Mark Welsh/Daily Herald
Mark Welsh/Daily Herald
ENGLEWOOD – Baby steps, not giant leaps: That’s how Peyton Manning is marking his comeback.
So he was glad to get his first game in 19 months out of the way and use it as a building block.
Manning was uneven in Denver’s exhibition opener at Chicago on Thursday night even though he didn’t have to contend with Julius Peppers or Brian Urlacher and had plenty of time to throw.
His first pass was broken up, his second toss tipped and his last throw picked off at the goal line.
In between, there were some very good signs for Manning and the Broncos, including a 19-yard completion to Eric Decker on third-and-17, good reads, nice runs and great protection.
All in all, not a bad day’s work.
“It felt good to get out there,” Manning said. “We can build on this.”
Plus, Manning wasn’t hit in his first preseason game in two years, which came on a cool and rainy night in which the Bears held out quarterback Jay Cutler after a downpour drenched the field before kickoff.
Although Broncos coach John Fox held out rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, who’s coming off a pulled hamstring, he said he never considered keeping Manning off the wet field.
“No. I think it’s important – we only have four of these preseason games – and we wanted to take advantage of this first one,” Fox said.
So Manning made his first appearance in a game since the Pro Bowl following the 2010 season, which turned out to be his last in a Colts helmet. A nerve injury that weakened his throwing arm ended his streak of 227 consecutive starts, sidelined him all of last year and led to his release from Indianapolis five months ago.
John Elway lured him to Denver, and Manning’s been working on his rehab and rhythm ever since.
“He just missed a year. I’m sure he was anxious to get out there, just as anxious as we were to see him,” teammate Champ Bailey said. “It was good to get that first one under his belt. I will tell you what, it gives us a chance (at contending for a title). I think in this league that’s what you want.”
After completing 4 of 7 passes for 44 yards, Manning watched the rest of Denver’s 31-3 win from the sideline, chaffed by his throw that was just behind Brandon Stokley, tipped by nickel back D.J. Moore and picked off by safety Major Wright at the 2.
“Disappointing, obviously, anytime you get down to the red zone and don’t come away with points,” Manning said.
Despite the interception, Fox called Manning’s performance “remarkable,” especially given the sloppy conditions.
Stokley said it looked like Manning hasn’t lost a beat.
“To me there was no difference. He still throws the ball great,” said Stokley, who played with Manning in Indianapolis. “I think everybody saw ... that he has great control of the offense. I think we are just going to try to build on this and get better every week. I think it was a good first step.”
If nothing else, the Broncos showed they could move the ball with No. 18 under center even when they weren’t playing at their best.
“We did a lot of good things,” Decker said. “We ran the ball great, converted when we needed to. We made some big third down plays, and it’s good to see him in the huddle, being himself. He’s a business guy when he’s on the field. We’re doing things right. We executed well. It was a good building stone for us.”
Manning’s next preseason game will be Aug. 18 at home against Seattle, and if things go as planned, he’ll play most of the first half against the Seahawks.
You can bet Manning will have his offensive teammates working hard this week to get on the same page, too.
“I heard Caleb Hanie talking about the key is how you evaluate yourself and how you improve throughout the preseason,” Manning said. “It doesn’t matter what year you are in the NFL, the key is trying to get better through the preseason. That’s what we hope to do. That’s what I hope to do.”
Manning was sure he’d cringe at the film of his cameo appearance, yet he knows not to put too much stock into first snaps of the preseason.
“There’s a little more pressure in some ways because you only have 10-12 plays to get it done. In a normal game you have four quarters to try and make something happen,” he said. “I thought there were some good things there. We got a couple third downs. We overcame. We spread the ball around.”
Manning said he was pleased with Willis McGahee’s runs and noted that he had fantastic protection on one play where he hit Decker, his fifth read, on the left sideline.
It was a glimpse of the efficient, balanced offense the Broncos are installing in place of the option offense they ran last year when Tim Tebow was their quarterback.
Manning “looked real good out there, he sat in the pocket and he showed patience,” McGahee said. “He showed the trust that he has in the offensive lines and the running backs. It felt good for us to see him out there being comfortable.
“I think the dimension he is going to add to the running game is to take that guy out of the box. It will make us a whole lot better than we were last year.”
That’s saying something, considering the Broncos led the league in rushing in 2011, thanks in part to Tebow’s 660 yards rumbling.
Manning doesn’t take off running, so he’ll be handing off quite a bit this season, especially if the Broncos can spread out coverages with big tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen along with wide receivers Decker, Stokley, Andre Caldwell and Demaryius Thomas.
The plan is for Manning to play the first half against Seattle and into the third quarter against San Francisco on Aug. 26 before sitting out the exhibition finale at Arizona altogether while the Broncos determine who, among Hanie, rookie Brock Osweiler and Adam Weber, wins the backup QB job.
All three had their moments in Chicago: Hanie led a touchdown drive. Osweiler led the third-stringers on two TD drives and Weber threw a 25-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter.