Editor's Note: Longtime NFL writer Dan Pompei, who has covered 26 Super Bowls, will be writing about the league for Bleacher Report this season.
As unfair as it is to the rest of us, the Rocky Mountains may become plains before time catches up with Peyton Manning.
At the age of 37, when most players are shells of their former selves, if not already retired, Manning has never been better. He is on track to throw 64 touchdown passes this season—14 more than any player in NFL history. He has thrown more touchdown passes, 20, through the first five games of the season than anyone ever. He has won three of the last four AFC Player of the Month Awards.
And he seems to have made mistakes a thing of the past.
Becoming the second all-time leading passing-yardage leader Sunday in a victory over the Cowboys was impressive. But doing it before he has declined even marginally is almost unbelievable.
His hairline recedes. His mastery of the sport spreads.
How can Manning, the quarterback of the 5-0 Broncos, be improving instead of deteriorating? Or is this just another illusion from Manning, like making a defense think run instead of pass?
The things he makes his body do have not changed much. "Physically, Peyton is as good as ever," one personnel executive who has studied him through the years said. "He was never great at moving around, but he’s no different in that regard. He is throwing with accuracy and putting it where he wants it. His arm isn't overly powerful. It never was. But he can make all the throws."
Tony Dungy, his old coach with the Colts, said he thinks Manning’s deep ball lacks a little of the zip it had back in the day. Others aren’t so sure.
"He let one fly 50 yards down the pipe the other day—a bullet, a perfect throw," said Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme, who also played with Manning in Indianapolis.
Tamme thinks Manning has become more elusive in the pocket, saying he had a couple of "Big Ben moments" last year. "He surprised all of us," he said. Manning surprised even CBS cameramen by running it in from the 1 against the Cowboys. And he looked pretty smooth doing it.
In his 35 years of working in pro football, ESPN analyst Bill Polian said he never has seen a 37-year-old not show signs of aging. Until now. "It’s absolutely incredible," said Polian, who drafted Manning. "It defies all of the actuarial tables and studies."
Those who know Manning well believe the four-time Most Valuable Player has reached a new peak, but he has more improvement to come. Dungy said on NBC’s Football Night in America that he thinks Manning will be better later in the season as he continues to get in sync with his receivers.
From that standpoint, you can understand Manning’s improvement from last year. He may not know Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker like he knew Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, but he has thrown each of them thousands of passes.
In addition, Manning is no longer feeling his way back after sitting out a year because of nerve damage and neck surgery. "Last season he really didn't know if he could take a hit," Dungy said. "He got a quarter of the way through the season and realized he was going to be OK. This year going in, he knew all of that. He knew where he was physically. So it was just a matter of going into year two with the offense and learning his guys. They’ve hit the ground running. That’s where the difference has been."
What's more difficult to understand is how Manning can be better than he was in 2004, which was his best season until now. He was 28 years old at the time, in his seventh season, in the same offense, and with the same go-to wide receiver, and he had yet to suffer an injury of significance.
Dungy thinks there is no doubt Manning had better offensive weapons on that team with Harrison, Wayne, Brandon Stokley, Edgerrin James, Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark.
One difference between then and now may be patience. "The thing he realizes now is not every throw has to be 40 yards up the field," Dungy said. "He’s very content to take the short throws. His completion percentage is so high. He’s throwing these eight- to 12-yard passes and letting guys run after catch. He’s incorporated the screen game."
Manning’s completion percentage is .758 (if he keeps it there, he’ll have yet another NFL record). In 2004, it was .676. And this is why: According to Stats LLC, his average pass yards at the point of the catch this year through four games was 6.1. In 2004, it was 8.4. This has resulted in a career-best yards per attempt of 9.5.
Really, Manning has aged—above the neck. It is through greater understanding that perhaps the most efficient quarterback in history has become even more efficient.
Part of what has made Manning a special quarterback is his ability to retain information, and then recall it.
"His capacity to learn and retain huge amounts of information is unrivaled," Polian said. "He might have more ability to learn and retain than maybe anybody ever born."
As Manning has gotten older, it has become apparent that his mental library does not have a limited number of shelves. A new piece of information in his mind is not replacing an old one.
And Manning always is flooding his mind with more. The tide inside his helmet keeps rising. It is possible he has studied more game tape than any player in history.
"He has a very orderly and organized mind," Polian said. "So he'll come in with 20, 25, 30 pages of notes on Tuesday from film he looked at on the upcoming opponent. He’ll study it and process it in an organized and systematized way. I’m sure he’s made that more efficient over the years."
By now, Manning can process information more efficiently than anything ever made by Apple.
Though he has changed teams, offensive coordinators and receivers, it has helped that he's maintained a base of continuity.
When he left the Colts, one of his priorities was to stay in the AFC because he wanted to continue to take advantage of his knowledge of defensive schemes and players rather than start from scratch.
The Broncos playbook has many similarities to the Colts playbook that Manning knew so well. In fact, if football were journalism, former Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore might have a plagiarism case against Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
"I see very similar plays, blocking schemes, protection schemes," Polian said. "There is a lot of carryover."
Helping Manning prepare for each opponent is a familiar face, the same face that helped him prepare for opponents during his last two years in Indianapolis. This year, the Broncos hired Jim Bob Cooter as an offensive assistant. He breaks down defenses and tendencies for Manning, and he knows how Manning likes to digest them. "He knows how Peyton functions and what he’s looking for," Polian said.
So what makes the 37-year old Manning unique is that he keeps finding more mental edges without losing physical ones.
Which also explains how the best keeps getting better.