Caddie confidential: Backups explain Manning's success
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Want to win a Peyton Manning bar bet?
Ask your assembled pals to name the quarterbacks (there have been six of them, by the way) who've been teammates of Manning and thrown passes in regular- season games during which No. 18 -- who rarely cedes his position under center, regardless of score -- also played between 1998 and 2013.
It's a group comprising all manner of football success: including a national champion, a Super Bowl MVP, two guys who combined for zero wins in 12 NFL starts and two more who've never started a game.
And in one way or another, they've all helped him get where he is.
Steve Walsh, who led the University of Miami to the 1987 NCAA title and was top pick in the supplemental draft two years later, spent time as Manning's caddy in his final league stop in 1999.
He wound up throwing passes in two of 16 games for Indianapolis that season, completing four of five attempts for 28 yards and an interception in a 44-17 triumph at Philadelphia in November; then going three for eight for 19 yards and another pick in the season finale -- a 31-6 loss at Buffalo in January.
It was the sixth NFL stint for the Minnesota-born vagabond, who suited up for Dallas, New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis and Tampa Bay before sharing the Colts position with Manning and Kelly Holcomb and struggling to hold his own in a three-pronged passing game called Knockout.
"We'd start at the 5-yard line, and we'd have to hit the crossbar," Walsh said. "Then we'd back up to the 10. Then the 15. Then the 20. Kelly owned that game. You'd never guess that."
Ironically, Walsh's first glimpse of Manning had come years earlier, when the former was a starter with the Saints and the latter was a high-school kid whose father, Archie, got him a backstage pass.
"Peyton was a kid who'd come around sometimes. Obviously his dad, Archie, had strong connections to the team, and coach Mora would let Peyton throw with us," he said. "He wasn't great yet, but you could clearly see he would be."
Two years later, it was Mark Rypien's turn.
The passing star of the Washington Redskins' Super Bowl XXVI run was in his fifth NFL city by the time he got to Indianapolis in 2001, when he completed five of nine passes for 57 yards in a 44-13 loss at New England on Sept. 30 -- the first meeting between Manning and still-lingering nemesis Tom Brady.
The Colts finished 6-10 on the season, the last time a Manning-led team missed the playoffs.
"You had a sense of his discipline in the film room, his work ethic, his ability off the field (and) working out in the weight room," Rypien said. "All the tangible things that you'd like to say most guys have, well, he has all of those. I could sense it. I knew by working with him daily, practicing daily, talking football with him daily that this guy was at a different level. Almost a savant at the time. He was pretty special."
Where Walsh and Rypien made cameo star turns to end their careers in blue and white, Brock Huard was completing something slightly less memorable when he arrived in Indiana.
A third-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 1999, Huard washed out of his hometown after winning precisely zero of four starts across two seasons. He threw his final three NFL passes in two games with the Colts in 2003, mopping up in a 55-21 win at New Orleans and a 38-7 home rout of Atlanta.
These days, Huard gets paid to critique as a football analyst for ESPN.
"The guy is not only immensely bright and gifted, he also works harder than anybody else in the room," he said. "That's why he's the best on the planet. I remember sitting there thinking, 'Man, I hope he doesn't get hurt.' Because as competitive as I am, there was no way in the world I could possibly come close to what I saw. He really is that good. It's almost humbling."
Of all the men who played Tonto to Manning's Long Ranger, Jim Sorgi had the longest ride.
The most efficient passer in University of Wisconsin history upon his exit, Sorgi was a sixth-round selection of the Colts in April 2004 and was a workhorse by Manning-backup standards. He threw 29 passes across three games -- including two for touchdowns -- as a rookie that year, then threw 61 times in two games while filling in for his celebrated teammate a season later.
He got into one game but threw no passes while winning a Super Bowl ring in 2006, then was 18-of-36 for 132 yards in 2007 and 22 for 30 in 2008. His final Indianapolis season was another pass-free experience, before he headed to New York to spell another Manning, little brother Eli, in 2010.
"Everybody says it was easy when I was there," Sorgi said, "(but) to tell you the truth Peyton Manning worked me like a dog. I had to get there at 7 o'clock in the morning, watch film until meetings, after practice watch film until 9 o'clock at night and then I'd go home.
"During the season, Peyton worked me pretty hard, so I wouldn't say it was the easy job in the world. Sundays or Mondays, it was pretty easy because you hardly saw the field unless it was the end of the year. But during the week it was pretty horrendous working for Peyton sometimes."
Perhaps the most memorable of the Manning understudies, Curtis Painter, succeeded Sorgi as the Indianapolis backup and also ultimately left the Midwest for New York to play alongside Eli.
The sixth-round pick out of Purdue made rookie headlines with the unbeaten Colts in 2009, when he filled in for Manning -- and completed only four of 11 passes with an interception -- while presiding over a 29-15 loss to the New York Jets that spoiled a perfect season. He threw 17 more times the following week, and again completed only four, as Indianapolis was routed, 30-7, in the season finale at Buffalo.
It was the last time another Colts QB threw a ball in place of an active Manning -- who played all 16 games in 2010 and threw 679 passes -- though Indy fans saw even more of the shaggy blonde No. 2 in the nightmare season of 2011, when he logged six TDs and nine INTs while going 0-8 as a No. 1.
Still, if he hasn't got adulation, he's got perspective.
"(Peyton and Eli are) very similar," Painter said. "Their football knowledge is so special to be around, just hearing them talk about different things and what they see is really neat to be around. It's a great opportunity for me to be able to learn from those guys. Just sitting in meetings with them you can tell they're extremely bright in their football sense. It was a good opportunity with Peyton, it's a great opportunity with Eli as well.
"One thing I noticed about Peyton was, if you saw him in the weight room or you saw him working out with receivers, you didn't know if it was midseason or the first week of the offseason.
"He approaches his football and his game 100 percent every time he's doing it. There's no side-stepping anything. From what I've seen in Eli, it's very similar. He works out hard, practices hard, he's always focused out there and in meetings. I'm sure they have very similar personalities."
The last member of the exclusive club, Denver's Brock Osweiler, was a second- round pick of the Broncos a month after Manning signed on as a free agent. The youngster threw his first four NFL passes, completing two, against Kansas City in his rookie-season finale in 2012, then doubled his passing appearances while going 11 of 16 for 95 yards against Philadelphia and Oakland this season.
Manning, of course, didn't need a lot of rest while establishing single-season records for both yardage (5,477) and touchdowns (55).
"I had a front seat to history, and not only did I have a good view for it, but I learned a lot while watching it," Osweiler, now 23, said. "The things I've learned watching Peyton over the last 17 weeks will stay with me my entire career. I just wanted one long pass to connect. It was fun to get out there and sling the football. It had been months since I last got out there to play."
01/28 10:46:07 ET