Sep 10, 2012, 7:10 PM EDT
“WOUNDED WARRIOR” RETURNS
Leading up to Sunday Night, Broncos QB Peyton Manning had been asked over and over again, “Are you ready? Are you settled in?”
Prior to Sunday night’s victory, Manning had answered, “I don’t know yet.”
Most of the world knows now. Manning is ready.
On Sunday night the future hall-of-famer faced a stiff test: The Pittsburgh Steelers stifling defense.
And as we’ve seen so many times, Manning went surgical against Defensive Coordinator Dick Lebeau’s defense, especially after the Broncos went to the no-huddle offense.
Old number eighteen looked like his old self.
Manning will be quick to tell you that Sunday Night’s victory is just one win.
But it was, without a doubt, a symbolic one.
RE-UNITING WITH “COACH CUT”
Prior to the Sunday Night’s game I spoke with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, who was Manning’s position coach at the University of Tennessee. Cutcliffe has been a confidante to his former pupil ever since.
When Manning was trying to come back from neck surgery in the 2011 training camp, he sent film of his throwing sessions to Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe told me that after watching those tapes, “I really didn’t like what I saw. I pleaded with Peyton, ‘Stop throwing.’”
We all know what happened next. Manning sat out the 2011 season after playing 208 consecutive games over thirteen years in Indy. Then, he was gone.
Last spring after leaving the Colts, Manning reached out to Cutcliffe once again. He wanted his longtime mentor to help him rebuild his throwing mechanics.
Manning traveled to Durham, stayed at Cutcliffe’s home and got to work.
In the beginning, no one else knew Manning was there — not any of Cutcliffe’s staff, not any of the Duke players.
And to keep things quiet, the mentor and pupil began their work in the visitors locker-room at Wallace Wade Football Stadium, where there was little chance anyone would discover their top-secret training sessions.
Cutcliffe told me he’d seen Manning hurt before, but this was different. He said, “I was shocked as to where he was. You see this great warrior wounded. I was worried about his mentality because he’s a man of such great pride and work ethic.”
“I’ve seen him hurt,” Cutcliffe continued, “but this was different. For the first time in his life I think (Peyton) was staring at being through. For the first time in his life he lacked confidence.”
THE REBUILDING PROCESS BEGINS
In Durham, Manning found a place where there was no pressure. He was with people he trusted. There was no stress.
In time, Cutcliffe and Manning began to find the quarterback’s muscle memory.
“Nobody knows (Manning’s) throwing motion better than I do,” Cutcliffe told me. “I’ve been with him the longest.” Once Manning’s throwing began turning the corner,
Cutcliffe witnessed something that “warmed his heart” “Nobody will ever know how hard he worked,” Cutcliffe said. “He worked on his core. He did his rehab. He worked
on strength. I ran him. He needed a coach, and I ran him.” Not surprisingly, Cutcliffe and Manning developed a
training script. And like a typical Peyton Manning script, it was precise and extremely demanding.
Which makes this next anecdote amusing.
Another former Volunteer QB, Todd Helton — now a first baseman with the Colorado Rockies — wanted to join in on the regimen one day.
Helton and Manning are close friends dating back to their playing days in Knoxville, so Helton was more than welcome to join in on one of these very private — and difficult — workouts.
According to Cutcliffe, five minutes into the script Helton cried out, “When’s the damn TV timeout?!”
But according to Cutcliffe, Helton’s visit was motivated by something bigger than a training session. “Todd wanted to know his buddy was OK,” said Cutcliffe.
“DANG, HE LOOKS GOOD!”
As Manning improved, it was time to call in more old friends. The offensive coordinator who had been in Manning’s ear for most of his record-setting career with the Colts, Tom Moore, arrived. Brandon Stokely came to Durham. Austin Collie showed up. Dallas Clark joined the exclusive group.
Manning began to throw with these familiar targets. According to Cutcliffe as everyone watched, the consensus was, “Dang, he looks good!”
From that point, Cutcliffe says, Manning “exploded.”
Cutcliffe has continued to monitor Manning’s work since Peyton left Durham and started working for the Denver Broncos. “He’s so much better,” Cutcliffe told me. “He’s making all the throws we had concerns about. I love what I’m seeing. Love it.”
STEELERS RUN INTO ROCKY MOUNTAIN
The altitude in Denver can’t be underestimated. It’s enough to keep Steelers Pro Bowl safety Ryan Clark out of action every time Pittsburgh visits Mile High.
On Sunday night, the Steelers had to work without their 11-year veteran once again.
Clark has the sickle cell trait in his blood which becomes life threatening when he exerts himself in high altitudes.
Clark discovered that danger in 2007, when after playing a game in Denver he had to have his spleen and gall bladder removed. He hasn’t played in a game in Denver since, including last year’s playoff loss when the Broncos completed 4 deep balls against the Steelers secondary.
Not surprisingly Peyton Manning called Clark’s absence Sunday Night “significant.” And Clark was bitterly disappointed he couldn’t play.
Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin confirmed to me that Clark has been medically cleared to play in Denver — dating back to 2009.
And Clark told me even his personal doctors were putting together a plan that would prepare him for the altitude.
But Tomlin concluded, “It’s simple for me. You ask doctors if Clark is at any more risk playing than any other player, the answer is ‘Yes.’ It’s not only best for him, it’s best for the team. We don’t need 52 other players worried about him all game.”
Clark told me he understands all of Tomlin’s reasoning, and the LSU product said he appreciates that Tomlin is a coach willing to put a player’s future health and safety ahead of winning.
It’s impossible to say if the outcome Sunday night would have been different had Clark played, but it is also hard to imagine he wouldn’t have helped.
Sunday Night Football TwitterView all »
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- Wilf talks Vikings new stadium
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