MIAMI — Peyton Manning barks out the name of the play: “TRIPS RIGHT 255 X BLOCK SLANT H DISCO ALERT 12 TRAP.”
The Colts pivot into position. He starts to call signals for the hike.
The NFL’s best quarterback spots something he doesn’t like. Maybe a linebacker set to blitz from the blind side. Or a cornerback sneaking up.
“Blue 15! Blue 15!” he hollers.
Now begins the Peyton Shuffle. Shouting. Stomping. Waving his arms like a marionette gone mad. Choreographed chaos, really. Manning in motion.
Every defense is a matrix, and no one in football solves them like this year’s Most Valuable Player.
“He sees those things so well that I can’t even explain it,” Indianapolis right tackle Ryan Diem says. “It’s not to say he has a sixth sense or anything, but …”
He does this time.
Manning takes six fast steps toward the line of scrimmage. His helmet swivels as he scans the whole field.
Darren Sharper might take a look behind him — if he dares.
“I don’t know if you want to read Peyton’s eyes too much. He kind of has those cat eyes that’ll trick you if you watch them too much,” the New Orleans safety says.
Here’s what the Saints need to answer Sunday in the Super Bowl against the Colts: Is Manning really changing the play, or just bluffing?
Manning sure looks like he’s calling an audible. He gets between center Jeff Saturday and right guard Kyle DeVan. He points once, twice, three times with his right arm at a defender.
“Pickle!” he yells. “Richmond!” he might say. Or “Yo-yo!” or “Sally!” or “Orange!”
Pretty soon, he’ll be in full fury, patrolling from end to end, a Civil War general surveying his front line.
Star Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis grins. He’s seen this act plenty. “You’ve got to figure out what’s real and what’s not. That’s the main thing,” Lewis advises.
Got to do it quickly, too.
Manning shakes his right index finger toward the right side, curls his left thumb and fingers to form a “C.” Could be hand signals checking to another play, perhaps “Dice Right Ice Cream Alert 654 Jose.”
“If you want to look at it like a chessboard, he is putting his pieces in place,” DeVan says.
The Colts work without a huddle and Manning calls his own plays, a rarity at any level of the game. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore usually tells him three plays per snap — two runs, one pass. NFL rules permit coaches to deliver their message via wireless earpiece in the quarterback’s helmet.
“I just give him ideas and he goes from there,” Moore says.
Manning often improvises. Exactly how much, no one says.
“He tells me before the game, ‘Hey, if you see something out there, you call it. You change it and I have your back,'” Manning says. “Some coaches tell their quarterbacks, ‘Hey, you can change the play, but it better work.’ That is not confidence. That is a threat.
“I have certain limitations,” he adds. “I am not allowed to change to the double reverse pass back to the quarterback.”
Split out wide, rookie receiver Austin Collie hones in on each Manning gesture.
“Everything Peyton does means something. Given that, it has been a journey trying to get all of that down and making sure you are on the same page as Peyton,” Collie says.
Early in the season, Collie’s wife helped him with his homework. She’d quiz him on the playbook. No time now for a refresher course.
NFL teams get 40 seconds between plays. The clock is down to 15. Still at the line, Manning shuffles three steps to his left. He says something to tight end Dallas Clark.
Tackle Charlie Johnson stays in his three-point stance, but twists to listen. Star wide receiver Reggie Wayne studies Manning and relaxes his shoulders for a moment.
“It’s quite confusing,” Wayne says, smiling. “Just tell me the end result.”
But Manning wants to hear from his pass catchers.
“Tell me what is going on out there. Make suggestions, and real suggestions. Not just, ‘Hey, I’m open. Throw it to me every time.’ Which is what most receivers say,” Manning says.
Whether Manning likes what he sees here, it’s hard to say. Ol’ No. 18 is waving his arms like a frenetic Frankenstein.
Colts running back Joseph Addai admits he gets mesmerized by the Peyton Shuffle and can forget his assignment. “I think it’s easier for me than for the receivers. I’m standing next to him. He can just say, ‘Joe, do this.'”
With 8 seconds left on the play clock, Manning takes a few stutter steps into the backfield and is ready to go.
“It’s like, ‘Darn, he found our weakness,'” says New York Jets star defensive end Shaun Ellis, who played with Manning at the University of Tennessee.
With 3 seconds to spare, Manning stomps his left foot, then twice his taps his right foot.
It looks so easy.
“Somebody has to show me they can stop 18,” says Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans of the Houston Texans, who predicts the Colts will zip past the Saints. “I don’t think it can be done.”
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