He’s called his last “Omaha!”
Humbled by age and confronted with a script even he couldn’t flip, Peyton Manning called it a career some two weeks shy of 40.
A chronically sore throwing shoulder and some deep bruises to his reputation recently — one, a sexual harassment claim dating back to his college days; the second, allegations he used human growth hormone during his lost 2011 season — may have affected the timing. It probably didn’t hurt, either, that Manning’s chance to walk away a champion owed more to the quality of Denver’s defense than his own diminished skills.
We’ll know more when he speaks at a Monday news conference the Broncos scheduled for a formal announcement, including whether — and how — he intends to hang around the game. Either way, Manning takes with him into retirement a king’s ransom, two Super Bowl rings, five MVP awards, 18 seasons of superlatives and more passing records than he can count.
But the best don’t just win, they change the game. And what distinguished Manning from all the rocket arms and daredevils who turned the quarterbacking position into the most glamorous in sports — think Tom Brady and Joe Montana — is that he often did his best work before the snap. Somehow, he made homework seem sexy.
Manning approached every down like a high-speed game of chess for which he was singularly prepared. On those rare occasions when he couldn’t decipher an opponent’s next move, he cycled through an often-hilarious string of hand signals and audibles at the line to buy time until he could.
“Omaha” became the best known. But Manning was just as likely to bark “Richmond!” or “Pickle!” or “Yo-yo!” At least once, microphones picked up a call that sounded suspiciously like “Bags Montana Fat Man.” Yet no one who played alongside him doubted where that choreography would lead.
“He seems to know what people are going to do,” former Colts receiver Austin Collie marveled after Manning’s last game in Indianapolis, “before they do.”
That was January 24, 2010, right after Manning beats the Jets and their top-ranked defense 30-17 in the AFC Championship. New York led 17-13 at intermission, but coach Rex Ryan panicked when his team’s opening second-half drive stalled and attempted a 52-yard field goal. It failed, and on the Colts’ ensuing drive, Manning called an audible on every play and cobbled together the go-ahead score. In some important ways, that game encapsulated Manning’s career.
Afterward, Ryan acknowledged the dilemma every coach who ran into Manning faced: He was so well prepared, he made you doubt your best instincts. He forced you to try to pile up as many points as you can, anyway you can. Because it was just a matter of time before he figured out how you’re attacking and adjusted his blocking schemes and receiver’s routes — “Omaha! Omaha!” — and then you were done. He’d done the same thing to Bill Belichick, another bona fide defensive genius, earlier that same season with the same result.
In the run-up to that Jets game, Manning stopped most mornings at a local doughnut shop, then collected backup QB Jim Sorgi and handful of assistants and poured the coffee. He made them watch movies of Ryan’s defensive schemes all day, day after day, going back to his time as an assistant in Baltimore. Even bathroom breaks had to be cleared with the boss.
“2005 Colts-Ravens,” Manning said after the win, calling the videotape of that game the best nugget he unearthed that week. “I just picked a game, but guys tend to go back to things that worked. So we really grinded on him.”
Archie Manning, a good quarterback who got stuck on lousy teams, said his middle son became a student of the game at Tennessee. Younger brother Eli, though, remembered it differently. After the first of his own two Super Bowl wins, he recalled a young Peyton making him play center in backyard games for an entire summer, learning to snap the ball with the laces up because Peyton was moving from flag football to tackle.
“Maybe,” Eli joked at the time, “I can be a receiver now.”
No matter when that unsparing approach was forged, it was evident in his first NFL job interview. Bill Polian, an ESPN analyst who built those great Colts teams, was tasked with choosing between Manning or Ryan Leaf for the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft.
“Considering what’s at stake, I’ve got a long list of questions ready,” Polian said. “Instead, he sits down, opens his briefcase and takes out a list of 25 questions he has for us — technical football questions, questions about our offensive approach, our personnel priorities, practice priorities and so on.
“He said,” the former GM recalled, chuckling, “that he wanted to be sure he was going to be with an organization that was dedicated to winning.”
He wasn’t kidding, either.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org or http://twitter.com/JimLitke