're doing is telling a bunch of lies to each other.' There's some truth to that. But when we were stretching for practice one morning, we were kind of waiting to see who was going to break the ice first, and he came up to me and said, 'Now, that third-and-two in the championship game when you ran the ball, were y'all going to go for it on fourth down?' And I said, 'Look, on the sideline Tony [Dungy] basically said, 'Don't make me have to decide.' So after that, it was like, 'You asked one, now I have a couple for you.' "
"My first question to him? I went back to my rookie year, 1998, against the Jets. We went 3-13, and he's coaching under Parcells and they go 12-4. We beat them at home, my biggest win at the time. We stunk. We had a fourth-and-14 where they were going to blitz like crazy. Our left guard false-starts, but the ball is snapped and you see [the blitz], so we come back and go max protection, thinking they would blitz, and he drops eight [defenders into coverage]. I'm doing what my coach told me -- you know, dump it down to your back. So I throw a four-yard pass to Marshall Faulk on fourth-and-19. He gets the first down, and we go on to beat them. I asked Belichick if he remembered that play. Oh, he remembered. 'Damned Mo Lewis missed the tackle.' Unbelievable. We ended up going to dinner. I had an enjoyable week just talking football with the guy."
"If I could play one game for any coach besides Tony Dungy in football history, I'd probably pick Bill Walsh. God rest his soul. So many coaches were influenced by him. It'd be interesting to be in meetings with him. He said, 'If you're not going to coach it right, get off my staff. If you're not going to run it right, get off my team.' I'd say Walsh and, just for fun, Hank Stram. He had the most priceless NFL Films clip of all time, from the Super Bowl, when he said, 'The ol' coach called that one! The ol' coach called that one!'?"
"I called Tom Brady before the Super Bowl. I said, 'Give me a tip on what to do about the postgame party.' You know, win or lose, there's a party. The Colts had a party, and they give you nine tickets. I mean, how do you pick nine people? You don't even get past your family and your in-laws. Brady said, 'Call the hotel and get a room, and have a party win or lose. With your people.' And he always had a great one. [Colts owner Jim] Irsay had the ballrooms, so we called the hotel restaurant, and I said, Let's blow it out, win or lose. We go back to the hotel and I stop by Irsay's party, and then I go to our deal and we had about 100 people there -- friends, family, Kenny Chesney sang, we had a band. Went to bed around six."
"The most sincere voice mail I got after the Super Bowl was from Dan Marino. He did the coin toss that day, and he said it was an honor to be on the field with me. I'll remember that for a long time."
"Once you win, you don't want to quit; you want to win another one. So you have that same hunger, for sure. At least I do. I know I do."