INDIANAPOLIS -- All of this became possible on a coincidental day in 1998. Would you believe it was, of all numbers, the 18th of April? That was the day the president of the Indianapolis Colts officially said two of the most significant words of his career.
That day, which should be a regional holiday in the Midwest, is when offensive records and conference championships could be imagined. It is when Manning became linked to No. 18 and knew he was going to be wearing the same logo -- the blue horseshoe -- as Johnny Unitas. It is when the Colts offense became his personal project, his old house to gut and update and then show off to the neighbors.
Without Bill Polian's two words on April 18, 1998, there would be no AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Colts on Jan. 18, 2004. Without those words, maybe Polian is described here as the former president of the Colts.
Long before there was an Indianapolis offense that crushed the Broncos in one half and played pitch-and-catch against the Chiefs for an entire game; long before the offense became an orchestra directed by Manning and accompanied by Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James; and long before 447 points were dropped on the rest of the NFL in the '03 season, there was a decision to make.
Manning or Ryan Leaf?
It sounds absurd now. Manning is the co-MVP of the league. He may have entered the NFL as "Archie Manning's son," but in six seasons Manning has already moved past his father in career passing yardage, touchdowns, and Pro Bowl appearances.
Leaf, who finished his career with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions, is now every executive's model for what you shouldn't do with the No. 1 pick.
Everyone knows that now. They didn't in '98.
Polian, whose Colts held the No. 1 pick in the '98 draft, remembers watching every pass Manning and Leaf threw in college. He interviewed friends and coaches of both players. He talked with both of them himself.
And then he analyzed everything he gathered. Toward the end of his analysis, he received a phone call.
It was Archie Manning.
"This process is kind of wearing on everyone," Polian remembers Archie saying. "Do you know which guy you're going to pick?"
Polian said he didn't know. The elder Manning was not satisfied.
"So when do you think you're going to have an answer?"
Polian said he would have an answer on the 16th. A Thursday.
"I'll let you know then," the decision-maker said, "but you'll have to promise not to tell anyone. You're going to have to keep a secret for a while."
Looking back on it now, maybe Polian was doing his research so his conscience could be clear. He probably knew he had the perfect quarterback when he sat down with Peyton Manning and the kid, just 22, wound up leading the interview.
"He interviewed us," Polian said. "He brought a notebook to the interview and it must have had 35 questions on it. He asked us all sorts of things. He wanted to know what our philosophy was, what our plan was for winning, everything."
Manning could have been asking questions he already knew the answers to. He knew Polian built the Bills and the Panthers from the ground up. Polian's Bills are among the best -- and inaccurately described -- teams of the past two decades. They had Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and Bruce Smith. They won four consecutive AFC titles and lost four consecutive Super Bowls. Outside of Western New York, they are perceived as a group that wasn't quite good enough.
Obviously, Polian sees something else.
"Under our current system, I don't see how [four straight conference titles] is ever going to happen again. It's like Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. You may see someone come close, but no one is going to match it."
The Colts would be perfect for Manning, even from the start. He would go to a place where he could put up huge numbers. And win.
In Peyton he trusts
One reason for the big numbers is that the coordinator likes it that way. His name is Tom Moore, he's 65 years old, and he's the kind of guy who looks into a camera and finds no reason to smile.
You would never guess that Moore supervises this gaudy offense. He has a gruff exterior and a straightforward sensibility. He says that if something didn't appear on the History Channel, ESPN, or CNN's Headline News, then he probably didn't see it. His Colts are sometimes called a finesse team; you might not feel comfortable describing them that way to his face.
He was the coordinator in Detroit when Scott Mitchell threw for more than 4,000 yards, Barry Sanders ran for more than 1,000, and Herman Moore and Brett Perriman had more than 1,000 receiving.
He was asked if that offense was the run-and-shoot.
"No," he said, making sure that he was speaking clearly. "We did not have a run-and-shoot offense. No we did not."
He was the receivers coach in Pittsburgh when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were there. He has had Manning, Harrison, and James on his side for five seasons.
"I tell my wife and kids all the time that I'm the luckiest man in the world," Moore said. "I've had the chance to work with some of the finest athletes in the NFL."
Moore said his first priority on offense is to make sure he designs plays that always protect the quarterback. "I have never been the kind of coach who wanted to see how many receivers he could get into a pattern," he said.
Once he is confident that Manning is protected, Moore essentially turns his quarterback loose. They go over plays together during the week, and Moore listens when Manning suggests things he would like to do. They study film together, although Manning does a lot on his own.
"I think if you talk to Tom, he'll tell you that he trusts me," Manning said.
The quarterback then mentioned how big that was, especially following the events of the playoff games last week. He was obviously referencing the St. Louis-Carolina game, when Mike Martz wouldn't let Marc Bulger go for the win in the final two minutes. The Rams sat on the ball and played for overtime.
They made it to overtime.
They also lost.
"It was nice of Peyton to say that," Moore said. "I do trust him."
That trust began back in '98, the first time the old coordinator saw the young kid from the University of Tennessee up close. Moore had always remained friendly with Tony Dungy, who played for him and coached with him in Pittsburgh. He would call Dungy, who was coaching the Buccaneers, and tell him stories about the exceptional player the Colts had at quarterback.
It didn't take Moore or Polian long to agree that Manning's alleged flaws were overstated.
"I don't know if this is the right way to say it," Polian said, "but Peyton has always been the subject of erroneous thinking, if you know what I mean. People have said he doesn't have great arm strength, and that's not true. They have said that he can't win big games, and that's not true. They have said he is a `system' quarterback -- whatever the hell that means."
Polian laughed and laughed after that statement.
A system quarterback? A perfect QB rating in two games this season (at New Orleans and against Denver). Eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs. He's a system quarterback, all right. His performance is from the outer reaches of the solar system.
One thing Polian and Moore don't agree on is historical placement. Moore was asked if he has ever seen a two-game offensive stretch such as this one, and he says he has not. Polian, who has his team in a conference championship for the sixth time in the past 16 years, says he has seen something comparable.
"In Buffalo, we won a championship game -- against the Raiders -- 51-3," he said. "We used to have spurts like this for two and three games at a time. I remember we won a game back then, and it was something like 48-45.
"But those types of scores are a function of matchups. And Bill Belichick likes to create matchups that favor him and bother you. I'd be very surprised if it turned into that type of game."
A championship has stood between Belichick, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and Polian before. Thirteen years ago in Tampa, the Giants of Belichick and Crennel stopped the Bills offense put together by Polian.
There is much respect between both sides now. Manning is extremely complimentary of Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel. Scott Pioli considers Polian to be a brilliant builder of teams and counts director of football operations Dom Anile as a mentor. Polian says of Patriots management, "Bill and Scott, they do it differently than we do, and they're extremely successful. Two championship games in three years. That's proof that there is more than one way to do this."
The Patriots are here because they are built on defense first. The Colts are here because they picked the right quarterback, put him with a quiet receiver from Philadelphia, and added a intriguing running back whose locker stall has so much life that it could be interviewed.
(James's locker is stacked with pictures of his family, a cable TV hookup, PlayStation 2, and several DVDs and CDs, including a Richard Pryor collection.)
The Colts are here because Polian never had to ponder a scenario that he posed late last week.
"You want to know what a really hard question is? This one: If there is not a clear-cut Peyton Manning in the draft and you need a quarterback, do you use that top pick on a quarterback anyway? Or do you go for the building block on defense?"
It is something for another president or general manager or coach with power to consider. The Colts have a great offense. They have Manning. They always have a chance.