Peyton Manning's blue jersey with the white number 18 was soaked with sweat, and his eyes were moist with tears as he made his way off the RCA Dome turf on Sunday evening. Manning, the Indianapolis Colts' rookie quarterback, didn't seem to hear the cheers raining down on him from the stands, and he barely noticed when Colts coach Jim Mora gently patted him on the back as they walked together to the locker room. The day Manning had been waiting for since he first picked up a football as a kid turned out to be a disappointment.
Sure, he'd completed 21 of 37 passes for 302 yards, a productive debut by any standards, but his team had lost to the Miami Dolphins 24-15, and he'd thrown three interceptions, including one that cornerback Terrell Buckley returned 21 yards for a game-clinching touchdown. "Anytime you lose, it's no fun," Manning said later. "I made some mistakes. Hopefully I'll learn from them."
For now Colts fans will have to sit tight as the 22-year-old Manning, who went first in last April's draft and signed the richest rookie contract in NFL history—a six-year deal that could earn him almost $48 million—learns his trade. If Sunday's game is any indication, the ride is going to be wilder than a spin around the old Brickyard. Facing a tough Dolphins defense, Manning displayed poise, confidence and a passing touch seldom seen in a young quarterback, but his inexperience clearly hurt his team.
Miami coach Jimmy Johnson resisted the urge to load his defensive game plan with trick schemes and blitz packages. "My philosophy is not to change what you do because of any guy on the other side of the ball," he said. But Johnson challenged Manning in critical situations, and the rookie usually read the defense and adjusted well.
"Pretty much every time we showed blitz, he checked out of it," Dolphins defensive end Trace Armstrong said. "He made a lot of good plays, a lot of great calls. You can tell the guy is going to be a great quarterback." Indeed, Manning was brilliant at times. In the second quarter he beat a blitz to hit wideout Marvin Harrison for a 42-yard gain that set up the Colts' first field goal, and in the third quarter he scooted out of the pocket and unleashed a 32-yard pass to tight end Marcus Pollard before being slammed to the turf by defensive tackle Daryl Gardener.
At other times, though, Manning appeared overwhelmed. His first interception occurred in the second quarter, with Indianapolis deep in its own territory and trailing 10-3. As he stepped to the line, Manning recognized a blitz and called an audible for a slant pass to Harrison. Buckley read the play and jumped in front of Harrison when he made his cut. As Buckley returned the ball for 12 yards, Manning looked on helplessly, and his father, former New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning, seated in the stands a few rows up, hung his head.
Although Manning's second interception was a fluke—the pass glanced off running back Marshall Faulk's pads and into the hands of Gardener—his third was a doozy. Indianapolis was trailing 17-9 and backed up to its three-yard line with 1:32 remaining when Manning forced another slant pass to Harrison. The throw was off target, and Buckley snared it and took it into the end zone untouched.
On the previous play Manning had barely missed wideout Torrance Small on a post pattern. "If I had thrown it a little higher, it might have gone for a big play," the quarterback said. "Then I went out and forced one, and it got intercepted."
As Manning endures growing pains, the Colts are trying to keep the fans' high expectations from consuming him. President Bill Polian, who was with the Bills when Jim Kelly arrived in Buffalo to great fanfare, has made sure the team doesn't overpublicize Manning or ask him to make too many off-the-field appearances. In fact, murals hanging outside the RCA Dome feature Faulk and defensive back Jason Belser, not the hotshot rookie quarterback. Manning, meanwhile, has turned down offers to have his own local TV and radio shows.
Polian knows, however, that the best way to help Manning is to establish a dominant ground game. Last season the Colts ranked eighth in the AFC in rushing. This season Mora has vowed to use Faulk more as a runner and less as a receiver out of the backfield. Polian and Mora also rebuilt an offensive line that struggled with its run blocking last year and yielded an AFC-high 62 sacks, keeping only veteran center Jay Leeuwenburg. "It's simple: We've got to run the ball this year," Leeuwenburg says. "That's the best way to take pressure off a rookie quarterback." Considering Sunday's performance (64 yards on 26 carries), the Colts have a long way to go.