Ashley Fox | ESPN.com
This wasn’t even close.
It isn’t a slap at Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, London Fletcher or the 78 others who received a vote from a panel of 320 players asked to name the most respected player in the NFL. Those men are worthy. Those men work hard. Those men have talent. Those men are leaders.
But Peyton Manning set the bar.
Manning won in a landslide, collecting 27 percent of the vote. His 86 votes dwarfed the 24 votes received by Brady and Peterson, who finished tied for second.
It is award season, and Manning is collecting them the way he collects touchdowns. He probably will win his NFL-record fifth Most Valuable Player award. Last month, Sports Illustrated named Manning its Sportsman of the Year, the magazine’s prestigious honor it had bestowed on an NFL player only five times before.
And there is this nod from Manning’s peers. Respect is a powerful word in this game. It is earned through real, hard work. There are no shortcuts, because good NFL players know what it takes to have success in this league. It takes work and time and talent. Real recognizes real, and fakes are easily spotted.
“You always hear people use the cliché, ‘He’s a pro’s pro,'” said former center Jeff Saturday, who played with Manning for 13 of Manning’s 14 seasons in Indianapolis. “But that typifies who Peyton Manning really is. This guy, there’s no pretense in who he is as a football player. This guy for 16 years has shown up early, left late, and studied all those hours.
“He changes cultures. You saw what he did in Indianapolis. They weren’t known as a football team, a football city. He completely changed the culture in that organization and took them to two Super Bowls. He completely changed the landscape of what football looked like in the state of Indiana. Now, he’s doing that in Denver as well.”
Saturday was one year removed from his collegiate career at the University of North Carolina and working for an electric supply company in Raleigh, N.C., when the Colts called in December 1998. To that point, he wasn’t sure where his football career would go. He signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted rookie free agent in April 1998 but was cut several weeks later and didn’t catch on with another NFL team. Would he play in the arena league? Would he get at shot in the NFL? Saturday didn’t know.
In early 1999, Indianapolis signed Saturday to be, as he said, “a practice body.” Manning was entering his second season. At that point, he wasn’t Peyton Manning the pitchman. Not yet. He was the maniacal worker who obsessed over every detail. Manning wanted to know opponents’ tendencies. He wanted to know defensive coordinators’ strategies. Same as today.
Together, Saturday and Manning worked tirelessly on the mental part of the game. Late in 1999, Saturday started two games at guard. In 2000, he transitioned to center and went on to start 188 of 197 games for the Colts, earning six Pro Bowl nods and being named a first-team All-Pro twice.
That first year with Manning, though, was key.
“Although he has the talent, you see each and every week the way he approached the game to give us the greatest advantage,” Saturday said. “I was trying to learn, and I respected that. I respected he held guys accountable. He made me want to play harder and be the type of leader that would help us.”
“I’m not trying to discredit what happened before in Denver with John Elway and that crew,” Saturday added. “They had great teams and great success. But look at how Peyton has changed their culture. He’s converted those guys to immediate playoff contenders and Super Bowl contenders. He does it the right way. I think that’s why players voted for him. There are very few guys that played the game the way he does and have been as successful as he has and have stayed as grounded as he does.”
So there is that.
There are also the ridiculous numbers. The 16 seasons with 240 career starts. The 5,532 completions and 8,452 attempts and 64,964 passing yards and 491 touchdowns. There are the 167 career wins and the 97.2 career passer rating.
There was this season in Denver, when Manning broke Brees’ record for passing yards in a season. And there were those four neck surgeries and the months of doubt and wonder that followed, about whether Manning’s storied career would continue past 2011.
Manning was so vulnerable and so uncertain and yet learned to throw again and fought through it to evolve into a different yet still effective quarterback. That’s part of it, too.
The Manning of 2013 wasn’t the Manning of the previous decade. He wasn’t the Manning who struck fear in Bill Belichick or could throw the laser strike downfield to a sprinting Marvin Harrison or the player who won Super Bowl XLI.
But he was still good. He was still effective. And through it all, he remained the most respected player in the game.
- ESPN.com NFL columnist
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- Has also worked at Sports Illustrated, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Louisville Courier-Journal