THE WIND PICKS UP when Peyton Manning settles in at linebacker. A mid-October practice has just ended, but Manning is not finished. Something isn't right -- not enough to his liking -- and to make it right, Manning is lined up opposite rookie running back Montee Ball, posing as a linebacker, to show him exactly how he wants Ball to run a simple five-yard out route.
For all the characteristics most often associated with Manning -- his obsessiveness, his penchant for control, his unrelenting capacity for tinkering at the line of scrimmage, his unparalleled fluency in reading defenses -- his ability to teach has always been overlooked. He's a hard-ass who will quiz teammates in the middle of meetings about their assignments on a particular play. But he'll also stay after practice and pretend to be a linebacker to show a rookie how to get open. Manning waves Ball to run toward him, then jams the young back. Yes, Peyton Manning, a 37-year-old with a surgically repaired neck, jams him. As they're engaged, Ball pushes upfield, and Manning tells him what to do: Break outside the instant the defender -- in this case, Manning -- turns his shoulders.
After a few minutes, receiver Wes Welker happens by and relieves Manning at linebacker. Manning slides into his customary spot, in a faux shotgun. He calls the cadence and spins the ball in the air, emulating a snap. Welker jams Ball. Manning drops back, doing Peyton stuff -- shuffling his feet, holding the ball near his chin, standing tall in a fake pocket, releasing the ball high -- a textbook baseline from which he works his trademark artistry.
Welker, locked up on Ball, turns his shoulders, and Ball accelerates into his break. Manning hits him. They practice it again. And again. And again, as the wind picks up and slightly unwinds some of Manning's spirals. What seems like a basic route is really the quintessential Peyton Manning throw as his career nears its close: It's quick. It's precise. It takes a hell of a lot of practice, and it's unstoppable when run correctly.
And most of all, it's short.