Gene Frenette: After the NFL Draft, can Trevor Lawrence approach Peyton Manning's place in history?

Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union
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For Trevor Lawrence, the passion his parents Jeremy and Amanda had for Tennessee football and how they admired the school’s most iconic player, Peyton Manning, resonated at an early age.

Trevor wasn’t born when Manning played for the Volunteers and wore number 16, so it’s a stretch to make him out to be Lawrence’s childhood hero.

But as a young boy who watched Manning flourish during his NFL career — as well as how he dealt with the fame of being a superstar quarterback and commercial pitchman — Lawrence gained a profound respect for the five-time league MVP and the two have built a relationship. They recently did a corporate outing together, along with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, at Augusta National Golf Club after the first round of the Masters.

By the time the small-town Georgia kid was old enough to play quarterback, he chose Manning’s college jersey number of 16, partly out of deference to his UT legacy. Though Peyton had already gone back to his old high school number of 18 in the NFL, the 16 jersey remained with Lawrence through his meteoric rise to stardom at Cartersville (Ga.) High and Clemson.

So as the Jaguars are set to officially make Lawrence the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s NFL draft, like Manning was in 1998 with the Indianapolis Colts, these two quarterbacks from the Deep South and from different generations are becoming inextricably linked by more than just the same college number.

Trevor Lawrence, the Jaguars' presumptive pick at No. 1 overall in the NFL draft, has long admired Peyton Manning. It should be fascinating to watch as he tries to approach the Hall of Fame quarterback's impressive legacy.

One is a 6-foot-5 native of New Orleans, part of the world’s most renowned quarterback family, who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall and remains one of the game’s most compelling figures six years after his retirement. The other is a 6-foot-6 native of Knoxville, projected as a quarterback prodigy all through his adolescence, and who has fulfilled that promise every step along the way.

Peyton and Trevor are mirror images in respect beyond their generational talent. Both are remarkably adept at handling celebrity status, plus hyper-focused on winning and game preparation. And from now moving forward, people will watch with great anticipation if Lawrence can do the Peyton thing and jump-start an NFL franchise.

Manning’s 17-year career ended with him capturing a second Super Bowl title for a different team, the Denver Broncos. But it’s his first 13 seasons with the Colts (1998-2010), where Manning orchestrated one of the more remarkable transformations of any NFL team, which has the Jaguars’ organization and fan base dreaming of Lawrence performing similar magic in the 904.

All his life, Lawrence has been accustomed to winning championships. He won two state titles with the Cartersville Purple Hurricanes, then three ACC crowns and a national championship at Clemson. His combined high school/college record of 90-4 as a starting quarterback earned him legendary status in both places.

Going into the NFL draft, you could argue no quarterback prospect has dealt with so much hype as seamlessly as Lawrence, considering the expectations brought on by social media that didn’t exist in Manning’s amateur years.

As he begins what many believe could be a minimum decade-long run as the Jaguars’ quarterback, there’s genuine optimism Lawrence can – in his own nonchalant way -- be the game-changer for owner Shad Khan’s franchise that Manning was in Indianapolis.

“What Peyton did was turn the city from an [NBA] Indiana Pacers town into an Indianapolis Colts town,” Tony Dungy, the former Colts’ head coach (2002-08) and now an NFL analyst for NBC, told the Times-Union in a phone interview. “I think he had a great impact on his team and us as a city. That’s what those generational quarterbacks do. They lift the ability of everybody around them.

“I’ve been around Trevor a lot at Clemson. I think he has that same ability to do that for the Jaguars.”

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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (18) throws a second-quarter pass during the Colts' 35-31 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars Thursday night, December 17, 2009, at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. [Rick Wilson/The Florida Times-Union]

Jaguars trying to change a losing culture 

Shortly after Christmas, once the Jaguars locked up the NFL’s worst record (1-15) to secure the No. 1 pick and access to Lawrence, a decade-old feeling of despair among its fan base was lifted.

The anticipation of the most highly-touted franchise quarterback since Andrew Luck coming to Jacksonville – followed by the hiring of the ultra-successful college legend Urban Meyer as head coach – has cast the Jaguars in an entirely different light.

After years of being an NFL laughingstock, the Jaguars sense a collective feeling of hope and optimism surging throughout the city. The media spotlight is finally on them in a good way.

The lightning rod for much of that is Lawrence. Many believe his talent is such that he can lift the Jaguars out of NFL darkness, maybe to a level close to what Manning did with the Colts.

Mike Chapell, who has covered the Indianapolis franchise during its entire existence with the Indianapolis Star newspaper and now for a Fox/CBS television affiliate, says it’s impossible to calculate the depth of Manning’s impact on the Colts or the city of Indianapolis.

“It’s a timing thing,” said Chapell. “Peyton was hands-on with everything he did. It was amazing his impact. It was a perfect storm.”

Just as the Jaguars have languished for a decade, including a 41-105 record during Khan’s ownership, the Colts were an NFL afterthought before Manning came along. Since moving to Indianapolis from Baltimore in 1984, the Colts had won just two playoff games and one division title in 14 seasons, compiling a record of 90-138 (.394).

Almost overnight, after Indianapolis suffered through a 3-13 record and Manning throwing 28 interceptions as a rookie, it all changed.

Manning proceeded to set the Colts on a winning path – a minimum 10-win season for 11 of his last 12 years – while obliterating NFL passing and scoring records with seemingly relative ease. He won four of his record five league MVPs in Indianapolis, but not without a lot of help.

Two future Hall of Famers, receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Marshall Faulk, were already on the Colts’ roster when Manning arrived. General manager Bill Polian later hit on draft picks like offensive weapons Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, turning the Colts into a must-see attraction for the rest of Manning’s career.

Indianapolis became one of the NFL’s crown jewels, appearing on prime-time network television about a half-dozen times each season during the Manning era. After the Colts’ pedestrian record in the 14 years before Peyton, they were 141-67 (.678) with him under center.

Polian was initially torn between drafting Manning or quarterback Ryan Leaf, taken No. 2 by the San Diego Chargers and whose career quickly flamed out. Dungy didn’t start coaching Manning until his fifth season, but acknowledges he benefited from a stacked roster.

“Peyton ended up going to a place where there was an offensive system in place, an [offensive coordinator] in Tom Moore and a line coach in Howard Mudd,” said Dungy. “Then you have all those Pro Bowl players on offense. It takes the perfect storm for Peyton to blossom into what that guy became.”

If Lawrence is to evolve into an NFL superstar the likes of Manning, it’ll be up to Jaguars GM Trent Baalke and Meyer to provide him with the necessary surrounding cast to get there. That will be a massive undertaking, but the most important piece is on his way.

Keeping the Colts in Indy

It’s not hyperbole to suggest Manning might have kept the Colts from leaving Indianapolis, which was a distinct possibility if voters hadn’t approved taxpayer funding to replace the RCA Dome with Lucas Oil Stadium, which opened in 2008.

Voter approval came before Indianapolis won its only Super Bowl in Miami in February, 2007, but nobody closely following the Colts during that time disputes Manning’s presence made it easier to keep the team in Indianapolis.

“Would the people have been as supportive of the Colts without Peyton? Definitely not,” said Dungy. “Had the stadium vote not passed, I don’t think the Colts would have stayed. Would it have passed if the Colts were just average? I’m not sure.”

Luckily, Indianapolis didn’t have to worry about its NFL team departing because one of the league’s greatest quarterbacks made the Colts a hot ticket. Indianapolis now has a stadium lease keeping them in that city at least through 2034, thanks in no small part to Manning’s long run of excellence.

The parallel here is obvious. Jacksonville will be confronting its own stadium issues in the coming years. Khan’s plans for the Lot J entertainment complex development near the stadium fell one vote short of City Council approval in January, which affirms there are no guarantees when an NFL team goes hunting for taxpayer dollars.

It’s a virtual certainty that at some point during Lawrence’s career with the Jaguars, the team will be seeking public money toward a major renovation of TIAA Bank Field. As was the case with Manning and the Colts, there’s no doubt making that happen becomes easier if the Jaguars are a perennial playoff team and consistently in the Super Bowl hunt.

“Jim Irsay might disagree, but the reason in my mind that there’s Lucas Oil Stadium is because of Peyton Manning,” said Chapell. “Once he got there, things just changed. The 2000s for the Colts was one of the best decades ever and it transformed the city.”

Trevor Lawrence's Jacksonville connection

Before Lawrence could even become a Jaguar, the buy-in from fans was indisputable. A social media campaign, started by fan Eric Dillard to purchase a wedding gift for him and his wife, Marissa, turned into something much bigger. The outpouring of generosity was so large, there was enough money left over to have over $11,203 earmarked for Trevor to give to the charity of his choice.

Lawrence responded by making a $20,000 donation of his own to still-to-be-determined Jacksonville charities. It was the kind of gesture certain to deepen the connection Jaguars’ fans already feel toward Lawrence, and it’s eerily reminiscent of how genuine and PR-savvy Manning was throughout his NFL career.

Marcus Pollard, the Jaguars’ director of player engagement and youth football since 2013, had a front-row seat for a good part of the Manning era in Indianapolis. He was a tight end for 10 seasons (1995-2004) with the Colts, seven with Manning throwing him passes. Pollard had 247 receptions, 3,187 yards and 34 touchdowns as a Colt.

But it was a lot more than Manning’s production on the field that resonated with Pollard and the Indianapolis community.

“From Day One, he recognized the importance of relationships,” said Pollard. “When my first son was born in Indianapolis [in 2001], Peyton was the only teammate that came by the hospital to see us. Then after we brought our son home, he came by the house bearing gifts.

“Whenever a rookie or free agent came to the team, he’d sit down at their table and get to know them.”

Dungy adds many stories about Manning center on obsessive game preparation, the video library he kept in his house basement, and his reputation as a prankster. What was less public was how Manning -- thanks largely to the influence of his father, Archie, a former NFL quarterback with the New Orleans Saints – used his platform to better humanity.

In 2003, St. Vincent’s Children’s Hospital opened in Indianapolis. Four years later, it was renamed Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital because the quarterback donated enormous amounts of money and also built relationships there with patients and their families.

“I talk to people all over the country, random people on how Peyton made phone calls [of encouragement] to them when they were struggling with something,” Dungy said. “That was his nature. Yeah, everybody knows the football stories. They don’t hear the other stories about what he did for people away from the game.

“What Peyton did in the city, what his mindset was, he learned from his dad. Archie taught him that you just don’t play in a city, you’re part of that town. Peyton took on that responsibility. What Archie gave Peyton and Eli [former New York Giants quarterback] was a sense of how to be a professional and a citizen and how to be part of the community.”

The Mannings got to know Lawrence in 2019 when he served as a counselor/coach at their passing academy, attended by 1,200 campers and run annually at Nicholls State in Louisiana. Archie was already impressed by how Lawrence carried himself, even more so after watching him deliver an eight-minute chapel message on the last day of camp.

“Trevor will do things right on and off the field,” said Archie. “I don’t know his folks, but they’ve done a good job. Everything stacks up good. Just getting to know Trevor in that camp, and texting with him since, I think he’ll make a big impact on the Jacksonville community.

“Jacksonville is ripe for that. [Former head coach] Tom Coughlin got the Jaguars off to a good start [in the 1990s]. Now it’s time to start turning it around and rebuild it around Trevor.”

Can Trevor be another Manning?

Khan was in a great mood during a 28-minute Zoom call with Jaguars’ writers on Tuesday, and he made no secret of why he was feeling so joyful.

Part of it was seeing the past three months how Meyer is running the organization. And without mentioning Lawrence by name, it was hard for the Jaguars’ owner to contain his happiness about the draft, especially when he merely hinted about the quarterback he anticipates picking.

“This quarterback class, it contains a number of winners,” Khan said. “Certainly, it’s been one of the better classes since I’ve been in the league. So with that, yes, you combine them two [Meyer and a franchise quarterback], certainly, it gives you. . . . it’s an overwhelming feeling, really.”

Khan is no different than the Jaguars’ fan base. He’s chomping at the bit to see how quickly Lawrence might adapt to the NFL and evolve as a pro quarterback.

Having a Peyton Manning career, at least in terms of his football production, is a massive undertaking. The numbers he put up over 17 seasons are mind-numbing – 71,940 passing yards, 539 touchdowns, an NFL-record 43 fourth-quarter comebacks.

That last number includes the improbable rally from a 35-14 deficit with four minutes left in regulation against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 2003 Monday Night Football matchup. The Colts won 38-35 in overtime.

“That’s almost impossible, but Peyton gives you that chance,” said Chapell. “If Trevor can do things like that, then the Jaguars got a chance in the next 10 years of being really good.”

What’s not up for debate is the phenomenal resume Lawrence has put together up to this point. Coaches who have worked with him at every level hesitate to put any limitations on what he might do in the NFL.

“I’d really be surprised if he’s not an exceptional player,” said Dungy.  “What happens there [with the Jaguars] has so much to do with it. A lot of times with a No. 1 pick, there’s something wrong with the system. That’s why that team has the No. 1 pick.”

Manning came to the Colts after they hired a new coach, Jim Mora, who ended up getting fired after going 6-10 and missing the playoffs in his fourth year (2001). A Manning-led team never again missed the postseason. Dungy was successful in revamping a defense that had allowed a league-high 30.4 points per game, but there was little about Manning that needed fixing.  

He won the league MVP twice in Dungy’s first three seasons. Manning was well on his way to becoming one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks.

Maybe it’s a pipe dream to even think Lawrence can be anything close to what Manning ever was. So much depends on how quickly the Jaguars replenish a shaky roster and the ability of Meyer’s coaching staff to infuse a winning mentality.

“It’ll be fun to watch,” said Dungy. “The Jaguars will be in the national conscience, but what you have to do to remain in the national conscience is win.”

Peyton Manning did that his entire NFL career. Just imagine what’s in store for the Jaguars if Trevor Lawrence can approach that quarterback gold standard. (904) 359-4540

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