Peyton Manning's road back to the top

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — All Peyton Manning wanted was a haircut. Somewhere between his Denver home and the barber, he got lost.

That's right, the NFL's premier traffic cop on the field, a guy who does commercials for cars that talk back to him, had to call his wife for directions. Mr. Manning was Mr. Magoo.

"I'm calling Ashley all the time, 'Now, how do I get here again?'" he said. "She's got an unbelievable sense of direction. I don't."

The Indianapolis transplant, now star quarterback for the Broncos, eventually reached his destination — and found a bright side.

"Those reminders are good," said Manning, 36. "You're in a new place. Let's keep working hard. Take it slow."

The Broncos aren't taking it slow. They're rolling with their new quarterback, winners of five in a row with a three-game lead in the AFC West. Manning has the AFC's most passing touchdowns, 24, best completion rate, 68.5%, and top passer rating, 106.2.

The league's only four-time most valuable player, who sat out the entire 2011 season recovering from four neck procedures, is on course for MVP No. 5.

"What Peyton is doing, in my brain, is not just remarkable, it's freaking historical," Broncos Coach John Fox said. "To be where he is, off of what he just went through. Just look at it, his life got turned upside down.

"He's been in one place for 14 years, and he never imagined he'd be anywhere else. To have a real serious injury, where at one point you weren't real sure you were ever going to throw again. To be where he is right now? He's doing it in a completely different part of the country, with a completely different organization. I'm loving it, but I think about it and I'm like, 'This is kind of bizarre.'"

Manning, standing with a reporter in an otherwise empty corridor outside the locker room at the practice facility, detailed his improbable and sometimes uncertain ascent back to the top of the game, and the help he received from an old friend.

That friend was Duke Coach David Cutcliffe, who was Manning's offensive coordinator at Tennessee and his younger brother Eli's head coach at Mississippi. Cutcliffe, who a year earlier had worked with Eli during the lockout, was Peyton's coach of choice during his arduous comeback.

"Going to a private college, where the gates are locked, there's no spectators, and you can get concentrated work, that was big for me," said Peyton, who had made at least four trips to Duke last winter before the media caught wind of it.

Manning lived with the Cutcliffe family during those visits. Just another kid in the stately, lodge-like house, with his own room and a pile of laundry every day.

"He and I both really got to go back in time," Manning said. "I was a junior in college again. He was my coach. He coached the hell out of me. He yelled at me. "Faster! Faster! Faster!" I can remember that same feeling I had in college. I'd get mad at him.

"We'd go at it. It would be intense. But I'd always caught a ride home to his house that night, had dinner with him, and spent the night at his house. So we couldn't get too mad at each other."

Cutcliffe, who speaks in a rich Southern drawl, calls himself a "drills maniac" and says that stems from his childhood in Alabama, when he would throw his way through a pasture by "completing" passes to specific limbs of trees.

He had Manning do all the traditional drills, and some different ones, such as Manning making precise throws while equipment managers hammered away at him with heavy bags.

"We call those distraction drills," Cutcliffe said. "One of the more critical things for a quarterback to prove to you is that his eyes stay downfield. We're making him make decisions. We'll have two targets down there and we'll immediately try to lean toward one of them and make him make an accurate throw to the other target. At the same time, he's got big bags being thrown down at his hips, legs, across his face. But you know he's keeping his eyes downfield."

For Manning, the process was grueling. It wasn't just drills, but near-constant work on his strength, conditioning, flexibility, nutrition … everything. There were no guarantees he'd be able to return.

"Nobody knew, including me, how this would play out," he said. "I couldn't find anybody else who had the same injury. There was no model. [Former NFL safety] John Lynch said he kind of had something like it, but he can blow up guys with a bad, weaker arm. [Former NFL quarterbacks] Chris Weinke and Brad Johnson kind of had something like it, but it wasn't quite the same. So even these doctors, these respectable doctors, the top neuro guys in the world, are going, 'I don't know. It's kind of hard to say. Nerves are unpredictable.' That's kind of what I had to go on."

Manning's progress was measured in millimeters, not miles.

"It's been the biggest physical and mental challenge I've gone through, as far as a test of patience," he said. "I'm talking about progress that literally [pinching his fingers to indicate a tiny bit] where a good month is there's no setbacks. There was no significant weight-room increase. And it's still that way. I could go to the weight room right now and show you.

"What I've learned to do is compensate. That's what athletes do. You learn to compensate with what you've got."

He likened that to a golfer who might not be able to hit a three-wood as far anymore but instead lays up with an iron and relies on his precision to make birdie.

"I've come to accept the reality that I am 36 years old," he said. "I'm not trying to be the player that I was when I was 28. I'm not. I don't compare myself to that.

"At our college camp [the Manning Passing Academy] this summer, these kids, they've got some arms. This kid from Georgia, Aaron Murray, he can throw it a mile. All these kids. Six years ago, I'd have said, 'Hey, I'm going to out-throw all these guys.' But now, these kids can throw it farther, and it has zero effect on my psyche. I'm 36 years old, I'm coming off a major injury, and my arm has a lot of miles on it.

"I can still get them in the end zone doing it a different way, dinking and dunking, taking my shots at certain times. So I've learned a lot about my body, and about my team."

Cutcliffe's final test was incredibly elaborate. The coach wanted to make sure Manning was able to make all the throws necessary to win an NFL game. So he meticulously broke down every element of the Colts' 30-17 victory over the New York Jets in the 2009 AFC championship game — then completely re-created a seven-on-seven version of that game.

To make the simulation as realistic as possible, Cutcliffe brought in Tom Moore, Manning's offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, and some of the players who No. 18 knows best — center Jeff Saturday, tight end Dallas Clark and receiver Brandon Stokley. Filling the other spots were former Duke players, and even some equipment managers.

"We took every play and the Colts' script," Cutcliffe said. "Then we took the Jets' offense and timed how long they were on the field and what they accomplished. So Peyton would go to the sideline and sit on the bench and I'd say, 'All right, it's third down.' He'd get up and jogged a little bit. He'd throw to loosen up. Then we'd have a punt or whatever.

"He'd head out there, and he knew that we're trying to throw it in 2.7 seconds. Here's the receiver and here's the play. We had one of our running backs who'd finished his eligibility, and we ran the play when it was a run. We even made it so if a guy dropped the ball in the real game, he'd drop the ball in the fabricated game."

Afterward, Manning and Cutcliffe studied the video of the simulation and determined he was able to make every throw needed to win a playoff game. The Colts had yet to release him, but he knew that he would be ready to play this season.

"The appreciation for me was reliving the intensity of a man willing to work beyond what any human can push themselves," Cutcliffe said. "It was an incredible thing. I wish now — and he agrees with me — that we had let somebody come in to document that. Because I don't know if anybody else could have done it."

Even though most everyone expected the Colts to release Manning and use the No. 1 pick on Stanford's Andrew Luck, the finality of it still left Manning stunned.

That was evident when he first met with Broncos executive John Elway a couple of days after he was released.

"He was still in shock when he got here," Elway said. "That's when I told him, 'Peyton, you can take these trips and visit. But you need to just take your time and not rush into anything. You need to get your arms around what's happened. Then you can take the next step.'

"We went to dinner over at Cherry Hills [Country Club]. We're sitting on the sofa talking, and I just told him, 'I understand.' He was just saying, 'Everyone's telling me, my wife's telling me, it's in the paper. I know it. But it still shocks me.' And you could tell. But I think that's the mind-set of great players. There's no way you can let it go."

The Broncos saw him throw and were satisfied. They were one of three teams that were finalists to land him, the others being San Francisco and Tennessee.

Manning said his top concern was actually being the player those team owners — Denver's Pat Bowlen, Tennessee's Bud Adams and San Francisco's John York — expected to get.

"When you sign with a team, when I met with Mr. Bowlen and he said, 'I want you here,' same way when I met with Bud Adams, or when I met with York in San Francisco, I feel that responsibility to be the player they wanted," he said.

The Broncos couldn't ask for more. Manning is a coach's dream. He doesn't waste a moment, whether it's during practice, in the meeting rooms, on the road, wherever.

"He writes down everything," Fox said. "He writes down my Wednesday talks to the team, and then I'll hear it again with the media. I'll hear it again when he talks to his teammates, at the end of practice. It's off-the-chain leadership.

"He holds guys accountable, man. They don't want to let him down."

What's more, Manning wants to know everything that's going on in the organization. He wants to know where the college scouts are headed and why. Wants to know who that person is on the sideline, and whether he really needs to be there. He's half player, half coach, and seemingly all knowing.

"If he weren't a great player and you were a player on his team, he'd be a pain in the butt," Hall of Fame coach John Madden said with a laugh. "Because he never wants to leave you alone.

"If you're an offensive player and it's a defensive period, they go over and stand on the sideline and B.S. Peyton won't let them do that. He'll grab a guy and go down on the 10-yard line and work there. He just goes the whole time. 'Now remember this: When we don't huddle, I'll give you the signal, and they're going to do this…' It's constant for him. He's seeking perfection. The only way he's going to get close to that is when everyone else is striving for perfection and getting close to it."

The Broncos players have embraced that. They appreciate Manning's relentless pursuit of precision and perfection, and the results reflect that.

"From day one when he got here, there was a certain way he wanted to do things," receiver Eric Decker said. "If you wanted to be great, you had to be willing to do that. That's the thing that's so special about him, is his work ethic. We're always talking about a route that we see, or a coverage that we're going to go against. It's always football."

The way Madden sees it, we've gotten only a glimpse of how good Manning can be — that he'll be even better in the coming weeks.

"I've been watching him and saying, this guy is going to get better," Madden said. "He's not going to be Peyton until after the midway point of the season. I think he's getting close to being comfortable. And it's very important to Peyton that he's comfortable.

"I'll text back and forth with him once in a while. I'll say, 'You're better this week than you were.' And you can just see the progression. I think everyone is going to the neck and the health and the arm strength. But with Peyton it's about perfection. Everything has to be perfect. From the calls, the other players understanding, to what he can do to help himself, to what he can do to help his team."

But he's not the same player he was in Indianapolis. He has adapted and grown. Like that meandering trip to the haircut, he's blazing a new path in Chapter 2 of his career.

"I'm a different quarterback," he said. "I've got these two unbelievable kids now. My life has just totally changed. I've changed with it. I'm learning to live with something every day."

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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