When Did He Become a Legend?

Let’s tackle a mailbag question this Saturday. Today’s column is brought to you by my book on Colts’ history, Blue Blood.  It’s available at bookstores in Indianapolis and through many online retailers.  It makes a great Christmas gift.

Ajit writes:

Briefly- I started watching football in 1998 at 13 years old. I didn’t have a favorite team but I enjoyed watching the Rams. In fact, I rooted against Manning when I first saw them play each other. But something changed. I saw something then that was undeniable to me but somehow the media refused to acknowledge-he was special. And from that point on, I have been a die-hard Colts fan.

My brother asked me if was Manning always like this, and I hesitate because I don’t quite know how to answer. I believe he was the best QB in the league from 2003 and onward, but in 03, was he an all time great and when exactly did he become best ever?

An interesting factoid, Trent Dilfer once commented to Collin Cowherd. Cowherd asked Dilfer is Manning really the best ever? Dilfer replied succinctly-“Colin, it is a WIDELY accepted belief among NFL personnel that no one player has had such an impact on a team’s win/loss record as Manning. Its not even a debate anymore”

This is a great question, and a fun one to tackle on a Saturday. There are certain games that were real benchmark moments for Peyton. I could give you a short answer, but I’m a know it all, so I’ll go through it game by game.

I could probably select a game from Manning’s rookie year to start with (the loss to San Fransisco), but the first step in his development to the 8th best player of all time was:

1999 @ Miami. Manning outduels Marino on the road, essentially clinching the AFC East for the Colts.  With :29 to play and two timeouts he finds Marvin Harrison twice to set up a 53 yard field goal.  This was one of those, “Holy crap!” moments where you realize that this guy only needs a sliver of time in order to strike.  He rose to the moment and brought home the victory.  At this point, the second year QB had to legitimately be considered a top five guy in the league.

The next couple of years were up and down as the Colts were too top heavy.  Harrison and James (who spent most of the time hurt) did the heavy lifting, but Manning threw a lot of picks trying to force the ball to make plays to compensate for a horrible defense. After the 2002 season, Tony Dungy sat him down and told him he had to cut the interceptions.  This was a watershed moment in his career, and you can see his pick rate plummet after that.  This next milestone might be controversial, because some people would pick his playoff performances, but for me, the moment I knew he was “becoming” something more was:

2003 @ Tampa.  It was more than the incredible comeback.  It was more than the 4th down throw to Harrison.  It was the fact that during OT, he was the best player on the field.  Al Michaels pointed it out on the broadcast. He was ‘reaching down, finding more’.  Before our very eyes he became the best quarterback in football.  That was the game that instilled in all of us the idea that anything was possible.  Any comeback could be achieved.  We had Peyton, and it was going to be alright.  Later that year he was named MVP for the first time.

He had the two big playoff games and signed the record contract, but no one knew what was coming in 2004.

2004 @Chicago, @Detroit In the span of five days, Peyton threw 10 touchdowns and the Colts won by a combined score of 82-19.  At this point, chasing Marino morphed into a major national story, and it was clear that Peyton was more than just one of the best quarterbacks in football, but was taking his game to a Hall of Fame level.  This guy was one of the greats.

2005 was important because teams took away the deep ball, and Manning and the Colts still thrived.  I could mention the Pittsburgh loss in the playoffs because it was one of his most heroic performances.  He waived the punt team off the field in the third quarter deep in his own territory and completed a fourth down pass to Clark to keep Indy in the game.  What happened after that was really more significant, however.  During that loss, Manning was battered because of ‘protection problems’ with the offensive line.  Over the offseason, Manning remade his entire game and added an element that took him to another level.  He spent the offseason learning to throw on the run more.  Essentially, he took ownership of his own ‘protection’ and made it so that pressure alone wasn’t enough to beat him.

2006 @New England. This game ultimately decided homefield for the AFC Championship game. During the game, Manning made the kind of signature, escape pressure, set his feet and throw plays that now we routinely see, that before 2006 we never did.  He hit Marvin for a 33 yard game, and Rodney Harrison was hurt on the play.  Watch the play.  It’s amazing.  This was the moment.  He had taken his game to a level no one had ever gone. If Indy doesn’t win this game, there is no 38-34. The Super Bowl was coming.

There were more great moments to come, but to me, it was this addition to his game that was astounding and touched off his unparalleled run from ’06-’09.  Other highlight moments:

Best throw: 2008 @Minnesota He hits Wayne on a sick throw on a rope to set up the winning field goal.

He can do anything game: 2009 @Miami.  15 minutes of T.o.P? Are you joking?

Single best game he may ever play: 2009 AFC Championship game.

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