The Broncos coaches tend to emphasize the technical aspects of Manning's game, the stuff that, after 16 years of combining players' hours with coaches' hours, only Manning sees. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase says that Manning no longer really reads defenses as much as confirms them. To illustrate what he means, Gase explains a play in the fourth quarter of the season opener against the Ravens. He says Manning saw "something" -- that's often the closest people can get to explaining what's going through Manning's head -- that tipped off a blitz. So Manning began his patented routine of spreading his arms and hunching over and inching toward his linemen, switching to a wide receiver screen pass by yelling "Alley! Alley!" At the snap, Manning fired a short flare left to Demaryius Thomas, who ran 78 yards untouched for six -- the definition of the Broncos' passing game. "There are a lot of things he does that other guys can't do because he's seen so much football," Gase says.
Still, that story doesn't quite do Manning justice. Nor does Broncos executive VP John Elway's explanation that Manning is "trying to separate himself" from the rest of the greatest quarterbacks in history. There's something deeper at work here. It's always been astounding how Manning can at once be an open book, an American icon whose life football fans think they know by heart, yet retain mysteries that go far beyond how he arrives at the perfect audible. He can be robotic in his discipline, yet that discipline has always been rooted in a fascinating and perhaps frightening mix of self-awareness and sensitivity. He knew his weaknesses better than a defensive coordinator, and masking them became fundamental to his excellence.
It's harder to hide them now. A rare glimpse inside Manning's head came in October, in his first game in Indianapolis since he was released in 2012. More than any quarterback in history, Manning can bottle his emotions, but as he warmed up on the field, the Colts honored him with a video tribute, reel after reel of touchdown passes. Manning tried to ignore it by throwing, each pass a little harder as the crowd rose in a thunderous ovation, as if he were trying to bury tears with each heave. Finally, he gave up.
Manning removed his helmet, waved to the crowd and started to cry. He has been honored hundreds of times, but until this moment, he had never been so publicly loved. He patted his heart. The entire scene was striking not just because he showed more emotion than after he had won a Super Bowl but because someone obsessed with controlling his image was, for the first time, vulnerable for the world to see.
I'M STANDING WITH Manning beside the Broncos' practice fields on an October Wednesday. He has just finished a workout and looks as if he could go at it again. He's more muscular than he was only a few years ago, which is somewhat surprising. I always imagined Manning would age ungracefully, like a president, prematurely gray and wrinkled, the tolls of unrelenting stress.