Jack Dempsey/Associated Press file photo
DENVER – Since switching teams, Peyton Manning has made everyone around him better, from his teammates to his coaches, even the Denver Broncos’ luxury suite sellers.
“He’s raised all boats,” coach John Fox said.
The biggest question in the NFL this season is whether Manning will be able to stay afloat himself after missing all of 2011 with a nerve injury that weakened his throwing arm, required four neck operations and led to his tearful departure from Indianapolis after 14 years.
Manning, his surgeon, Dr. Robert Watkins, and the Broncos all believe he’ll hold up just fine.
As John Elway famously declared after luring the league’s only four-time MVP to this quarterback-crazed town with a five-year, $96-million bet, “Plan B? I don’t have a Plan B. We’re going with Plan A.”
At age 36, the most prized free agent in NFL history certainly looks like he hasn’t missed a beat – or a year of football, for that matter.
Although he insists his rehab, like his timing with his new targets and his transition to the Rocky Mountains is a season-long work in progress, Manning showed plenty of arm strength in the preseason along with an ability to bounce back after a big hit thanks to Seattle defensive end Bruce Irvin.
Never in question was Manning’s mental prowess, that uncanny ability he has to decipher defenders’ intentions at the line of scrimmage and adjust accordingly.
“He looks great. So, for us now it’s kind of a nonissue how Peyton’s feeling, how he’s doing,” said slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who played with Manning in Indianapolis. “He’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with him.”
Sure, some of his passes, particularly to his right, wobble at times, but he always was the crafty quarterback, not the flame-thrower – although he hit wide receiver Eric Decker in stride with a 60-yard frozen rope during one jaw-dropping moment at training camp.
Manning said his arm isn’t what it used to be – not because of his injury but because of age. Fox said that means he’ll have to rely more on that big brain of his.
“Like anything, your first day on a job versus 20 years later, the more you do it the better you get. You learn, there’s certain things you learn the hard way. That’s the advantage of experience,” Fox said.
“And in his case, this game is about playing fast, you don’t necessarily have to be fast, all right? But it’s about playing fast and seeing and diagnosing something quickly. And I don’t care what side of the ball you’re on or what phase of the game you’re in, that’s the key. It’s not about how tall you are, how big you are, how quick you are; it’s how fast you play the game.”
Manning said he’s still adjusting to Colorado, to the cuisine, the culture, the climate. It’s a good thing he has a GPS because he still gets lost driving around town nearly six months after his arrival.
Although he’s still learning his surroundings and those who surround him, Manning has shown he has plenty left in a right arm that has thrown for 54,828 yards and 399 touchdowns and hoisted a Super Bowl trophy.
He’s just not about to declare himself 100 percent.
“It’s a process,” he said. “It’ll be all season long. So, it is definitely a lot of change.”
Even at less than full health, the Broncos consider Manning’s know-how and accurate arm an upgrade over Tim Tebow’s exuberance and scrambling ability.
Manning averaged 42 passes a game in his last full season in 2010, but the Broncos don’t plan on having him air it out quite that much. They’re meshing some of the power formations they used in leading the league in rushing last year during the Tebow experiment with some of the spread formations that Manning ran in Indianapolis.
A clear indication that there’s give and take is in the acquisition of fullback Chris Gronkowski, allowing the Broncos to pound the ball out of a two-back set, something Manning never had with the Colts.
The reconstruction of both the quarterback and the Broncos appears to be going very well under the hot lights of the public spotlight.
Manning noted this summer that he never before was asked questions about incompletions in practice, and he jokes that every step of his comeback, like his every throw, is analyzed by the media and fans.
Manning, the NFL’s top pitchman, grew up on football and is accustomed to living in the public eye, but never before has he faced so much scrutiny of his ability, adaptability, dependability, durability, reliability, stability, viability, vulnerability, you name it.
He gets it. And he’s eager to show everyone he still has it.
Tom Moore, Manning’s offensive coordinator for all but one season when the two were in Indianapolis, said Manning’s well-known work ethic is what will push him through this transition.
“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.”
That, and his superb talent, Fox said.
“I mean, and his dad played. He grew up with football, so he understands the game of football. And he’s talented, so that’s even better. So, to have that combination, that’s why he’s accomplished what he’s accomplished,” Fox said.
Stokley said even if Manning’s right arm isn’t 100 percent this season, his mind is. He noted while “he’s never had the strongest arm,” nobody can decipher a defense and then pick it apart like Manning with his robotic passing proficiency.
“The first thing I really noticed with Peyton is he’s the hardest-working person regardless of any profession I’ve ever been around,” said rookie Brock Osweiler, the first quarterback ever drafted with the intention of one day replacing Manning. “And the thing about Peyton is he doesn’t waste a single minute in a day. He utilizes all of his time from the moment he walks into the building until the time that he leaves.
“So, for example, we’re in the weight room, and normally you do your set, you take a little break. Well, with Peyton, you don’t take a break. You’re doing some ball-handling drills, you’re doing drops, you’re doing something. So, I really learn from him how to use all the time in the day.”
That’s not because Manning has a new appreciation for the game or because he knows time is catching up to him, like it does everyone. It’s just in his nature.
“I really have tried to play with a sense of urgency since I’ve been 22 years old,” Manning said.
During lulls in practice, Manning grabs a receiver to practice red-zone routes or summons a running back to iron out the kinks.
He even demonstrated, in slow motion, of course, a zigzagging route for rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, coaching him up on how to deke his defender so that he could zip to the pylon for a grab over his back shoulder.
Manning stopped a simple progression drill during training camp in which the quarterbacks, working by themselves, threw to an assistant equipment manager and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s 17-year-old son to give his backups clues on what subtle signs to look for.
“He can show you the shortcuts,” quarterbacks coach Adam Gase said. “The thing that he does so well is he gets you in the right play, the right read, the right progression. That’s his thing is just the meticulous study of hey, ‘Where does this ball need to go against this defense? What’s this defense trying to accomplish against me?’”
Offensive players say they’re better off for having Manning around. He’s so demanding that they don’t dare round off their routes, lose focus or not hustle lest they get an earful and a bad reputation in No. 18’s eyes.
Defenders pick his brain to figure out how he’s picking them apart.
Coaches even say Manning makes them better at their own crafts.
“It’s a cliche, but at the end of the day he really is one of those unique guys that really is a coach on the field,” Fox said. “Whether it’s in practice, in the game, on the sideline, in the offseason and whether you’re on offense, defense or the kicking game, you need that kind of leadership on your football team.
“I think I always kind of knew that about Peyton, but until you’re with him every day and see it in action, that reputation definitely comes to fruition. To watch it firsthand, it’s even more unique, and really it’s probably more than advertised.”