Maybe, Brigham Young receiver Austin Collie thought when he finagled an invitation to the prestigious Manning Passing Academy in 2008, this will be my breakthrough moment. Collie knew he could play in the NFL, but the world is full of 6-foot possession receivers who run 4.6-second 40-yard dashes. As a counselor at the Manning family's summer football camp in Louisiana, perhaps Collie would get to run routes for Peyton and Eli. Or he'd get pulled aside by one of the Mannings and be told, "Kid, you've got a future in the NFL." ¶ Well, Collie never caught a ball from either Manning at the camp.
They threw to higher-profile college and pro receivers. He never had a one-on-one conversation with Peyton or Eli either. He did get to work as a counselor for some of the budding young wideouts. "Basically," Collie said last week at the Colts' facility in Indianapolis, "it was a weekend to myself. I never thought I'd see either of those guys again."
Austin Collie has seen Peyton Manning again, all right. After several clandestine Colts' scouting missions to Utah last fall to watch Collie (who led the nation in receiving yards) and a lengthy debriefing by a team psychologist, Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian chose Collie in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. In the past three months Collie and Manning, strangers at the Manning Passing Academy, have seen more of each other than they have of their wives. The football marriage is a big reason why the Colts head into their annual November showdown with the Patriots on Sunday a very surprising 8--0.
This is a story about the great season Manning is having, one in which he has been more accurate (a 70.6% completion rate) and more productive (318.1 yards per game) than in any of his previous 11 pro seasons. Which is saying something, considering that Manning has more passing yards and more touchdowns than any other quarterback in the NFL's 90-year history has had by age 33.
In September the only thing Manning seemed sure to lead the league in this year was obstacles. Wideout fixture Marvin Harrison was allowed to leave after 11 seasons with Manning, and into his starting spot had stepped a 2008 sixth-round pick from tiny Mount Union (Ohio) College, Pierre Garçon, the only player in the NFL with a cédille in his name. Starting wideout Anthony Gonzalez went down with a right-knee injury in the first game, forcing Collie to play much more than planned. Rock-solid coach Tony Dungy had retired, ceding the job to an unknown, Jim Caldwell, whose only head-coaching experience was an eight-year stint at Wake Forest, during which the Demon Deacons were 37 games below .500.
Compounding the problems over the first half of the season has been a feeble running game—the Colts rank 29th in the league in rushing as they work in rookie Donald Brown—that has put Manning in constant passing situations. Defenses know he's going to throw, and yet they've been powerless to stop him. "If this year's not an indication of Peyton Manning's greatness, I don't know what ever would be," says Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, a longtime Manning adversary and admirer.
To understand Manning's 2009 performance, you need to know a few tales—about a Colts charter flight in 2002, the scouting job the team did on Collie, and a pass from Manning to the rookie receiver last month. But mostly you need to know about the text message Manning sent to Brown on the Sunday of draft weekend, before they'd ever met. The message read: "Meet me at the facility at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Warmed up. Ready to go."
Manning, simply, has made Indianapolis slump-proof. The Colts have gone 112 games—seven full seasons—without losing three straight. Indy isn't the winningest regular-season team this decade (109 victories, one more than New England) by accident. Anytime Manning steps behind center and starts gyrating and pointing, history tells us, good things are about to occur. "To understand why he hasn't struggled," Dungy says, "you have to understand the way his mind works. It drives him every day that the offense will be better, not just as good as it was. The new guys will fit in. He'll make them fit in."
Qadry Ismail learned as much in 2002, his lone year as a Colts wide receiver. On the team's charter to Jacksonville for the season opener, Ismail was settling in for a restful 2½-hour flight when Manning approached. "Hay's in the barn, game plan's done, we're all set," Ismail says. "But Peyton comes up with a serious look and his notebook, and he tells me we're going to use some different hand signals at the line. He's like, 'As opposed to giving you the fingers for that comeback route, I'm going to give you the fist' or 'If you see me do this, don't even worry about it because that's just trying to get the [defense] to think I'm going to change the play, but I'm not.' He's the ultimate micromanager. He controls everything."
Ismail shares what he calls a "CIA, burn-after-reading secret" out of the Indianapolis playbook from that Jaguars game. When Manning gave Ismail a shoveling motion or said the words "Crane! Crane!" Ismail would run a dig route—a curl or buttonhook in which the receiver goes downfield a certain distance, plants his foot suddenly and turns to face the quarterback. Having seen the signal a couple of times early in the game, Jacksonville corner Jason Craft then taunted Ismail. "I know what y'all are doing!" Craft hollered. "Every time he gives that [shoveling] signal, you run that little in route!"