With Peyton Manning on the verge of breaking Tom Brady’s single-season touchdown record, Houston interim head coach Wade Phillips calls this “just the best year ever of any quarterback.”
The Denver Broncos have needed every one of Manning’s many exploits to make up for a host of problems.
Before the season even started, the Broncos lost Elvis Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens in the infamous fax fiasco that made him a surprising free agent, Von Miller to a six-game drug suspension, John Elway’s top two lieutenants to drunken driving arrests and not one but two centers to medical issues.
In August, Champ Bailey suffered a foot injury that would turn him into a sideline spectator for most of the year. In September, Manning’s blindside protector went on injured reserve.
In October, Manning suffered a high ankle sprain that would force him to miss Wednesday practices on a regular basis for the first time in his career.
In November, Broncos’ head coach John Fox collapsed on a golf course and needed open-heart surgery. During his absence, safety Rahim Moore needed emergency surgery to save his lower left leg, defensive end Derek Wolfe had a seizure-like episode on the team bus ride to the airport and run-stuffer Kevin Vickerson’s went on injured reserve with a dislocated right hip.
This month, captain Wesley Woodyard was benched, and slot receiver Wes Welker was sidelined with his second concussion in four weeks.
Yet, Manning has had a season for the ages at age 37, just two years removed from the four neck surgeries that weakened his right triceps.
“I think it definitely makes it more remarkable for him to overcome all this adversity,” Broncos wide receiver Bubba Caldwell said. “But that’s what leaders do, and that’s what champion players do. They rally up their team behind them, and they make sure they play at a championship level, and everybody else follows.”
Manning won Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year this week, he’s the leading vote-getter in Pro Bowl balloting, and he’s the odds-on favorite to win his fifth NFL MVP award.
He has the Broncos (11-3) poised to once again secure home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs as he seeks that second Super Bowl ring that eluded him a year ago.
Asked what he’s seen from Manning so far that would be a priority for his defense on Sunday, Phillips didn’t know where to start.
“What haven’t you seen?” he said. “Guy is going to set every record that’s ever been in the books as far as touchdown passes, yards, four-touchdown games – it goes on and on.”
Manning is four touchdown passes shy of breaking Brady’s record of 50 touchdowns set in 2007. With a career-high 4,811 yards passing, Manning is 666 yards from surpassing Drew Brees’ single-season record set in 2011.
Asked on Wednesday whether he felt he deserved another MVP honor, Manning laughed off the question, then went down his list of concerns: Welker’s concussion, J.J. Watt’s disruption, an unfamiliar, unpredictable opponent in the Texans (2-12).
“That is plenty on my plate to focus on,” Manning said. “I know that’s probably not the answer that you’re looking for, but that is all my focus is on, and that’s the way it has to be.”
That single-minded attention is what’s helped him overcome so many hurdles in 2013, including his own health issues. He’s been dealing with a high ankle sprain for two months, one that’s forced him to sit out one day a week, usually Wednesdays, to get rest and treatment.
On one of those, he spent practice in the training room soaking his right ankle in a hot tub while watching video of the Tennessee Titans on his iPad. He had his helmet with him so he could hear offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s calls to backup quarterback Brock Osweiler. But when he couldn’t quite make out what was being said, he slipped the helmet on and a trainer snapped a photo.
It was shown on the CBS broadcast of the Broncos-Titans game earlier this month and went viral, the latest example of the quintessential quarterback with the notorious work ethic outsmarting and outworking his opponents.
Shown the photo after a recent practice, tight end Jacob Tamme said: “That’s next-level type stuff.”
Which is a good way to describe Manning’s entire season.