Rare Pair: Peyton and Marvin

The Sporting News

Sept., 2004

 

Figure Peyton Manning has thrown 15 of his 68 career touchdown passes to Marvin Harrison using his favorite play.

 

It happened in the second quarter against the Falcons in December 2003. The call was for Manning to throw to Harrison on a post route after a play fake. The Colts anticipated Falcons safety Cory Hall covering Harrison on his outside shoulder, but Hall played on the inside of the receiver. Harrison recognized it and, knowing Manning would, too, altered his route. Manning threw to Harrison's outside shoulder instead of in front of him, and the Colts had a 17-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone.

 

This is how Manning and Harrison operate, seeing 100 yards and 11 defenders through the same pair of eyes. If, inside their helmets were devices that enabled their neurons to transmit signals to each other, no one would be surprised. The trust they share on the field defies the laws of relationships. "They not only know what they're going to do, but they feel each other," said Dolphins linebacker Junior Seau.

 

Figure Manning has thrown 993 passes to Harrison in regular-season games. Of those, 621 were complete. Figure he has thrown another 48 passes in playoff games, with 30 of those being complete.

 

Manning to Harrison are at the top of the list of the most productive quarterback-to-receiver duos ever. During the 2004 season, they passed former Bills Jim Kelly and Andre Reed for most completions (663) by a duo and enter the '05 season just 128 yards shy of Kelly's and Reed's yardage mark (9,538) by a duo. With four more touchdown passes, they will break Steve Young and Jerry Rice's NFL record of 85.

 

Given the frequency of injuries and roster turnover in today's NFL, it is possible Manning and Harrison are creating a set of records that will stand for eternity, the football equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. The most viable threat to Manning and Harrison was Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss, but that possibility was thwarted with the Moss trade to Oakland. "Having those records would mean a lot -- that two guys can do what we've done in such a short time," Manning said of seven years of playing with Harrison.

 

Figure Manning has thrown 10,296 passes to Harrison in regular- and postseason practices. Another 9,339 in training camp and preseason practices. And another 7,326 in offseason workouts.

 

Harrison was the 19th pick in the 1996 draft; Manning was the first selection in '98. There is no lack of ability here. There also is no lack of humility. How else could you explain the way they come to work every day -- even now, after 11 Pro Bowls between them -- wanting to sweat as if they were undrafted free agents from Division III schools?

 

Sitting on a golf cart after one training camp practice, Manning estimated he throws 33 passes in a typical practice to Harrison. There are 10 he throws "versus air," another 10 in the one-on-one segment of practice, another five in seven-on-seven and another eight or so in the team period.

 

Colts coach Tony Dungy, who, as a player, assistant coach and head coach has been part of the NFL for 26-plus years, never has been around two players who want as many practice repetitions. On the day after games, Dungy holds a light practice for the benefit of players who didn't play much. Manning and Harrison insist on being out there, stealing reps from the scrubs. If there was a blown play in the game the previous day, Manning and Harrison will want to run it at least five times on Monday. "All the things that happen on game day, the great catches he makes and the touchdown passes, are the result of all the extra reps we take," Manning said.

 

Theirs is a shared dedication to precision. Manning's accuracy and Harrison's route running are a marriage made in Canton.

 

When they aren't taking reps during practice, Manning and Harrison often are talking. And not about the latest Tom Cruise movie. During special teams periods, when most of the starters are taking a knee, Manning and Harrison might be exchanging ideas about a new route. When the scout-team offense is presenting a look for the starting defense, there are Manning and Harrison, discussing a technique.

 

Like an old married couple, they don't always needs words to communicate. There are hand signals, eye signals, nods and gestures. And sometimes they talk without sound, sight or touch. Even teammates can't decode their signals. "We were in there today practicing, and Peyton just said, 'Marvin! Marvin!' And Marvin knew what he meant," said tight end Marcus Pollard, who was with Manning and Harrison for their first seven seasons together in Indianapolis. "Nobody knows what they're talking about but those two. I don't even think (offensive coordinator) Tom Moore knows."

 

Colts general manager Bill Polian was running the Bills when Kelly and Reed had a similar bond, but he believes Manning and Harrison have taken their connection to a higher ground. "They have a communication level that's probably unique in pro football," he said.

 

They are so comfortable with each other and the offense the Colts have used since Manning's rookie year that Harrison occasionally will change Manning's play at the line of scrimmage. Three years ago against the Ravens, he lined up in the slot and saw a linebacker outside of him and a safety about 10 yards off, waiting to bracket him. Harrison recognized that it was an effective defense for the play that had been called, a 7- or 8-yard hitch. So Harrison came in motion toward Manning and, as he passed him, said, "I'm going to pump it." Harrison took off toward the end zone, and it was the right call. Only an overthrow by Manning prevented a long touchdown. Even though they missed on that one, the two had 11 touchdowns of 50-plus yards going into the '05 season.

 

You wouldn't call them kindred spirits, but you would call them friends. Manning likes country music; Harrison likes hip hop and R&B. They eat out together a couple times every season. Harrison often stops by Manning's house for postgame parties. Manning has stayed at Harrison's house in Philadelphia. Harrison has worked at Manning's football camp in New Orleans.

 

Their relationship mostly is about pushing each other. "If I were to slack for some reason, 'P' still would be the energy," Harrison said. "He's always upbeat. If I run a route and don't get open, I might think, 'Shoot, I let him down. I have to turn it up.' And it would be the same way the other way around."

 

As is the case with most quarterbacks and receivers, some occasional tension can creep into their relationship. During a 1999 game against the Giants, a critical third-down pass to Harrison was ruled incomplete. It looked like a catch to Manning, who wanted to challenge the play. When he asked Harrison if he had caught it, Harrison did not respond and kept walking to the sideline, probably because Manning's throw was off. On the sideline, they exchanged some nasty words. But on the next series, Manning found Harrison on a slant for a key reception. "They both strive for perfection," Pollard said. "When things don't go perfect, somebody is going to hear it."

 

There is too much history between them for a disagreement to fester. Harrison didn't really arrive as an NFL receiver until Manning arrived. Harrison averaged 13.1 yards per touchdown catch before Manning and has averaged 24.7 yards per TD catch since. When Manning came to Indianapolis, all apple-cheeked and yes-sir, no-sir, Harrison was one of the veterans he leaned on.

 

Manning's first pass as a pro -- in a preseason game against the Seahawks -- was a quick slant to Harrison after Manning picked up a zone blitz. Harrison made the catch in stride, burst past cornerback Shawn Springs and scored a 48-yard touchdown.

 

Figure Manning has thrown 99 passes to Harrison in preseason games. Sixty four were completions.

 

They went to the Pro Bowl together for the first time after the 1999 season and have been there together five times. The one time Harrison made it without Manning, after the 2001 season, Harrison bought him a Rolex. "I felt real guilty," Manning said. "He's thanking me for helping him, but look what he does for me."

 

Their familiarity with each other has enabled Harrison and Manning to save each other repeatedly. Three years ago against the Cowboys, Manning was flushed out of the pocket to his left. Harrison saw it, stopped the route that was supposed to take him across the field in the other direction and ran in the same direction Manning was running. Manning was able to complete a pass to Harrison for a first down.

 

Manning also helps Harrison, who is slightly built at 170 pounds, avoid big hits. "He bails me out by working with me, and I can save him a headache by throwing it away from the defender," Manning said.

 

Avoiding knockout blows is no small part of the records Manning and Harrison are approaching. Asked to explain the productivity of Manning and Harrison, Titans coach Jeff Fisher, with great reverence, said simply, "They both stay healthy."

 

Manning never has missed an NFL game. Harrison missed the last four games in 1998 with a separated shoulder and one game in 2003 with a pulled hamstring. "Marvin's always there," Manning said. "He's always been there. He never comes out. He never said, 'I need a breather.' He never takes a practice off."

 

Manning's iron man performance at his position is even more remarkable but less celebrated because his streak of 112 consecutive starts is 93 behind the streak of Green Bay's incomparable Brett Favre.

 

 

Figure Manning has thrown about 6,250 passes to Harrison in pregame warmups.

 

While other players use the time before a game to socialize with opponents, nap or listen to music, Manning and Harrison are working. As a warmup to the team warmup, they go through the entire route tree and run additional special plays. Their pregame ritual is done without words or signals. "It puts you in a good frame of mind, especially when you go on the road, on different fields with different throwing levels and different angles," Manning said.

 

As much as Manning and Harrison work together on the field, you would suspect they watch game tape together. But Harrison doesn't watch tape much outside of team meetings. It has not limited him, in part because he, like Manning, can visualize a play based on words. "Some guys have to write it down or see it on the board," Manning said. "But if you can visualize it as a quarterback, it's a great advantage. For a receiver to be able to do it is amazing."

 

Also amazing is their shared ability to recall prior plays. During a game against the Dolphins in 2002, the Colts found themselves in the red zone facing a combination coverage in which the Dolphins "kind of built a wall" on the 10. Manning thought back to when the Colts faced the same situation against the Bills three years earlier in the season opener. "Buffalo, '99, at home, same thing," he told Harrison. No other words were necessary. Seconds later, the pair resurrected the play, which was not in the game plan, for a 16-yard touchdown.

 

Figure between offseason workouts, training camp, preseason, regular-season games, postseason games and in-season practices, Peyton Manning has thrown 34,351 passes to Marvin Harrison, give or take a few. Is it any wonder they are ringing history's doorbell?