Then a third surgery on his neck just before the 2011 season -- causing him to miss the entire year and setting the stage for his release from the Colts -- complicated his plans. That December, he spent a few weeks with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, the longtime quarterback whisperer to the Manning brothers, to begin his throwing rehab. One night, the two of them went outside and sprayed footballs with cold water to simulate a bad-weather game. As he threw, Manning was more than inaccurate; he was alarmingly inept. He couldn't catch a shotgun snap or grip the ball tightly enough to execute a handoff, which triggered a fear that he'd never contended with before. He wouldn't stop throwing that night, even after miss after miss, even after Cutcliffe implored him to save his strength. "He was afraid that if he stopped throwing, he would lose it," Cutcliffe says.
On the drive to Cutcliffe's house after that practice, Manning turned to him and said: "Am I doing the right thing? Am I going to be able to play effectively?"
It was the first time the NFL's greatest control freak experienced the most paralyzing loss of control that exists for an athlete: losing control over his body. He kept grinding, of course, accepting the reality that there would be good days and bad days, and by his first training camp in Denver, there were more good than bad. He ended up producing a comeback for the ages, resulting in a second-place finish for the league's MVP. But it was also a slog, which Manning now publicly acknowledges. By the end of the year, his arm was tired. He stopped doing his famous route tree before games, putting himself on a pitch count. In the playoffs, the Ravens dared him to throw more than 15 yards, and after losing to Baltimore in double overtime, he realized he needed to stop throwing. "He was more willing to rest his arm," Cutcliffe says.
Manning spent the offseason working on his lower body and core, strengthening his arm by strengthening his legs. Still, working within the confines of his new self is a process, learning to chase mental perfection while letting go of physical perfection, the way Jordan did when he developed his fadeaway. "When you have an injury and you have some things that aren't going to be quite the same," Manning says, "you try to be as strong as you possibly can in the areas that aren't affected."
Two areas weren't affected: his mind and his will.
"Today's practice," he says with resignation.
Caldwell had run the wrong route, misread something. Bubba knows that Manning won't trust him on Sunday if he doesn't trust him during the week. Manning lobbed a few F-bombs his way. But that's not what hurt, because as running back Ronnie Hillman says, Manning tends to "say a few f- and move on." No, what really hurt was when Manning told the next receiver up, "Do 100 percent the opposite of what Bubba just did."
It's not easy being one of Manning's receivers. Dealing with him throughout the week can be tougher than the game on Sunday. During walk-throughs, he sometimes orders the scout-team defense to show a few wrinkles, just to see how his receivers react. "Get in your playbook" is Manning's weeklong mantra.