Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
ENGLEWOOD – On his first snap, Peyton Manning went deep. He overshot Demaryius Thomas but nonetheless showed off his arm strength to any doubters that might remain.
On his 14th and final snap of the Denver Broncos’ summer scrimmage Saturday, Manning found Eric Decker for a 9-yard touchdown toss that drew the largest ovation from the biggest crowd ever to watch the team practice.
In between, it was just so-so. The Broncos had two three-and-outs before Manning drove them downfield for the score.
But it was another mile marker in Manning’s comeback from his lost 2011 season and a tuneup for Thursday night’s exhibition opener at Chicago, when the four-time MVP suits up in a game for the first time since playing in the Pro Bowl following the 2010 season.
Manning missed all of last season with a nerve injury in his neck that sapped his arm strength and led to a tearful departure from Indianapolis.
He’s shown no ill effects from the injury and nary any rust in his right arm this summer.
Manning’s first appearance in blue and orange at Sports Authority Field drew 41,304 fans, almost double the old record of 20,782 set two years ago when a guy by the name of Tim Tebow was the main attraction.
Amid the sea of orange No. 18 jerseys were some forlorn Colts fans who donned his old colors. One of them held up a sign that read, “We drove 15 hrs 2 c Manning. We miss u in Indy, Peyton.”
The crowd went wild when Manning came out of the tunnel and when he signed autographs on his way back. They cheered just about every move he made in between.
“Well, it was a great crowd,” Manning said. “I know players were pumped; they were kind of feeding off the energy of the fans, and everybody was into it. It will be a good film to learn from on Monday once we study. I thought there were some good things and some things we need to work on, obviously, but overall, it was a productive day, in my opinion.”
The starters on each side of the ball faced the backups on the other, so Manning didn’t get to see the full force of Denver’s defense led by Champ Bailey, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil – they wouldn’t have been allowed to hit him anyway.
“I thought we started a little slow offensively, but once we got in the groove of it, getting those competitive juices back, I thought we executed pretty well,” head coach John Fox said. “I think defensively, we looked pretty good against that second unit. So, all in all, I thought it was pretty good for our first outing.”
On the first play, Manning overthrew Thomas over the middle.
“Yeah, I tried to go deep,” Manning said. “That’s something that you do every now and then during a game. I could tell during the 7-on-7 early on that throwing the short passes wasn’t real exciting for the crowd, so the last play of my 7-on-7, I actually changed that play to a deep pass just to try to keep the fans from leaving, I guess.”
He hit Andre Caldwell along the right sideline for a 60-yard scoring play.
Although he couldn’t duplicate the deep ball in the scrimmage, he capped his night with a nice touchdown toss to Decker, his favorite target so far in Denver.
“I thought Decker’s back-shoulder touchdown catch was awesome,” Manning said. “It was excellent coverage by (Drayton) Florence, but Decker did a good job holding his eyes until the last minute. The back shoulder fade is a hard route to cover, and that’s something he and I have been working on, so it was good to get that into play (Saturday).”
Manning made the call himself, too.
“The headphones went down, actually,” Manning said. “Instead of burning a timeout, (offensive coordinator Mike) McCoy told me, ‘If the phones go down, just call something that you like.’”
So, he did.
And now it’s on to next week and preparation for the preseason games, which Manning indicated he would treat as he always has. In Indy, Manning didn’t throw many passes in the exhibition games, but he generally played a series or two in the opener, into the second quarter in the second game and maybe one series after halftime in the third game before sitting out the fourth one altogether.
“I think there’s a lot that we can try to get out of preseason,” Manning said. “You want to try to see different scenarios if you can. You’d love to get some short yardage, red-zone, goal-line, two-minute offense. I thought (Saturday) was – the two three-and-outs to start weren’t good, but we came back, had a good long drive and converted a couple of third downs, got a little red-zone work, got a third-down touchdown score.
“Hopefully you get all those types of situations throughout the four preseason games. I sort of look at the preseason as a group, as all four, trying to accomplish something. So, hopefully we can make some strides in the preseason. We still have some work to do.”