Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner (right) and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning are among the more cerebral signal-callers in the NFL.
By the time Kurt Warner or Peyton Manning take the snap, almost all of their work has already been done.
There is going to be a handoff or a pass, and with the latter there are still decisions to be made in a matter of seconds. But the majority of work has come before that, in meeting rooms or with video study, and even standing at the line of scrimmage mentally dissecting the defense.
"Three-fourths of the battles in this business is knowing where you need to go with the football and doing it quickly enough so you can react to what the defense does," Warner said.
Said Manning, "I take very seriously the mental part of it, the cerebral part of it."
Intelligence is at the heart of both the quarterbacks' game. There's a reason their teams are considered among the most dangerous offensively in the NFL and why it is difficult for any defense to prepare for Manning's Colts or Warner's Cardinals.
Each team must this week, since they face off on the nationally televised "Sunday Night Football" broadcast.
"The one thing we feel good about that, in training camp, we had work against our no-huddle and Kurt changes plays at the line, so if there would have been a camp to be in to prepare for Peyton, it would have been ours," Cardinals defensive coordinator Bill Davis said.
Quarterbacks naturally must spend more time watching video than other players – or at least, they should – prepping for a game. Preparation has always been crucial for both Warner and Manning.
When the Cardinals' offense was sputtering late in the preseason and through the first game of the season, Warner talked about a lack of practice time together for the unit. Manning, speaking of the uncertainty this summer of the return of veteran assistant coaches Tom Moore and Howard Mudd, said he was uneasy because it was June, and while normally that's the heart of the offseason it's some of the most important prep time for an offense.
The equation must be working for both. Warner is coming off a NFL record performance for passing accuracy. Manning led the Colts to 27 points Monday night despite his team finishing with less than 15 minutes of possession.
Colts coach Jim Caldwell said it's the passion for what the veteran quarterbacks do which drives them to study video and learn to exploit weaknesses. Not every quarterback can run the no-huddle like Warner or change plays constantly at the line of scrimmage like Manning.
"It really is a sight to behold in terms of viewing (Peyton's) state of readiness," Caldwell said. "He not only can gather the information and regurgitate it, but he can also use it in a nanosecond during the course of a game."
It's necessary regardless of a player's physical tools, Warner said, this knowledge of what to do once the play starts. There's no surprise that, in the many times Matt Leinart has talked about his level of comfort this season, his explanation begins that he now understands where to go with the ball.
"You can be talented, but it is hard to decipher things when you get to the top of your drop and you're standing there," Warner said. "You have to have your decisions made.
"That is what is different between a lot of young guys or a lot of average quarterbacks and the great ones."
That's an important reason Warner, as long as he gets enough protection, eats up a blitzing team – because of the one-on-one coverage. That's what Manning did when he switched to a bubble screen against Miami for what turned into the game-winning touchdown pass as the Dolphins brought heavy pressure.
It's about being smart enough beforehand to make something happen when the play actually starts.
"I have always been taught, you prepare for what you think you might get and be prepared to adjust," Manning said. "It is still about what happens post-snap."