Centers to the stars

Denver Broncos vs. Baltimore Ravens

DENVER -- Sometime before the Denver Broncos' playoff game last weekend, Peyton Manning delivered a short speech. He talked to his teammates about all the adversity they'd overcome in 2013, from coach John Fox's in-season heart surgery to injuries to suspensions to skyscraping expectations.

And then Manning singled out Manny Ramirez. Not the troubled baseball player with the dreadlocks; the bald-headed 30-year-old center who's a relative unknown outside of the Broncos' locker room. Six months ago, Ramirez hadn't snapped a ball in an NFL game, and now here he is, confident and steady, one with his quarterback. They've come a long way together, and Manning just wanted to acknowledge his center's efforts.

"He said it's been a pleasure being able to put his hands in my rear," Ramirez said. "Which didn't come off right. But everybody understood what he was saying."

There is no way to fully understand what Ramirez does. He is a protector, a translator in a world of dummy calls and verbiage; he is the calm in the chaos. He's a guy who snaps a football between his legs. One of the few people who can relate, perhaps, is New England Patriots lineman  Ryan Wendell. Ramirez and Wendell are centers for two of the greatest -- and most demanding -- quarterbacks in NFL history.

Ramirez will not go as far as to say Manning is anal-retentive. He prefers to call him "passionate." It is Manning who requests that they work on the quarterback-center exchange before every practice, because that's what he's always done. It was Manning who once made former Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday run through an entire practice soaking wet in the days before the Super Bowl because he'd heard there was a chance of rain, so they had to do a wet-ball drill.

Ramirez and Wendell make the line calls in fast-moving offenses with quarterbacks who change things on the fly. Virtually no one grows up aspiring to be a center. He's usually the smallest, smartest and strangest of the offensive linemen. To work with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, you also have to be one of the toughest. Former Broncos great Tom Nalen, who served as John Elway's center in the 1990s, isn't sure he'd want either of their jobs.

"Mentally, it would be really draining on me," Nalen said. "I look at Tom Brady and it's a little different. They rely a little more on the running game now, they huddle up and do a little more traditional offense. But they can go hyper speed and all. With Peyton Manning … they don't even huddle. I like to prepare and know what the plays are. This is almost a 'check-with-me' system.

"There's a lot of communication, a lot of words, and if you miss one of them, you're screwed. There's a lot of pressure snapping the ball to who I think is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Let's not forget making sure he stays healthy. I felt that way with John Elway. With Manning, even more. You don't want to be that guy who ends his career. There's a lot of thought process that goes into it. I don't think I'd be smart enough to do it."

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