By Pete Prisco
INDIANAPOLIS -- A dirt play, Peyton Manning called it, a simple, draw-it-up-on-the-fly play that we've all used at one time or another playing sandlot football.
Peyton Manning looks downfield for Brandon Stokley on the record-setting play. (AP)
It will go into the record books as a 21-year touchdown pass from Manning to Brandon Stokley, a throw that gave Manning 49 touchdown passes for the season, taking down Dan Marino's record 48. But the reality is that it was vintage Manning, truly a sign of what makes him so great.
How appropriate is it that the play that moved the Indianapolis Colts quarterback past (or is it passed?) Marino, breaking a record many thought would stand for a long, long time instead of just 20 years, came when Manning called the play on his own?
The throw got the Colts to within two, and they got the two-point conversion on a run by Edgerrin James to tie it with 56 seconds left, then won it 34-31 in overtime on a 30-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt to secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. But this day wasn't about seeding; it was about something truly special.
A crowd of 57,330 at the RCA Dome snapped off flashbulbs every time Manning made a throw near the end zone, hoping for a memento for the ages. It finally came on a play the Colts never ran in a game before, or even in a seven-on-seven drill in practice.
"It was a little bit of a dirt play," Manning said at his locker as he dressed to go celebrate with his family for the night. "It was kind of fun."
The Colts ran the same play earlier, with Manning hitting Reggie Wayne on a hitch route. On that play, Stokley ran a post-corner route, which sells the post, then breaks to the corner of the end zone.
Sensing the Chargers would play it that way again, Manning sidled over to Stokley before the play and told him to instead run the post. He then banged his left arm against his hip a couple of times, signaling for the play they had run earlier, making the Chargers think Stokley was going to the corner.
Instead, Stokley turned safety Jerry Wilson around like a spinning top, with Wilson falling to the ground thanks to the great route-running by the receiver. Manning then hit him in stride for the record-breaking score. Manning actually threw the ball well before Stokley's break, making it even more impressive since it was drawn up on the fly.
"We ran it a few times in one-on-one during practices," Stokley said. "It definitely works. We never ran it in a team atmosphere. It's kind of weird how it worked out that way. He told me to run the post and when he did, I kind of knew we'd have a chance at the touchdown."
The crowd erupted after the score, and Stokley ran to the bench with the ball, thinking he'd have a chance to keep it. Not quite. It was taken by NFL officials and will find a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Manning? You'd have thought he's just thrown touchdown No. 12 for the season instead of the record-breaker. But isn't that what we've come to expect from him? Manning wanted no part of an in-game interruption to honor his record, but more than that, he said he wanted the two-point play, and that was his focus -- the way it should be.
A failure there would mean a record but probably no victory. That's not Manning's style. So he quieted the crowd, ran the successful two-point play, then jogged to the sideline as the crowd roared and his teammates mobbed him. When the Colts won it in overtime, extending their winning streak to eight games and upping their record to 12-3, Manning could finally enjoy his accomplishment.
Well, sort of.
Manning has pushed aside all talk of his achievement during this run. He has made it a team thing, which is what you'd expect him to do. Still, as he stood at his locker, long after most of his teammates had showered and left, Manning was asked if he would finally take time to enjoy it. Maybe a beer or champagne toast with his family over a big, thick steak?
Manning, as usual, danced around the question. He said something about not feeling as good since brother Eli's New York Giants team had lost. He also talked again about how it was more about team then him, about how it was good to play a close game.
And then, he let his guard down some, and admitted it was special.
"It will make for a fun evening," Manning said. "If we wouldn't have won the game, it really wouldn't have been that special. It would have been a downer."
Manning started slowly as the Chargers jumped to a 24-9 lead. Manning completed 12 of 19 for 141 yards in the first half, but he was picked off once and seemed to be off a bit. San Diego's 3-4 defense, with a lot of switching of coverages in the secondary, seemed to slow the Colts, much as the Ravens did in the first half last week.
Eventually, Manning and offensive coordinator Tom Moore figured it out. Early on, the Colts used a lot of two tight-end formations, but they switched to mostly three-receiver sets in the second half. That meant Stokley on the field along with Wayne and Marvin Harrison.
The biggest throw Manning made on the day came on the drive leading to the record-breaker, bigger because without it, he doesn't get the record. It came on a fourth-and-4 with Indy at its own 26. The Colts almost sent the punt team on, but coach Tony Dungy decided against it, although it sure looked like Manning's waving the punt team away had some influence.
Both Manning and Dungy said the decision to go for it was made before Manning's wave off. Whoever made the call, it proved to be he right one when Manning hit Wayne for a 19-yard completion at the two-minute warning.
Five plays later, Stokley was carrying the ball off the field, a keepsake for the ages.
"I don't know who got away with it," Stokley said. "Somebody came and took it."
Manning finished 27-of-44 for 383 yards and two touchdowns, the first coming on a 3-yard shovel pass to James Mungro, which tied Marino.
A shovel pass wouldn't have been right for the record-breaker, would it? A dart throw before the receiver even breaks his route was the right way for Manning to take it down, the way he has put up so many this season.
But even this was special for a different reason. Manning made it that way when he pulled Stokley aside and changed the route, going back to his roots as a kid playing in the backyard throwing to his brother, Cooper. Only now this dirt play won't soon be erased by water or anything else, its place in history protected until the next big-time passer tries to take it down.