Peyton Manning breaks huddle, walks towards the line of scrimmage and sets under center Jeff Saturday. Not two seconds later, Manning is standing upright and barking out calls like “82-Pickel” or “Brown Richmond 96-Double.” His hands are clinched into fists and raised above his head. Next, he forms circles with his index fingers and points towards his receiver on the right sideline.
Some variation of this pre-snap routine will occur numerous times every Sunday. Manning will bluff, he’ll audible, he will go through cadences and he’ll silent snap; what he won’t do is give anything away.
Everyone has seen what Manning does before the snap, but no one knows exactly what he’s doing. Defenders have nearly driven themselves crazy trying to break Manning’s code. Unfortunately, the calls usually aren’t worth trying to decipher.
“You’re going to (get) a lot of dummy calls and (Manning) only needed to do a few before they realized that they can’t trust what (he’s) saying,” Chiefs G
Lilja started 59 games in front of Manning for the better part of six seasons. During that time, the Colts won six-straight division titles, posted a 77-19 regular season record, made two Super Bowl appearances and won one World Championship ring. Lilja spent countless hours with Manning in the film room and even appeared alongside the quarterback in a spoof documentary hosted by Kenny Mayne.
If anyone on the Chiefs roster knows Manning, it’s Lilja.
“His capacity to process film, I don’t understand it personally,” Lilja said. “I think he is more of a cerebral guy and I think most of the time that he puts in goes on in a dark room with a cowboy (remote) in his hand, watching tape.”
The key in that last paragraph are the final two words. Manning will be watching tape of the Chiefs and the Chiefs will be doing the same of Manning and the Colts. Game plans will become set and a strategy will be finalized based off those sessions.
In a league with many moving parts each offseason, the idea of bringing “trade secrets” from one team to another is a bit overblown.
“You get a guy like Ryan that’s into football and is a bright guy, so he’s a good resource but things change in this league and rarely do you have somebody coming directly from the team that you’re playing because each and every year is different in the NFL and the teams change,” Chiefs head coach Todd Haley said. “I don’t know how much you can put into all those things. I think that as coaches you try to cover, at least research any opportunities or resources you have and you take it from there.”
Tuesday morning, Lilja spoke to students at Apache Elementary in Overland Park. He’s a product of the Shawnee Mission School District and made a nice connection with the students. As of that morning, he had not been consulted in the Chiefs game-planning towards Indianapolis.
“We’ve got the best coaches in the league, so they don’t need my help,” Lilja said. “We’ve got a lot of coaches who have coached against the Colts and players who have played against the Colts for a long time. So I’ll give my two cents if asked, but mostly it’s just been their game-planning.”
Two cents is where everything will likely begin and end.
“Really it’s going to come down to what it always comes down to and that’ll be a lot of tape study and past notes on certain players and then a good week of practice and then on Sunday it’ll come down to who plays the best,” Haley said.
This Sunday, Lilja will get a different view of Manning’s mannerisms; one from the opposing sideline. It will be new perspective of the colors he used to wear and the man whom he used to protect.
“It’s interesting,” Lilja said. “I’ve had this game circled on my calendar for a while. I played six years in that stadium with a lot of those guys, for a lot of those coaches and in front of those fans. It’s a little weird for me to think about playing there on the opposite side, but I’m excited about it.”
While Lilja might not be able to crack audible codes, he can increase the odds of a Chiefs victory by keeping his new quarterback off the ground and paving rush lanes. Continuing that success will go much further than any amount of Indy memories can produce.
Then again, the Chiefs are looking to beat the Colts for just the second time since 1990. Anything helps.