In the 1990s, NFL football seemed about to sink into a mini–dead-ball era of wily defense. Such was the skill of kickers that short- and medium-distance field-goal attempts became nearly always successful. They also grew far too frequent. In 1993, only one team managed to average 25 points a game. In 1994, to discourage rampant field-goal kicking, the league decided that a missed field goal would result in the other team’s taking possession at the spot of the missed kick instead of the line of scrimmage. Scoring increased, but the 1999 NFC Championship game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams still ended with zero touchdowns and a dismal final score of 11–6.
That year was also the sophomore season of Peyton Manning, whose mind-boggling 14-year career as an Indianapolis Colt came to a tear-inflected end Wednesday. He led the game out of a mild mire and into its current, fantastically entertaining incarnation, in which it operates at Mel Brooksian ludicrous speed.
Manning’s statistics amaze, but football is a team sport, so singling out the contribution of one player is notoriously difficult. Only by close study of his exploits — and I’ve seen well over 90 percent of his contests since ’99 — can one appreciate the revolutionary force of his quarterbacking.
For several years, Manning has played mostly in the no-huddle or hurry-up offense, a practice that was previously rarely seen (except in the early-’90s Buffalo Bills) because of its high risks. Instead of taking direction from an offensive coordinator (who benefits from the relative tranquility of the sidelines as well as insights gleaned from other coaches with bird’s-eye views of the chaos below), Manning calls his own play at the line, moving his players and making adjustments. Defenses don’t have time to substitute (if they try, then during the few seconds when some defenders are coming off and others on, Manning instantly orders everyone to the line and has the center snap the ball, sticking the other side with a five-yard penalty for excessive personnel).
One time a couple of years ago, Manning had so much time to play with that he actually called a substitution at the line — sending one receiver off the field and bringing in another. On another occasion, late in a 2004 game against San Diego, Manning overruled one of the most accomplished coaches in football history, Tony Dungy, and refused to yield to the kicking team on fourth down and four yards to go for a first, while behind by eight points with time nearly out. Manning proceeded to complete a 16-yard pass to Reggie Wayne, storm down the field, and throw a record-breaking 49th touchdown pass of the season to Brandon Stokley. He did it with a schoolyard flourish: Strolling to the line, he outlined on his palm a last-second revision to the play (break right instead of left) as the watchful Stokley nodded.
In recent years, as his once-ferrous offensive line took on the consistency of tapioca, Manning simply sped up to compensate, typically throwing the ball in under two seconds. He has turned the game into a sort of breathless laser chess. Consider the difficulty of analyzing the trajectories of 21 hurtling bodies and their 5,000-plus pounds of fury and guile, making a decision, cocking, aiming, and unleashing — all in less than two seconds, with a success rate of around two-thirds.
Despite his obsessive study and preparation, though, Manning has never been better than when, Joker-like, he simply conjures up a whirlwind of chaos in the expectation that no one is better equipped to deal with it. In 2008, he rocketed back from a 27-to-10 deficit with five minutes left to beat the Houston Texans. There was the nutty 2003 Monday Night Football game he won against the notoriously capable Tampa Bay defense after trailing by three touchdowns late in the fourth quarter. Then there was his signature victory, the astonishing comeback from a 21-to-3 deficit to beat the New England Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship, in which the Colts scored 32 second-half points against a formidable defense, then dusted the Bears in an anticlimactic Super Bowl.
So appealing has been Manning’s style of play that it led to one of the most consequential, if unwritten, rule changes in NFL history. After the New England Patriots openly boasted that their (ultimately successful) strategy to defeat Manning’s Colts in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs was to maul and belabor Manning’s receivers, the league finally began enforcing the rule against interfering with ball catchers once they get five yards past the line of scrimmage. Since no one watches a football game to see incomplete passes, fan interest surged, as did scoring.
These days, seven, eight, sometimes nine teams average 25 points a game. Super Bowls have returned to their previous pattern of breaking viewership records. Several other quarterbacks have taken to running the no-huddle throughout the game, and virtually all of them feel free to throw with impunity more than ever before. Today’s NFL is Peyton Manning’s league.
— Kyle Smith is a film critic and columnist for the New York Post.
Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.