Peyton Manning, the consummate record-breaker, was not always a sure thing

Peyton Manning

Before all the Super Bowls, the MVPs and the all-time passing-yardage record, which he broke on Sunday afternoon, Peyton Manning threw a touchdown on his first NFL pass.

No one should be surprised it went to his favorite target: Marvin Harrison.

This was in the summer of 1998, and as brilliant as it was, the touchdown did not count – not officially, anyway – since it came on the first drive of the Indianapolis Colts’ first pre-season game that summer. But because his first official pass completion was an unremarkable 15-yard throw to running back Marshall Faulk in the regular-season opener against Miami, the pre-season pass is the one people tend to remember, if for no other reason than it was the perfect launching point for his career.

“I know what Peyton was thinking: ‘It’s pretty easy – I throw my first pass for a touchdown,’” the Colts coach at the time, Jim Mora, later told ESPN.

If only it was. While the Manning touchdown was big news just four months after he was the first pick in the NFL draft, he was not a certain superstar. Many weren’t sure he was the right choice for the Colts. Some critics called him a system quarterback who only thrived in the controlled offense at the University of Tennessee. Others wondered if he darted too quickly from pass rushers to keep from being hit. A lot of scouts and draft analysts thought Ryan Leaf, the quarterback that the San Diego Chargers took right behind Manning, was the better selection.

Manning’s first season was not filled with long scores and passes thrown with laser-like precision into his receivers’ hands. He led the league with 28 interceptions in 1998 – the only time in his career he had more interceptions than touchdowns. It wasn’t until his third year that he really blossomed, even as the Colts had already started winning big. And yet even in the struggles of 1998 there were plenty of signs that greatness was coming. His first pass was one of those.

It happened on a Saturday evening in early August. The Colts flew to Seattle the day before for their first pre-season game. At the time, the hype for Manning was overwhelming. Everybody, it seemed, wanted something from the draft’s top pick. Craig Kelley, the team’s public relations director at the time, got so many requests from reports to speak to Manning he faxed them piles of quotes the quarterback had given that summer. The fax ran 40 pages long.

The Seahawks even asked Kelley to see if Manning could attend a formal function the organization held the night before the game. Kelly laughs as he remembers the request: “Like he was going to put on a tux and go to a formal on the night before his first professional game,” he told the Guardian. “We quickly dismissed that.”

When the game started, the Colts had the ball on a third down and short on Seattle’s 48-yard line. The Seahawks blitzed, Manning saw it, took two steps back from center, jumped slightly in his shoes, and flicked a pass to Harrison sprinting in from the right. Harrison caught it on the 40 and raced past cornerback Shawn Springs and safety Eric Stokes, then straight down the field untouched for a 48-yard touchdown.

Manning raised his hands over his head and then jogged off the field.

“When you get Marvin the ball, good things happen,” he told reporters after the game.

Still, much like that first year, Manning’s first pre-season game was not a great success. He finished 8-15 for 115 yards while playing the whole first half. “He didn’t play good enough, there’s no question about it,” Mora said that night. Accounts of that night were actually more favorable to Leaf who led the Chargers to a 21-0 halftime lead over San Francisco when he left his first exhibition game.

“Manning looked more like a backup than the No1 draft pick. Leaf, the No2 draft pick, looked like he’s ready to step in,” read the next day’s Associated Press story.

Which is why pre-season games don’t count. While Manning had his problems his rookie year, he still took every one of the Colts’ snaps and threw for 3,739 yards and 26 touchdowns. Leaf threw only two touchdowns, was intercepted 15 times and lost his starting job in mid-November. Three years later, he was out of the league.

“Peyton had some difficulties. Every rookie quarterback does in terms of getting used to the speed of the game and sophistication of the defenses and chemistry of working with the receivers,” Bill Polian, the Colts general manager who drafted Manning and ran the team his whole time in Indianapolis, told the Guardian. “That was to be expected.”

One thing Polian and the rest of the organization learned early on was that Manning was obsessive about preparation, more obsessive than any player they had ever seen. When the quarterback met the teams’ coaches and executives for a 20-minute meeting at the previous winter’s draft combine, he came with a notepad and spent the whole session grilling them rather than them questioning him.

Since they weren’t going to improve over 1997’s 3-13 season and came to understand that Manning wasn’t comfortable unless he had worked on a play countless times, they gave him nearly 90% of the passes in practice. Normally, a starting quarterback will take somewhere around 70% of the repetitions or reps with the backup getting the rest, but the Colts were determined to get Manning as acclimated as he needed to be. Ultimately, he wound up practicing against both Indianapolis’s first and second team defenses and taking every rep during seven on seven and team drills.

“With guys like that, you always know they will work hard,” says Polian, who is now an analyst on ESPN. “In his case the biggest way to help him was to back off, relax and make sure we see the forest through the trees. Don’t lose sight of the objective.”

Externally, the pressure on Manning was immense. The Colts were still reeling from the 1983 draft, when they took John Elway with the first pick even after Elway vowed never to play for them. They traded Elway to Denver where he became a superstar and the Colts – then in Baltimore – searched the next 15 years for a franchise quarterback. So essential was it for the Colts to get the new quarterback right, the team’s owner Jim Irsay flew to New York to turn in the pick himself, something owners never do.

Late in that first season, Manning started to show significant improvement. Polian remembers well a time in that final stretch when Manning and Harrison miscommunicated on a play just before game’s end costing the Colts a chance to win. Afterward, he found both players in the locker room and told them the same thing would not happen the next season because they would have had an offseason to prepare.

Sure enough, Manning and Harrison worked out every day at the Colts facility in early 1999. Back then there were no restrictions on the time when players can work with coaches so the rookie quarterback threw 200 passes to the third-year receiver each morning for weeks. And they did get better. The next year, Indianapolis went 13-3 and made the postseason.

“His head wasn’t spinning that first year but he was nowhere near as confident as he became,” Polian says.

The season was a success despite Manning leading the league in interceptions. He wasn’t as effective as he became a few years later, but he gave many indications that someday he would become a star. The Colts knew early they had chosen wisely in picking Manning over Leaf. They must have known he was the right choice when he looked at Irsay in the days before the draft and said, according to Kelley: “If you draft me, I will win for you. If you don’t, I will whip your tail.”

And if it wasn’t clear then, it was in the first exhibition game on the first play when he hit Harrison for a touchdown on the first professional throw he ever made.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Les Carpenter, for theguardian.com on Sunday 15th November 2015 21.47 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010