The play was called 62 Meyer, one of the staples of the Tennessee passing game back in the mid-1990s.
If Peyton Mannings quarterbacks coach from college roots around in his files today, he still can pull out a notebook that includes three pages of handwritten questions and notes Manning handed him about that single play.
Manning wrote the notes at some point between summer school of his freshman year and the time practice started.
What I learned very quickly, said David Cutcliffe, now the head coach at Duke, was the amount of time he was willing to put in. He wanted such detail. I just walked out of the room and grinned.
Nearly 20 years after Manning looked at those cut-ups of 62 Meyer and other plays from the Tennessee game tapes, hes still up there with the best when it comes to preparing. It could be for the upcoming game, season, or, in the most recent instance, for a comeback from what many thought was a career-ending neck injury.
His work ethic is the gold standard when it comes to breaking down an NFL opponent. And though hes had to adjust his schedule, accommodating for the physical changes hes encountered after his neck surgeries, the Broncos quarterback hasnt shown any signs of letting his preparation slip.
I always felt like doing that work was something that could make me better, Manning said of the study time he spent before college, before his coaches could even come in and help decipher those Xs and Os. Even if I didnt really know what I was looking at, sometimes if you just think its helping you, then its helping you.
This year, the preparation helped to the tune of 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns and a passer rating of 105.9, all the second-best marks hes had in 14 NFL seasons hes played. The Broncos finished 13-3. Heading into their playoff bye week, they were the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl.
I think a lot of people now are doing things hes been used to doing for a long time, said John Elway, the quarterback-turned front office executive for the Broncos. He does such a good job. His preparation and the way he goes through it helps him have such a good idea of where the ball is going before its even snapped.
Back in Elways day, a quarterback did most of his reading of defenses by looking at where the safeties went after the ball was snapped.
Thanks to habits Manning has made commonplace in the NFL among them expanded film study and no-huddle offenses many quarterbacks now make most of their reads before the ball is snapped. When a quarterback knows where he wants to throw the ball before its snapped, his accuracy naturally improves, Elway said.
Since Mannings rookie season, which was also Elways last year in the NFL, the average league-wide completion percentage has risen from 56.6 to 60.2. Manning completed 68.6 percent of his passes this year, second best of his 14 healthy seasons.
Hes seen just about everything known to man defensively, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. Every once in a while there might be something drawn up here or there, some scheme that someone says is new. But over time, when youve taken that many snaps, when youve seen that many looks, there arent that many things that surprise you anymore.
All those signals Manning barks out at the line, many of them dummy audibles designed to confuse the defense, are a product of his work in the film room. He spends hours every week breaking down teams strengths and weaknesses, picking up trends and discussing with coaches what might work and what wont in the upcoming game.
All those habits started during that first summer in Tennessee.
The thing I saw most about him was just how fast he really could play, and he still does that today, said Cutcliffe, who has remained close with Manning and helped him get back into playing shape during his year out of the NFL. Hes got this mind that allows him to play that fast. Youve got a football play that lasts 2.5 seconds. Youve got 30 seconds worth of thoughts to process in that time. The time in the film room sets you up for that.
Earlier this year, coach John Fox said Manning has it down to a science when it comes to time management, recalling instances when hes seen the quarterback soaking in the ice tub while watching video of an upcoming opponent on his iPad.
The time-management element has become even more important this year, with Manning playing with what is, essentially, a new body after missing a season while his neck healed. Manning said he often refers back to something Bill Polian, the longtime president of the Colts, told him when he came into the league.
He said you cant substitute for the physical, Manning said. You cant shortchange a lift or a body session or rest for a film study. I took that advice, and it helps even more with my injury. I used to be a guy who was going to stay up as late as I had to in order to get this film watched. Now, its, Ive got to go to bed at this time because thats important to me. Or, Ive got to get the weight work in because thats important to me.
Mannings arm strength, by almost every estimate, has held up all year. And though hes never been known as the most nimble of quarterbacks, he has been able to pick and poke his way through the pocket. He has thrown every kind of pass and gotten them there on target.
One of his most memorable completions was a touchdown pass against Carolina, in which he rolled right, stopped and pivoted, then threw across the field to Brandon Stokley.
NFL Films had Manning wired for sound that day. Coming off the field, he called that throw an example of Rule No. 1 that you never do. But, Manning told Stokley, sometimes you throw caution to the wind when youre in your 15th year.
But Manning doesnt leave much to chance.
The physical part was the biggest question coming into 2012 with his new team.
I ran him and ran him and timed him like I would a freshman in college trying to get ready, Cutcliffe said of their workouts at Duke last year.
The mental part and Mannings willingness not only to put in the time, but to do it smartly, was never in doubt. When he watches film, he is not simply sitting there in the dark pressing the pause and rewind buttons.
One thing Ive always believed is that if youre in there and youre not writing things down while youre watching, youre wasting your time, Manning said.
Wasting time has never been part of Mannings makeup.
Hes redefined preparation, Cutcliffe said. Hes redefined the quality of the work thats expected of the people around him. I think anybody there with Broncos would tell you that. Its not an accident that hes performing at the level hes at. You see it every day hes out there.