Before the celebrated end, Peyton Manning endured a rough start

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (March 7, 2016) – Hit the pause button on Peyton Manning’s illustrious 18-year career that officially comes to an end Monday with his retirement in Denver.

Put on hold, just for a nanosecond, the enormous impact he had on two NFL franchises, and the world championships he helped deliver to the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos. Disregard, briefly, the indelible footprints Manning left on the NFL landscape.

Instead, imagine what might have been.

Bruce Arians did, and laughed.

It was April 17, 1998, the day before the first round of the NFL Draft. Arians, the Colts’ first-year quarterbacks coach, still was analyzing University of Tennessee and Washington State game tape.

The Colts held the first overall pick and had a franchise-shaping decision to make: Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf?

Never mind what you’ve heard, it wasn’t a slam-dunk decision for owner Jim Irsay and then-general manager Bill Polian.

“I was still breaking tapes down the Friday before the draft,’’ Arians said. “In the evaluation process between Peyton and Ryan Leaf, one had a huge upside and that was Ryan Leaf.

“Peyton had a big upside, too, but he was probably the hardest-working guy you’ll ever draft. You saw what you were going to get with Peyton.’’

The Colts opted for Manning, then used the fourth overall pick in the 1999 draft on running back Edgerrin James. Manning is a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer, and eligible for the Class of 2022 after the ’21 season. James was among the 15 modern-day finalists for the Class of 2016.

Nice choices.

But imagine. Polian could have built the Colts around Leaf and running back Ricky Williams. Leaf, selected No. 2 overall by the San Diego Chargers, remains one of the biggest busts in the history of the draft.

“You never know about those things,’’ Arians said. “That’s why Bill’s in the Hall of Fame.’’

And one of the overriding reasons Manning will join Polian in Canton, Ohio is his inner drive. Arians first noticed it in 1996 when he was an assistant coach with the New Orleans Saints.

“He would come over and throw,’’ he said. “You could see he was just an unbelievable worker. He throws himself into whatever he does.’’

While Manning’s body of work has everyone debating where he ranks among the greatest quarterbacks in league history, his initial steps were hardly historic. The Manning-led Colts lost their first four games and finished 3-13.

It was a shock to Manning’s system. The 13 losses were more than he suffered at New Orleans’ Isidore Newman School and Tennessee combined.

“The first eight games were rough,’’ Arians said of the Colts’ 1-7 start. “But to see him go back to practice every day and learn from those mistakes and swing back through the division was very encouraging.’’

The light went on, Arians stressed, Nov. 15 when the New York Jets strolled into the RCA Dome. They had embarrassed Manning and the Colts 44-6 in September. Bill Belichick was the Jets’ assistant head coach and defensive backs coach.

“We came back and beat the Jets,’’ Arians said. “To me, that was the game where everything changed even more.

“There always was a confidence about Peyton. That was never not there. But now, he had done it, and done it against one of the best.’’

The Colts won 24-23 as Manning hit tight end Marcus Pollard with a 14-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds remaining. And it was indeed a milestone event: the first of Manning’s league-record 56 comeback wins in the fourth quarter or overtime. It also was his second win – ironically, the first came against the Leaf-led Chargers – in a career that saw him win a league-record 200, including the playoffs.

Manning’s thirst for information and methodical evolution never failed to amaze Arians. He described Manning as a “piranha.’’

“I’ve never been around anybody who’s worked like Peyton,’’ Arians said. “If we had an hour meeting, I’d have to bring three hours’ worth of stuff. That’s Peyton.

“And his recall was unbelievable.’’

The Colts faced the Washington Redskins in 1999, then squared off the following season against a team that utilized the same defense.

Arians approached his young QB.

“I said, ‘Hey, remember against Washington and we had this play?’’’ he said. “He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’ll be a touchdown.’

“So Peyton’s on the sideline drawing it up during the game showing the receivers what to do. He recalled it (from the Washington game) and throws a touchdown.

“Only he could do that.’’