Nine years after setting the single-season record for touchdown passes, five years after watching Tom Brady claim the record for himself while setting fire to the rest of the league, and two years after undergoing four neck surgeries that probably should have ended his career, Peyton Manning is back on top.
Manning reclaimed his single-season touchdown record with a 25-yard touchdown pass—his 51st of the season—to Julius Thomas late in yesterday's game against the Texans. It was the third in a fourth-quarter barrage of touchdown passes that quickly and mercilessly snuffed out whatever faint hope the Texans had of stealing the game. The pass was placed just over Thomas's left shoulder, a perfect ball. After the game, Manning was self-effacing:
I think it's a unique thing and a neat thing to be a part of NFL history, even though it may be temporary. I personally think all season records are going down, especially if they go to 18 games, and there won't be an asterisk. Brady will probably break it again next year or the year after. So we'll enjoy it as long as it lasts, and hopefully they Hall of Fame will just send the ball back once somebody throws for more.
This is a very Peyton Manning thing to say. There's the slightly performative humility, which in Manning has always seemed more like the noblesse oblige of a dutiful member of the Garden District gentry than the Opie-ish modesty he gets a little too much credit for. (You could almost see him calling a sort of audible halfway through that first clause—"unique" alone would sound too arrogant; thus, the "neat.") There's the "I personally think," lest anyone get the impression he was speaking ex cathedra. And there's the neurotic concern that a perfectly good game ball might not get returned.
"A lot of receivers caught a lot of touchdowns," Manning continued, Manningishly.
It's hard to overstate just how remarkable his season has been. At 37 years old and with the bones in his neck fused together, he has put together the greatest quarterbacking season in history. He needed just 15 games to reclaim his record; he's thrown just 10 interceptions; his completion percentage is a sparkling 67 percent; and he needs to throw for only 266 yards against the Raiders next week in order to lay claim to the single-season record for passing yards. Now, his name will appear twice among the first five on the single-season passing TDs leaderboard, and he will likely become the only quarterback in history to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 or more touchdowns in a single season.
Two years ago, headlines like "Peyton Manning likely will never play football again, sources say" were being written. This year, he has been his old self again, only more so. The receiving stats recapitulate Manning's record-setting 2004, when three of his WRs finished with double-digit touchdowns: Marvin Harrison (15), Reggie Wayne (12), and Brandon Stokely (10). All three had over 1,000 receiving yards, but not one reached the 100-reception mark.
That's exactly how he's operated this year. It doesn't look as if any of his Broncos receivers will reach 100 catches, and only Demaryius Thomas and Decker will finish with more than 1,000 receiving yards. What's more, he has thrown a touchdown to eight different receivers, and the majority of those have been evenly distributed among his top-four receivers, to a shocking degree. Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas lead the way with 12 each, and Wes Welker and Eric Decker each have 10.
In his record-setting 2007, Tom Brady did most of his damage by throwing passes to Randy Moss, who caught 23 touchdowns. It was as if the two had found some glitch in the system and were just exploiting the hell out of it.
That's not really Manning's way (nor for that matter is it Brady's, '07 aside); his method runs more toward a suffocating, anal-retentive mastery of every corner and crevice of the game. There was a fun anecdote about his rehab in Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year profile:
Manning stayed at Duke, on and off, for more than three months, and the nerve started firing again. "You hear and read about people who overcome things they shouldn't," Cutcliffe says. "I saw it with my own eyes." They eventually moved from the locker room to the indoor facility. Manning ran 10 plays at a Duke spring practice wearing a Colts helmet. He invited several former Indianapolis teammates — center Jeff Saturday, tight end Dallas Clark, receivers Brandon Stokley and Austin Collie — and on March 3, 2012, they simulated every detail of the 2010 AFC championship game against the Jets. "It was a little over the top," says Stokley, recounting the Gatorade breaks on the sideline when the invisible Colts defense was on the field. "But that's how he operates. You could tell he was on his way."
It seems telling to me that he had three receivers present. Even in a simulation, he wanted to spread the ball around a little. And why not? He's at his best when the offense is firing in different directions, like the synapses in his head. It's football as the extension of a thought, at once simple and infinitely complex. A lot of receivers catch a lot of touchdowns. Simple as that.