For a man who prides himself on his meticulous preparation, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has a curious habit of packing only enough clothes to get him through a 24-hour road trip. That means whenever the Colts win a road game and are given the next two days off by coach Tony Dungy—and Manning and his wife, Ashley, decide to remain in the city they're visiting rather than fly home after the game—the Pro Bowl passer who is ready for every situation on the football field is a day late and a pair of underwear short.
Chalk that up to a yearning for spontaneity in an otherwise structured life. Yes, even the 27-vear-old Manning, a member of Southern football's royal family and a projected NFL star since he started shaving, has to let loose on occasion. So it was that Manning, after the Colts' 29-27 win over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville on Dec. 7—arguably the quarterback's biggest victory in a six-year career marked by few defining moments—found himself onstage in a famed Music City honky-tonk singing Rocky Top, his alma mater's fight song. In the audience Ashley, several college buddies from Peyton's days at Tennessee, three Colts teammates, scores of strangers, the most fun-loving football coach of the modern era and a country band soon to be fronted by a rock-rap icon from Motown looked on in amazement.
Or, more simply put, after outdueling Titans quarterback Steve McNair to give the Colts control of the AFC South, Manning and his gang rolled into Tootsie's and par-tied into the night with Barry Switzer and Kid Rock. By the time Kid Rock brought down the house with a cover of Bob Seger's Night Moves, Manning felt like a cowboy without a care. "All week long I'd stayed up until one in the morning watching film," he said last Thursday. "There was so much buildup, and when we won, this great feeling of satisfaction washed over me, and it was finally time to celebrate."
If Manning has his druthers, as he did in Sunday's 38-7 home victory over the Atlanta Falcons, which lifted Indianapolis to 11-3 and sent the team to the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, bigger celebrations will follow. Like Dungy, the Colts' second-year coach, Manning is an admired and respected leader in search of a championship, a man whose easygoing demeanor overshadows his fierce competitiveness. Because Manning (0-3 in the playoffs) and Dungy (2-5, with no Super Bowl appearances) have failed to measure up in the postseason, the personality traits that make them likable—friendly, studious, mild-mannered, among others—are ultimately cited as reasons for their failures. In the wake of a 41-0 wild-card loss to the New York Jets last January, Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt griped during an interview with a Toronto television reporter that the coach and quarterback lacked the fire to take the team to the next level.
Manning issued a sharp rebuke, calling Vanderjagt an "idiot kicker" during ABC's telecast of the Pro Bowl, but he knows the best rebuttal would be to take his team to the Super Bowl. "I don't hide from the playoff thing, and neither does Tony," Manning says. "The bottom line is that until we win, we're going to hear about it."
Dungy, probably the most pleasant soul in a profession that breeds paranoia and surliness, scoffs at the notion that Manning can't win a big game, a charge that has dogged the passer since he completed a stellar collegiate career without having beaten Florida in three starts. "It's ludicrous," Dungy says. "I used to hear that about John Elway, Steve Young, Roger Staubach and Brett Favre, too."
Manning is similarly defensive about Dungy's record, noting that the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach "was a third-down stop away from the Super Bowl." That was in the 1999 NFC Championship Game, when the Bucs held a 6-5 lead over the St. Louis Rams until Kurt Warner threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to wideout Ricky Proehl with 4:44 remaining. Two years and two opening-round playoff defeats later, Dungy was fired despite a 54-42 regular-season record with Tampa Bay. His successor, Jon Gruden, would lead the Bucs to their first Super Bowl championship in his first season.
Dungy, meanwhile, was hired by Indianapolis to replace the fired Jim Mora and also found success, transforming a 6-10 flop into a 10-6 wild-card team. Along with first-year coordinator Ron Meeks, Dungy overhauled the Colts' 29th-ranked defense and improved its standing to eighth best in the league. His critics say he isn't tough enough, but his teams certainly play a disciplined brand of football, largely because of the tone he sets, and his no-nonsense approach has won over the players. "If I had to play for any coach, he's the one," says halfback Edgerrin James. "When things go bad, instead of griping or complaining, he looks for the solution."
"I don't apologize for being a nice guy," Dungy says. "Nice guys get upset too. Nice guys get fined $10,000 by the NFL for criticizing the officials [as Dungy did after the '99 season opener]."
Likewise, Manning says outsiders can be fooled by his own affable exterior. "If people think I'm a laid-back guy" he says, "that's their mistake." Yes, he makes an effort to be friendly, chatting up rookie free agents at minicamps and talking with well-wishers at airports and restaurants. But on the field Manning can be caustic and exacting. Tight end Marcus Pollard remembers questioning Manning on a play call during practice early in the quarterback's career. "Hey," Manning snapped, "if I tell you it's Easter, you'd better hunt for eggs."