The story actually starts in Hawaii, at the Pro Bowl last year.
"I started to experience swelling in my knee at the Pro Bowl,'' Manning said. "I had two weeks off after the playoffs ended for us. Did nothing before Hawaii. Went to the beach, went to the Super Bowl, showed up in Hawaii, all of a sudden my knee swelled up like a grapefruit. The Chargers trainers bent over backwards, treating a player that's not even their player. They're supposed to be on vacation, and here they are, driving me all over the place to get an MRI. No big deal, I thought. I played the game, and after the game, the thing is gone, it's dissipated throughout my body. Very strange.
"I get back in April, start lifting weights, it blew up again. Couldn't kneel on it. I had a good offseason, thought I threw it pretty good, and I had the knee drained maybe seven times. Two or three weeks later it'd come back. Let me go back to a conversation I had with Bill Parcells when we did a commercial for the Super Bowl. He advised me, 'Don't ever forget your legs. Legs, legs legs. Do your squats. That's so important as you get older.' And I worked on that hard.
"On Monday before camp [actually July 14, 10 days before training camp opened], my leg's on fire, it's red, I'm hurtin' bad. I fly to Indy right away and find out the fluid in there's infected. So they tell me, 'We're gonna remove your bursa sac. Pretty standard procedure.' Then the fluid starts to seep back.''
Doctors couldn't stop the fluid from seeping into the knee. Ten days after surgery, the knee was still swollen. The Colts set a deadline of Wednesday, July 30, to decide whether to have another procedure called "quilting'' done. In quilting, a surgeon stitches the skin down to shut off the suspected flow of any infected fluid.
Now came the cloak-and-dagger stuff. Manning couldn't fly because of the risks of swelling and infection. So the Colts flew orthopedist-to-the-stars James Andrews (and one or two other experts) into Colts camp in Terre Haute to examine Manning. He consulted with Giants team physician Russell Warren.
"All of them say the same thing: 'You've got to do something about it,' '' Manning told me. "I agreed. My biggest fear was the Saturday night before we play the Patriots in Week 10, it's gonna happen again."
So the second surgery was set for July 31 at 6 a.m. Manning was told it'd take about 30 minutes to sew about 20 sutures in the knee. The Colts had a car set to pick Manning up to take him home at 9 a.m.
He woke up at 5 p.m. There weren't 20 sutures implanted. Doctors had to use 80. Surgery didn't take 30 minutes. It took three hours.
"They didn't have a choice,'' Manning said. "There was so much fluid, the pockets were so big, that they had to use 80.''
The knee stayed wrapped Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, Colts director of rehabilitation Erin Barill came to Manning's house to check on how the knee was healing. "He warned me the knee does not look good,'' Manning said. "And he said, 'Do you want to see it?' ''
Of course he did. "Funny thing was, I was getting ready to watch the Colts-Redskins Hall of Fame game. Weird. I have never watched the Colts play on TV, ever. And then I get ready to see what the knee looks like.''
Drumroll. Barill took the wrap off.
"I looked down, and my knee looked like a brain after surgery. You know how they show you pictures of a brain in science class? That's what this was -- swollen, ugly. I kind of got my hopes up, but it was disgusting. Mangled, in layers, dimples all over it. It didn't look good at all. My heart just sank. I was nervous and scared. It was so new to me. Some of these guys playing in the NFL have surgery all the time. Not me. The only surgery I'd ever had was for a deviated septum my sophomore year in high school. Here I have one July 14, then another one two weeks later. Uncharted waters for me.''
This thought occurred to me then: How in the world did Manning and the Colts keep this so under wraps?
Manning had his own anal traits, plus the never-ending Brett Favre unretirement saga, to thank for that. "I'm one of those guys who never wants to be on the injury report,'' he said. "I don't want people to say, 'What's wrong with your ankle or your knee or whatever?' I don't want my opponents to know anything. When I see a corner who's got a bad ankle, I say, 'Let's check this thing out in the game.' Plus, the whole Favre thing was dominating the news. Nobody had time to report anything else.
"It was the most miserable training camp. I'd do the rehab in my dorm to stay out of the way of people at camp. The best thing that happened was I had a video machine in my room. I was watching ... I was waiting all day for the practice tape. I was dying. I just wanted to see the tape.''
Days turned into weeks. The Colts originally said Manning's injury was a four-to-six-week job, and when he got close to the six-week anniversary, Manning still wasn't working out.
"Remember what Parcells told me. 'Legs, legs, legs.' Well, I lost all my strength in my left leg, and you don't want to create an imbalance in your legs, so I couldn't do much with my right leg either. But all the range of motion in my left leg was gone. Could I get to where I can drop and run? I had no idea. I really did not know. All I had ever known, every year in camp, was to take every rep, every practice. Now I get no reps in camp.
"The biggest thing as we got close to the season was I didn't think I could move the way I wanted to. I'll never be mistaken for Donovan McNabb or my dad [mobile ex-Saint Archie Manning]. And my balance was a problem. I couldn't finish the throws.''
Making it worse was the absence of longtime center Jeff Saturday with a knee injury; he knew the hieroglyphic-type Colts offense as well as Manning. Now the Colts had to get seventh-round rookie Jamey Richard, a college guard, ready to face, in order, Tommie Harris, Kevin and Pat Williams, and John Henderson. Before the first game, instead of spending an extra half-hour or two a day working the legs, Manning was on the practice field and in the meeting room with Richard, teaching him the idiosyncrasies of being the Colts center.
Feeling weak, Manning had no impact on a 29-13 opening loss to Chicago. In Week 2 at Minnesota, the Vikes led 15-0 midway through the third quarter. "We're down 15-0, thinking about being 0-2, and knowing we got Jacksonville the next week,'' Manning said. He led two touchdown drives, with a two-point conversion on the second, to tie it. "Probably the biggest play of the game, third-and-10 on the 50 [actually third-and-nine at the Minnesota 49], I get Reggie Wayne on a post-route from the slot, ball rushes right past the DB's ear into Reggie. That told me, 'I can still make these throws. If I keep rehabbing, I can make it back. I still have it.' '' Gain of 20. The Colts won on a field goal.
Manning struggled again the next week; Indy lost to Jacksonville. "The next week, Houston's got us 27-10 midway through the fourth quarter. It is not looking good. Lotta people thinking, 'Here come the Texans' -- they finished 8-8 the year before, their crowd's fired up, they're inspired to win after Hurricane Ike. But it's your job to play until the final seconds. I throw a touchdown pass to Tom Santi that looks like a stat-padder. Then [Gary] Brackett takes a fumble back for a touchdown.''
Lucky for the Colts, Sage Rosenfels was awful that day, and handed the Colts a touchdown and a short field late. Manning threw the winning touchdown pass to Wayne off that short field. Colts, 31-27.
Easily they could have been 0-4. But 18 points in the last 20 minutes at Minnesota, and 21 points in the last five at Houston, and the season was saved.
What was bugging Manning at that point, even at 2-2, was the time he had to spend every week in rehab and rebuilding the strength in his legs. Instead of coming in early to watch tape or talk to a coach before the morning meetings, Manning had to be in by 6:30 for an hour of rehab five days a week, and spend another hour after practice doing the same. He still did most of his other work, but not as much of the on-field stuff with his receivers that he was used to. Combine that with zero reps in training camp for a guy who craves them, and you see why he was treading water -- 10 touchdowns, nine picks, a 3-4 record after an ugly Monday night loss at Tennessee -- through two months.
"It just sucked up all my energy, ' he said. "My goal has always been to avoid the trainers room, and now, for the first time in my whole career, I'm going in every morning before meetings, challenging my preparation time. But after a couple of months doing that -- after the Tennessee game, I didn't have to go into the trainers room anymore. I felt right. But at that point, we're 3-4, and we all but ruled out winning the division. Tennessee wasn't gonna collapse.
"The biggest problem with New England coming up, Pittsburgh on the road, San Diego on the road -- was avoiding sitting around, saying, 'Boy, we are in trouble.' It was like, 'Are we going to say it's just not our year, wait 'til next year, or are we gonna do something about it?' The other thing people don't think about is we've got a lot of second-, third- fourth-year players, and we'd started the last three years 13-0, 8-0 and 7-0, and these guys are going, 'What the hell is going on?' But as Tony [Dungy] told 'em, this is what the NFL is all about.''
As November dawned, the Colts knew they might have to go 8-1, or even 9-0, to make the playoffs. Manning, finally feeling good, and taking the two rehab hours per day out of his routine, got his team on a run.
"I truly believe it is no coincidence we have gone on the winning streak since then,'' Manning said.
Now onto the MVP issue. My take is Manning was the keystone to this team starting 3-4 instead of being out of it at 1-6. In the final nine games, Manning's 9-0 record led all NFL quarterbacks, Manning's 72-percent accuracy led all NFL quarterbacks, and Manning's 17-to-3 touchdown-to-interception (plus-14) differential led all NFL quarterbacks.
He completed 21 of 29 to beat New England. He got a little lucky with some Roethlisberger turnovers the next week at Pittsburgh, but he also threw three of the 12 touchdown passes the Steelers allowed all season. His running game managed 91, 90, 57, 106 and 32 yards over the next five games, but he had enough in the tank to win each one without much of a ground alternative.
In Sunday's Dungy special of a finale (the starters play a series or three), Manning played long enough to exceed 4,000 yards for the ninth season. He went seven for seven. Five months after recoiling in shock at the sight of his grotesque knee, he finished his most unlikely great season in the NFL.
So the Colts finished 12-4. It's not as stunning as the 11-5 of the Dolphins or Falcons, to be sure. We could argue -- and you might win -- that Miami without Pennington and Atlanta without Ryan would have been 5-11 or worse. But I simply will not accept that coaches who proved themselves very resourceful (Tony Sparano, Mike Smith) would have been hapless without their quarterbacks. Miami would have played Chad Henne earlier. Atlanta would have ridden Turner to a few wins. Indy? Without Manning, I say a team that ran the ball in quicksand would have been 4-12.
"This has been my most rewarding regular season, because of what we've all been faced with here,'' Manning said. "I've been proud to be on this team. Guys dug deep. I dug deep.''
Come to think of it, it's not that tough a call.
The rest of Sunday's headlines:
Sunday was one of the five worst days in the 49-year history of the Dallas Cowboys. A buddy visiting some Cowboys friends at the team hotel Saturday night came away thinking how divided the team is, and how bad team chemistry is. End result: Philadelphia 44, Dallas 6. And it was every bit as bad, or worse.
I came to this conclusion: The Cowboys are the Yankees, in so many ways. New York has spent more money than every other team in baseball for the past eight years and not won a World Series. Dallas has acquired the most famous talent in all of football since 1997 and not won a playoff game. Twelve years, and counting.
The Cowboys do none of the very basics of football well. It's because they've concentrated on buying players like Terrell Owens, thinking this is fantasy football. Terrell Owens and Roy Williams at receiver and Jason Witten at tight end? Best in football! We'll crush everyone! But that isn't how football works. Dallas should have known when it acquired Williams in midseason that he takes a lot of care and feeding; as one Lions official who worked with Williams for several years told me Sunday, if you ignore Williams, he's going to give up. He takes after Owens in that way. Looked like Williams gave up on a route that resulted in a Tony Romo interception Sunday.
The larger lesson: In football, you can have a few stars, but they'd better be selfless on Sundays. Dallas' stars are consistently stroked by Jones, when sometimes he needs to either stay the heck out of the player-relation business or give the doggish player a boot in the rear.
Let's fix this team. One: Jerry's got to stop taking draft picks and throwing them at stars. First- and third-round picks seemed a bargain to get Williams, but now Dallas has a massive need at left tackle (Flozell Adams looks 53, not 33), guard, safety (Roy Williams was utterly invisible in 2008) and wide receiver. (We'll get to that in a minute.) Jones had a very good personnel man in Jeff Ireland, who left to go with Parcells. He's got another one now in Tom Ciskowski. Let the talent-miners mine for talent instead of hamstringing them.
Two: Cut the 34-year-old baby, Terrell Owens. With T.O. gone, Romo could drop back to pass and look for an open receiver -- not an open receiver with the number 81. You simply can't play football that way, and no matter what Romo says, I know he does it often enough so he makes sure Owens doesn't freak out on the sidelines or during the week. Build a receiving corps around Williams, Witten and Patrick Crayton (who's a decent player if he accepts being a third receiver). The cancerous Owens simply must go for the team to heal.
Three: Order the players to please, please stop saying they're the most talented team in football. Terence Newman, who played like a Bowling Green walk-on trying to cover LeBron James in Philadelphia, said it again Sunday.
Says who? Says the idiotic process of "voting'' for the Pro Bowl? It's an illusion. The most talented team in football doesn't lose a playoff-type game at home to Baltimore, then lose a playoff-type game by 38 to anyone. Perpetuating this myth only drags a team down. Tell the team: "If we were the most talented team in football, we'd be better than 0-6 in the playoffs in the last 10 years.''
Four: Jones is simply being stubborn in not firing Wade Phillips, or at least not hiring someone else and making Phillips the defensive coordinator. "Are we going to change coaches? The answer is no,'' Jones said Sunday night after this debacle. Suit yourself. How, Jerry, can you possibly ask your fans to have confidence in your staff going forward if you bring back a coach who let this team go to seed so quickly?
It won't be easy to fix this team, but Jones is the only one who can make it happen.
Has there ever been a playoff weekend where the four road teams were favored? Gambling on football games is idiocy. I've see two marriages ruined because of it, and one life ruined. If you follow my picks -- my daughter is just about even with me this year, and she traditionally picks with uniform color in mind -- you know how wrong I can be, and I at least make some effort to have an idea. But at first glance, I think I like Atlanta in Arizona, Indianapolis in San Diego, Baltimore in Miami and Philadelphia in Minnesota.
That would make the divisional playoff matchups:
Jan. 10: Baltimore at Tennessee (1-0, Titans this year), Atlanta at Carolina (1-1 this year).
Jan. 11: Philadelphia at Giants (1-1 this year), Indianapolis at Pittsburgh (1-0, Colts, this year).