Sunday night after surgically carving up the New England Patriots to advance to his third Super Bowl, Peyton Manning did what he's always done. He began preparing. His first order of business: distribution of his Super Bowl ticket allotment.
By just after supper time in Denver, Manning had contacted those he was offering tickets to and checked that box on his Super Bowl to-do list.
And that's Manning in a small nutshell. If you were doing a mission statement to characterize Manning, it would be 'never blindsided.'
He's always been that way. Manning is motivated by many things in his profession. His greatest motivation being the fear of being caught off-guard.
When Manning was being recruited and he talked to media members covering him, it was Manning who did the interviewing. He never gave an answer of any substance much like he often does now. Heck at least from time to time these days some of the answers are fun. Back in winter of 1993-1994, Manning spent most of the time asking you questions about what was going on at the schools he was considering. It's the same Manning who watched so much film in an in-home visit with then-Vol offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe that the eldest Manning, Archie, fell asleep.
Sunday night Manning will look for his second Super Bowl ring in his third try and in every pre-game discussion it will be about how Manning needs another ring for his legacy, blah, blah. That's for others to decide and debate. It's obviously a popular topic.
What should never be debated is that there's never been a more prepared quarterback than Manning. The 37-year old Manning does nothing off the cuff. Being blindsided is not an option.
It's why Manning's film load increases as the season goes on. Manning never wants to be caught off-guard. Manning assumes less in week 16 of a season than he does in week 2. It's why everything he does is filmed. It's why his summer throwing sessions in Knoxville in his off-season are taped and reviewed just hours after the first session so he knows what he needs to focus on the second day of the annual two-day workout on Rocky Top. It's why he wore a helmet to hear playcalls and had a live feed of practice on his I-pad in Denver this season when he didn't practice due to a tender ankle. There's to be no unknown.
Those habits are simply the Manning way and always have been. In his first collegiate game he wasn't scheduled to play in at UCLA, Manning didn't want to be blindsided so he had watched more film and brought more tape than any quarterback to watch the night before the game. In his personal off-season work in his early college days, Manning would throw on his own, but only in his game jersey and with his helmet on.
Because as Manning put it, you always play in a helmet so you should always throw with a helmet. And you should throw in your jersey because you don't play in a t-shirt.
It was Manning who mandated a Colts offensive practice on his own at a small school in Indiana during the lockout and paid his own video crew to video it. Because knocking off rust when the lockout ended wasn't an option. Little did anyone know that during those practices Manning wasn't even able to throw due to the neck injury. Yet he went through every drill and rep. He just never threw a pass. It was Manning who along with Cutcliffe recreated his historic come from behind win against the Patriots in the indoor complex at Duke in what has clearly become Manning's greatest comeback. A comeback that has earned him MVP honors and has him back at the Super Bowl. A comeback that has overcome the only thing that truly blindsided the future Hall of Famer.
As sunset draws closer than sunrise on Manning's career, those who know him best admit his appreciation for not just playing but for preparing to play has never been higher and that preparation was never more evident than a week and a half ago when he carved up an NFL defense the way I watched him destroy Arkansas' defense as a sophomore in 1995.
Manning's place in the annals of greatness will always be debated. He's boring to many. No flash, nothing spontaneous and he's scrutinized for it. His too-good-to-be-true image is a turn off to some.
But what no one can or will deny is what those who have known him and covered him for years have known, Manning's preparation has not only always made Manning better. But it's forced those around him to be better which not only includes players, but also coaches, trainers, video coordinators, and equipment managers. Judging by how quiet the Denver fans have become when the Broncos have the ball, Manning has created better or at least more knowledgeable fans.
Win or lose Sunday night, whether Manning is the greatest of all time is a debate that will never end. But what can't and should never be debated is the effect of Manning's preparedness.
His fear of the unknown has created a preparation level that we likely will never see again, but it's set a standard that by just having players and coaches trying to match it has made the game better.