Peyton Manning's legacy defined by absurd production, legendary preparation

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Peyton Manning entered the NFL with as much pressure as almost any player in the game’s modern history. He eventually left the game as one of pro football's all-time best QB craftsmen, having answered the one big question that once plagued him in the early going and cementing his legacy as one of the greatest to ever do it.

The son of a former NFL quarterback, Manning had a brilliant four-year career at Tennessee but was branded as not being able to win the proverbial big one. Although he edged out Ryan Leaf for the top spot in the 1998 draft, many at the time felt Leaf had the higher ceiling as a player.

Fancy that.

In his brilliant 18-year career — matching the uniform number he chose to honor Johnny Unitas — Manning became one of the most decorated quarterbacks of all time with the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.

"There's something about 18 years,” Manning said at his emotional retirement speech in 2016. "Eighteen is a good number."

Peyton Manning, right, wasn't able to finish his career in a Colts unifform, but he remains beloved by the team's fan base and owner Jim Irsay. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Peyton Manning, right, wasn't able to finish his career in a Colts unifform, but he remains beloved by the team's fan base and owner Jim Irsay. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Along the way he won five Associated Press MVP awards, made 14 Pro Bowls and threw for more than 4,000 yards 14 times, including a single-season record 5,477 in 2013. Manning also set the mark for TD passes in a season with 55, five more than anyone else has ever logged in a single year.

Manning is third all time in pass yards and passing TDs for his career, behind only Tom Brady and Drew Brees for both marks. His 54 game-winning drives and 43 fourth-quarter comebacks both rank first in league history.

He was as no-brain a Pro Football Hall of Fame selection for this year's class as there might reasonably ever be. He'll be formally inducted this weekend in Canton, Ohio. 

Peyton Manning not clutch? That was the early knock

If there was a blemish on his record, it came early in his career when Manning set regular-season records but fared far less well in the playoffs. He lost his first three postseason games, struggling in each, and faced questions about his performances in the clutch after back-to-back postseason losses to the New England Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 seasons, and a home playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2005 season.

Those final three losses all came to the eventual Super Bowl champions. Through his first eight seasons, and despite seven straight seasons with 12 or more victories, Manning had no Super Bowls to his name and an incomplete resume.

That changed after 2006. The Super Bowl curse was broken when Manning and the Colts roared back to beat nemesis Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC title game, followed by a victory in Super Bowl XLI over the Chicago Bears in Miami. For the cherry on top, Manning was named the game’s MVP, besting arguably the league's best defense that season.

Peyton Manning finally could raise the Lombardi Trophy after the Indianpolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. (Photo by Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Peyton Manning finally could raise the Lombardi Trophy after the Indianpolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. (Photo by Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Asked after the game if he'd slayed the notion that he wasn’t a clutch performer, Manning never bit at the chance to show up his naysayers.

“I’ve never played that card,” he said. “I’ve never bought into that.”

Although Manning suffered other bitter playoff losses after that, including losses in Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos, his career ended on a high note — even during a mentally and physically trying season during which he was benched — with a victory in Super Bowl 50, making him the first starting quarterback to win the Super Bowl for more than one franchise.

Manning's rare second act in Denver

Manning left the Colts after missing the entire 2011 season with a major neck injury. Some feared he might never play again. When the Colts earned the top pick in the 2012 draft, with once-in-a-generation prospect Andrew Luck eligible, Manning’s exit was inevitable, even as absurd as that concept would have seemed six months prior.

Manning took the high road on his way out of Indianapolis.

“Thank you for letting me be your quarterback,” he said at his farewell to the Colts. But Manning merely was gearing up for his second act.

After choosing the Broncos in one of the biggest free-agent derbies of all time, Manning authored only the sixth seven-TD game ever, won the MVP in 2013 and led Denver to two more Super Bowls, winning his walk-off performance — even if he was past his prime by the end.

Even not at his peak, Manning was capable of greatness. He relied more on his instincts and elite preparation over his dwindling physical gifts. Manning found a way to reform his game, and it likely was possible because of his study habits over decades.

Manning's secret to his success: 'Become a master observer'

At a speech to the graduating class of 2014 at the University of Virginia, Manning credited his sustained success to his legendary preparation — and his willingness to see things through different lenses.

“If you ask me how long do I watch film to prepare, I couldn’t tell you because I never kept a clock,” Manning said. “I just watch until I feel ready. I watch and I prepare.

“I could actually get lost in the intense focus of figuring things out that others may never even look at. If you really want to become a game changer out there, become a master observer.”

Doing so allowed Manning to thrive during his peak years but also find significant success following his neck injury as his physical skills waned.

The retirement of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning gave us a window into his legendary preparation. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
The retirement of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning gave us a window into his legendary preparation. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Two years later, Manning was delivering his retirement speech in Denver. It went in deeper on why he prepared so maniacally for so long. Bottom line: It was his reverence for football.

"Pundits will speculate that my effort and drive over the past 18 years were about mastery and working to master every aspect of the NFL game. Well, don’t believe them," he said. "Because every moment, every drop of sweat, every bleary-eyed night of preparation, every note I took and every frame of film I watched was about one thing: reverence for this game.

"When I look back on my NFL career, I’ll know without a doubt that I gave everything I had to help my teams walk away with a win. There were other players who were more talented, but there was no one could out-prepare me, and because of that I have no regrets."

With that approach, Manning built a career that, even with interruptions, setbacks and disappointments along the way, stands up to almost any a quarterback has ever completed in the league’s history.

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