55 TD Passes Good For 55th Bert Bell Award
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Leave it to Peyton Manning. Most quarterbacks, when faced with a career-threatening injury, set their sights on recapturing their old form. Peyton? He was determined to exceed it.
On March 7, 2012, Manning was released by the Indianapolis Colts, the organization he’d called home since leaving the University of Tennessee in 1998. It was a heart-wrenching business decision for both sides, one borne out of the reality that no one knew for certain if the quarterback would ever be physically the same again. Manning wasn’t attempting to climb his way back from a shoulder separation or an ACL tear, which would have been challenging enough for the then-36-year-old. No, he was looking to come back from multiple neck surgeries that were impinging his ability to throw the ball properly and without pain. And the cruel irony that the athletic career of older brother Cooper Manning ended because of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal, was not lost on Peyton during any stage of his own rehabilitation process.
That Manning even suited up again, kicking off a career with the Denver Broncos in 2012, was impressive enough; many doubted whether or not he’d have the arm strength to compete at his usually high standard of play. That he delivered arguably one of the greatest seasons ever by an NFL quarterback, winning the 55th annual Bert Bell Professional Player of the Year Award along the way, is nothing short of remarkable.
“Peyton worked so hard to get back on the field,” said his dad, Archie Manning. “Oh, the doctors did a great job, and the good Lord blessed him with the opportunity to play more football. But, between working with David Cutcliffe at Duke and going back and forth to Colorado, Peyton really put in the time that was needed. Jim Mora summarized my son the best when he said that football is very important to Peyton.”
In 2012, Manning let the football world know that he was indeed back. This past season, he dispatched unequivocally that he was better than ever. Wasn’t it just two years ago that the countdown to his Hall of Fame induction ceremony looked as if it might have already begun? Instead, the NFL was able to witness a reincarnation of the player who shredded opposing defenses with unmatched precision a full decade earlier in 2004.
It all began in 2013 with a seven-touchdown, no-pick performance in an opening night blowout of defending champion Baltimore, providing a little redemption for last year’s playoff loss to the Ravens. It was a resounding harbinger of things to come. Manning would go on to author the kind of season of which quarterback dreams are made. He clearly had the requisite numbers, highlighted by an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes, an NFL-record 5,477 yards passing and only 10 interceptions on 659 passing attempts. And Denver, not coincidentally, became the highest-scoring offense in the history of the game. Of far greater importance, though, Manning led his Broncos to a 13-3 regular season record, an AFC West title and the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in 15 years, back when current front office exec John Elway was still barking out signals at Mile High Stadium.
In a career filled with highlights and staggering numbers, Manning is still somehow peaking in his twilight. Football is a young man’s game. Manning, however, has defied the odds because anything less than excellence is simply unacceptable in his world. His meticulous commitment to the game is legendary and worthy of emulation from teammates and young quarterbacks across the league. Just how does the oldest starting quarterback in the NFL remain among the best starting quarterbacks in the NFL, despite staring down the barrel of an injury-induced retirement just two years ago? Dogged determination, the willingness to sacrifice in the pursuit of greatness and a feel for the game and the pocket that no surgery could ever erase.
“For a quarterback, time and experience can really help slow things down that are happening around you,” added Archie. “You never stop learning at this position. Peyton has never been afraid to say that he doesn’t know it all. There are a lot of smart defensive coaches in the NFL, and Peyton has made it a point to just keep learning every year that he’s on the field.”
For time immemorial, quarterbacks have made a living from the neck up. Ironically enough, it was the neck that almost ended Manning’s brilliant career a couple of years too soon. Peyton wasn’t about to go out that way. It’s not in his DNA to become some sympathetic victim of Father Time whose best moments require a remote control or a film room. Manning wasn’t done playing football, and he sure as heck wasn’t about to sully his legacy by showcasing some pitiful shell of his former self to a gawking public. This was never going to be Joe Namath in Los Angeles, Johnny Unitas in San Diego or Brett Favre in Minnesota.
“Considering where he was physically just a few years ago, what Peyton has done ought to go down as one of the greatest accomplishments ever in sports history,” injected Cutcliffe. “I love him as a quarterback, but I love him even more as a person. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the key to success in any discipline requiring 10,000 hours of practice. With Peyton, you get 10,000 hours of amazing quality. It’s really the Manning edge; that family’s standard of quality is simply well beyond what it is for most of us.”
Manning came back, willing himself out of a dark place and a dark time that required him to literally relearn the basics of throwing a football. He actually came back better than ever, testament to the spirit and the will of one of the sport’s all-time greatest competitors.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.