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Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Updated: August 13, 3:21 PM ET
No two ways about it

By Tim Keown
ESPN The Magazine

Indianapolis Colts Fans
Though the Colts didn't clinch the first pick in the draft until the last game of the season, the hype surrounding Manning vs. Luck started long before.

This story appears in the Feb. 20, 2012 "Rivalry Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

HE'D BROKEN DOWN FILM a hundred different ways in a hundred different places. He'd seen so many plays from so many formations in so many situations that the sheep in his brain went in motion when he closed his eyes at night. At times he felt like a technocrat in cool workout gear, intimate with one of the NFL's dirty secrets: The quickest way to shatter the fantasy of an exotic life as a professional football player is to live the life of a backup quarterback.

Not that Jim Sorgi was an ordinary No. 2. For six years, he was Peyton Manning's backup, which meant that he was part of Peyton's World, where the hypergyrating, presnap-directing QB was both king and dictator.

In Peyton's World, no amount of preparation is ever enough. Which is why 48 hours before the Colts would meet New Orleans in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, Sorgi, at Manning's behest, sat and broke down film of the Saints.

More specifically, tape of the Saints' second preseason game.

"I knew the deal, but I was like, 'This is what I'm doing? A preseason game? Two days before the Super Bowl?' " Sorgi says. "It was tedious work, but Peyton would do anything -- find any edge -- to win."

Sorgi says the words with admiration, but the Manning-Sorgi relationship abided by a strict hierarchy. "I'd like to say I considered myself Peyton's equal, but I'd be lying," says Sorgi, now 31 and a free agent. "I probably wasn't considered competition. I was there to make him better."

Sorgi was both a good sport and a good friend. Other backup QBs are neither. In fact, the rivalry between the starting and backup quarterbacks in the NFL can be among the most vicious in sports. The idea is counterintuitive, since rivalries -- Ravens-Steelers, Federer-Nadal, Bird-Magic -- are supposed to be oppositional. Yet Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre barely spoke by the end of Favre's time with the Packers; Favre famously said that mentoring his backup/successor was not his job. Joe Montana openly ignored Steve Young. Clint Longley actually attacked Roger Staubach on the Cowboys' practice field and then packed up and went home after Staubach whipped him.

A new era of quarterback rivalries may be dawning. The Colts hold the No. 1 pick in April's draft and are expected to take Stanford's Andrew Luck. Manning, due a $28 million roster bonus on March 8, nearing his 36th birthday and coming off three neck surgeries and stem-cell therapy in the past two years, would expect to be the starter if he's still around.

Given the outbreak of sniping -- and the subsequent press release cease-fire -- between Manning and team owner Jim Irsay, what seems more likely is that the Colts will end up allowing their franchise icon to become a free agent. Irsay says it's not about money; in fact, the new collective bargaining agreement's rookie salary cap makes the Manning-Luck combination possible financially. Consider that just two years ago, when Sam Bradford received a $78 million contract ($50 million guaranteed) from the Rams as the No. 1 pick, there was no way a team could carry two huge salaries at the quarterback position. By contrast, Panthers QB Cam Newton, last year's No. 1, received a relatively paltry $22 million guaranteed.

Manning and Luck might never suit up for the same team, yet a hypothetical rivalry started long before the Colts secured the No. 1 pick. Think about it: If Manning hadn't gotten hurt, the Colts wouldn't have been so horrifically bad and therefore wouldn't be in position to draft Luck with the top pick. As it stands, the two quarterbacks coexist as archetypes -- Manning as Legend Facing Athletic Mortality, Luck as Next Big Thing. It's a story as old as time: The new guy comes in, stronger and younger, and takes aim at the aging patriarch. The old man makes a last stand, relying on his wits, years of experience and defiance to carry him through. Et tu, Brute? It's the history of sport -- and the world -- writ small.

Imagine what was going through Manning's mind this season when he looked into the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium and saw fans wearing "Suck for Luck" T-shirts. The standards he created? Shattered. The loyalty he engendered? Betrayed. After the season came mass firings in Indianapolis -- first the Polian father-son management team, then coach Jim Caldwell. Through it all, a fog of mystery surrounds Manning, the four-time MVP. Though he's been cleared to return to football, questions remain regarding how much arm strength he can regain. Through his representatives, Manning declined to speak to The Magazine, but it's clear from his infrequent public comments that he intends to focus his legendary competitiveness to prove he can return to the elite level. Could it happen with Luck, widely considered the best quarterback prospect since Manning, at his heels?

Understandably, Luck is avoiding questions about Manning, but when pressed he's saying all the right things. "Whatever role I find myself in, I'll do it to the best of my abilities," he said before receiving the Player of the Year Award at the Walter Camp dinner recently in New Haven, Conn. "If it's competing for a starting job, because nothing's given to you, I'm going to compete my butt off. If there's someone better than me who gets the job, I'll still work hard and hopefully get better over time."

The response was perfectly Luck: nimble, smooth and noncommittal. But by all accounts, Luck is uniquely built to do two things: 1) handle the circus that would greet him in Indianapolis if he inherits the job, and 2) wait and learn in Manning's shadow if need be.

An anecdote from Luck's nascent days at Stanford is instructive. Early in Luck's freshman season, Jim Harbaugh, his coaching staff and Luck met to determine whether the QB should redshirt. At one point a consensus seemed to be reached: Luck would lose his redshirt season and start the following week in place of struggling incumbent Tavita Pritchard. But then a voice of dissent rang out. The youngest man in the room said, "I think that would be handing me the job. I don't want that. I want to earn it."

It was quiet for a moment. The coaches, accustomed to the ego and entitlement issues that come with the truly gifted, strained to process what they'd just heard. Is he serious? Ultimately, Harbaugh decided to redshirt Luck, who went on to earn the most obscure award of his career: scout team player of the year. "It's all about winning and losing, not what you do personally," Luck says now.

Luck has been well-prepared for his ascension. His father, Oliver, the West Virginia athletic director, was an NFL quarterback and once backed up Archie Manning. Growing up in Houston, Andrew attended several Manning Passing Academy camps and spoke to Peyton before deciding to return to Stanford last spring. "I was shaking in my shoes talking to him," Luck told The New York Times last February. "He said something to the effect of, 'Your first year in the NFL you're going to be bad. No matter what. If you're drafted high, your team is probably going to be bad.'"

At the time, of course, Manning didn't know that that team would be the Colts. In a sense, Manning is already responsible for some of Luck's development into such a polished prospect. A longtime college coach and former NFL coordinator who has worked closely with Luck says, "I can't imagine anyone being better prepared. He's composed, he's respectful, he's a leader. He's competitive without being an a--hole. I've seen 'em all, and this kid's better than all of 'em."

Including the kid the Colts picked No. 1 out of Tennessee in '98?

"All of 'em."


Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers
The animus between Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers -- like with Steve Young and Joe Montana or Roger Staubach and Clint Longley before them -- was palpable.

ONCE A STAPLE, quarterback controversies have taken a sabbatical for a decade or so. Rarely does a true competition take place. Controversies now live in the subjunctive confined to the torrents of rage and speculation on message boards and talk radio. On the practice fields, QB controversies are mostly dead, smothered by gargantuan contracts that have monetized the position into 32 separate monarchies. Backups are now categorized: young and unproven (Chase Daniel, Colin Kaepernick); old and presumably wise (Mark Brunell, Sage Rosenfels); last-chance rehabilitation projects (Matt Leinart, Vince Young).

Could that be changing? Will the heightened awareness of the uberimportance of the QB position be enough for teams to foster competition? Under the framework of the new CBA, for instance, would the Chargers have kept both Philip Rivers and Drew Brees in 2006? It's a delicate subject. Citing various bureaucratic restrictions, several NFL personnel executives, from salary-cap specialists to GMs, declined to discuss the implications the new CBA could have on the quarterback position. But the former NFL coordinator says teams must adapt their thinking to a new reality, one more aligned with Favre-Rodgers than with Manning-Sorgi. "Teams need to prepare for the future," he says. "If you ride one guy like Peyton for a long time and then find yourself with nobody to replace him, you can be bad for a long time. And if you can have two good players at the most important position, why not?"

That is, without doubt, the most pressing question on the minds of all but a handful of NFL teams. During a January postmortem news conference with Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert, Cleveland writers started with 11 consecutive questions about the team's quarterback situation. They wanted to know whether Colt McCoy is a franchise quarterback, whether Holmgren values a quarterback competition, whether he wants to bring in a veteran through free agency and whether he's willing to use Cleveland's No. 4 pick in the draft on another quarterback.

Five years ago, it was unthinkable that a young, highly paid QB such as the Jets' Mark Sanchez would have to look over his shoulder, wondering whether his team would use early-round picks on potential replacements. But the new CBA now provides that opportunity, and the Jets' early-January turmoil was sparked by anger at Sanchez's place atop the QB pedestal. One player told the New York Daily News that Sanchez is "lazy and content because he knows he's not going to be benched."

The criticism could be distilled to a simple question: Why, in this new economic reality, should the starting quarterback be immune to competition?

The position exists as separate and unequal, exclusive of everyone and everything else. You can have two running backs, two tight ends and two safeties, but only one quarterback. The starter is paid better and dissected more thoroughly than anyone else, and yet in his declining years he's expected to "groom" or "mentor" his successor -- in effect, to accelerate his own obsolescence. Such institutional antagonism exists in almost no other profession.

"Human nature doesn't allow you to accept this," Sorgi says. "You don't want to see a replacement come in and take your job. But this isn't a job you can get at 22 and work 'til you're 65 or 70. You can figure out your shelf life."

Manning hasn't battled for playing time since his freshman year at Tennessee, and the anecdotes from Knoxville in Lew Freedman's biography Peyton Manning paint him as ruthless and calculating. Asked by another quarterback if he wanted to watch film, Manning declined, only to study tape himself. Another time, he locked a competitor out of the football facility. He was also known to keep the door ajar when he was studying film so the coaches could peek in and see him.

In one of his few public statements on Luck, Manning said, "I think I can coexist with any player." Yet in early December, his father, Archie, suggested the situation wouldn't serve either quarterback. Amid an uproar, he backed off that sentiment. If the Colts actually did have both Manning and Luck on their roster, it would create an unprecedented situation: No other high-profile quarterback controversy -- Favre-Rodgers, Montana-Young -- has featured two No. 1 overall picks. And despite the attention given to top-pick busts such as David Carr and JaMarcus Russell, quarterbacks who were chosen No. 1 in the NFL draft had won 13 Super Bowls heading into the big game this year.

Rodgers, of course, is the best comparison. He spent three years as Favre's backup before getting his chance. He now has a Super Bowl win and an MVP to show for his patience. Says Packers coach Mike McCarthy, "Rookies have the ability to learn plays but not always concepts. Are you thriving, or are you surviving? Most of the time they're just surviving."

So in the end, are two competitive, talented quarterbacks as rivals better than one? Or is the world of an NFL team safer and healthier with a clear division of labor? They're big questions, addressing the biggest of all the big positions, and the Colts are on the clock.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.