INDIANAPOLIS — The record-breaking play some 17 years ago was like something drawn up by kids in the dirt. But it further established Peyton Manning as the NFL’s greatest quarterback at the line of scrimmage.
Manning secretly told receiver Brandon Stokley he would give him the “smash symbol” — a universal call players around the NFL know that signals the slot receiver runs a corner route and the outside receiver runs a hitch route — if the Chargers gave him a certain look at the line of scrimmage pre-snap.
Manning surveyed the line, and the Chargers gave him the look. He turned left to Stokley, who was in the slot, opened up one hand, balled up the other hand and started pounding it, as if he wanted Stokley and Reggie Wayne, who was lined up out wide, to run the “smash” play. Stokley looked back at Manning nodding his head in agreement.
Wayne ran the short hitch, but Stokley did something different, something none of the other nine offensive players on the field knew was coming.
He started to the corner, but then broke to the middle on a route where he was open by almost 10 yards on Manning’s 49th touchdown pass of the season, breaking the single-season mark for touchdowns in a season, set in 2004.
“The Chargers fell for it hook, line and sinker,” Stokley said. “That showed Peyton’s next-level thinking. The play was kind of drawn up in the dirt, nothing we discussed prior. Peyton was the originator of taking the game to the next level at the line of scrimmage. The precedents were set by him, and you see so many quarterbacks in the league taking that same approach at the line of scrimmage. Peyton is responsible for 99.9% of that.”
Manning and his 71,940 yards passing, 539 touchdown passes and two Super Bowl titles headline the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame class which will be inducted Sunday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). His speech will likely be as detailed as his game preparation was throughout his 17-year playing career. Don’t be surprised if Manning drops a few “Omaha, Omaha” or some “Apple, Apple” references during his speech to get everybody laughing in reference to some of his most memorable audible calls.
And as funny as some of Manning’s calls at the line of the scrimmage were, there was an art, or even a science, to phrases the quarterback used.
“Balboa, Balboa” meant the play would go to the left because the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa was left-handed.
“Ice cream, ice cream” meant be patient because there was nothing there as Manning analyzed the defense.
“Every time a defense thought they had Peyton figured out, they quickly learned they hadn’t,” Stokley said. “The words would often change by the week because teams could use the TV copy and pick up what he was saying. Sometimes he’d use the same word, but the play would be different. Everything was done with precision.”
“Peyton changed how a quarterback was playing everywhere in football. Because he controlled everything at the line of scrimmage,” said former Colts general manager Bill Polian, who selected Manning No. 1 overall in 1998. “And so, nowadays in high school you see kids doing that, everywhere in college they’re doing it. It’s being done to great effect in the NFL. And that’s his legacy, the fact that he was able to control the game by a pre-snap look, play selection, post-snap execution all by himself with just game-plan help from the coaches — it was a giant step forward for the position.”
It wasn’t simply see the defensive formation, take the snap and throw the ball as the reasons why Manning was able to dissect defenses on a regular basis.
Intellect. Football instinct. And it also didn’t hurt that Manning’s father, Archie, also played in the NFL.
Polian noticed it months before the Colts selected Manning over Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf with the first pick.
Manning walked into his meeting with the Colts during the 1998 combine with a yellow legal pad in hand. The notepad wasn’t for show, it had a number of questions on there for Polian and his staff.
The roles were reversed. Manning wanted to make sure the Colts would be the type of organization for which he would want to play.
“He asked a number of questions about the offense, about the team, about the offensive philosophy, etc., and then all of a sudden — you know you only get 20 minutes in that interview, and they blow a horn when it’s over with — and the horn blew, and we looked at each other, and man, we didn’t get any questions in, he asked them all,” Polian said. “… He left the room, and we said, ‘Holy mackerel, he interviewed us, not the other way around.'”
“Demanding” is a word often associated with Manning by those who coached or played with him during his career.
Manning was working hard, so he demanded the same from everybody else. It didn’t matter if it was the final player on the roster, the coaching staff, ball boys, even the janitor at the team’s facility.
“He redefined the culture of an organization,” former Colts center and current ESPN analyst Jeff Saturday said. “Like, that role as the QB, he really was a coach on the field and in the building. The way that he conducted himself, you know, staying in Indy in the offseasons, I mean like really, really becoming part of the team and challenging at every level, whether it was management, coaching staff, other players. Those things to me were what really separated him.”
Former Colts offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen added, “It wasn’t confrontational, it wasn’t disrespectful, but you just, out of respect, you came prepared to meetings. You didn’t walk into a meeting unprepared and just thinking, ‘Hey, I’ll wing it, I didn’t have a chance to prepare.’
“You better be ready, you better have your information correct, and you better present it well.”
Manning’s preparation for a game didn’t start the week of or two weeks prior to facing the opponent. Teams would often have 4-6 games of its opponent in the system to review. Manning, being his normal meticulous self, wasn’t satisfied with just those games. He often requested to have 10 games available to breakdown.
But here’s the catch.
Manning would break down five of those games himself to help with the preparation process. He would then meet with his position coach or offensive coordinator to go over the tendencies he saw out of the defense. Manning wanted to make sure he was ready for every possible look a defense would give him.
“He’s highly unusual,” former Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “You will never find anybody in the history of the game that works like he worked. No one. I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of hard workers, coaches and players, no one measures up to him.”
Ryan actually thought there was a time when it felt like he figured out Manning. In the days leading up to the 2006 playoff game against the Colts, Ryan, then the defensive coordinator of the Ravens, told linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed they would win if they could keep Manning and his offense out the end zone.
The Ravens didn’t give up a touchdown and intercepted Manning twice. But they also didn’t win the game. Manning led the Colts into Baltimore territory enough times to get five Adam Vinatieri field goals to win the game.
So all of Ryan’s countless hours of no sleep, staying overnight at the facility, drawing up schemes he thought would work, failed more times than not, as Manning found just enough ways to decipher what the Ravens — and many other defenses — were doing.
“I had my ass kicked by him so many times,” Ryan said. “It was un-freaking-believable. Like I look at myself as, you know, I thought I was the f—ing best. You know what I mean, I did. And I’d get my ass kicked all the time by him … what’s funny is, if you look at my record overall, if you take out Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, mine would be ridiculous. My record would be incredible. But facing those two cats — it was unreal.”
Colts owner Jim Irsay often referred to the offense under Manning as putting up Star Wars-type numbers. The Colts finished in the top five in the league in yards and points per game in nine of Manning’s 13 seasons. The Broncos, whom Manning joined in 2012 and finished his career with, did it in three of his four seasons with the organization.
“If you’re in a thunderstorm and you’re on an airplane, you want a pilot like that,” Irsay said. “If you’re over fighting in war time or something, you want a leader like that. I mean this guy knew what he was doing. It showed, and I think like Tiger Woods affected so many young golfers, he affected so many young quarterbacks.
“I mean they watched Peyton, and they never had really seen anything quite like it. I mean there is no one that you could compare that to — what he did at the line of scrimmage and how noticeable it was. That’s why in 100 years there is only one Peyton Manning.”