Eight football peers share their personal memories of taking the field with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
By LaVar Arrington
There’s a certain feeling you get when facing great quarterbacks. You want to play at their level, and I felt that in my preparation when playing Peyton. In my mind, I always felt truly prepared to play his game of cat and mouse.
He was the king of checking at the line of scrimmage and always watching the mannerisms of the defense. If you made one slight move, he’d adjust just as quick. He constantly found the weak spot in the defense, so the question then was, How can we limit him and extend his drive? If you could limit him, it was a good day, regardless of the game’s final outcome. But if you didn’t, it was long and frustrating.
I’ve been on both sides of that, and more often than not, defenses experienced the latter. However, there was one game, in 2002, when I got to him twice, and that was definitely one of the highlights of my career. It’s such a pleasure to tackle him or get a hit on him, because he had such a quick release and a ton of weapons to throw to. I didn’t have a Hall of Fame career, but I had good games against Hall of Famers. This one sticks out to me.
Another top moment was playing in three Pro Bowls during my seven years in the league. I’m such a fan of the game that I made sure to take in the entire experience. In my first game, I was wide-eyed at the list of greats standing next to me on the NFC sideline. Then I looked up, and Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis and Rod Woodson are standing across the field. Those guys, among others, were my heroes at some point in time, and it’s a pretty intense feeling to be around so many legends at once.
Peyton is a class act, which is more important to me than what he’s done on the field. I got to know him when playing against him in-season and in Pro Bowls and during my time playing with Eli in New York. Peyton is down to earth, a teacher of the game and an all-around awesome guy.
I feel fortunate to have made it to the NFL, and even more so that I was able to play against a guy who means so much to the history of our sport. When we get 10 or 15 years removed from his career, the type of tales we’ll hear about him will ring throughout time.
By Nate Burleson
I remember it like it was yesterday …
In my second season with the Minnesota Vikings, we played against the Indianapolis Colts at the RCA Dome on Monday night. It was a big stage and time for me to show my talents to everyone watching around the country.
Then they introduced Peyton Manning. I suddenly understood that this was a big stage for me, but this was his stage. It was a talent show for a lot of players, but he was the winner — and everyone knew that, no matter how the game played out.
I heard the crowd roar and they stood on their feet as Peyton came out of the tunnel. Every team has a guy who its fans take a liking to, but not every team has fans who give a truly genuine ovation to an active player. Sure, you see that when retired players or Hall of Famers come back, but I only heard a welcoming like that for an active player a few times in my 11-year career — Ray Lewis in Baltimore and Randy Moss in Minnesota are other instances. These types of guys don’t just command your respect — they demand it by their play. And that’s how Peyton was in Indianapolis.
Peyton was a guy in the middle of his career, and they embraced him as a living legend. We weren’t playing against your average quarterback. The guy was writing history.
Flash forward 11 years, and he was still writing it in 2015. With all of his injuries the last couple of seasons, I think we tend to overlook the fact that he was setting records until his final snap. Nowadays, players don’t stay in the league long enough to become a living legend. Most NFL legends are retired, and we should have honored the fact that he was still playing in 2015.
As an offensive player, facing Peyton and his team, which I did twice in my playing days, presented its challenges. On a week when we played an average quarterback, we focused on our game plan, and hopefully, if we did that and the defense did its job, we’d come out with a win. But when facing Peyton, our coaches were very vocal about how we had no choice but to light up the scoreboard, because Peyton’s ability to spread the ball and get into the end zone seemed automatic at that point in his career. In those games, it doesn’t really matter how good your defense is, and that’s not a knock on any defense I was with. It’s a credit to how good Peyton was.
I remember watching him during a prime-time game and thinking, “He’s literally one step ahead on every single play.” It was so obvious. He let the ball go before defenders were in their place. That’s when I realized just how good he was. He was unstoppable at that point in his career.
Peyton has never been the most physically imposing guy on the field, but some would say he’s the smartest. There’s something to be said about an intelligent player, and he became smarter and smarter with each season that passed. Every player’s body starts to slow down at one point, but your football IQ doesn’t have to have a ceiling.
I’ve talked to guys who’ve played with Peyton, and they say he’s like a coach — where the offensive coordinator sat back and gave him the clicker, and Peyton conducted the meeting. Tell me how many quarterbacks do that? I don’t know of any. That speaks volumes to where intelligence can take (and keep) you in this league.
We’ve all learned something from Peyton, and we’re finding out just how many young players he’s had an impact on. We’ve all had players who we try to emulate, and there are a lot of guys trying to be Peyton.
By David Carr
Coming into the league as the quarterback of a brand-new organization (Houston Texans in 2002), my rookie season was full of firsts.
It was like landing on the moon for Houston any time anything happened. With a very young offense, we were just trying to get our feet on the ground in those first couple of years, and the quarterback fraternity — including the veterans in the newly formed AFC South (Indy’s Peyton Manning, Jacksonville’s Mark Brunell and Tennessee’s Steve McNair) — really helped me stay positive through those years. They were all great to me and would call in the offseason because they’d already been down the road I was on.
The conversations I had with Peyton on the field, though, were the best, because it was right after the moment — usually, they’d just beat us by 30. He’d commonly say, “Keep your head up, man,” and give me words of encouragement. He wasn’t necessarily worried about getting in the locker room and carrying out his postgame agenda — he would genuinely talk to me for a while.
We played against Peyton twice every season, and the more I played against him and studied his film, the more I realized he wasn’t your average quarterback. His preparation was always evident. He had an answer for every defensive scheme that was thrown at him, as if he’d sat through defensive meetings. He was never surprised on the field, and that’s probably the biggest compliment I could give him. He never let a defense dictate what might happen, and there was never a situation where he didn’t know what was happening or how to correct it.
It’s intimidating, as a quarterback, looking over at the 11 guys on defense. Trust me when I tell you, teams have tried everything against Peyton, especially when they were rolling, and he was never fazed. I remember watching the Colts play Baltimore in prime time, and the Ravens‘ defense caused problems for all teams that season. Peyton went into Baltimore, scored a handful of touchdowns and walked away with a win like it was nothing.
The way Peyton read defenses was on another level. We had a lot of common opponents, and in watching his film, I noticed how great his timing and anticipation were. There was a play where he threw the ball to Marvin Harrison outside the numbers. But at the time when Peyton released the ball, Marvin was in the middle of the field. Marvin passed two or three defenders, caught the ball perfectly in stride and went down the sideline for a touchdown. Peyton knew exactly what was going to happen 20 yards away, and to this day, I haven’t seen a quarterback make that type of play as well as he did.
Another thing that made Peyton such an incredible quarterback was his knowledge. The only guy who I could say is as smart as him is Eli, which is just good genes. I sat in meetings with Eli for four years in New York, and his football knowledge is unbelievable. Peyton is right there with him. He’s always a step ahead, and his football IQ is one of the reasons he played in the league for so long. Even though his body started to decline, he was still the smartest guy on the field — and that includes coaches. There’s something to be said for that.
In the 10 meetings we had, nine of which I started for the Texans, we beat Peyton one time — Week 16 of the 2006 season, the year the Colts won the Super Bowl. As the opposing quarterback, it was always a challenge trying to keep up with Peyton because you knew he was going to score on almost every drive. If we punted one time, the game was over. Physically, we weren’t on the same level and didn’t have the weapons. We had to play above ourselves, and we managed to do it once.
After the game, even though he lost and didn’t secure home-field advantage in the playoffs, Peyton still spent time talking to me. Win or lose, he’s the same guy — the worthy opponent.
By Marshall Faulk
It’s hard to predict how the career of a first overall draft pick will pan out. But when Peyton showed up to the Indianapolis Colts‘ training camp in 1998, it was pretty clear what path he was about to head down.
In the spring of that year, Peyton had somewhat of an idea of the playbook, but a few months later, he showed up to training camp and knew the whole thing. That never happens. We knew that, mentally, he was going to be prepared, and it was only a matter of time before he physically caught up to the speed of the game.
I was so excited to have him as a teammate because I saw that he was a winner coming out of college. He was a guy of whom greatness was expected and greatness was accomplished. Having both grown up in New Orleans — although having very different upbringings — we shared a lot of the same sports stories. Our love for football was similar, and we saw the game through the same set of eyes.
It was comforting having him as a teammate because he was so sure of himself. It’s not often that a young guy comes in, is comfortable in his own skin and embraces the role of coming in as a first overall pick or a leader. He handled everything around the organization and basically said, “Hey guys, don’t do as I say but follow me.”
Peyton’s readiness for any situation was refreshing. If I forgot something or didn’t know, he did. On the flipside, though, if he didn’t know, he wasn’t afraid to ask and lean on me or other teammates, either. Along with seeing his intensity, I was able to see the more relaxed side of Peyton, which a lot of people don’t get to see. There’s always a joke with him underneath the seriousness. He was always breaking the ice and reminding everyone to have fun while not forgetting to take care of business.
It was nearly flawless how he handled situations in his first season, when the Colts had a 3-13 record. He was able to shrug off anything, whether he threw an interception, got knocked down or we lost. He was always moving forward to the next week. All of the things coaches and players want in their quarterback — being able to process wins and losses, learn from them and move forward — Peyton had.
After I was traded to St. Louis the following season, I was able to watch him as a fan (unless we were playing each other). It was a different feeling, but we understood the business.
During his career, Peyton set so many trends. He brought the game back to when quarterbacks called their own plays. He sped up the game and applied pressure on defensive coordinators. A lot of concepts that are done on the field today are things that Peyton and then-Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore created.
Looking back on all of Peyton’s records, awards and achievements, I felt like this was going to be his career from the moment I played with him so many years ago. He came into the league with the knowledge of what was in front of him, and he knew what he was capable of. He’s rewritten the record books, all while being a great teammate and himself.
By Steve Mariucci
I’ve coached against a lot of great quarterbacks. By great, I’m talking Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, Tom Brady, John Elway, Brett Favre, and the list goes on. … But Peyton was the master of the chess game.
When he came into the NFL, he brought the league back to its early days, when quarterbacks called their own plays. Players like Terry Bradshaw, Bob Griese and Johnny Unitas all did it — mainly because, during their days, there were fewer coaches, less volume in the playbook, less variety of defensive schemes — but nonetheless, it was a lot to put on the quarterback. But when the game became more specialized with more plays, coaches decided to take back that responsibility, and I think the players liked that.
When I coached Steve Young, I gave him an option of two plays on third-and-7. He turned to me and said, “Just call a play.” Some guys just want to be told what to do, and if they have to check three times a game, they’ll do it. With Peyton, that wasn’t the case.
Peyton challenged the defense — and defensive coordinators, for that matter — because he called the game, more often than not, from the line of scrimmage. If he saw his opponent sitting in two-deep zone, he’d call a play to beat it. He did that on every play. On top of that, the defense had to figure him out without a huddle because he ran a no-huddle offense most of the time. Defenses went against it in a two-minute drill and occasionally when facing one or two other teams, but it wasn’t that common when Peyton came into the league. He not only called plays from the line of scrimmage more, but he did it better. Most of the time, we just hoped he guessed wrong.
The state of the league is better having had him in it. The way Peyton quarterbacked was beneficial to all — not just other quarterbacks, but offensive coordinators at every level. He showed everyone that a smart guy who works hard can manage the game on the fly and can put his team in a position to be successful. It was so hard to crack Peyton’s code, because you thought you knew what “Omaha” meant, and it would change week to week. He was always one step ahead and set a new way of doing things.
From a coach’s standpoint, I really loved that Peyton enjoyed the whole process, not just the big games. He enjoyed going to the Pro Bowl — a game that some guys skip if they’re a little nicked — and training camp and preparing each week. He was so committed and passionate about getting all the knowledge he could out of every day of his career. He loved the whole calendar year.
There are so many things players, coaches or spectators can learn from Peyton. When it comes to addressing the media and answering tough questions in a professional manner, he was as good as they come. If I was still coaching, I’d make a reel of how to conduct yourself after a loss or benching or a long win streak. Peyton’s been through every situation, and he’s been amazing in the limelight. He was the complete package, and when talking about a face and voice for the Colts organization, he was a slam dunk.
Peyton has accomplished so much in his career and it was such a fitting end for him to win Super Bowl 50. Even with going out on top, it had to be a hard decision for him to retire because we’ve seen it before — Brett Favre didn’t want to quit, and the same thing with Jerry Rice. People say NFL players can’t let it go because it’s all they know, but that’s not it. Playing football is what they love, and they’ve been so good at it for so long. It’s where they get their kicks and joy, and they don’t want to let it go.
Peyton’s journey was great, but all good things come to an end. Luckily, he’ll be talked about for decades.
By Willie McGinest
Although many might forget, my experiences against Peyton go back further than Brady-Manning I. The Colts were in the AFC East — before the division realignment in 2002 — when Peyton came into the league.
Facing Peyton in his first year, we really wanted to test him, to see if he was as good as a first overall pick should be. There are a lot of first picks that don’t pan out, mainly because there are a lot of sophisticated defenses in the league. In Peyton’s first season, he struggled — but quickly made adjustments and rarely made the same mistake twice. That was key in his progression. If young quarterbacks learn and adjust, they have a shot. Peyton certainly did.
As a defense, we not only had to prepare for Peyton differently than other quarterbacks, but we had to prepare differently each time we faced him. He was a student of the game and watched tape of defenses and defensive coordinators, designing and adjusting game plans based off what he saw. It was like playing chess with him. He may give you the same look, but he’d fool you with something else. Things aren’t as they appear with Peyton, and he’s one of the only quarterbacks who really tested our defense in that way.
We had to be extremely disciplined on defense, and it took a lot of focus. If there was any hole or gap, he was going to find it. But at the same time, you had to attack him and find ways to take a chance and not get hurt.
I was 9-4 against Peyton in my career, but none of those nine wins came easily, and I was only able to get to him a few times. He wasn’t very mobile, but one thing that made him hard to sack was he knew where the blitzes were coming from. He was a top-five quarterback in the league almost every year, so he knew to get the ball out and didn’t take a lot of hits.
One meeting between us stands out: the 2003 AFC Championship Game. It was our most perfectly executed game, and it worked the entire game. We frustrated Peyton and got him out of rhythm, which rarely ever happened because he was so good at turning things around no matter how poorly he or the team was playing. We were able to rattle him in a way that we had never done before.
No matter the outcomes, it was always a battle with Peyton. I loved playing in those games because he was one of the best. He was great for the game and brought out the best in his opponents.
By Ike Taylor
Some people shy away when facing greatness, but I lived for those moments.
They didn’t come often, but anytime a cornerback can play Peyton Manning in the regular season or Tom Brady in the postseason, it’s time to prove what you’re made of. Peyton certainly pushed my limits in the four meetings we had during my 12-year career with the Steelers.
Peyton made me maximize my study habits and preparation during the weeks in which we faced him. If there was an off day during the week when playing against another quarterback, you weren’t taking that day off against Peyton. He made everybody, not just his own teammates, better. He helped the game that way.
The thing about Peyton is, he’s always been a step ahead of most players mentally. Even with his deteriorating body late in his career, he knew exactly where to go with the ball. That’s why he was able to play for so many years. He understood the older you get, the more mentally sound you have to be. He’s a technician, but he didn’t just develop those skills. He had those coming into the league.
Sometimes I could get away with a few things and not give up a big play, depending on the opposing QB’s arm strength, offensive system or football IQ. But if I was facing the Peyton Mannings of the league, forget it. There was no room for error, and I found that out during our very first play together.
The Colts had so many weapons during the 2005 season with Edgerrin James, Dallas Clark, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, and Peyton’s play-action pass was — and still is — probably the best I’ve ever seen. Whether he was handing the ball off or throwing it, everything looked the same. As a corner, you really had to be on your keys — and this time, I wasn’t.
Harrison was my guy, and I loved that challenge because I felt like I was that guy for the Steelers, too. On the opening play of the Colts‘ first possession, Peyton made me pay for my mistake. I took just a half step, not even … I hesitated because I thought he was handing the ball off. Harrison ran past me and scored on an 80-yard touchdown. He got me, but I responded and only let Harrison get three more catches.
After we lost that game, Peyton told me, “Other than that first play, you’re one of the few that’s held Marvin like that.” A compliment like that from a future Hall of Famer really means something.
Peyton brought out the best in me as a player, and I wish our teams met more often. He’s one of the greatest to ever play the game and has set the standard for everyone who follows.
By LaDainian Tomlinson
Peyton made every aspect of the game a thing of beauty. The way he worked throughout the game, his ability to control a crowd, calling the game from the line of scrimmage … everything.
I played in some real battles against him, most notably in the postseason, while with the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets. Those games left fans, players and coaches alike on the edge of their seats. So much was at stake, and both teams — primarily when I played for the Chargers and him the Colts — had red-hot offenses. The entertaining thing about it, though, was our offensive game plans were exact opposites. He controlled his team from the line of scrimmage and through the air, while we contrasted with the run game. Ultimately, we tried to keep the ball out of each other’s hands, because we knew what the other was capable of. Those games were a lot of fun and always a relief to get through (if we won).
Playing in games against Peyton sent me on an emotional roller-coaster on the sideline. He’d throw a 60-yard touchdown, then we’d get a sack and force the Colts to punt, and then he’d come right back out and throw another bomb. In the scenario that any team would be ahead by several scores — which happened rarely for us, as our seven meetings were decided by an average of four points — you could never count him out.
During a regular-season game in 2007, our defense executed a near-perfect game plan, intercepting Peyton six times (Antonio Cromartie had three of those). I was in awe because that was such a rarity. I kept thinking, Hey, we had better be thankful for this game, because that will never happen again. He’s always been able to bounce back and keep firing. And to be as consistent as he’s been for that long, Peyton is definitely deserving of being in the “greatest of all time” conversation.
I understood why he was able to perform at an elite level for so long because of one distant memory. Around the peaks of our careers, we were both in Los Angeles shooting separate commercials. During a break, he called my hotel room and simply asked, “Do you want to go throw?” Who would say no to that? I sure didn’t. We headed over to a community college, and here’s Peyton going through his drops and telling me what to do. He was out there as if it was a real game, going through his fakes, dropping back and throwing it to me right in stride. Having gone through that experience with him and seeing how seriously he took a simple throwing session, I immediately was intrigued about the possibility of playing with him one day.
And that almost happened — twice. When I left the Chargers before the 2010 season, there were a handful of teams interested in me. All the while, there were talks that Peyton wanted me to play with him. I hadn’t heard directly from the Colts and didn’t want to wait any longer to make a decision, so I became a Jet. Two years later, it happened again — but this time around, I knew they weren’t just rumors.
During a ceremony that honored Junior Seau in San Diego, John Elway and Peyton showed up. Peyton asked my wife if I would consider going to play in Denver with him. Naturally, my wife and I had that conversation because playing with Peyton was so compelling to me, because he’s so competitive and his teams always have a chance at a ring. But I was already about 80 percent set on retiring — I did consider it, though.
I’ve always had the utmost respect for him as a person and player. That respect went to new levels when I retired, because I received one of his famed letters, which I did not expect. The kind words and appreciation that he gave me showed tremendous class. I admired him before that letter and have in all the days following. He’s a true professional, and I’m honored to have had those experiences with him.