Peyton Manning isn't supposed to make it look this easy.
Not after the retirement of his head coach, Tony Dungy. Not after the offseason purge of his most accomplished wide receiver, Marvin Harrison, and the loss of another starter at the position, Anthony Gonzalez, to a Week 1 knee injury.
Manning should be finding it more difficult to lead the Indianapolis Colts offense to success, shouldn't he? How could he possibly be in synch with a receiving corps that now includes Pierre Garcon, a 2008 sixth-round draft pick from Division III Mount Union, and Austin Collie, a 2009 fourth-rounder from BYU? How could he possibly look as comfortable as he ever has in his 11-plus seasons of wearing horseshoes on his helmet?
Here's how: He's Peyton Manning.
He's the consummate example of an athlete who gets the absolute most out of his skills through hard work and an unrelenting desire to remain at the very top of his game. His obsession with wanting to be the best at everything he does -- and expecting the same from everyone else on the team -- is why, three weeks into the season, he leads the AFC and ranks second in the NFL with a passer rating of 117.7.
The simple fact is, you can change what's around Manning, but you won't change him or the standard of excellence he sets for the Colts, who are 3-0 and have a two-game lead in the AFC South.
"It's very simply because of his incredible dedication to his job and the fact that he makes people better because of that," Colts president Bill Polian said. "He's driven by the need to compete and the need to be as good as he can be. His work ethic is not only legendary, but off the charts. (Until using a sixth-round draft pick this year on Purdue's Curtis Painter) we had not had a third quarterback for quite some time, because it's impossible to be a young, learning third quarterback in the atmosphere of that room because it goes so fast. It's post-graduate football. One of the things about Painter that impressed (new coach) Jim Caldwell was that he was far enough advanced and had a good enough work ethic to keep up, but it's awfully difficult."
"Peyton might be the only player I've ever known in the NFL that drives the organization," former New York Giants quarterback and current CBS color analyst Phil Simms said. "He demands coaches, players, and front-office people do their jobs. When Bill Polian got him (from Tennessee as the top overall pick of the 1998 draft), he said, 'I'm going to build the franchise around this quarterback.' And Peyton showed quickly that he was responsible and hard-working and smart. Every year that's gone by, it's more and more about him. And he's never let them down."
Manning didn't let the Colts down last season, even after knee surgery kept him out of training camp and caused him and the rest of the team to get off to a slow start. He rebounded and played some of his best football through the second half of the year to lead the Colts to a 12-4 record, their sixth consecutive season with 12 or more wins.
And Manning didn't let the Colts down after Jim Caldwell, his former quarterbacks coach, was promoted to replace Dungy â¦ and Harrison was sent packing â¦ and doubts surfaced about whether Indianapolis would still have as prolific a passing attack as always.
In three games, Manning has thrown for 983 yards and seven touchdowns. He has continued to connect with his top two playmakers, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, but with Gonzalez out of the lineup, he has found new targets that are also highly productive.
In Week 2, Garcon caught a 48-yard touchdown pass from Manning, who perfectly read a blitz, for the winning points in the Colts' 27-23 victory over the Miami Dolphins. Last Sunday night, Manning and Garcon hooked up on a 53-yard scoring throw that broke open the Colts' 31-10 triumph over the Arizona Cardinals. In the same game, Collie caught three passes for 47 yards.
"Pretty much any receiver playing with Peyton is going to play a little better than he would if he was with somebody else," former Cleveland Browns general manager and NFL scout Phil Savage said. "Peyton's the kind of guy that, in practice, he's going to work with every receiver because you're never sure when one of these guys is going to have to step up and play. He'll tell them, 'On that particular route, don't stop right there. Go ahead and slide in two more yards and I'll put it on your inside shoulder.' Or, 'Hey, if you get this coverage, give him the stutter (step) and accelerate across away from the guy and I'll get it to you.'"
Garcon showed tremendous potential last year, but if he were to emerge as someone Manning would trust on a critical third-down play, he needed to improve his speed and strength, which he did. Manning took Polian at his word when he said Collie could make a significant contribution as a rookie.
When offseason practices began, Manning made a point of devoting a great deal of time working with both young receivers on running routes and recognizing coverages. He gave them the opportunity to show him that they were worthy of a place in his offense. They took advantage of it.
Said Simms, "The Colts play a system that makes stars out of people who catch the football, but from what I've seen so far, those new receivers are providing (Manning) with the opportunities to keep it going, too. They are, without question, showing they belong and Indianapolis was definitely not caught off guard by Marvin Harrison leaving or his downward trend, which he had in his last couple of years in Indianapolis."
There are other elite quarterbacks in the NFL, and some good young passers making names for themselves. Other quarterbacks might have more physical talent, yet Manning consistently keeps himself at, or at least very near, the head of the class.
"If we listed just raw, physical ability, then, yeah, he might not make the top five," Simms said. "But I think the thing that's always understated and that people don't understand is he's 6-foot-6, he plays like he's 6-9, but he has the feet of a 6-1 guy. The maturity and his willingness (to constantly improve) have gotten him to a place where he's able to take advantage of every ounce of athletic ability and throwing ability that he has."
"While his ball is not always the prettiest as you see it in the air, he's still one of the most accurate passers in the National Football League," former Steelers coach and current CBS NFL Today analyst Bill Cowher said.
Manning's real strength, however, comes from being in the same offense his entire NFL career. The scheme of Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore is something Manning not only has learned thoroughly, but also has personalized and perfected with his own tweaks and nuances.
No other quarterback in the league has as much command of an offense as Manning does, which allows him to operate it at a quick pace or a slower one, depending on the situation. The Colts not only beat opponents with plays they've run countless times, but also with the occasional slight adjustment that catches the other team by surprise.
"This is an offensive coordinator and a quarterback that have been together for 11 years now, and that is just so unheard of in the NFL," Savage said. "And I just think that is such a big part of their success. They may adjust here and there, but by and large, it's been the same system all these years. Manning knows every detail of it -- what works, what doesn't work. They've seen basically every kind of defense imaginable thrown against it."
Perhaps the one part of Manning's story that isn't often told is how much his success is driven by witnessing what his father, Archie, experienced during a frustrating career at quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. Stuck with a horrendous supporting cast, Archie took a pounding and the Saints were a laughingstock.
"I think Peyton realizes, 'If I had gone to a certain team or a certain situation, that could have been me, but instead I had an unbelievable opportunity (in Indianapolis),'" Savage said. "And he has absolutely maximized it to the nth degree. Because he saw what happened to his dad, he's never taken for granted, one second, being with a Tony Dungy, being with a Jim Mora (his first head coach), being with Tom Moore all these years, having a (center such as) Jeff Saturday in front of him. I think he really appreciates that."
Which is why heâll continue to work at keeping it successful.