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In eight years of high school and college football, Peyton Manning played on teams that lost a total of 11 games. On Sunday, in the 12th game of his rookie NFL season, Manning and the Colts lost their 10th. "It's eating me up," Manning said softly after a 38-31 defeat to the Ravens. "They all hurt, but I don't think I've had one like this."
Nor had Manning put up numbers as a pro like the ones he did against Baltimore: 27 completions in 42 attempts for 357 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Indianapolis led' 17-3 after 13 minutes and was on top 31-21 entering the fourth quarter, before poor defense and special teams play cost the Colts the game.
Still, there was no mistaking the progress Manning has made in three months. On about two dozen occasions against the Ravens, he called two plays in the huddle and then signaled which one would be run after he saw the defensive set at the line of scrimmage. He completed 10 of 13 passes on third down (eight for first down), often going right at cornerback Rod Woodson, the best player in the Baltimore secondary. Above all, Manning, at 22, has already established himself as a leader.
While fellow rookie Ryan Leaf sits on the bench behind Craig Whelihan in San Diego after repeated failures on the field and a series of missteps off it, about the worst thing Manning has done is throw a league-high 23 interceptions (partly the result of uncorking a league-leading 449 passes). His behavior has been exemplary, particularly for a player who can't escape the public eye.
"I've never seen him angry," says Colts backup quarterback Doug Nussmeier, Manning's best friend on the team. "I've never seen him say no to anyone. We're out one night and a guy comes up to the table and says, 'Hey, Peyton, if I go up the street to Wal-Mart and get a couple of your jerseys, would you sign 'em for me?' He said yes, and the guy came back with two jerseys. Peyton signed 'em."
Manning may look like a student council president in his pressed gray slacks, navy blazer and shiny brown loafers, but he's doesn't want to be thought of that way. "I grew up in New Orleans as Archie Manning's son," he says. "I learned how to handle myself, how to keep my emotions in check. Now everybody is begging for me to do something, to lose my cool. That'd be news. I won't do it. I think I'm a tough quarterback. I just don't advertise it like some other quarterbacks do. But I know how to chew a guy's ass out if it needs to be done."
Against a Ravens team that entered the game 4-7, Manning played like a seasoned veteran. On third-and-five at the Ravens' 45 with a little more than two minutes left in the first half, he rolled right with safety Ralph Staten and linebacker Peter Boulware nipping at his heels. Just before the two defenders leaped at him, Manning rifled a pass to tight end Ken Dilger for an eight-yard gain. "That's kind of a feel thing," Manning said. "Dad always said if you can't feel that pressure and make a play, you can't be a pro quarterback." Six plays later, on third-and-10, Manning threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to wideout Torrance Small.
With 1:13 left in the game Manning was driving the Colts to a potential tying touchdown, having moved them 58 yards to the Baltimore 24. He threw to an open Marshall Faulk, but the ball ricocheted off the running back's chest and into Staten's hands. Ball game.
"He's got good poise, great poise for a rookie," Woodson said afterward. "Sometimes he gets a little impatient, but take your hat off to him. He's not making a lot of mistakes."