When NFL evaluators were waiting for Andrew Luck to make a pivotal choice about entering the draft or returning to Stanford for his senior season, he picked up a phone. Before letting the world in on his decision, Luck ended up calling Peyton Manning in the first days of 2011.
For Manning, it wasn’t unusual to share a brain-picking session with an elite college quarterback. Most of them passed through his prestigious Manning Passing Academy and many leaned on him for some NFL wisdom every summer. So when Luck called, Manning figured he was in for a quiz about being a professional or weighing options before making a decision.
Instead, Luck gave Manning some news. He wasn’t calling to ask Manning what he should do. He was calling to tell Manning he has already made his decision – and now wanted to talk about what to expect next.
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“He was letting me know he was going to stay [at Stanford] and wanted to talk about what some things in that senior year were like for me when I went back [to Tennessee],” Manning later recalled to Yahoo Sports. “That’s really what we ended up talking about. I was excited for him having made the decision to go back. Of course, I was also happy to talk about what that next year of his life might be like and maybe even things beyond that.”
It’s an intriguing moment in the rearview mirror for the Colts. Partially because Manning had no idea that he was huddling with his eventual successor in Indianapolis. But also because it has almost certainly happened again – this time with Luck’s successor. Thanks in large part to his family’s vaunted offseason passing clinic, it’s almost certain that Peyton Manning will have in some way – either large or small – left fingerprints on the replacement for Luck. Which means that even after he was supplanted as the Colts’ cornerstone seven years ago, Manning is still having an impact on the franchise’s quarterback spot.
From himself to Luck to Jacoby Brissett, and if things go wrong in 2019, right into the 2020 NFL draft class.
While it’s a faint memory for most people now, Brissett was one of the Manning Passing Academy counselors back in the summer of 2015. Such invitations are coveted by the nation’s best college quarterbacks, largely because it offers them a chance to get into an intimate setting with both Peyton and Eli Manning. It’s an environment where the college kids teach high school prep quarterbacks and get the opportunity to work with the Mannings on their own games – both in their mechanics and mental processing of concepts.
And now it’s helping to play a small part in fine-tuning starting quarterbacks. Luck raved about it. So did Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and a litany of others who worked alongside Manning. Basically, it has become more rare to find an acclaimed NFL starter who hasn’t gone through the academy. A fact that was never more apparent than the 2018 NFL draft, which saw five previous MPA counselors go in the first round: Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson.
This is something that should matter to Colts fans, who would be smart to put their faith in the guys who Manning ends up mentoring coming out of the camp. If Brissett doesn’t work out for Indianapolis and the team is looking for a quarterback in the 2020 NFL draft, they might want to keep an eye on Oregon’s Justin Herbert. Not only is Herbert a great fit for head coach Frank Reich’s offense, he’s also a quarterback who at least a few evaluators believed had a better academy showing than even Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. That’s not to say Herbert is a better overall prospect, but it definitely suggests he’s a guy who can stand shoulder to shoulder with other presumed No. 1 overall picks and compete with them in workouts.
Interestingly, Manning traded phone numbers with Herbert last year and answered Herbert’s questions about the NFL before the Ducks star ultimately chose to bypass the 2019 NFL draft and return to college for his senior season. Unlike Manning’s conversation with Luck, Herbert hadn’t made his decision when he called. And he ended up weighing Manning’s thoughts seriously before returning to school.
“Justin reached out to me [in 2018] after the season, talking about whether to stay or go and kind of some of the things that I thought about back in 1997, deciding whether to stay or go,” Manning told Yahoo Sports during the passing academy in June. “… I kind of gave Justin my thoughts, told him to do his homework, ask lots of questions. I was proud of him for staying. I think it says a lot about him and his commitment to the University of Oregon. I think it’s only going to make him better this year.”
“He gave me the facts,” Herbert said of the conversation. “[Peyton] told me, ‘If you do this, this is what happens. This is how the NFL works. This is how the draft works.’ He didn’t try to persuade me one way or the other. He was set on just giving me the facts and letting me make my own decision. That’s something he did [with his decision]. I asked him if he would re-do his decision and he said he wouldn’t.”
The advice didn’t end there, though. Herbert had a chance to go through throwing workouts with Manning and worked to fine-tune some of the things that have been missing from his game in Oregon’s offense. Things like lining up under center and the mechanics of dropping into a pocket.
“I talked to him today about footwork, actually,” Herbert said. “Being from Oregon, I never took a snap under center. That’s something that we went through as we threw [in a workout]. I was a little out of my element. I had to ask him about five-step drops, three-step drops, under center.”
Time will tell if Herbert or another highly acclaimed quarterback ends up being a viable target for the Colts. A large part of that will lean on how Brissett performs this season and whether the team and its ascending talent base can rise to the challenge. Interestingly, multiple NFL personnel men who spoke with Yahoo Sports suggested that Indianapolis would be wise to take a quarterback high in 2020 regardless of Brissett’s performance. The thought process there would be to stack as many viable options at the position and then sort them out as the franchise moves forward.
As one opposing front-office source said, “Herbert and [Alabama’s Tua] Tagovailoa are both more gifted players coming out than Brissett ever was. To me, Tua is the best of all three [players], but Herbert has a higher ceiling than Brissett and that’s why if you have a chance to take either [Herbert or Tagovailoa], you just take them and figure it out. The way that team is laid out – they’re young and still in the process of improving that roster. In that kind of situation, just get the best quarterback you can.”
The season ahead will reveal whether that’s where the Colts are headed. But whether it’s the guy they already have taking over for Luck or a high-end draft pick in 2020 or beyond, chances are they’ll have leaned on a familiar teacher at some point. Even after his career has been long over in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning will have touched the Colts’ quarterback position. And that might not be the worst thing in the world.
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