The nondescript one-story warehouse sits just off a busy street south of downtown. Motorists pass by the thousands and seemingly no one gives the place a second glance. If only they knew what happens on the other side of those corrugated metal walls.
Not only is the 10,000-square-foot building home to a private collection of 18 lacquered muscle cars, but it's also where another No. 18 — legendary quarterback Peyton Manning — takes the wheel of “ManningCast,” turning "Monday Night Football" games into weekly gabfest with his younger brother, Eli.
This week, the Mannings gave The Los Angeles Times an exclusive look into the inner workings of the ESPN2 show, which attracts about 1.5 million viewers per episode.
The brothers are across the country from each other, Peyton in the warehouse and Eli in a studio ESPN built in his New Jersey home. Peyton considered doing the same, but he and his wife, Ashley, were doing some remodeling and he didn’t love the idea of all that equipment in his house year-round. So he took a friend up on his offer to transform the garage.
People with access to the miniature museum refer to it as the Batcave, and, out of necessity, Peyton arrives like a stealthy superhero. Instead of parking in the lot, which is patrolled by two off-duty SWAT officers, he rolls his SUV up a ramp and directly into the building.
“He drives right in so nobody can see him,” said Don Saba, the garage director. “He’s like a god in this city, even more than John Elway now because the younger generation knows him better. Peyton’s such a good guy, but for him to walk around would be tough because people would be all over him.”
But there is some normalcy to Peyton's life. He’s the offensive coordinator on his son’s sixth-grade football team, and two Mondays ago he attended his daughter’s volleyball game at 4 p.m., arriving at the garage in time to plop down in the makeup chair and get to his comfy leather recliner in time for kickoff.
In a way, the pandemic quarantine spawned the show. Peyton said his perspective on a TV job changed when he saw ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit working remotely from home because he had the coronavirus.
“That just kind of hit me,” Peyton said. “I was like, 'Hmm, I wonder if that’s just a COVID deal or maybe that’s something that’s somewhat sustainable.’ So I met with [ESPN president] Jimmy Pitaro and said that Herbstreit deal was interesting.”
By that point, Peyton had formed Omaha Productions and was looking for new ways to branch out beyond “Peyton’s Places,” which allows him to tell interesting stories about the game and its history with the help of NFL Films. The idea of "ManningCast" was born.
“I said, 'Eli and I can watch football together from our house,’” he said. “So ESPN said, 'Let’s do it.'”
The brothers have three guests on the show to keep it lively — this week it was retired coach Jimmy Johnson, punter-turned-sports host Pat McAfee and comedian Tracy Morgan — and also appreciate the chance to catch up with each other.
“My one negative of Denver is it's far away from New York and I don't see him as much,” Peyton said. “I probably wasn't talking to him as much because of the time zone. I'm calling him at 6 o'clock and he's having dinner or getting his kids ready for bed. And at 6 a.m. when I wake up, he's already started his day. So this is something where, even though we talk a lot via voice memos, it's been fun to get together with him.
“To have your partner see football the same way and speak the same language has been very helpful.”
Don’t let the casual feel fool you. The Mannings aren’t winging it. They are meticulous about their preparations. Peyton and Eli study film on the two teams in the week leading up to the game, and also rely on other sets of eyes — former NFL coaches Kevin Gilbride and Adam Gase.
They all send group voice memos about what they’ve noticed. On the Saturday before a game, Peyton will speak by phone to one team's coach and quarterback, and Eli will talk to the other.
This week, the brothers are gathering notes on the Rams and San Francisco 49ers, who play Monday night in Santa Clara.
“Saturday for a Monday night game, the hay should be in the barn by then,” Peyton said. “Game plan should be in. All your film should have been watched at that point. If you’re having to cram on Saturday night, Sunday before a Monday night game, there could be a problem.
“So I used to love my Saturdays because it’s in; now you could do something with your family or if you have some high school buddies in town you could go to lunch with them. I used to take a nap. I’d take the greatest nap of all time.”
As a player, Peyton couldn’t stand those meandering production meetings with broadcasters. He kept a rigid schedule and didn’t like devoting too much time to meeting with the crew calling the game. So he’s mindful of that now.
“I told [Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator] Kellen Moore it'd be eight minutes and it was 7½, I timed it,” he said. “I told [Cowboys quarterback] Cooper Rush it'd be 10 and I did it in nine minutes. I’m not looking to take up any of their time, probably asked them each four questions.”
Peyton has all sorts of game notes spread around him during the broadcast, just out of camera range. During commercial breaks, as a makeup artist dabs his face, he checks his texts and checks the internet for information he might need.
In front of him are individual monitors showing the game feed, the SkyCam and the All-22, a wide shot of the field. At any point, he can request a replay to telestrate. To his left is a cinema-sized videoboard with a clicker so he can stand and explain a play. There are three fixed cameras shooting him and a Steadicam operator who can follow him when he stands and moves around.
At halftime, Peyton grabs a quick dinner — on this night it’s a fast-food chicken sandwich and tater tots — and eats it at the bar. Just as he was as a player, he’s always in motion.
Not surprisingly, coaches and players tend to feel more comfortable giving the Manning brothers tidbits they don’t provide other outsiders.
“I do feel we get some behind-the-ropes information,” Peyton said. “Kellen Moore was a quarterback at our Manning Passing Academy years ago, so was Cooper Rush. I feel it’s a little quarterback-to-quarterback talk as opposed to a broadcaster seeking information. Eli can do the same thing.
“We’re not trying to promote the camp on this Monday night deal, but we can say, 'Hey, I met Matthew Stafford when he was at the camp.’ You get to know these guys, and look, I’m a quarterback defender. I meet quarterbacks, I trade numbers with them. 'Hey, if I can ever help you, let me know.’ Now that we’re doing this on Monday nights, that hasn’t changed.
“I’ve always tried to be a resource to quarterbacks. Dan Marino taught me that early on. He was a resource to me when I got into the NFL. Went down to Miami with him, worked out, talked about strategy and whatnot.”
“It’s going to be unpolished. It’s going to be raw. This is like if Peyton and I were in your living room watching TV with you."
Eli Manning, on his 'Monday Night Football' show with his brother
Both Mannings say they were not comfortable crossing over to become traditional broadcasters, in part because they would be expected to be critical of their onetime peers.
“I never wanted to be an analyst,” Eli said. “Peyton and I are both the same. We like to pump up everybody, especially quarterbacks. We know how hard it is. You want to say good things about it. You never want to get in there and have to overanalyze. We’re watching to find the good things we can bring out and be positive about the coaches and players. We have great relationships with these people.”
Similarly, working on a show that’s essentially a three-hour conversation with your brother provides something of a safety net for the Mannings.
“If you make a mistake, I don’t want to get called out by the media,” Eli said. “I’d rather get called out by my brother. If I call somebody the wrong name or say something that’s stupid … it’s just what we’re used to. You grow up in the locker room and you can’t be sensitive. You’ve got to be able to take criticism, but you’d rather take it from players and friends than people you don’t know.
“It’s going to be unpolished. It’s going to be raw. This is like if Peyton and I were in your living room watching TV with you. This is what would be happening if we were analyzing it. We’re going to bicker, we’re going to talk over each other, we’re going to make fun of each other. But we’re also going to give cool points about what’s going on in the game.”
Peyton’s set is spectacular, like a richly appointed sports den with hardwood floors, colorful modern art on the walls, a pool table and a bar that could seat 30 people. Look closely and you might catch a glimpse of the automotive artifacts from a bygone era — a round Red Crown Gasoline sign, a glass table with an actual Jaguar engine as its base, a yellow Polly Gas pump that lights up like a jukebox.
Around a wall is the small production team, and behind them the glistening cars: a bright orange Dodge Super Bee, a cherry-red Dodge Charger, a black Cadillac Eldorado with a stainless steel top, a light blue Mercedes that once belonged to Wayne Newton.
“Peyton doesn’t want to make a big deal about the cars or the space,” Saba said. “He’s very humble about it. He doesn’t want people thinking these cars are his.”
About a 20-minute drive from the garage, Peyton rents office space in a corporate park. He wanted a place where his mountains of mail and packages could be delivered, things once stored at Broncos headquarters. There are at least 50 framed photographs of friends and family adorning the desk and walls of his small office, and he has a secretary help him three days a week. He uses the common area for meetings, and every year after his 2016 retirement he would meet there with network executives about becoming a broadcaster.
“They’d come back each year and I’d say, 'I’m not wasting your time, but I’m kind of on a year-to-year basis,’” he said. “I’m always envious of these guys who have five- and 10-year plans after they finish playing. I don’t. I’m just, 'Hey, this year I’m going to coach youth football.’ One year it was the Hall of Fame and Canton. I wanted to devote everything I could to making that good. But I wasn’t wasting their time because I said, 'Hey, maybe next year I might consider it.’”
He said he came closest to signing a deal at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Nobody knew what was going on,” he said. “I remember talking to my financial advisor and he was like, 'We’re going to take a little hit because of COVID.’ All of a sudden, I meet with one of the networks and they offer me a job and kind of write the number out and I’m like [raising his eyebrows] 'I really don’t want to do it, but … I think I might have to to offset.’ But that felt like the wrong reason to say yes.”
He said he often felt remorse the day after turning down an offer but that would soon fade.
“I really like my fall weekends,” he said. “I never had them when I was playing. I love youth sports, love being able to go to a Tennessee game, going to the Broncos games on Sundays and watching it freely. The kids and the weekends were probably the biggest thing.”
He also sought advice from NBC color analyst Cris Collinsworth, who like Manning watches every scrap of available game footage.
“Cris told me he had three words for me: STU-DEE-OH,” Manning said. “He was saying, 'If you ever want to do it, do the studio.' But even the studio is … Drew Brees kind of saw it last year. He took that NBC job and he was doing Notre Dame football on Saturday, then flying to New York. He wasn’t home on his weekends.”
In the moments before each show, the brothers begin with a simple reminder: Let’s smile and have fun. They have never felt more at home.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.