To Manning, every minute of practice is precious. "I've never been so impressed watching a quarterback," says Madden, who coached the Oakland Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XI "He's nonstop; the guy never sits still. If they're not using him, he's pulling a receiver off to the side and working on plays. Then you see it pay off in a game."
Madden was particularly struck by a Manning-initiated scramble drill—Peyton says he learned it from his father—in which he and various receivers simulate broken plays and get a feel for one another's improvisational tendencies. One of many payoffs this season came late in the game against the Cowboys. With Indianapolis clinging to a seven-point lead and facing third-and-eight from its own 21, Manning was flushed out of the pocket before flicking the ball down the right sideline to James, who busted loose for a 54-yard reception that set up an insurance field goal.
James, the fourth pick in last April's draft, has been even more of a weapon than versatile halfback Marshall Faulk, a Pro Bowl player in '98 whom the Colts traded to the St. Louis Rams two days before the draft. James and Harrison, a fourth-year player who ranks first in the NFL in receiving yards (996) and touchdown catches (11) and is tied for the league lead in receptions (64), are hard workers who have grown accustomed to Manning's pace. "I see exactly the same tiling from those three in practice that I saw with Steve Young and Jerry Rice in San Francisco," says Indianapolis defensive end Mark Thomas, who was with the 49ers from 1992 to '94. "Peyton prepares like a champion, and it rubs off."
Manning's upside seems boundless. There are no more concerns about his arm strength, and his lack of mobility is offset by his rapid release and his ability to slide away from pocket pressure. If this description resembles that of a certain future Hall of Fame quarterback in Manning's division, the comparison is not far-fetched. "Marino came in and made a quick impact," says Bills defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. "This guy's the same way. He's going to take Marino's spot."
Like Marino, Manning is difficult to sack. The Colts, who allowed an AFC-worst 62 sacks in '97, gave up only 22 in Manning's rookie year despite facing frequent blitzes; Indy has surrendered just seven through nine games this season. Arians says Manning's footwork and other mechanics have improved, as has his ability to read defenses. "Of all his strengths, his greatest asset is that he gets the ball to the right person," Patriots defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell says. "He may rewrite the record books before he's finished."
For now there's a youthful awkwardness to Manning that makes him seem more human than the typical preordained superstar. His calculated efforts to maintain that good-guy image are counterbalanced by an unrefined strand of sincerity that comes out when his guard is down. Last March, on the night before Cooper's wedding, Peyton, the best man, recited a rhyming poem he'd written that lacked the sarcasm and zingers usually reserved for rehearsal-dinner pronouncements. "It was long, a little corny and very touching," Cooper recalls. "He speaks from the heart when it really matters, and you've got to admire a guy for that."
Thompson certainly does. How else, she wonders, could she have fallen for a lanky dude who showed up for a date wearing an all-denim outfit and thought he looked sharp? "He's a very genuine and real person, but not everyone sees that," she says. "Even if he wasn't a big star with a famous father, he'd still hold back in public because that's his personality. He knows what he wants, and he has a passion for it. Football makes him happy."