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Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Running doesn't run in the family

By Ryan McGee
ESPN The Magazine

The quarterback has dropped back 10 ... no ... 15 yards and yet the pocket continues to collapse all the way back with him and around him. A half-dozen Dallas Cowboys defenders are in chaotic pursuit. The quarterback cocks his arm to fire downfield, but sensing pressure, he tucks the ball and takes off up the middle. He dodges two would-be tacklers with a left-right cross-step at midfield. He breaks another tackle just past the original line of scrimmage. Then, with a burst of speed and a headfirst dive through the shoulders of a waiting defensive back, he plunges over the goal line.

It's gotta be RG III, right? Cam Newton? Colin Kaepernick? Nope. In fact, it's not even Michael Vick, Steve Young or Randall Cunningham.

No, this is footage of Archie Manning.

In 1971.

"I kind of laugh when I hear people talk about these dual-threat quarterbacks as this new thing," Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood said earlier this year, laughing. "I chased Archie for a decade, half my brain thinking I should go for the tackle, but the other half worried about him going deep. So yeah, these kids, pro and college, even if they don't realize it, they're following in Archie's footsteps."

Manning
Peyton, Archie and Eli team up during the offseason at the Manning Passing Academy.

It's a zig-zag path. But the list of those who are choosing to run along this scrambling, throwing road continues to increase with each passing football season. They break records, they win Heismans, and they change old-school NFL mindsets -- from the way offenses are designed to the rethinking of once-ironclad maxims, such as "Thou shalt not start a rookie quarterback ... or thou shalt at least not expect to make the playoffs with him at the helm."

However, there are two names conspicuously absent from the list of arm-plus-legs Archie Manning emulators. That would be the two Super Bowl winners who also happen to bear his last name, subjects of the ESPN Films documentary "The Book of Manning," premiering Tuesday on ESPN (8 p.m. ET). Eli and Peyton Manning have made careers out of being classic drop-back passers, letting their backfield teammates do the running and scrambling only out of necessity or deception.

During those rare runs, the imagery is nowhere near the fluid beauty of watching Archie. Instead, it makes one wonder if the DVR is stuck on half-speed playback.

"What are you talking about?" Peyton says when asked about his running skills versus Dad's. "Clearly you've never watched the film. Sometimes I have to clear up for people, no, that's not Payton with an 'a,' that's Peyton with an 'e'."

He's joking. Like really, really joking.

Peyton has thrown for more than 60,000 yards. Eli is two good games away from cracking 33,000. But in their combined NFL seasons, the brothers have totaled 1,140 yards rushing. Through Week 3 of the 2013 season, they've racked up 15 yards on the ground, Eli with 22, Peyton with minus-7.

Archie ran for 2,197 yards over 13 years, though he was a full-season starter for only 10 of those seasons. And, in another completely opposite world to his sons, those years were spent with some of the worst teams in NFL history, primarily the legendarily bad New Orleans 'Aints of the 1970s.

During his legendarily good college years at Ole Miss, Archie ran by design, as Jon Vaught's sprint-out quarterback system gave the elder Manning nearly unprecedented creative freedom. Indeed, some of the highlights of his College Football Hall of Fame career look like busted-plays-turned-good, with Archie often scrambling backward 20-30 yards and reversing his field. If the uniform colors were changed, one would swear they were watching modern film of Johnny Manziel. Last season, when Manziel broke the SEC record for total offense in a single game, it was Archie's mark, set against Alabama way back in 1969, that he surpassed.

Archie Manning
On terrible Saints teams, Archie Manning ran more for self-preservation than by design.

When Manning was taken second overall by the lowly Saints in the '71 draft, he was forced to adapt to a more traditional drop-back pro style of play. At least, that was the plan.

"Yeah, that was the plan," Archie recalled with a chuckle during the production of "Book of Manning." "I wasn't supposed to run as much as I did in the NFL. But it turned out that all that scrambling I had done in college became necessary in the NFL. It wasn't by design. It was because I was running for my life!"

During his 10-plus seasons in New Orleans, Manning was officially sacked 340 times. That number could have been much higher, but players throughout the pre-free agency league knew that Manning was stuck in sub-.500 football purgatory and often let off the gas instead of flattening the exhausted quarterback, his tear-away jersey routinely hanging in tatters from his shoulder pads.

"That's how much everyone respected Archie," said Youngblood. "There was no reason to make it worse on the guy. We all watched him get beat up on a weekly basis."

That did not include the Manning boys. Eldest son Cooper was born in 1974. Peyton followed two years later, Eli five years after that. The boys went to practices, hung out in the NFL locker rooms, and went to games in New Orleans, but for the most part they were spared the images of seeing their father being run over by yet another defensive lineman again and again and again.

"I never had a full appreciation for how tough losing is," Cooper explains in the film, recalling growing up in the French Quarter while his father became one of only a handful of players to compete in the NFL for 10-plus years without a single playoff appearance. "Dad never brought that home. I never knew if we'd won or lost."

Manning Boys
Peyton, Eli and older brother Cooper were on hand to see their dad's number retired by Ole Miss.

Perhaps if the boys had known about Archie's painful life in pro football, they would've soured on the game. Instead, they grew up in the backyard almost constantly dressed out in shoulder pads and plastic helmets. As they started becoming genuine players -- Peyton and Eli as quarterbacks and Cooper as a college-bound wide receiver -- they were taught five-step, drop-back, look-downfield football.

"That's what they learned because that's what football was then," Archie explained over the summer. "I guess if they were coming along now, they would have developed this dual-threat style. But there's a part of me that's thankful they came along when they did. I got beat up pretty good, you know. Have you seen me walking around on these legs now?"

Yes, we have. We have also seen what the boys look like walking on their legs. The gait is so familiar, shoulders rolled back, chest out, ball often carried on the hip. It's all Archie. And here's the great secret about those sons. Though they don't run often, when they do they make it count. Peyton has rushed for 17 touchdowns (though none since 2008) and Eli has added another four. No, that's not much. But most of those dashes have come via morale-crushing bootlegs.

"Those few times when they do take off, you see Archie," says Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, who coached both Peyton and Eli in college and still serves as their QB sensei, routinely hosting the brothers in Durham, N.C., for workouts and reviewing "Uncle Rico" video clips sent by the boys to review their throwing mechanics. "When Archie would get all twisted up, scrambling with his back turned to the line of scrimmage, he was able to work his way back into the play because he had such a great sense of the field, where everything and everybody was at all times. Eli and Peyton have that same sixth sense. When they do run, they maximize what they get because they know where the defenders are, the lanes, the first-down marker. That running DNA is definitely still down in there. They've just always chosen their spots."

That's the philosophy they now teach at the Manning Passing Academy each summer. When it comes to running, choose your spots. Though as more and more dual-threat kids start coming through Thibodaux, La., choosing those spots doesn't have to be as, well, spotty as it once was.

"The level of athleticism you see coming through camp now is just amazing," Archie observed this summer. "These high school kids now are just off the charts. But we tell them what I told my boys and what I was told when I came along: Play to your strengths and play to what the game gives you. Sometimes that's running. Sometimes that's throwing. Sometimes it's both. The game of football is always changing."

But in the case of Archie Manning, it's changing, finally, into what he was doing with the quarterback position more than four decades ago. It's classic "past as prologue." The perfect prologue to "The Book of Manning."