IT'S FASCINATING TO watch legends toward the end of their careers. There's a nobility and heroism in their struggle to summon all of their tricks and wisdom and will to re-create the magic of their youth. We've seen Michael Jordan score 43 as a 40-year-old Wizard, Mario Lemieux lead the NHL in points for most of a season at age 37 and Jack Nicklaus win a Masters at age 46. But nothing compares to what Peyton Manning is doing right now. Two years ago, he couldn't throw a football 10 yards. This season he is playing at the highest level of his career -- having completed 68.5 percent of his passes with 36 touchdowns through Week 12 -- and arguably at the highest level of any quarterback ever. He has done this with orthodoxies that would make a younger Peyton sick. His passes sometimes flutter and wobble, especially beyond 15 yards. He's playing on sprained ankles that require regular MRIs. But somehow the most calculating quarterback in history is on track to set nearly every major season passing record, largely because he has stripped the vanity from his game, improvising based not only on what the defense shows him but on what his body, on any given snap, allows him to do.
NOBODY KNOWS HOW Manning does it. John Fox, the Broncos' head coach, says, "Just make up whatever superlative you want about Peyton and put my name on it." Ron Jaworski has been watching film longer than Manning has been alive, and even he admits that Manning sees holes in the defense in real time that Jaws misses on review. The statistics after 11 games contradict logic: The Broncos led the AFC in passes completed of less than 15 yards, yet they ranked first in yards per pass attempt at 8.7. That means they gain a lot by risking little, executing what can only be described as an explosive ball-control offense, which produced 429 points through Week 12, second most in NFL history after 11 games.
Manning's teammates can't explain him either. Zac Dysert, a rookie third-string quarterback out of Miami (Ohio), is two lockers down from Manning. After the Broncos took Dysert in the seventh round, his agent, sensing a huge learning opportunity, told him to write down everything Manning does-from when he arrives in the morning to how he prepares for practices as if they were games. Problem is, Dysert can't fully comprehend what he's jotting down. During one video session, Manning said he recognized a blitz call -- from 1999. Dysert almost dropped his pencil. What's he supposed to take from this? Have a photographic memory. Oh, and have a long NFL career.