Ahead of the game: Prepared Peyton still scours film, notebooks to fine tune details

Howard Mudd spent five decades playing or coaching in the NFL.

He's never been around a student such as Peyton Manning.

From the moment Indy's franchise quarterback walked into Anderson University's gym in 1998, Mudd could tell this guy was going to be different. The No. 1 pick went right to work studying the playbook, the protections, anything to give him an edge. He poured over film, took meticulous notes and met with teammates regularly to discuss ideas. Heck, he wouldn't even talk Tennessee football because he was too busy learning the NFL game.

Manning's thirst for knowledge never could be quenched in his rookie season, and 12 years, one Super Bowl ring and four MVP awards later, it still hasn't.

"His preparation has never wavered," said Mudd, the recently retired Colts offensive line coach. "Every single year, his intensity, his preparation is exactly the same — or greater. To me, that is his brilliance."

Mudd understands what it takes to be successful at football's highest-profile job.

After coaching with six different teams and working with quarterbacks ranging from Hall of Famers Dan Fouts and Warren Moon to quality starters such as Bernie Kosar and even busts such as Rick Mirer, Mudd knows some win with their physical skills, others with their brains.

But Manning beats opponents with both because he's rewritten the book on preparation.

Almost anybody in the league, from Ray Lewis to Bill Belichick, will tell you Manning cannot be fooled.

He's seen virtually every defense, heard every defensive call and expects his teammates to know it all, too.

That's why last season, Manning spent each Thursday night huddled in a film room for more than an hour with rookie receiver Austin Collie. The goal was to make sure both saw the same things on the field, something that paid dividends when the two hooked up on a beautifully read 16-yard TD pass against the Jets in January's AFC title game.

Rookies aren't the only ones being pulled aside.

"The first day you walk out on game week, he's got about 14 pink post-its up and you know he's going to pull you over and spend 15 minutes discussing what he thinks is important," said longtime center Jeff Saturday, a four-time Pro Bowler.

For Manning, the work never ends.

Coach Jim Caldwell, Manning's former position coach, remembers times during the offseason when Manning would come in and throw at targets. Caldwell charted every throw, and it got to be a long list.

"If he doesn't hit it right on the spot, he'll say hey, 'Let's do that again,' and the initial pass might have been good enough for most people," Caldwell said this spring.

Manning was throwing so many passes during the offseason, that several years ago, the Colts started limiting Manning's throws to protect his shoulder.

But that's the easy part of his offseason regimen.

Each spring, Manning sits down with his quarterback coach and watches tape of every snap he took during the previous season. It's a grueling marathon.

"Let me put it this way, it takes months, plural. It's a long process," Caldwell said. "He has great recall, just in terms of remembering everything that happened on that particular play, all the peripheral things. It's a great exercise. It really is. It's interesting."

The results are more incredible.

Since 2002, when Caldwell came to Indy, Manning has led the Colts to eight straight playoff appearances, seven consecutive 12-win seasons, two AFC titles, one Super Bowl title and won a league record four MVP awards.

At age 34, he's still not showing any indication of declining skills.

Last season, Manning produced the best completion rate of his career (68.8 percent) and threw 33 TD passes, his highest total since breaking Dan Marino's TD record in 2004.

Manning enters this season with 22 consecutive regular-season wins in games he's finished, and teammates think they know why Manning continues to improve with each passing season.

"I've never been around anyone that works like this, and I don't know if I ever will be again," Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark said. "He spends a lot of time preparing and that's what makes him so good."

Mudd believes there's another reason for Manning's success — he gets teammates in on the action and nothing is off limits.

On the game-winning drive of the 2006 AFC championship game, Manning chuckled at first when backup tight end Bryan Fletcher, who had only 19 catches all season, said he could beat the Patriots on a corner route. Manning thought about it, then hooked up with Fletcher for a 32-yard catch-and-run that took Indy to the New England 37.

Four plays later, Joseph Addai scored the go-ahead TD run, and Manning was headed to his first Super Bowl.

It's the same way before and during games.

"He always like to hear your input," Addai said. "He's real, real unselfish and he always listens to other players. It's not ever about him, it's always about the team."

And getting ready for the next week.

Nobody does that better than Manning.

"He understands that not everybody can process information as fast as he does, so he compensates for that," Mudd said. "He'll find a way to get a younger guy up to speed, and that's where I think his creative genius is — getting everyone up to speed.

"Bernie Kosar prepared because he knew he had to beat you with his brain, this guy is like that and the guy in New Orleans (Drew Brees) is that way, too. But I've never around a guy that's more prepared than Peyton."