To the uninitiated football fan, the image of quarterback Peyton Manning standing behind center does not inspire much confidence.
There he stands, a seeming Gomer Pyle in striped pants, nervously gesticulating in every direction, frantically moving befuddled teammates, and countermanding his own orders with long lines of gibberish. Even in the pocket, he moves as if he were on hot coals, replacing the calm of a Joe Montana with the happy feet of a Riverdance troupe. His throws often wobble in a way that would make John Elway blush.
But to this Southern boy with the baby face, football has never been a matter of style points, but rather of unraveling defenses for touchdowns and extra points. And this Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens, Manning could break the record for touchdown passes in a season - elbowing aside the Miami cool of Dan Marino for the controlled chaos of his Indianapolis Colt offense.
If he throws a mere three touchdowns in the remaining three games of season, he will surpass Marino's two-decade-old record of 48. On the one hand, his aerial blitzkrieg is a product of the times, as the National Football League increasingly uses its rules to promote the excitement of the forward pass.
Yet it is also the product of a rare football mind, at first nurtured by football's first family and now driven by a desire to piece together the ever-changing puzzle of X's and O's. "He is one of the most intense athletes I have ever been around," says Paul Attner of the Sporting News, who has met Manning several times. "To him, the game is about learning and studying and being prepared - obsessively."
On the sidelines, amid throngs of chest-painted hooligans and strategically clothed cheerleaders, he turns the spectacle of pro football into an office job minus the tie and briefcase. After each offensive series, he retreats to his own worktable where he talks to coaches and reviews photos of the opposing defense's schemes and alignments. During the week, he dissects films with more scrutiny than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His notebooks might someday be seen as Leonardo da Vincis of the football world.
Manning, after all, is not the sort of fellow to leave much to chance. If Green Bay Packer Brett Favre is the Indiana Jones of the quarterbacking world, swashbuckling his way through opposing teams on talent and flair, then Manning is all Isaac Newton, looking beneath the surface to understand the mechanisms at work. To him, football is not an art but a science, with rules that can be understood, mastered, and applied.
"Peyton is never going to rely on his natural instincts," says Attner.
In some respects, that makes him a perfect fit for today's NFL, where playbooks swell to the size of phone books and defensive schemes can often seem like gridiron hieroglyphics - with feints, zones, blitzes, and their permutations for each week's opponent.
"[Deciphering defenses] is a little like trying to learn Chinese, and then realizing that there are 50 other dialects you haven't learned," says former quarterback Joe Theismann, who won the Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins in 1982.
With his cerebral approach to the game, Manning has become something of a coach on the field. In fact, he's the closest thing the NFL has to the quarterbacks of old who called their own plays. The Indianapolis coaches simply suggest several options for each play, then let Manning choose when the defense lines up in front of him - hence all the gesturing. In a time when the complexity of the sport is leading coaches to micromanage more of the play, Manning holds an unmatched level of authority.
Says Theismann: "Manning has mastered not only the language but the dialects."
It's no wonder. He's been speaking the language of screen passes and post patterns almost since the day he was born. His father, Archie, finished third in the Heisman trophy vote during his senior year at the University of Mississippi and was a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback with the New Orleans Saints in the 1970s. His younger brother, Eli, also a quarterback, was taken with the first pick in this year's draft.
"All his life has been about becoming a quarterback," says Attner.
Sunday, he stands ready to rewrite the record books. Clearly, he's had some help along the way - from the dream team of offensive stars assembled around him in Indianapolis to the league's desire to encourage more passing. After Manning's receivers were manhandled in last year's conference championship, the NFL strengthened its enforcement of defensive pass interference, and defenses have yet to adapt. The leaguewide passer rating is the highest in history.
"The original version [of pro football] was a pushing and shoving game - much more slow-moving," says Joe Horrigan of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "The trend [of rule changes] has favored the passing game because it makes the games more exciting."
Still, he and others say, Manning's season is special. Manning's 126.3 quarterback rating is some 14 points higher than the current record, held by Steve Young. Moreover, the Colts are on pace to break Minnesota's record for most points scored in a season: 556.
"In the years I've covered the NFL, very few times did I see an offense and say, 'How do you stop them?' " says Attner. "To me, that's more important than any stat."