Peyton Manning's offseason rituals
Five-time MVP's dogged pursuit of excellence hasn't waned in career twilight
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos dug out from the wreckage of a blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, after they wrestled with all of the emotion of a globally televised beatdown, they were left with an unnerving thought.
How do you improve a five-time MVP quarterback who just piloted the highest-scoring offense in NFL history and threw for more yards and touchdowns in a single season than any peer or predecessor? What do you say to a player who went from career-threatening spinal fusion surgery to within striking distance of nearly every significant career passing record in a span of 28 months?
How do you reboot the game of a legendary competitor coming off the most epic disappointment of his career?
This is how:
You dissect every piece of the 2013 season to see what worked, what didn't work and where the good and bad decisions were made. You prepare to win the last game of the 2014 season and watch Peyton Manning hoist the Lombardi trophy under a sea of orange and blue confetti.
"The first day back in the building, we watched the Super Bowl," said Broncos quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. "I told him the day after the game we were going to watch it when he came back, not right then, but the first day he was back, and we were going to watch it without the emotion of what just happened. And that was step one."
It is yet another cloudless lunch hour on the Front Range, and to the ground-shaking soundtrack of jackhammers carving space for the $35 million makeover of the Denver Broncos complex, two players remain after workouts on the manicured, soon-to-be-watered grass practice field.
Organized team activities have concluded for the day, but unsurprisingly, Peyton Manning is sticking around to tutor a teammate. Newly signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders sprints upfield, makes cuts, jogs back and does it again. It's just one play in the team's vast playbook, and the acclimation process is making his head spin.
Manning is right in his element helping Sanders get up to speed. Staying late and doing all the little things that, Manning says, "can get away from you if you don't stay on it'' is standard operating procedure for No. 18. Many players tire of these details as years go by, but those who know Manning say they're every bit as important to him as the desire to play on game day.
"As soon as I don't want to keep Emmanuel after [practice], go over some signals and some plays, I feel like that's probably the end," Manning said. "You've probably got to get out at that point."
Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase sees Sanders listening and nodding as Manning carves the air with his hands to show his new teammate where to make the best move. Gase hears Manning explain to Sanders how a variety of defenders will react to each action. Gase watches them run the play, run it again, and again, and again.
"People ask all the time how you get past last year, the Super Bowl," Gase said. "They're going to ask him all year. But this is it. This is him. Nobody around -- just back at it."
Opening the wounds of the Super Bowl was only the first step of a complete deconstruction of the previous season -- a pass-by-pass analysis by Manning of Manning. For one of the most meticulous minds in the game, it was the beginning of weeks and months spent breaking down not an opposing defense, but himself.
Manning judged his decisions, footwork and throwing motion one pass at a time. He did so not from the overconfident perspective of a player who has done nearly everything that can be done in the game, but rather as someone still unafraid to uncover his own mistakes.
Manning put himself under the microscope.
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"If you ever feel like that's not important -- like, 'Hey, I don't need to watch last season; I know what we did; I know what I did wrong' -- no, you don't know," Manning said. "You need to watch it. Watch the bad plays. It's not fun to watch bad plays, to sit there and say, 'That's a bad decision' and 'That's a really bad decision' and 'Horrible read.' ... No matter how old you are, you need to go into that prepared to be constructively criticized and learn how to grow out of the mistakes every year."
Manning did his customary review of each pass he threw -- 659 in the regular season and 128 more in the playoffs. He assessed the call, the intended progression and the defense, ultimately determining whether the on-field decision was correct. Manning, it seems, never stops uploading data onto the crowded hard drive between his ears. "Sometimes I can't remember if I checked a door at my house to see if it's locked or not," he said. "But I can remember a seam route to Marvin Harrison in 1999."
All quarterbacks review plays with their coaches in some fashion. The best ones really dig in. But few, if any, dive in and comprehensively nitpick their body of work to the extent that Manning does. Although he will undoubtedly enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot someday, he remains willing to tear his performance down to the bare roots.
Earlier in Manning's career, he had a state-of-the-art digital video system installed in his home so he could study film at any time, whether in season or during the offseason. He still has these electronic conveniences in his Colorado home, but now he has gone mobile as well. With iPad in hand, he can study plays as soon as the Broncos' video crew delivers the cutups he requested.
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The tablet is his constant companion, tucked under his arm through the day, whether he's at his locker, sitting in the cold tub or getting treatment. When he strolls to his car at day's end, it rides in his ever-present backpack.
"With that, you can really take a quick look at something, almost as soon as you think about it," Manning said. "With the new system ... the guys put it together, and you can dial up anything."
Broncos staffers divided clips into categories for Manning this offseason. He scrutinized touchdown passes in one grouping and interceptions in another. Manning met in the mornings with Knapp to review plays and, when necessary, find equilibrium between what he should have done and what he actually did.
"He will always say if he thought he could have done something differently," said Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos' leading receiver each of the past two seasons. "He's not afraid to just say it. ... When guys see somebody like Peyton so accountable, you have to be accountable. You can't help it. He's Peyton doing that -- how are you going to just duck your head and not admit what you did?"
Manning evaluated an additional set of plays this spring, one he called the "missed touchdowns tape." Even after throwing 55 touchdown passes, Manning was intent on finding the ones that got away. These plays included dropped balls, missed routes and assignments, imperfect throws and overlooked open receivers.
"That's one he wanted to see. He had a good idea that we should put that together," Knapp said. "But he's a very fair evaluator. ... He'll be the first one in a meeting with the group to say, 'That was my mistake.' He's not one to cover up if he did something. If he feels like it was the right decision, he'll let that be known, too. But that only works because of the way he works and what he knows."
Said Gase, "I'm not sure there has ever been a lot of guys who have done as much as he has who look at things harder. He's not afraid to dig at it."
One final collection of plays comprises mistakes that Manning got away with -- throws that should have been interceptions.
"That one, that's actually a humbling tape there -- guy drops one in his hands, you make a horrible decision somewhere," Manning said. "You have to be self-critical in there. I think what you can't do, you can't make it all bad. You look at things and, 'Hey, that's a good play, let's keep doing that.' You can't make it all bad, all mistakes, or you come out of there, golly, just beating yourself up."
Now that Manning is nudging toward 40, with four neck surgeries in the rearview mirror, there is the ongoing question of how much longer he will play. Manning has always characterized it as a "year-to-year deal" -- that at the end of each season he will evaluate not only his physical health, but also his willingness to plunge back into the painstaking film review, his willingness to stay plugged in, to push himself and prod for more. After all of the years of film he has scanned, he will gauge his desire to keep searching for something better.
"I do think you've got to be stimulated at this point in your career if you're going to keep competing at the level you want to," Manning said. "But a new receiver, new players, that keeps you engaged, and you've got Adam, who's an innovative coordinator and has got new ideas. You better be into it."
Broncos receivers say Manning had a little more on the fastball this offseason, something doctors told Manning would be possible as nerves in his right arm continue to heal after the fusion surgery.
So with workers watching from atop the steel roof of the Broncos' new indoor practice complex as a crane slowly lifted another piece of the structure, Sanders dug his right foot into the ground, a paper-cut-sharp movement to put him in the precise spot where Manning wanted him. The ball arrived as soon as Sanders looked to find it.
That was the one both players wanted.
With a nod, they called it a day and walked back to the locker room, even as Manning's hands were still slicing air to draw the equation of ball, defender and receiver.
"It's wide receiver heaven," Sanders said. "But it's not free. You walk in the door, you know that. With everything [Manning] has done, he could probably back off and still be great. But you see him work, especially at all the little things, and you understand how hard he looks at himself."
How long can the Broncos expect the Manning era to last? The answer, like so much of Manning's success, lies in the process.
"You like seeing something you worked on now, in May and June, pay off in a game," Manning said. "It's worth it, that extra time. The guy runs the route just the way you talked about, and you get a big play. Those are the things that keep you engaged.
"And I feel like when I don't want to do those things, that's when I'll know."