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Peyton Manning (1)

An ebullient leader and master tactician, the league's premier passer is also unquestionably its best player. Once he gets talking, you quickly understand why

Posted: Tuesday August 28, 2007 3:29PM; Updated: Tuesday August 28, 2007 4:07PM
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September 3, 2007 SI cover.
September 3, 2007 SI cover.
Rob Tringali/Sportschrome

There is a Peyton Manning Fan Club among NFL quarterbacks, a group effusive in its praise and admiration for the Colts passer. Tom Brady dines with Manning a few times every year and considers him a good friend. "Cool guy," Brady says. Carson Palmer has driven from Cincinnati to Indianapolis, incognito, to watch him play. In Kansas City's playoff loss to Indianapolis last year, Chiefs rookie Brodie Croyle kept straying from the offensive area near the bench to get closer to the field so he could watch Manning.

Usually you can find athletes in every sport to dis a great player (off the record) for some kind of perceived fault. Not with Manning. Now that he's won a Super Bowl, he's ascended to a level at which he is practically beyond criticism. SI rates him the No. 1 player in the NFL -- big surprise there -- and the people he goes up against have no problem with that. "It's not even close," says Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "He's the best."

The question going forward just might be, Could he become the best quarterback who ever played? He's durable, having missed one play because of injury in nine seasons. At 31 he's six very good seasons away from the alltime records for passing yards and touchdowns. (Dan Marino holds those marks, though Brett Favre is on track to overtake him in both categories.) But given the NFL championships on the résumés of Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham and Joe Montana -- not to mention Brady, who could add to his three -- Manning would probably have to win another Super Bowl or two to be considered the best. Unless he puts his numbers out of sight.

His peers see him as a guileless, innovative competitor. As he enters his 10th NFL season, how does Manning see himself, and his team?

"I play because I love the game, not because it's what I'm supposed to be doing. I think as soon as I'm not excited to be driving to training camp, that's when it'll be over. You know, it's an hour-and-15-minute drive from Indy.

I loaded an oldies CD [wife] Ashley just got for me for the drive, then sent out a mass text message to all my teammates whose numbers I have, which is a large majority of them. I wrote, 'Hey boys, let's go bust our asses in camp and do this thing again.' And it was exciting to see all the responses. Booger McFarland saying, 'That's what I'm talking about.' Dwight Freeney goes, 'Hell yeah.' Dungy gave me an 'Amen.' Priceless. So I was excited to be coming up here again. I can't imagine thinking the day before camp, Golly, I wish I didn't have to go."

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