Charlie Riedel/Associated Press file photo
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press file photo
Eric Decker’s stock is rising in the eyes of the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning.
The third-year receiver who struggled at times catching Tim Tebow’s erratic throws last season has been hauling in Manning’s precise passes for a month now.
The sessions at local high school football fields and, starting this week at team headquarters, have helped Manning start to regain his arm strength and rediscover his form after a series of neck operations sidelined him all of last season and led to his departure from Indianapolis after 14 years.
They’re also helping him find a rhythm with Decker, whom he spoke highly of this week.
Although Demaryius Thomas finished last season as Denver’s top receiver, he recently had an operation to remove pins from the left thumb he shattered last season, so he hasn’t spent as much time with Manning.
Manning revealed the coaching staff wants to expand Decker’s role, moving him around to use him in different ways next season, and he had high praise for Decker, saying he’s the leader of the receiving corps.
“It’s humbling coming from such a great player as Peyton Manning,” Decker said.
“As I build my career, I try to build upon being reliable, being dependable and also building a leadership role, and now having that chance, that’s something I’m going to take advantage of.”
Decker’s been helping Manning get acclimated to his new team and start to build a foundation for the new no-huddle offense the Broncos are installing after running an option-style offense with Tebow.
“It’s been great,” Decker said. “Just what he talked about: getting to know each other, getting a comfort level. Obviously, he’s new to our system, and we’re going to make some changes. We’ve got to get to know one another in our comfort level because that’s a big thing as far as the quarterback-receiver relationship goes.”
On the day Manning signed his five-year, $96 million deal in Denver on March 20, Broncos boss John Elway said the rest of his roster already was better because of Manning’s ultrahigh intensity, work ethic and cerebral nature, and nobody’s seen that firsthand more so than Decker has in the last month.
“Oh, definitely. He’s a natural-born leader in the weight room. He’s the one taking command of running station to station, when he’s on the field, doing drill work, getting us lined up. He has us doing things for a particular reason. There’s no wasted movement, no wasted time, and that’s a great thing to have in a leader like him,” Decker said.
While Manning’s been peppering Decker with questions about his new teammates and coaches, Decker’s been taking the opportunity to learn from one of the game’s all-time cerebral greats.
“The more you’re together, the better the relationship comes,” Decker said. “I think the more football you talk, as well, you get on the same page, and that’s the big thing in the quarterback-receiver relationship, is getting that time in the meeting rooms and on the field and understanding how I run routes, how he throws the ball, what he looks at for certain coverages and what kind of different adjustments we make in a game.”
Manning said he’s always enjoyed working on timing with new targets in April, something that pays off on critical third downs come autumn.
Decker considers himself blessed to be running routes for Manning.
“It’s a great experience. This is something you dream about as a receiver, playing with a guy who’s All-Pro caliber his whole career, who’s won a Super Bowl, and at the same time, for me to finally have an offseason to work – because I was hurt coming into my rookie year, and last year was the lockout, and during college I played baseball – so I never really got that time to get this technique and extra work in,” Decker said.
Like Manning, Decker’s also coming back from injury. He said he’s fully recovered from the sprained left knee he suffered when Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison hit him with a low but legal hit in the wild-card round of the playoffs in January.
“I feel great. I had the MCL the Pittsburgh game, but I rehabbed it through February. Ever since I’ve been working out I’ve had no setbacks, no pain either, from the knee,” Decker said. “I’m happy. I’m excited that I’m back at it.”
After Decker was knocked from the game, Tebow hooked up with Thomas for several big plays that night, none bigger than the 80-yard touchdown toss on the first play of overtime to beat the Steelers.
That turned out to be Tebow’s last pass in Denver. He lost at New England the next week and was traded to the New York Jets a day after Manning’s arrival in Denver.
Thomas took some heat recently for critical comments he made about Tebow in a radio interview, when he suggested he wasn’t sad to see the Manning-Tebow swap.
Manning is a four-time MVP who’s a 65-percent career passer while Tebow completed just 46 percent of his passes last season and 40 percent in the playoffs.
Decker said it is like night and day catching Manning instead of Tebow, not only because of the accuracy difference but also because Tebow’s a lefty and Manning a righty.
“Yeah, it is different, just because it’s a different side of the body. You train your eyes a certain way to catch a football. With different releases, different side, everything you have to train yourself for, and that has been a little different,” Decker said.
While it often was anybody’s guess where Tebow’s passes would end up, Manning is such a perfectionist he’s been known to get frustrated when he hits his receivers in the belly button instead of between the numbers.
“He’s known as that pocket passer who has great accuracy,” Decker said. “Tim was a great athlete and able to get out of the pocket. Just different skill sets.”