Peyton Mannning now running

Published 3:57 pm Thursday, October 5, 2006

Peyton Manning may never be confused with Michael Vick, Vince Young or even Jake Plummer.

That doesn’t mean the two-time MVP can’t move. He’s been stepping away from would-be sack artists for years and over the past two weeks has given defenses one more dimension to fear in his already dangerous repertoire: scoring runs.

“I was kind of hoping something would be installed for me this week,” Manning joked. “We get the game plan on Wednesday, so when I walked in here this morning, my hopes were crushed.”

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Awkward as it may seem to see the 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback running around instead of relying on his self-described laser arm, his two TD runs rank second on the Indianapolis Colts (4-0) behind only Dominic Rhodes. Stunningly, he’s been in the end zone two more times than either Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne.

Manning also is tied for second in scoring among NFL quarterbacks; only Cleveland’s Charlie Frye has been more proficient with three TDs. Vick has one.

And the perceived transformation from pocket passer to dual threat after two 1-yard TD runs has given teammates ammunition to poke fun at their studious leader.

“I think Peyton is not as bad a runner as a lot of people think,” tight end Bryan Fletcher said, trying to contain his laughter. “If the defense goes to sleep, he can make plays with his legs. Everyone laughs, but he’s shown he can escape blitzes and make plays.”

There was a time Manning actually took pride in his running skills. He would sometimes cite figures from his college days in which he was Tennessee’s No. 2 rusher. Manning also was the Colts’ second-leading rusher in his first three seasons with the team.

More recently, Manning seemed content to avoid hits at all costs.

But in the past two weeks, Manning called his own number to deliver victories.

His beautifully executed bootleg, a surprise to everyone but Manning, coach Tony Dungy and offensive coordinator Tom Moore, was his first score in four seasons.

Now he’s scored twice in two weeks after a perfectly timed quarterback sneak with 50 seconds left in the game beat the New York Jets.

Manning and his teammates are both getting a chuckle out of new questions that range from Indy’s newfound running threat to fantasy players wondering whether they should expect another TD run against Tennessee.

“Is that the big question?” Manning said with a smile. “The main thing is that teams are trying to take away Marvin and Reggie, so we’re getting into the end zone in different ways this year.”

The truth is Manning’s recent ploys are more function than trend.

When the Jaguars collapsed the inside running lanes on Indy’s first goal-line play, Dungy took note of the overaggressive defense and told Manning to fake the handoff and keep it himself. The result: Manning jogged around the right side and was never touched.

Last week, needing a second late touchdown to beat the Jets, Manning rushed the offense to the line of scrimmage, tapped center Jeff Saturday on the butt and followed him into the end zone before the Jets could get set.

“He does a great job managing the game,” defensive tackle Montae Reagor said. “I call him ’The Philosopher’ because he knows what you’re thinking probably before you think it.”

Those new wrinkles have given defenses another worry.

Because some teams are trying to defend the pass with eight players in coverage, it’s opened the running lanes for Rhodes, rookie Joseph Addai, and, yes, even the lanky quarterback who rarely runs downfield.

Opponents are taking note.

“You’re not going to fool Peyton,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “A few years ago, you may catch him off-guard once or twice a game, but you’re not going to fool him anymore.”

Whatever Manning does on the ground this season, nobody, including Manning, expects Vick’s title as the NFL’s most elusive quarterback to be threatened.

“Of course not,” Fletcher said. “But Peyton has another tool he relies on more than Vick — that arm. That arm takes a lot of pressure off his legs.”