ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The play was called "62 Meyer," one of the staples of the Tennessee passing game back in the mid-1990s.
If Peyton Manning's quarterbacks coach from college roots around in his files today, he can still pull out a notebook that includes three pages of handwritten questions and notes Manning handed him about that single play.
Manning wrote the notes at some point between summer school of his freshman year and the time practice started.
"What I learned very quickly," said David Cutcliffe, now the head coach at Duke, "was the amount of time he was willing to put in. He wanted such detail. I just walked out of the room and grinned."
Nearly 20 years after Manning looked at those cut-ups of "62 Meyer" and other plays from the Tennessee game tapes, he's still up there with the best when it comes to preparing. It could be for the upcoming game, season, or, in the most recent instance, for a comeback from what many thought was a career-ending neck injury.
His work ethic is the gold standard when it comes to breaking down an NFL opponent. And though he's had to adjust his schedule, accommodating for the physical changes he's encountered after his neck surgeries, the Broncos quarterback hasn't shown any signs of letting his preparation slip.
"I always felt like doing that work was something that could make me better," Manning said of the study time he spent before college, before his coaches could even come in and help decipher those Xs and Os. "Even if I didn't really know what I was looking at, sometimes if you just think it's helping you, then it's helping you."
This year, the preparation helped to the tune of 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns and a passer rating of 105.9, all the second-best marks he's had in 14 NFL seasons he's played. The Broncos finished 13-3. Heading into their playoff bye week, they were the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl.
"I think a lot of people now are doing things he's been used to doing for a long time," said John Elway, the quarterback-turned front office executive for the Broncos. "He does such a good job. His preparation and the way he goes through it helps him have such a good idea of where the ball is going before it's even snapped."
Back in Elway's day, a quarterback did most of his reading of defenses by looking at where the safeties went after the ball was snapped.
Thanks to habits Manning has made commonplace in the NFL — among them expanded film study and no-huddle offenses — many quarterbacks now make most of their reads before the ball is snapped. When a quarterback knows where he wants to throw the ball before it's snapped, his accuracy naturally improves, Elway said.
Since Manning's rookie season, which was also Elway's last year in the NFL, the average league-wide completion percentage has risen from 56.6 to 60.2. Manning completed 68.6 percent of his passes this year, second best of his 14 healthy seasons.
"He's seen just about everything known to man defensively," offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. "Every once in a while there might be something drawn up here or there, some scheme that someone says is new. But over time, when you've taken that many snaps, when you've seen that many looks, there aren't that many things that surprise you anymore."
All those signals Manning barks out at the line, many of them "dummy audibles" designed to confuse the defense, are a product of his work in the film room. He spends hours every week breaking down teams' strengths and weaknesses, picking up trends and discussing with coaches what might work and what won't in the upcoming game.
All those habits started during that first summer in Tennessee.
"The thing I saw most about him was just how fast he really could play and he still does that today," said Cutcliffe, who has remained close with Manning and helped him get back into playing shape during his year out of the NFL. "He's got this mind that allows him to play that fast. You've got a football play that lasts 2.5 seconds. You've got 30 seconds worth of thoughts to process in that time. The time in the film room sets you up for that."
Earlier this year, coach John Fox said Manning "has it down to a science when it comes to time management," recalling instances when he's seen the quarterback soaking in the ice tub while watching video of an upcoming opponent on his iPad.
The time-management element has become even more important this year, with Manning playing with what is, essentially, a new body after missing a season while his neck healed. Manning says he often refers back to something Bill Polian, the longtime president of the Colts, told him when he came into the league.
"He said you can't substitute for the physical," Manning said. "You can't shortchange a lift or a body session or rest for a film study. I took that advice and it helps even more with my injury. I used to be a guy who was going to stay up as late as I had to in order to get this