Patrick Dempsey/Associated Press
Patrick Dempsey/Associated Press
ENGLEWOOD – Peyton Manning says it’s going to take him a while to settle into his new digs in Denver after spending 14 years in Indianapolis.
He looked right at home in his new duds Thursday, though.
Manning’s passes on the first day of Broncos training camp were as powerful and precise as ever, delighting his coaches, teammates and the 4,371 boisterous fans who crammed into the team’s Dove Valley complex for their first glimpse of Manning in orange and blue.
The biggest crowd for a non-stadium practice in team history watched Manning’s first practice in front of fans in nearly two years.
“We had (Tim) Tebow last year, and he brings out his own fan base,” Champ Bailey said. “Just to see more people out here on the first day than I’ve seen in the past, it’s great. I think everybody’s starting to expect some good things from us.”
The Broncos, without a winning season since 2006, welcome those high expectations.
“I mean, I’ve always been confident, but it does help when you have a four-time MVP as your quarterback,” Bailey said.
The crowd greeted Manning when he ran onto the field, just as they welcomed Tebow a year ago, with huge cheers and chants.
“I’m going to tell you guys a funny story,” defensive tackle and top draft pick Derek Wolfe said. “When we came out here (Thursday), I was right in front of Manning, and I didn’t know it. They made a pretty big fuss, and I was like, ‘Why are they yelling so crazy for me?’ Then I looked behind me, and it was Manning standing there.”
After starting his first 277 consecutive games, including the playoffs, Manning missed all of last year with a nerve injury that sapped strength from his throwing arm, required four neck operations, led to his teary departure from Indianapolis and spawned the biggest free agent frenzy in NFL history.
The Broncos prevailed, thanks largely to John Elway’s pitch and patience. After signing Manning to a five-year, $96 million deal, the Broncos jettisoned Tebow and the option-oriented offense for a traditional passing approach built around the league’s only four-time MVP.
All of the offseason practices were closed to the public, so some fans camped out overnight for the chance to see their new QB Thursday.
They were rewarded when Manning put on an absolute clinic during a crisp 2½-hour practice.
“I thought it was a good first day,” Manning said. “You can tell guys have been working. It’s hot out here. We had a real good tempo.”
Coach John Fox said Manning’s work will be regulated during training camp and into the season, but he likes where his arm strength is and won’t put any restrictions on the types of throws Manning makes.
“He didn’t take the last five weeks off by any stretch,” Fox said. “We’re happy with where he is.”
So are these fans.
There weren’t No. 15 jerseys dotting the crowd like last year. Nor was there an abundance of errant throws like last summer, when Tebow started out as Kyle Orton’s backup before winning the job by default in October and leading Denver into the playoffs despite a 46 percent completion percentage.
There were plenty of No. 18 jerseys this time, many of which Manning signed after practice.
“I look forward to training camp because that means football season is getting closer, and I do think this is important work for us,” Manning said. “It’s certainly important for me, in the two-a-days and getting multiple plays and multiple looks run against our defense.”
Manning isn’t looking back, either.
“I’ve kind of gotten past that part, and I haven’t gotten too nostalgic about it,” Manning said. “I’m glad to be here, glad to be playing with some really good guys and coaches that I enjoy. They really made me feel welcome, which I appreciate.”
Fox said he has no overriding concerns about Manning’s durability: “No. Well, you worry about all players. Every time you go between those lines you’re at risk. In answer to your question, I worry about all of them but not because of any past injury.”
Manning, who has “stopped giving percentages” regarding how healthy he is, said he still has more rehabilitation ahead, but his goal remains to participate fully in training camp, preseason and the regular season.
Fox said Manning is a player who “raises all boats,” with his work ethic and determination rubbing off on teammates on both sides of the ball. He said he saw that play out even in the offseason.
“Part of learning a profession, or getting better, or mastering, or improving in a profession, is watching guys who have done it very well or done it great,” Fox said.
Running back Lance Ball said offensive players are driven to please Manning.
“He’s a player/coach, so he wants things precise; he wants you to be at a certain point at a certain time, just know your stuff and just work hard,” Ball said. “Guys put a little pep in their step. They want to make sure they’re on point and right and pleasing the coaches and also Peyton.”
Cornerback Tracy Porter, who played the last four seasons with Drew Brees in New Orleans, said Manning makes Denver’s defense better, too: “Because facing him forces you to really practice and lock in and watch film and be on top of your technique,” Porter said. “Because you don’t want to go out to practice and have these guys seeing you out of position. Because they see things before it happens, those Hall of Fame quarterbacks. And you don’t want to get the ball thrown at you that often in practice.”
Manning hasn’t played in a game since the Colts’ wild-card loss to the New York Jets following the 2010 season.
“I have missed it, and I’ve never taken it for granted to be out there playing,” Manning said. “... I’ve always felt very fortunate to be playing in a game for a living.”