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.
"WHAT'S THE ANGRIEST you've ever seen Peyton?" I ask Broncos receiver Andre "Bubba" Caldwell at his locker.
"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.
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."