Don't try to tell Peyton Manning that he had a successful rookie season quarterbacking the Indianapolis Colts in 1998.
It doesn't matter to him that he was the only QB in the NFL to take every snap for his team last season, or that he broke Rick Mirer's NFL record for most rookie attempts by nearly 100, throwing a league-high 575 passes.
Manning couldn't care less that he obliterated Mirer's rookie passing yards mark by more than 900, or that he shattered Charlie Conerly's record for most touchdown passes by a rookie with 26.
In Manning's eyes, the tallest stack of individual accomplishments would always be dwarfed by the Colts' record, a dismal 3-13. Because no matter how it is spun, 3-13 is the record he takes as a starter into his second NFL season, which begins Sunday against the Buffalo Bills in the RCA Dome.
"One thing I never did last year was use the rookie thing as an excuse," Manning said during a recent conference call with Western New York media. "That's easy to do -- use that as a crutch and say, 'We're not supposed to win.' It's a bottom-line business. You're supposed to win games no matter what.
". . . Winning three games, that's not good enough, no matter how young you are or what kind of team you have."
Nevertheless, Manning made the sort of progress that the Colts were hoping the former Tennessee star would make as the top overall pick of the draft and as a player in whom they invested a $48-million contract, including an $11.6-million signing bonus.
True, he did set a dubious rookie record with 28 interceptions. However, he also was asked to carry an enormous workload. Manning is part of a very short list of rookie quarterbacks to start a full season since 1970. The only other rookie to start all 16 games this decade is Mirer, and that was in 1993.
"He had Year One after eight games, and he had Year Two after the second eight games," Colts quarterbacks coach Bruce Arians said. "He threw (almost) 600 passes. So there was an unbelievable difference from the first eight to the second eight. I really look at him as in his third year as far as experience and the number of snaps he's taken."
Through his first nine starts, Manning threw 12 touchdown passes. But he was intercepted 18 times and the Colts averaged fewer than 16 points.
Manning continues to verbally beat himself up for that stretch.
"I forced a number of throws," he said. "And, sure, you might say 'rookie mistakes,' but pretty much just dumb quarterback mistakes are what I called them, no matter how old you are."
Now consider what happened through his last seven starts. He threw 14 TDs to 10 interceptions. Not coincidentally, the Colts averaged 24 points.
"You could just see him progress as the year went along, and as this training camp has started, you can see him adjusting to things that you know you made the correction on last season," Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore said. "That's a great asset to have, so you're not starting from scratch."
"You compare him now to a year ago when he hadn't even played yet, it's like night and day," said Colts coach Jim Mora. "It's a tremendous change. He's much more comfortable, much more confident, much more in command, more experienced. He feels better about what we're doing, about what people will be doing against him defensively."
But will all of that improvement amount to more victories for the Colts?
Manning isn't so certain it will.
"Winning only three games was something new for me and not something that you want to get used to," he said. "This year, it's a challenge. . . . We plan on being more competitive this year. It doesn't help that our division is extremely tough with four playoff teams returning, but it's up to us to find a way to get it done."
In two losses to the Bills last season, Manning completed 34 of 70 passes for 399 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. In the 31-24 loss to Buffalo on Oct. 11 at Indianapolis, he was 20 for 41 for 235 yards and two TDs, and was intercepted twice. Six weeks later, at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills pummeled the Colts, 34-11. This time, Manning was 14 for 29 for 164 yards and one TD, and again threw two interceptions.
During the Colts' 3-1 preseason, Manning completed 66.7 percent of his throws for 478 yards and five scores, while throwing only two INTs. His 110 passer rating was second in the AFC behind Jacksonville's Mark Brunell (131).
Bills defensive end Bruce Smith has sacked 58 different quarterbacks in his career, yet failed to get to Manning once last season.
"He (Manning) can feel guys coming," Buffalo defensive lineman Sean Moran said. "He's got that extra sense where he knows when a guy's coming, especially a guy like Bruce. And it's not like he wants to scramble all the time. He just gets rid of the ball real quick."
"He's more efficient, he's just further along," Mora said. "But I still don't want people to expect too much because he's still just in his second year. He's played 16 games and that's not a lot at that position, a very difficult position to play. He's still learning and he has a lot of development to do."
Manning won't argue with that.
Linebacker Dan Brandenburg (sore ankle) is among the players who won't be active for the Bills on Sunday. Offensive guards Joe Panos (bulging disk) and Victor Allotey and linebacker Jay Foreman will also be inactive. The rest of the list will be determined just before kickoff.