In honor of the 2008 NFL regular season coming to a close, I have compiled a list of the top ten things I learned from this season. It was remarkably more educational than I thought it would be.
10. Attending training camp has a direct correlation with how a player performs at the beginning of a season.
9. Preseason games are actually beneficial if for no other reason than to knock the rust off.
8. A below .500 season by week 7 does not mean the team’s season is over.
7. Week 17 can really mean something to just about every team. In yesterday’s final regular season Sunday, 16 games were played. 10 of them had possible playoff implications, and 1 of them had historical implications.
6. Matt Cassel has been highly underrated and deserves a giant contract on the free agency market.
5. Never pin your fantasy football hopes on a QB who got his girlfriend pregnant and then promptly made her his ex-girlfriend because football karma is &#$%@. You know that black cloud hanging over his head was going to strike eventually.
4. Opening night of a new stadium does not automatically ensure a win on said opening night.
3. Never trade a player to a division rival to make room for a washed-up QB who should have stayed retired. Revenge is sweet and usually favors the traded player.
2. Capitalizing on horribly botched calls by the refs in week 2 will come back to bite you in week 17 even if none of it was your fault. The football gods don’t care how they right a wrong just as long as it’s righted.
1. Diabetes is not a death sentence for athletes. Just ask Jay Cutler.
Honorable Mention: Fans of football actually know more about the NFL rule book than the players and coaches. Hopefully, Donovan McNabb will do some studying during the offseason. Not knowing the overtime rules quite frankly is unacceptable.
And now, the rest of the story.
Peyton Manning is typically a private person especially when it comes to any injury he might have. It’s mainly to keep other teams from knowing what ails him and to keep the media from using it as an excuse. I read Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column every week, and this week I was rewarded for my faithfulness. He managed to get an interview with Peyton where the big lug spilled the beans on what really happened with his knee. You can say a lot about Peyton’s shortcomings not the least of which is his immobility, but I challenge you to read the following interview and NOT completely believe that Peyton Manning is one tough football player. He’s not just a quarterback. He’s a rough and tumble, hard as nails football player. [Note: Some of this is a bit graphic.]
There are few things in this job I take more seriously than my National Football League MVP vote for the Associated Press. I value my Hall of Fame vote a little more, but being one of 50 voters for the all-pro team and postseason awards, including the MVP, is big because it goes down in history. The MVP winner doesn’t get bronzed, as Hall of Famers do, but there’s no single-season award that means more to a player. To be part of anointing one man as the most indispensable, the most important, the most valuable for a season in the biggest sport in the country is a cool task.
We voters are human, so we’re going to approach the voting differently. My criteria have never changed. The inclusion of the word “valuable” differentiates this from a player of the year award. If I’m voting for Offensive Player of the Year, for example, I’m likely voting for the individual who had the best season of anyone on offense; if a player on a 6-10 team set the single-season rushing record, I’d likely vote for him for the offensive player award. But it’s highly doubtful I’d vote for him as MVP. For MVP, I ask myself this question: Which player, removed from his team, would have the biggest impact on the team’s record?
That’s a tough call this season on premier teams like the Giants, Tennessee and Pittsburgh because they each had so many outstanding players. By season’s end, I might have voted for Brandon Jacobs over Eli Manning on the Giants, and maybe Kerry Collins over Albert Haynesworth or Chris Johnson as Tennessee’s MVP, and James Harrisonover Roethlisberger (though that would be close) or Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh.
I liked Pennington immensely because he was the clear keystone to a team improving from one win to 11; but the Dolphins got big contributions from the defense (they won five games scoring 17 points or fewer) and the Wildcat Formation. DeAngelo Williams made a late charge for Carolina, scoring 11 touchdowns in four late-season games, but check out the pedestrian first half of his season: The Panthers went 6-2, and Williams rushed for 468 yards and three touchdowns in the six wins.
Matt Ryan? I love him, and I love his candidacy. I can’t argue with a soul who’d name him MVP. Imagine stepping into Team Turmoil for Michael Vick, with the racial division of Atlanta to overcome as well, and having to learn to play quarterback at the NFL level, which rookies never do well. I’ll never forget being in Atlanta on draft weekend and listening to veteran sports anchor Gil Tyree, who is an African-American, tell me about the Vick shadow that would be so hard for Ryan to escape. “Michael’s a messiah here. No matter what Matt Ryan will do, he’ll never be accepted,” Tyree said. Talk about a tough road for a young kid.
But Ryan led the Falcons to the playoffs, with only 25 negative plays out of 480 pass-drops — nine interceptions, 16 sacks. He walked into the NFL throwing superbly downfield, which is always one of the last traits a young quarterback perfects. His 7.9 yards-per-attempt was better than good downfield throwers Jay Cutler, Kurt Warnerand both Mannings.
I’m going with James Harrison at five, DeAngelo Williams four, Chad Pennington three, Matt Ryan two. And Peyton Manning one.
I have been leaning toward Manning for the past four or five weeks, because I’ve felt the Colts would have been well below .500 without him, particularly if he hadn’t rallied them from 15- and 17-point late-game deficits to beat Minnesota and Houston, respectively. Manning never had a running game all season to help him; the Colts’ 3.4-yard average per rush was their lowest this decade. He started the season more hurt than we knew (at least until now) and without his redoubtable center. The Colts went 3-4 through the end of October, but it would have been 1-6 without those comebacks over the Vikes and Texans. Then, with Manning finally getting his legs under him, the Colts rode a classic 9-0 Manning stretch to finish 12-4 and earn the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs.
The story of Manning’s 11th season is a good story, one he hasn’t told this season to anyone else in my business — to the best of my knowledge. As usually happens with Manning, the conversation was going to be 10 or 20 minutes, and then one thing led to another, and by the end, I had enough stuff for a couple of chapters of a book.
The story actually starts in Hawaii, at the Pro Bowl last year.
“I started to experience swelling in my knee at the Pro Bowl,” Manning said. “I had two weeks off after the playoffs ended for us. Did nothing before Hawaii. Went to the beach, went to the Super Bowl, showed up in Hawaii, all of a sudden my knee swelled up like a grapefruit. The Chargers trainers bent over backwards, treating a player that’s not even their player. They’re supposed to be on vacation, and here they are, driving me all over the place to get an MRI. No big deal, I thought. I played the game, and after the game, the thing is gone, it’s dissipated throughout my body. Very strange.
“I get back in April, start lifting weights, it blew up again. Couldn’t kneel on it. I had a good offseason, thought I threw it pretty good, and I had the knee drained maybe seven times. Two or three weeks later it’d come back. Let me go back to a conversation I had with Bill Parcells when we did a commercial for the Super Bowl. He advised me, ‘Don’t ever forget your legs. Legs, legs legs. Do your squats. That’s so important as you get older.’ And I worked on that hard.
“On Monday before camp [actually July 14, 10 days before training camp opened], my leg’s on fire, it’s red, I’m hurtin’ bad. I fly to Indy right away and find out the fluid in there’s infected. So they tell me, ‘We’re gonna remove your bursa sac. Pretty standard procedure.’ Then the fluid starts to seep back.”
Doctors couldn’t stop the fluid from seeping into the knee. Ten days after surgery, the knee was still swollen. The Colts set a deadline of Wednesday, July 30, to decide whether to have another procedure called “quilting” done. In quilting, a surgeon stitches the skin down to shut off the suspected flow of any infected fluid.
Now came the cloak-and-dagger stuff. Manning couldn’t fly because of the risks of swelling and infection. So the Colts flew orthopedist-to-the-stars James Andrews(and one or two other experts) into Colts camp in Terre Haute to examine Manning. He consulted with Giants team physician Russell Warren.
“All of them say the same thing: ‘You’ve got to do something about it,’ ” Manning told me. “I agreed. My biggest fear was the Saturday night before we play the Patriots in Week 10, it’s gonna happen again.”
So the second surgery was set for July 31 at 6 a.m. Manning was told it’d take about 30 minutes to sew about 20 sutures in the knee. The Colts had a car set to pick Manning up to take him home at 9 a.m.
He woke up at 5 p.m. There weren’t 20 sutures implanted. Doctors had to use 80. Surgery didn’t take 30 minutes. It took three hours.
“They didn’t have a choice,” Manning said. “There was so much fluid, the pockets were so big, that they had to use 80.”
The knee stayed wrapped Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, Colts director of rehabilitation Erin Barill came to Manning’s house to check on how the knee was healing. “He warned me the knee does not look good,” Manning said. “And he said, ‘Do you want to see it?’ ”
Of course he did. “Funny thing was, I was getting ready to watch the Colts-Redskins Hall of Fame game. Weird. I have never watched the Colts play on TV, ever. And then I get ready to see what the knee looks like.”
Drumroll. Barill took the wrap off.
“I looked down, and my knee looked like a brain after surgery. You know how they show you pictures of a brain in science class? That’s what this was — swollen, ugly. I kind of got my hopes up, but it was disgusting. Mangled, in layers, dimples all over it. It didn’t look good at all. My heart just sank. I was nervous and scared. It was so new to me. Some of these guys playing in the NFL have surgery all the time. Not me. The only surgery I’d ever had was for a deviated septum my sophomore year in high school. Here I have one July 14, then another one two weeks later. Uncharted waters for me.”
This thought occurred to me then: How in the world did Manning and the Colts keep this so under wraps?
Manning had his own anal traits, plus the never-ending Brett Favreunretirement saga, to thank for that. “I’m one of those guys who never wants to be on the injury report,” he said. “I don’t want people to say, ‘What’s wrong with your ankle or your knee or whatever?’ I don’t want my opponents to know anything. When I see a corner who’s got a bad ankle, I say, ‘Let’s check this thing out in the game.’ Plus, the whole Favre thing was dominating the news. Nobody had time to report anything else.
“It was the most miserable training camp. I’d do the rehab in my dorm to stay out of the way of people at camp. The best thing that happened was I had a video machine in my room. I was watching … I was waiting all day for the practice tape. I was dying. I just wanted to see the tape.”
Days turned into weeks. The Colts originally said Manning’s injury was a four-to-six-week job, and when he got close to the six-week anniversary, Manning still wasn’t working out.
“Remember what Parcells told me. ‘Legs, legs, legs.’ Well, I lost all my strength in my left leg, and you don’t want to create an imbalance in your legs, so I couldn’t do much with my right leg either. But all the range of motion in my left leg was gone. Could I get to where I can drop and run? I had no idea. I really did not know. All I had ever known, every year in camp, was to take every rep, every practice. Now I get no reps in camp.
“The biggest thing as we got close to the season was I didn’t think I could move the way I wanted to. I’ll never be mistaken for Donovan McNabb or my dad [mobile ex-Saint Archie Manning]. And my balance was a problem. I couldn’t finish the throws.”
Making it worse was the absence of longtime center Jeff Saturday with a knee injury; he knew the hieroglyphic-type Colts offense as well as Manning. Now the Colts had to get seventh-round rookie Jamey Richard, a college guard, ready to face, in order, Tommie Harris, Kevin and Pat Williams, and John Henderson. Before the first game, instead of spending an extra half-hour or two a day working the legs, Manning was on the practice field and in the meeting room with Richard, teaching him the idiosyncrasies of being the Colts center.
Feeling weak, Manning had no impact on a 29-13 opening loss to Chicago. In Week 2 at Minnesota, the Vikes led 15-0 midway through the third quarter. “We’re down 15-0, thinking about being 0-2, and knowing we got Jacksonville the next week,” Manning said. He led two touchdown drives, with a two-point conversion on the second, to tie it. “Probably the biggest play of the game, third-and-10 on the 50 [actually third-and-nine at the Minnesota 49], I get Reggie Wayne on a post-route from the slot, ball rushes right past the DB’s ear into Reggie. That told me, ‘I can still make these throws. If I keep rehabbing, I can make it back. I still have it.’ ” Gain of 20. The Colts won on a field goal.
Manning struggled again the next week; Indy lost to Jacksonville. “The next week, Houston’s got us 27-10 midway through the fourth quarter. It is not looking good. Lotta people thinking, ‘Here come the Texans’ — they finished 8-8 the year before, their crowd’s fired up, they’re inspired to win after Hurricane Ike. But it’s your job to play until the final seconds. I throw a touchdown pass to Tom Santithat looks like a stat-padder. Then [Gary] Brackett takes a fumble back for a touchdown.”
Lucky for the Colts, Sage Rosenfels was awful that day, and handed the Colts a touchdown and a short field late. Manning threw the winning touchdown pass to Wayne off that short field. Colts, 31-27.
Easily they could have been 0-4. But 18 points in the last 20 minutes at Minnesota, and 21 points in the last five at Houston, and the season was saved.
What was bugging Manning at that point, even at 2-2, was the time he had to spend every week in rehab and rebuilding the strength in his legs. Instead of coming in early to watch tape or talk to a coach before the morning meetings, Manning had to be in by 6:30 for an hour of rehab five days a week, and spend another hour after practice doing the same. He still did most of his other work, but not as much of the on-field stuff with his receivers that he was used to. Combine that with zero reps in training camp for a guy who craves them, and you see why he was treading water — 10 touchdowns, nine picks, a 3-4 record after an ugly Monday night loss at Tennessee — through two months.
“It just sucked up all my energy, ‘ he said. “My goal has always been to avoid the trainers room, and now, for the first time in my whole career, I’m going in every morning before meetings, challenging my preparation time. But after a couple of months doing that — after the Tennessee game, I didn’t have to go into the trainers room anymore. I felt right. But at that point, we’re 3-4, and we all but ruled out winning the division. Tennessee wasn’t gonna collapse.
“The biggest problem with New England coming up, Pittsburgh on the road, San Diego on the road — was avoiding sitting around, saying, ‘Boy, we are in trouble.’ It was like, ‘Are we going to say it’s just not our year, wait ’til next year, or are we gonna do something about it?’ The other thing people don’t think about is we’ve got a lot of second-, third- fourth-year players, and we’d started the last three years 13-0, 8-0 and 7-0, and these guys are going, ‘What the hell is going on?’ But as Tony [Dungy] told ’em, this is what the NFL is all about.”
As November dawned, the Colts knew they might have to go 8-1, or even 9-0, to make the playoffs. Manning, finally feeling good, and taking the two rehab hours per day out of his routine, got his team on a run.
“I truly believe it is no coincidence we have gone on the winning streak since then,” Manning said.
Now onto the MVP issue. My take is Manning was the keystone to this team starting 3-4 instead of being out of it at 1-6. In the final nine games, Manning’s 9-0 record led all NFL quarterbacks, Manning’s 72-percent accuracy led all NFL quarterbacks, and Manning’s 17-to-3 touchdown-to-interception (plus-14) differential led all NFL quarterbacks.
He completed 21 of 29 to beat New England. He got a little lucky with some Roethlisberger turnovers the next week at Pittsburgh, but he also threw three of the 12 touchdown passes the Steelers allowed all season. His running game managed 91, 90, 57, 106 and 32 yards over the next five games, but he had enough in the tank to win each one without much of a ground alternative.
In Sunday’s Dungy special of a finale (the starters play a series or three), Manning played long enough to exceed 4,000 yards for the ninth season. He went seven for seven. Five months after recoiling in shock at the sight of his grotesque knee, he finished his most unlikely great season in the NFL.
So the Colts finished 12-4. It’s not as stunning as the 11-5 of the Dolphins or Falcons, to be sure. We could argue — and you might win — that Miami without Pennington and Atlanta without Ryan would have been 5-11 or worse. But I simply will not accept that coaches who proved themselves very resourceful (Tony Sparano, Mike Smith) would have been hapless without their quarterbacks. Miami would have played Chad Henne earlier. Atlanta would have ridden Turner to a few wins. Indy? Without Manning, I say a team that ran the ball in quicksand would have been 4-12.
“This has been my most rewarding regular season, because of what we’ve all been faced with here,” Manning said. “I’ve been proud to be on this team. Guys dug deep. I dug deep.”
Come to think of it, it’s not that tough a call.