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Manning Ranks Among NFL’s Best Ever

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Peyton Manning will be among the first Indianapolis Colts to arrive at Sun Life Stadium this afternoon. He has a little light reading planned.

"I always read the game day program front to back," he said. "The Super Bowl one takes a little longer. The one in Indianapolis I have memorized by Week 4."

Manning's next exercise will involve reading a defense renowned for assaulting the quarterback and taking away the football. The Colts play the New Orleans Saints this evening in Super Bowl XLIV and a victory would put Manning in noble company.

Only 10 quarterbacks have won more than one Super Bowl. Seven are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Manning could become No. 11 and with his already oh-so-impressive resume, the debate over who is the greatest quarterback ever would have a brightly burnished candidate.

"I decided four or five years ago that he's the best I've ever seen," said Joe Namath, a hall of fame member and triggerman of the New York Jets' historic upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III

"Believe me," said Sonny Jurgensen a star Washington Redskins slinger who played before the Super Bowl era, "when he finishes, there won't be any records left."

But best ever? Jurgensen favors old No. 19, his hall of fame colleague, the Baltimore Colts' John Unitas.

Many other experts tag Joe Montana, winner of four Super Bowls and three Super Bowl MVP awards.

Bart Starr won the first two Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers He wonders how one could pretend to compile a definitive list, although he fingers long-time Packer turned Minnesota Viking Brett Favre as his guy.

"You look at so many others in different eras and it's hard to mention one or two and not mention so many others who've done similar type things," Starr said. "But Peyton is somewhere right at the top of all of them."

The Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks doesn't closely resemble the original. It isn't carved in stone. It's fluid, and in the minds of many, Manning would move higher if the Colts win tonight.

Tributes, in word and deed

A survey of the 50 Pro Football Hall of Fame electors produced 18 responses and a range of rankings.

Seventeen put Montana among their top five quarterbacks, with Unitas next at 15, Manning at 14 and 1940s and '50s Cleveland Browns star Otto Graham at 13. No. 1 all-time went to Montana with seven votes, followed by Unitas with five and Manning with two.

On the other hand, asked which quarterback in his prime would be their choice around whom to build a franchise, Manning was No. 1 with seven votes.

That suggests a considerable remaining upside, which was substantiated by the observations of several voters that there could be more Super Bowl appearances in Manning's future. At 33 he is still improving, every season and in every way, Colts coach Jim Caldwell said.

Manning? He deftly parried an inquiry about what a second Super Bowl title would mean to him personally.

"There are too many 'I's in that question," he said.

The succession of coaches who this season devised game plans against Manning are sold.

"Nobody's better," the Baltimore Ravens' John Harbaugh said.

"I love Peyton Manning. He's the best I've ever seen," the New York Jets' Rex Ryan pledged.

"We faced greatness today," Seattle's Jim Mora testified.

"We'll be watching football for a long time and you're not going to ever see one that plays the game the way he's played it at a high level for a long period of time," gushed Gary Kubiak, whose Houston Texans are 1-15 against Manning.

Leave it to gruff, unadorned Bill Belichick, the New England Patriot's distant genius, to cut glory's glare.

"You can say whatever you want in January, February or the day before the game, but when you really get into those situations you can't bluff anymore," Belichick said. "You have to get out there and play your cards and do what you want to do in that situation. That's where you see what teams and players and strategies, that's what they're all about."

On fourth-down-and-2 at the Patriots 28-yard-line nursing a six-point lead with 2:08 to play on Nov. 15 at Lucas Oil Stadium Belichick wasn't bluffing. He went for it. He was willing to play any card to avoid giving the football back to Manning.

The Colts stopped the Patriots and Manning finished with a final-minute scoring pass for a 35-34 victory. Over the final 14 minutes, the Colts had gulped a 31-14 deficit. Manning was 9-for-11 for 119 yards and two touchdowns over that stretch.

To punt or not to punt? Question Belichick's choice, but understand his reason.

Leading man

One subject upon which there is universal agreement is Manning's command of a Colts offense that might be the most sophisticated in football history.

The Colts very rarely huddle. Manning approaches the line of scrimmage with two or three plays sent in by offensive coordinator Tom Moore. Manning can select one, or based on his read of the defense's front, intentions and vulnerabilities, "audible" to any page in the Colts playbook.

"He's taken it all to a different level," said Dan Marino, another hall of fame quarterback. "Him calling plays at the line is like having a coach on the field."

Said New Orleans' Drew Brees, Manning's counterpart tonight: "It seems like it doesn't matter who they plug into the mix: things don't ever stop, they don't miss a beat."

Through seven consecutive seasons of 12 or more victories , Manning has been the constant. The Colts went 14-2 this season with a running game that ranked last in the NFL They had wide receivers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon in the lineup -- a rookie and a second-year player who caught four passes last season.

Manning's command extends far beyond the line of scrimmage.

Joe Horrigan, the Pro Football Hall of Fame's longtime public-relations man, came to the Colts' first preseason game last August for the formal presentation to Manning of the 2008 Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player Award.

It was halftime, at midfield. Manning was there. So was Colts owner Jim Irsay, club president Bill Polian, a representative of the Associated Press and Horrigan. All shuffled nervously.

"Everybody was wondering what they were supposed to do," Horrigan recalled. ".'Is Jimmy going to say something? Is somebody else going to say something?' No one knew.

"Peyton says, 'OK, here's what we're going to do: I'm going to hold the trophy. You stand here, you stand here, you stand here. He'll say this, we'll do that.' He just took it over. We're here to honor him and he took over the show."

That's Manning.

Primed to play

Where does it all come from? The underpinning is a mythic appetite for preparation.

Manning traces that to the University of Tennessee, where he realized he could outrun almost no one and defenders were as well equipped to stop him as he was to throw through them. He decided he would earn his edge by outworking them, outpreparing them.

It truth, it predates that.

"When I was in sixth grade and he was in fourth grade, I'd be out shooting hoops," said Peyton's brother Cooper. "He'd be in there putting in his two hours on math and social studies. He was all business about getting things done and being prepared and not having anything surprise him."

Colts quarterbacks coach Frank Reich doesn't recall the precise circumstances of his first meeting with Manning, only that the quarterback crackled with intensity. In time, Reich's cell phone began ringing with text messages: Manning watching film, at home at night, in his hotel room, anywhere, any time. He sends a thought, a wrinkle, a new play.

Reich marveled at the diligence.

"He doesn't come to a meeting prepared for what he's going to do Sunday," Reich said. "He's prepared for the meeting."

Manning is the son of southern privilege. His father, Archie, is a southern football icon, his mother, Olivia, a former Ole Miss homecoming queen. Yet Peyton is boot-heel tough and as durable as he is efficient. He hasn't missed a start in his 12-year career He has missed a single play because of injury.

It happened when Miami's Lorenzo Bromell landed a helmet-to-jaw blow during a 2000 game.

Manning picked himself up. Offensive tackle Adam Meadows looked at him.

"Dude, you just don't look right," Meadows said. "You'd better go out."

Manning went to the sideline. Mark Rypien went into the game. There was a fumble on the next handoff, the Dolphins recovered and were on their way to victory. Manning came back in with a broken jaw.

"I've kind of always held that against myself for coming out that one play," he said.

That kind of passion comes from somewhere deep.

Don't rush him

If you want to plumb the depths of Manning's commitment to being his best, to being the best, go to Archie, who played 11 of his 13 NFL seasons with the New Orleans Saints.

"I remember the first time Peyton played on this little organized baseball team," Archie said. "It wasn't T-ball, it was coach-pitch and they weren't very good; they got beat pretty bad every game. After the game the coach would always tell them they tied. I'd be driving them home and he'd say, 'Man, that coach must really think we're stupid or something. We're getting beat so bad.'

"I always thought from that day Peyton never liked to get beat very much."

Manning is the NFL's lone four-time Most Valuable Player. He is among the league's top four in career completions, passing yards, touchdowns and starting victories. He is 33, healthy, hungry and improving. Favre just completed his finest season at 40.

Manning could become the 11th quarterback with two Super Bowl rings this evening. Would he also become the best?

Maybe the better question is, what's the rush? Enjoy the ride.

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