Help me help you

Peyton Manning's pursuit of perfection influences his new teammates

Updated: August 25, 2012, 9:47 AM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Peyton ManningJamie Schwaberow for ESPN The MagazineBy Denver's first day of camp, Manning had mastered the Broncos playbook.

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MIKE ADAMS' EYES WIDENED. SO DID CHAMP BAILEY'S. Their minds were suddenly, simultaneously occupied by the same thought.

This ball is mine ...

The veteran safety and the Canton-bound cornerback share 23 years of NFL experience and have a combined 62 career interceptions. Adams has played for the Browns and 49ers, Bailey for the Redskins, and now they're together on the Broncos. Their assignment during this particular session of minicamp was simple -- make the afternoon of 25-year-old receiver Eric Decker as miserable as possible.

"We knew what was coming," Adams recalls. "We knew the play. We knew the route. We knew where the ball was going, and we were both there when it got there. What happened next was ... it wasn't human. It was our introduction to Peyton Manning."

As the Wilson-branded pigskin nosed above its would-be thieves, it suddenly went zing, as if equipped with a nitro boost. The ball accelerated through the hands of Adams, over the shoulder of Bailey and thwacked into Decker's gloves as he disappeared downfield. The only person more stunned than the defenders was the receiver himself.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jamie Schwaberow for ESPN The Magazine"It's like he started looking at the playbook from an airplane," says receiver Greg Orton.

"We're walking back to the sideline, and I look at Decker and he's just smiling," says Adams. "I look at Champ, and he's smiling too. I said, You ever seen anything like that? He said, 'Nope. We've got some catching up to do.'"

Welcome to the new world of the Denver Broncos. It's a place where veterans and rookies alike are becoming indoctrinated into the Manning Way. Where the urban legends of PlayStation passes and all-night film study are suddenly transforming into reality. Where an entire organization is being pushed out of its option-running, wobbly-pass-catching, plays-drawn-in-the-dirt ways and thrown into the up-at-dawn play-action, check-down, adjust-your-footwork deep end.

This just in: They love it.

"Oh, they don't need much prodding from me," says the 36-year-old surgically repaired quarterback, doing his diplomatic best. "We all want to get better. There are just different approaches to doing that. Mine just might not be the same as some other guys."

In the history of football, only three teams have had firsthand experience with Peyton Manning's methods: the Indianapolis Colts, the Tennessee Volunteers and the Isidore Newman Greenies of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association. But every player has heard the lore: his NORAD-like basement video-screening bunker, the unexpected late-night phone calls to discuss hand-signal alterations, the sideline cat-o'-nine tongue-lashings after settling for a field goal. Now the Broncos are the fourth team to see folklore become fact.

It's intimidating and exciting at the same time. To try to keep up with the future Hall of Famer is to accept the very distinct and nerve-racking possibility of failure, of not surviving the process. (In their first huddles together at camp, tight end Julius Thomas kept calling his quarterback "sir.") But history says that those who persevere will be rewarded with statistics, rings and late-winter trips to Hawaii.

"The greatest players of all time don't just play at a higher level than anyone else," says John Elway, Broncos executive VP and demigod. "They prepare at a higher level than anyone else. And no one is ever prepared better than No. 18." Then the two-time Super Bowl champion winks. "We'd all heard the stories about the work ethic. To see it for real is really something else."

The seeds were sown almost the moment Manning ended his much-hyped free agency and was officially introduced as a Bronco on March 20. After immediately moving to Denver, he set up shop at college pal Todd Helton's ranch -- though he was never there. Instead, Manning was at the team's practice facility, rehabbing his fused neck by day and immersed in the playbook by night. ("He's like another coach -- but he doesn't want to be another coach," Elway is quick to point out. "He respects the plan and is working within it, not rewriting it.") Manning organized informal workouts around the city, meeting with Broncos wideouts Decker and longtime pal Brandon Stokley at local high schools and parks to run routes and discuss head coach John Fox's run-centric offensive mindset. By the time organized team activities started in May, the old Broncos realized that their new teammate was already deeper into their playbook than they had ever been.

"It's like he started looking at the playbook from an airplane," says receiver Greg Orton. "Then from OTAs through training camp, he's just been zooming in. Now he's looking at everything through a microscope. And everyone knows that the guys who can keep up with him in the position meetings are the ones who are going to get the calls from him come game time."

That's why it behooves someone like Orton, who was on Denver's practice squad last season but has yet to catch an NFL pass, to jockey for a seat near Manning in the offensive meeting room between practices. It also explains why Orton, among others, spent the summer going through hours of Colts film -- not only to see how his new QB handled his business but to see how young players like Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon worked their way onto Manning's radar, alongside his longtime go-tos Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne and Joseph Addai.

"You want to be one of the chosen ones," says Orton. "He's so great at taking an unknown or a younger receiver and making his career blossom. The guys who earned that trust are the ones who see that he's a perfectionist and let that trickle down to you. To be as precise as possible. If you aren't precise, he'll find someone who is."

When Dallas Clark tried to earn Manning's trust as a Colts first-rounder in 2003, he got tough love in return. Clark was having a problem not uncommon for any 6'3", 252-pound tight end trying to run a speed-out sideline route: He couldn't sprint in one direction while looking back in the other. Instead of trying to talk Clark through it, the quarterback rocked and fired -- doing! -- off the back of Clark's helmet. Over and over and over again. At the time, Clark hated him for it. But he gradually learned to appreciate the process as he became more flexible and more studious to keep pace with Manning's expectations.

"It's not rude; it's just challenging you to get better," explains Stokley, who played with Manning from 2003 to 2006 and worked out with the quarterback throughout his grueling wintertime rehab at Duke. "What fans see are the pointing and the shouting on the field during a game. But what they haven't seen are all the weeks leading up to that play. His frustration comes from knowing that the guy who wasn't in the right place at the right time knows better. He knows they know better, because they've worked together on that same play a couple of hundred times in practice and in the tape room."

In Indianapolis, the Manning playbook wasn't all that complicated, truthfully. The Colts largely stuck to a handful of base formations with the same two receivers split out to the sides on every play. The only major shifts came on the inside, with movement by the slot receivers and tight ends. Past that, by Stokley's estimation, one of the most productive offenses in NFL history confounded defenses with a max of 10 passing plays and only a few runs.

Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, a former quarterback, are carefully melding those types of plays with the Broncos' run-heavy baseline that they used to some degree of success with the Panthers and last year's Kyle Orton/Tim Tebow "please just don't throw an interception" playoff run. Still, it won't be stacks and stacks of plays to choose from, but rather a few plays with a lot of variations for Manning within them. So what will be the key to moving the ball?

"That's easy," says Stokley, who at 36 is expected to be Manning's primary slot threat. "Execution. Execution. Execution. Peyton wants to shoulder the load. He'll do the hard part and decide where it's going once the ball is snapped. We just have to be where he needs us."

Throughout training camp, the morning practice sessions were played out in front of thousands of screaming fans and dozens of media members, including round-the-clock live coverage from SportsCenter and the NFL Network. But once the cameras were gone, in the film room and during evening walk-throughs, the march toward perfecting that execution actually took place.

There was this moment of Manning enlightenment, for example, on a day in late July: "Demaryius, look at me," the quarterback said to Demaryius Thomas, his 6'3", 229-pound deep threat. Manning walked out from behind center J.D. Walton and out to the wing alongside Thomas, then took the stance of a receiver, mimicking his instructions. "You don't worry about the safeties showing us anything; I've got them," Manning said. "You worry about that corner right there in front of you."

With a look to the sideline, where a nosy reporter was scribbling, Manning leaned in and quietly discussed the details of a specific physical tip-off, a "show," that the corner might let slip. With a jog back toward Walton's hindquarters, Manning left Thomas with this: "Just like we talked about in the meeting room!" Then, on the snap, the Broncos breezed through a slightly modified version of a Colts "three verticals" play, with tight end Jacob Tamme splitting the safeties from the slot while Thomas stretched his corner down the right sideline. On the other side, Decker took his man down the left while running back Willis McGahee played accomplice on a trademark Manning play-action fake. The sequence was executed to perfection.

"As soon as you get your primary route down," explains McGahee, "he comes to you and says, 'Okay, now you can break that off if you need to but only to the outside unless I tell you otherwise.' Then when you get that part down, he talks to you about footwork off the line. You get that down and it's picking up one tiny little thing he's doing with his signals at the line. I've been doing this for 10 years and he's been doing it for 15, and we're still learning. I love that."

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireManning hopes his new No. 87 (Decker) can take the same third-year leap as his old 87 (Wayne) once did.

Old dogs and new tricks are great. But the success of the Broncos offense hinges most critically on Manning's ability to elevate his unproven receivers. The Broncos have no Pro Bowl wideouts on the depth chart; only one (Stokley) has had a 1,000-yard season -- and that was in 2004. But they do have two projected starters in Decker and Thomas, who are entering their third seasons. Most players agree that year three is when the biggest mental leaps are made. The idea of playing in the NFL is no longer new. By the third training camp, the processes have become routine. The junior season is the one in which the great separate from the merely good.

"Year three is when I kind of woke up," says Wayne, Manning's last No. 1 in Indy. In his first two years, Wayne hauled in a total of 76 catches, four for TDs. In year three alone, he posted 68 and seven. "All of a sudden it was like: Man, this guy is handing me all of this knowledge. I need to start writing all this down!"

The result was a notebook with margins drenched in ink, a practice Wayne has continued every season since. When ESPN reporter Josina Anderson, assigned to follow Broncos camp, asked the Colts receiver for some insight into how his chemistry with Manning was achieved, he shipped her one of his old notebooks. Few of the notes are about big philosophies and bigger routes. Instead, they are list after list of details: head movement, footwork, eye direction and layers of verbal cues from the quarterback, both dummy and real.

"You can't handle that kind of deep football thought in your first year or even your second," says Wayne, who ended up with 68 TD receptions from Manning over 10 seasons. "The third year, you're ready to go. And more important, Peyton finally trusted me to go with him."

Manning is, of course, very aware that Thomas and Decker are beginning their third NFL seasons.

"There are different phases," the quarterback says when asked about what has essentially become his personal open-receiver tryouts. "There's a minicamp OTA sort of tempo and development. Then there's training camp. And the preseason, the regular season and then, you hope, playoffs. I'm looking forward to getting to know all these guys throughout the different phases and doing my part during each phase." When pushed about his two new young deep threats, he smiles and adds: "Yeah, I might be pushing them a bit more. But only because I see their potential. It's scary."

So is the potential for the Broncos as a whole. The coaching staff knows it. Elway knows it. And Mr. Manning certainly knows it. But life in the wacky AFC West is brutal. So is Denver's schedule, particularly the first six games, which include visits from the Steelers and Texans and trips to Atlanta and New England. And through it all, the Broncos will march on, tiny detail by tiny detail.

"If you came up here to the practice facility at dawn, you'd see two cars already in the parking lot: the guy who runs the building and Peyton Manning," says cornerback Tracy Porter, another free agent addition to the roster. "When someone loves the game as much as he does, it kind of takes over the whole team."

Porter spent the past four years in New Orleans, facing a different future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees, in practice every day. He also picked off Manning in Super Bowl XLIV, the play that iced the Saints' title. When practice started this spring, Porter quickly picked off Manning again. A few plays later, Manning burned Porter deep.

As he walked off the field, the defensive back felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the quarterback, who said: "You tell me what I did wrong on that first play and I'll tell you what you did wrong on that next play. That's the only way we're going to get better. Deal?"

Months later, Porter still shakes his head while telling the story. "Dang right, that was a deal," he says. "He wants me to be better so he can be better. And he wants to be better to help me get better. I'll follow a man like that into any game, anywhere, any way."

Not just any way. The Manning Way.

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Ryan McGee | email

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