Ed Andrieski/Associated Press
Ed Andrieski/Associated Press
DENVER – Peyton Manning swears he’s not 100 percent yet. The Denver Broncos swear it doesn’t matter: He looks fine to them.
And they’re pinning their hopes on the 36-year-old quarterback who missed all of last season with the Colts, who released him in March, setting off the biggest free agent scramble in NFL history.
In the six offseason practices the Broncos opened to the media, Manning looked like he’d never missed a beat, hitting the open man short and long with touch passes or blistering fastballs.
There is no question about his arm strength, only about his timing with his new targets.
Coach John Fox said he’s seen very little rust and nary a hint of trouble with Manning’s right arm, so it’s full speed ahead leading up to the preseason opener Aug. 9 against Chicago.
Checking out last month’s mandatory minicamp was Tom Moore, Manning’s offensive coordinator for all but one season when the two were in Indianapolis.
“Watching these three days, he looked excellent to me,” Moore said.
Manning has shown no ill effects of the nerve issue that caused weakness in his throwing arm last year and required four neck operations, including a fusion.
“We don’t think about the injury anymore,” said receiver Brandon Stokley, who played with Manning in Indianapolis. “And I’m not sure he does, either.”
The Broncos took a chance by signing the league’s only four-time MVP to a five-year, $96 million deal in March, when John Elway famously said: “Plan B? I don’t have a Plan B. We’re going with Plan A.”
Manning averaged 42 passes a game in his last full season – 2010 – but the Broncos don’t plan to have him air it out that much.
They’re meshing some of the power formations they used in leading the league in rushing last year with some of the spread formations that Manning was accustomed to running in Indy.
“We’re being aggressive with everything we’re doing,” offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. “He’s fine. We have no concerns right now. We’re not worrying about it. We’re moving forward.”
Moore said Manning’s well-known work ethic will push him through this season.
“Nobody works harder than him,” Moore said. “On anything. Anything. I mean, his work habits are fantastic. He’ll be successful his entire life at whatever he does. Because of his work ethic and his dedication and his commitment to what he’s doing.”
When he was asked whether the Broncos had the potential to be as potent as the Colts were under his stewardship, Manning demurred.
“I’m not doing the comparison game to the other offenses,” he said. “I think what we’re trying to do right now is form our identity. And I don’t think that necessarily happens over 14 practices in May and June. I do think over training camp and into the preseason, I think hopefully we’ll get a feel for the things that we really do well.”
Manning’s arrival has had its anticipated ripple effect on offense and defense, with receivers no longer rounding off their routes like they sometimes did with Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow and defensive backs learning not to give away the play call with the slightest twitch.
Manning was picked off plenty in his first offseason in Denver, which should be a good sign for Broncos fans, because if the defense is stout, there will be less pressure on Manning to put up crazy numbers to keep up.
The Broncos think their secondary will be a big help to Manning.
“I think it goes both ways,” star cornerback Champ Bailey said. “I don’t think he’s had a secondary, at least on the corner, that’s been this good. So, it gives him a good look. And we’ve never seen a quarterback like that around here, so it speaks for itself.”
The makeover didn’t stop with Manning. The Broncos also shook up their front office, saying goodbye to general manager Brian Xanders. They also retooled at tight end with free agents Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreesen and in the secondary, signing free agents Mike Adams, Drayton Florence and Tracy Porter and drafting Omar Bolden following the departure of Andre Goodman and the retirement of Brian Dawkins.
The defensive line was beefed up by drafting of Derek Wolfe, signing of Justin Bannan and the return of Ty Warren, who has missed two seasons with injuries.
Linebacking is the biggest question. Leading tackler D.J. Williams is facing a six-game drug suspension to start the season and a drunken driving trial in August that could add on another four games.