INDIANAPOLIS – On draft day in 1998, Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay walked the card bearing Peyton Manning’s name to hand it to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Irsay and a small contingent flew to New York because he wanted to be on hand to ceremoniously bury the ghost of John Elway, who the club drafted and traded in 1983.
What followed was a succession of quarterbacks over the next 15 years, none of whom experienced a run of extended success.
Before he departed on the Friday prior to the draft, Irsay told Bill Polian he would call upon landing in New York just to confirm the pick remained Manning.
Manning and Washington’s State Ryan Leaf were the two top touted quarterbacks in the draft, and the Colts had huddled all spring doing the appropriate background work.
The Colts’ research team included Jim Mora, the head coach; Tom Moore, the offensive coordinator; Polian and many persons from the scouting department. The assessments involved campus workouts, personal interviews and film sessions until all parties grew bleary-eyed.
The group watched pass-after-pass thrown by both collegians, plus the club even paid former San Francisco Head Coach Bill Walsh for his evaluation of Manning and Leaf.
History now has created separation between Manning and Leaf, but it was not quite as clear cut with Indianapolis on the clock.
“Oh, no, not by any means,” Polian said. “Many people today who are commenting on what occurred then have gotten amnesia. They forget that entering the draft process, Ryan Leaf was by far the favorite.
“Peyton Manning had not won the Heisman Trophy, was denigrated in many circles as not being a winner, having a weak arm and being a, quote, ‘product of the system.’ I still don’t know what that means.”
Indianapolis had done its homework and felt nearly from the outset that Manning would be the choice.
The pick would be replacing Jim Harbaugh, the club’s starter since 1994. Harbaugh had grown into one of the fan favorites during the Indianapolis era.
The defense was bereft of noteworthy play-makers, thus the club likely could endure a spate of losses. Emotional stability under such circumstances would be necessary, a point stressed by Walsh.
Indeed, Manning endured more losses (13) in 1998 than in eight years of high school and college action combined.
“It (the choice of Manning) was by no means sure,” said Polian. “We went ahead and went through an exhaustive process of investigation on both players – an analysis of every pass they threw in their college careers. In the end, while we acknowledged that Ryan had great physical tools, there was really little separation between the two on the physical side. As a matter of fact, Peyton had the stronger arm.
“Then you came down to trying to judge the intangibles. Although it took a long time to get there, overwhelmingly Peyton was much more ready to come in and play, lead a franchise and take on the burden of being a quarterback in the NFL.”
Irsay phoned Polian as his ride was entering the Lincoln Tunnel. Polian confirmed one final time that Manning was the man.
Irsay emerged from the tunnel and his team soon was to ascend into elite status behind the play of Manning and a talented supporting cast. Irsay handed in the card the next day, cementing a new future for a proud franchise.
1998 (First-round pick, No. 1 overall)
Played 1998-2011, GAMES STARTED/PLAYED – 208/208
Notes: Hit 4,682-of-7,210 passes for 54,828 yards with 399 touchdowns and 198 interceptions. Is only NFL player to open a career with 13 consecutive 3,500 -yardage and 25 -touchdown seasons. Started the first 208 career games, an NFL career-opening record at any position, and is one of 11 players ever to start 200 consecutive regular season games. Was at helm as club rolled to 115-45 (.719) regular-season record from 2000-09, the most victories by team in any NFL decade. Was a part of 141 victories, the most by any Colts player and is one of 11 NFL quarterbacks ever to top 100 career starting wins. Helped Indianapolis achieve a record seven different offenses featuring a quarterback with 4,000 yards and a rusher and a receiver each who topped 1,000 yards. Upon departure, produced the 13 best Colts seasons in completions and yards, the 12 best seasons in attempts, the 10 best seasons in games with a touchdown pass, 12 of the 13 best seasons in completion percentage and 13 of the 15 best seasons in touchdown passes. Owns club seasonal marks in completions (450, 2010), attempts (679, 2010), yards (4,700, 2010) and touchdowns (49, 2004), and owns six of the club’s seven 30 -touchdown seasons. Twice (at New Orleans, 9/28/03; at Detroit, 11/25/04) tossed six touchdown passes in a game, and threw for five in four other outings. Eleven-time Pro Bowler and record four-time NFL MVP.