- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- No matter what the question is or who is giving the answer, it always comes back to Peyton Manning's brain.
Back to pro football’s beautiful mind as it were. And with Manning off to the kind of statistical start that brings only shrugged shoulders and nervous laughs because of the ridiculousness of the mountain of numbers, it has all, again, come back to the brain.
Maybe it's because Manning dialed up Milt Plum’s jersey number just seconds after being asked about tying a record held by Plum. Or the fact that he can describe, down-by-down, drives from Tennessee-Florida games played 16 or 17 years ago. When describing how Manning plays the game, the discussion always starts with how he thinks through the game.
And that is a worthy starting point. Rams coach Jeff Fisher has described Manning's mind as “a database," admiring that Manning "didn’t just study what you did this year, but he studied what you did for years to see how you got to what you’re doing this year.’’
Certainly Manning’s ability to not only collect information, but to retain and use it so quickly at the line of scrimmage separates him from most who have ever played the position. His teammates, his peers behind center, those who have faced him, and those who have coached him all speak of Manning’s mind.
Essentially it’s like football Google.
But Manning's mind isn’t the whole story -- it can’t be. After so many discussions about defending Manning with many longtime defensive coaches around the league, as well as those who worked alongside Manning,there are some other things that may be as important.
Like his drive. No one can study as hard as Manning does without being driven to do so. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio speaks of watching Manning walk directly from the quarterback’s introductory news conference with the Broncos in March of 2012 -- “where he just held up a jersey’’ -- and into a meeting room to watch video. Or how he catered meals into the Broncos facility throughout that first offseason because he was in what he called “a crash course’’ to learn the team’s offense in a new place for the first time since his rookie year in 1998.
Or when Broncos Ring of Famer Rod Smith, who had been brought in by coach John Fox to speak to the players about striving for more, once asked Manning in a team meeting if he was ever the only one in the building and Manning’s reply was simply “yes.’’ Smith looked at everybody else in the room, according to those who were there, with an expression that said "see?''
It’s what Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway wanted when he signed Manning. Sure, Elway wanted the brain, the arm and the cachet that comes with a quarterback like Manning, but he also wanted the drive -- “a guy like that raises all boats.’’ Elway has said he wanted the constant pushing, when Manning runs every practice play in June like the Super Bowl or quizzes players on the spot about their responsibilities on specific plays. And after they answer, even if they’re right, he often asks, “Are you sure?’’
And there are the physical gifts, which are often lost in the discussions about the mind. Or as Lions coach Jim Schwartz has put it, “I think people forget sometimes how big he is.’’ At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Manning is one of the biggest starters at the position. He plays with a strong base, nearly flawless fundamentals drilled into muscle memory by years of work -- he still does the same footwork drills he did at Tennessee -- and with the toughness of a guy who didn’t miss a game for 13 years until he missed the 2011 season after multiple neck surgeries.
It’s all there for those trying to beat him, and even if they win a play, a drive or even a game, they know Manning is taking notes and will almost certainly, without fail, remember why.
6dEric D. Williams