His arm isn’t nearly as powerful as it once was. Most NFL nose tackles could dust him in a foot race. After two surgeries on his neck, one jarring hit threatens to send him into retirement.
Yet for all his defects and deficiencies, the Broncos’ Peyton Manning is considered the best quarterback in the game and – careful how you phrase this in the Bay Area – is in the running for the best passer ever.
“He’s 38 and he still loves the game, loves playing, loves preparing,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who more than any member of the 49ers will match wits with Manning on Sunday. “I’m sure he’s studying just as he always has. He’s a true football junkie.”
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Fangio discovered this earlier than most of Manning’s opponents.
Fangio was New Orleans’ linebackers coach from 1986 to 1994, and former Saints quarterback Archie Manning often would visit the Saints’ facility. During the offseason, Manning’s sons tagged along, and 14-year-old Peyton would relish any opportunity to throw passes or run drills with the Saints players.
“He was thrilled to be there with some other NFL players, but yet he was focused on the task at hand and he wanted to throw the ball good,” Fangio said. “You knew he had talent. To foresee an NFL, Hall of Fame career that he’s had at that stage may be a little farfetched, but you knew the guy was talented. You knew he had the right makeup to be a special player.”
The two met again in Indianapolis in 1999 when Fangio was hired to run the Colts’ defense. The Colts had made Manning the No. 1 pick in the draft the year before but won only three games that season. Manning, who threw 28 interceptions as a rookie, was determined to get better.
“He would spend a lot of time at the facility,” Fangio said. “I’m talking day and night. Many times, I’d walk by the film room where he was watching tape, he’d pull me in and ask me what the defense was doing here, why they’re doing this, or he’d come in my office and ask me. We would always have football conversations.”
Recalled Manning: “I used to enjoy talking ball with him and competing against his defenses in practice. It was always very competitive. In the different places he’s been, his teams have always been very well-coached.”
When the schedule was announced last spring, the 49ers and Broncos looked like the top Week 7 matchup. And the hype has intensified as Manning closes in on Brett Favre’s record of 508 touchdown passes, now just two behind.
Manning has sloughed off the achievement in his usual, “Aw, shucks” style, and the 49ers’ defensive players have said they have far more pressing concerns. Still, no defensive player wants to be on an endless loop of Manning highlights the week after the game.
“We know they’re going to try to attack (us) in a couple of different ways,” cornerback Perrish Cox said. “We also know what kind of record Peyton is on. We know he’s gonna try and get that. We’ve got that all in mind. We’re just going to face forward and play our game.”
Manning’s physical tools may have diminished with age, but his greatest weapon – his football acumen – has expanded.
Fangio and his players noted that Manning essentially will huddle at the line of scrimmage. While he’s calling out plays, he’s looking at the defense and figuring out the best play call to thwart a particular alignment. It’s as if Manning is solving a puzzle before each play.
Safety Antoine Bethea, who played six seasons with Manning in Indianapolis, said the 49ers must be careful not to outsmart themselves.
“The most important thing is not trying to disguise so much that we get out of position,” Bethea said. “So we’ll try to show him different looks. But at the end of the day, get in a position where we can still do our job.”
Another 49ers strategy: Don’t give Manning a head start on deciphering how the defense will attack him. Asked how he will try to prevent Manning from getting to the line of scrimmage early and figuring out what kind of defense the 49ers are in, Fangio put on his poker face.
“Don’t show him what we’re in,” he said.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.