That night Caldwell got in his playbook. The next day he ran the right route, and a curious thing happened: Manning came back to him. Yes, he's more demanding now than ever, but he's also more patient. Maybe it's the injury. Maybe it's being a parent to twin toddlers. Maybe it's age. He admits that he takes time to soak in the little things now. Like the plane rides. After the Broncos beat the Cowboys in that wild 51-48 October shootout, Manning sat on the team charter as it took off and looked around. No players were wearing seat belts. Everybody was on a cellphone. He laughed to himself. "When the pilot says we can't take off when those things are happening," Manning says now, "he's lying, because we do it."
Maybe Manning has more patience with his teammates because his teammates need to have more patience with him. He endures moments when something is failing him physically, and he needs everyone to stay with him until he figures it out. That's exactly what happened in the third quarter against the Colts on Oct. 20. Down 33-14, Manning didn't just seem mortal: He looked old. Two sprained ankles and an unrelenting pass rush left him unable to set his feet. Passes that Manning once hit in his sleep were now fluttering to slow deaths.
But he kept throwing. In the fourth quarter, he took a snap and was immediately under siege. Manning dodged the rush, scooting up the pocket, and saw Thomas on a post route, double-teamed but slightly open. He launched himself into the throw, putting his body into it as if starting a somersault. The ball flopped and fluttered, but damn if it didn't land in Thomas' hands for a touchdown.
Manning had cracked his biological code, and he put up 16 points in the final 13 minutes before losing 39-33. After the game, he was asked why the ball wasn't spinning out of his hands. "I throw a lot of wobbly passes," he said, shaking his head. He stared off for a second, and the pain of the past few years seemed to flash through his mind. Then he added, "I throw a lot of wobbly touchdowns too."
Manning's game has always been based on timing as much as on audibles. For years, the only way to defend him was to force him off script. Now Manning works harder on his timing because, as he says, "you might not be able to arm that throw" the way he used to. Only he knows the impossible precision this entails. It means lining up at linebacker after practice to teach a rookie how to get open. But it also means perfecting his internal timing, not allowing himself to be tricked into believing that his body can do something that it now can't. Manning has to hit the open receiver not only within the shrinking window of the secondary but also within the shrinking window of his physical capabilities.