Past teammates, coaches explain why Peyton Manning’s greatness is beyond numbers
When the time is right, Brandon Stokley has a festive idea for each of the 44 players who have ever caught an NFL touchdown pass from Denver’s Peyton Manning.
"We should all get together and have a tremendous party," Stokley told FOX Sports in a telephone interview.
The champagne-popping for Manning’s latest league record already has begun. Manning broke Brett Favre’s mark with his 509th career scoring strike in the second quarter of Sunday night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers. He added No. 510 in the third quarter.
While the 509th will be remembered among his most special plays, every one of Manning’s touchdowns has a story behind it. One of the best comes from Stokley, who spent five of his 15 NFL seasons with Manning as his quarterback in Indianapolis (2003-2006) and Denver (2012).
Stokley was on the receiving end of Manning’s 49th touchdown pass during a Week 16 matchup against San Diego in 2004 to top Dan Marino’s single-season apex set 30 years earlier with the Miami Dolphins.
As Stokley points out, "Leading up to that game it was a pretty big deal back then. The record hadn’t been broken for a long time and nobody thought it would ever be broken." Manning’s parents even attended in hopes of seeing their son make history in person.
There was another special element to Stokley’s 21-yard touchdown grab. The call wasn’t in the Indianapolis playbook.
"There’s a universal NFL signal for a smash route," Stokley said. "The quarterback’s right hand is a fist and he punches his left hand that has the palm open. The outside guy runs a hitch and the corner route is run by the inside receiver.
"We were running a muddle-huddle. I would usually go close to Peyton between plays and relay what we were doing to the outside receiver. Peyton told me, ‘I’m going to give the smash (symbol) but I want you to run a post.’"
Stokley did just that, turning inside on his route from the left slot rather than toward the corner of the end zone. Chargers safety Terrence Kiel was caught so off-guard that he fell down trying to cover Stokley.
"When I turned around, the throw was right on top of me," Stokley said. "It was the typical pass from Peyton. It was great anticipation for a play we had never even worked on in practice.
"For him to come up with that in that situation, how cool is that? Plus, the play as part of the game was meaningful, too."
That leads to another tale.
Stokley saved the footballs from every NFL touchdown he has ever scored ("My kids are throwing some of them around in the basement," he said with a laugh.) Stokley left this prized pigskin in the hands of teammate Aaron Moorehead as the Broncos attempted a two-point conversion to tie the score in the final minute.
As he was playing, Stokley said Moorehead valiantly tried to stave off attempts from Colts staff members to wrest the football from him for team owner Jim Irsay until the situation became too big of a sideline distraction.
"I just told Aaron to give it to them because I was tired of hearing about it," Stokley said. "I was trying to win a game in overtime.
"I’ve never seen that darn football since."
Manning and Marvin Harrison had a different problem when the duo connected for their 86th career scoring pass in October 2005 against St. Louis. Each tried to give the other the football after they made NFL history. Neither would accept it, so they finally agreed to split the ball in half to share.
Such camaraderie is one of the main reasons Manning and Harrison became the most prolific quarterback-receiver tandem in NFL history.
The scoring play itself exemplified the special bond that Manning and Harrison shared. Both could simply exchange glances and know what play should be run without speaking. Manning changed the route at the line of scrimmage to a fade and delivered a perfect over-the-shoulder heave in the back of the end zone that Harrison snared while dragging his feet inbounds.
Bill Polian drafted Manning to Indianapolis and was the team’s general manager for each of the 112 touchdowns he would throw to Harrison. That includes Manning’s first touchdown pass in his NFL debut.
But more memorable to Polian than that six-yarder to Harrison during the 1998 season-opener against Miami was an unsuccessful connection attempt during Manning’s rookie year. Polian told FOX Sports that moment would prove more meaningful to both over the long haul.
Polian said he met with Manning and Harrison together after a loss in which "they had a play on the goal-line that would have won the game that involved a sight adjustment. They had to see the same thing and they didn’t. Marvin went one way. The throw went the other way.
"I said, ‘Look, I don’t want you to hang your head about this and get upset. This will be rectified. When we get together again, work on every route we have. I know with the way both of you work this will never happen again. You will be on the same page for the rest of your careers.’"
Polian couldn’t have been more right. Besides the touchdown mark, Manning and Harrison possess the NFL quarterback-receiver records for catches (953) and receiving yards (12,756). Harrison also still holds the league’s single-season receiving mark with 143 catches in 2003.
"I wasn’t prescient," Polian said. "I simply knew with the way these guys work and the pride they had that they could create the chemistry."
Marcus Pollard has the distinction of helping to spearhead the first of the league-record 50 game-winning drives Manning has led in the fourth-quarter or overtime. The former Colts tight end snagged a 14-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds remaining during a 24-23 win over the New York Jets in Week 11 of Manning’s rookie season.
"I was supposed to run a five-yard out-and-up and behind the defender, but I had done that several times and they were on to it," Pollard told FOX Sports. "When I turned up-field, instead of the defender biting on my out-cut, he stayed home and I ran into him. I had to improvise.
"I was lucky enough that Peyton stayed with me and the offensive line gave him good enough time to get me the ball."
Pollard handed the football to his mother, who was one of 70 family members in attendance for the game. He proceeded to catch 33 more touchdowns over the next six seasons for a scoring history with Manning that ranks behind only Harrison, Reggie Wayne (67) and Dallas Clark (44).
Asked what makes Manning so good in the clutch, Pollard said, "Confidence, preparation and overall smarts. The guy just has an ability to see something before it happens. It’s tough for defensive players to align themselves in position where have time to adjust when Peyton is running the hurry-up offense. He can navigate through whatever you do to him."
A dozen of Manning’s other end-zone targets caught only one touchdown pass from him during their NFL careers. Ex-Colts fullback Jim Finn is among them.
Finn’s time in the spotlight came during the 2000 season when starting running back Edgerrin James suffered an injury as the Colts neared the goal-line against Green Bay.
"Gene Huey was our running backs coach at the time. He looked back and saw me and a backup tailback that hadn’t been with us for very long," Finn told FOX Sports. "I literally had never practiced at tailback with the Colts, but we were in a crunch. They knew that I knew the pass protections and routes and that Peyton trusted me to protect him.
"I ran into the huddle at the 4-yard line and it was a pretty intense situation. We called a blitz route. No matter how many linebackers were blitzing, I was still supposed to run a little diagonal route toward the sideline and cut back toward the middle of the field. They blitzed and Peyton had to throw to me because (the Packers) were playing press coverage on the outside."
Finn came through, cradling the football while falling to the ground and scoring. But the celebration for what would prove Finn’s lone touchdown in eight NFL seasons was short-lived.
"We were within (two) points and it seemed like we were making a comeback," Finn recalled. "I was on the kickoff team and (Green Bay’s) Allen Rossum immediately took the kick back for a touchdown.
"It took the wind out of my sails. Your first NFL touchdown, you make an impact in the game and then all of a sudden — bam!"
Of the 44 players who have caught a Manning touchdown, 34 are retired like Finn. As for the 38-year-old Manning, he’s actually becoming more prolific with age. Manning has posted double-digit touchdowns in every regular-season game since joining the Broncos in 2012.
Making this stretch in Denver especially sweet, Manning has continued to flourish even after suffering the neck problems that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season and led to his release by Indianapolis.
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has experienced two different views of Manning’s pursuit of the touchdown record. Arians was the Colts quarterbacks coach from 1998 to 2000 when Manning threw his first scoring strike. Arians also was on the opposing sideline recently when Manning hit the prestigious 500-touchdown milestone during a Week 5 rout of the Cardinals.
Like Polian, Arians said he knew early that Manning was destined for greatness.
"I didn’t have any doubt about it as long as he could stay healthy," Arians said. "He never takes time off. He does sometimes to play a little golf and do a little politicking, but he’s always working at it."
With the touchdown record now in hand, the last major statistical milestone left for Manning to work toward is Favre’s NFL record of 71,838 passing yards. Manning currently stands at 66,494 yards, which puts him on pace to catch Favre by midway through the 2015 season.
Should Manning get there, it’s just another reason for the NFL to celebrate arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play.
Alex Marvez and co-host Phil Savage interviewed Bruce Arians on SiriusXM NFL Radio.