EXCLUSIVE: Diagnosing Manning, Indy

IRVING, Tex. - Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning does a lot of things very well: throwing a football, delivering absurdly humble aw-shucks post-game interviews and making often-silly commercials.

But perhaps no quarterback in NFL history has mastered the art of going through so many gyrations at the line of scrimmage that he looks as if he is simultaneously trying to guide a landing plane while telling a baserunner to steal third.

The Cowboys face the Colts in Indianapolis at 3:15 (central time) Sunday afternoon.

The acrobatics Manning goes through at the line of scrimmage are more than just a 1980s aerobics routine in a helmet and pads. No signal caller in the league has a more complex series of audibles he can call to check out of one play, change his team's formation or disguise a called play.

"It's hard to simulate that — that's for sure," Dallas defensive end Jason Hatcher said. "When he does that, it makes you stay down in your stance until the last second before the ball is snapped, so while a defense is trying to throw him off, he uses it against you and throws the defense off."

As complex as the Colts' offense looks, Hatcher said that once Manning and the Indianapolis offense settles into its play — either the one called in the huddle, or whatever Manning changes it to at the line of scrimmage — most of the disguise effort is over.

"Their offense is actually pretty simple," he said. "You look at it and it doesn't look that way, because (Manning) is doing all that stuff at the line of scrimmage, checking in and out of plays and moving people around. But once he gets settled in and gets ready to run the play, it's not as complicated as it looks.

"The hard part is knowing when he's settled in and ready. He'll go through all that stuff, but then when he gets ready, he'll snap the ball right away a lot of times. Their scheme is pretty simple, but he runs it so well and they disguise what they're doing really well. But cut through all of that, and it's a pretty simple, logical scheme."

Hatcher said that one area in which some might think the Cowboys had lucked into some good luck — the fact that Pro Bowl Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark is out for the season with a wrist injury suffered against the Washington Redskins — has not altered the Indianapolis offensive scheme as much as some might think.

"(Clark) is a great player, one of the best tight ends in the league," Hatcher said. "But the guy playing in his place (rookie Brody Eldridge) can really run — he's a 4.5 (40-yard dash) guy. They don't throw it to him as much as they did with Dallas Clark, but they can, because he can really run. They won't leave him in to block a lot, because with that speed, he's a real weapon for them, whether they throw to him or not."

But of course, the ringleader is Manning, Hatcher said. Hatcher said Manning's understanding of the Indianapolis offense is so thorough that it almost doesn't matter whether the opposing defense knows what the Colts plan to do or not.

"He gets the ball out so quick, because he reads coverages so quick, that he makes it very hard to defend," Hatcher said. "Then he starts all of that stuff at the line, where he's checking out of plays, and it's like they're mixing it up even more. I don't even know if they have an offensive coordinator (they do — Clyde Christensen), but if they do, he's stealing a check. (Manning) calls his own plays and I understand he runs practices.

"It's no wonder he's one of the best to ever play the game."

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