ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Peyton Manning would rather play football than play along with our concerns. So there’s no need to dwell on his surgically repaired neck, the one everyone wants to know can survive the next Big Hit -- hopefully not by Brian Urlacher from the blind side with a running start. The neck is perfectly capable of allowing Manning's head to swivel to anticipate such a collision, because the doctors all say the neck is OK. Even though many of us armchair surgeons still have our fears.
“I had a lady say to me, ‘Everybody just can’t wait to see you get hit.’ Well, thank you,” Manning said the other day. He smirked. “Then she goes, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean it that way.’ Of course not.”
And there’s no need to question his choice of team or wonder if he can cope with possibly the most demanding football town in America, where 43,000 showed up for the annual intra-squad scrimmage. Because of course he can.
And please, no need to bring up the dicey task of following in Tim Tebow’s footsteps because, let’s be kind about this, Manning throws better left-handed.
Finally, and this is the really big one, why bother sweating the skills of the only four-time MVP in league history, the active career leader among quarterbacks in every important category (except Super Bowl wins)? Sure, he missed an entire season, and he is 36, but he says the only thing that’s getting old is the debate over his arm and what it can and can’t do.
“I’ve been asked about an incompletion I threw in practice,” Manning said. “A first for me.”
But this is all necessary for Manning now because of who he is and where he is. This upcoming season, his 15th in the NFL, is a mystery that will evolve every week. Coming off four neck procedures, including a cervical fusion, and getting a gentle boot from the only pro team he’s ever known, there’s little wiggle room for a guy whose next stop after Denver is Canton.
If all goes well, Manning will out-Elway John Elway’s final years, as sacrilegious as that sounds. Or, like a number of greats whose uniforms and fortunes changed in the sunset of their careers, he could become a used-to-be. With less bling than his little brother.
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His own standards, even now, are impressively high. Manning didn’t put himself through rehab and work his way back from a season-long hiatus just to enjoy a few glorious Sundays. That year off he took? Damn near killed him. He had to stand on the sideline in a Colts cap, watch his team go 2-14 and deal with Suck For Luck, and there wasn’t a thing he could do except ponder a future away from the place he thought he’d be forever.
He was asked, politely, if there’s any way that a year off actually did him some good, preserved his body, strengthened his resolve, or maybe just gave him a greater perspective on life and football.
“I’ve never taken this for granted,” he said. “I always knew I would miss it. That was confirmed last year. … When you enjoy playing football, you’d rather keep playing. That’s what I would have preferred. But the injury is what it was, and I dealt with it the best way I could, and now it’s nice to be back in the mix.”
The hopes are high in Denver, too. Here at the Broncos’ practice facility, a small hill runs the length of the field, and it was 10 rows thick with fans during each training-camp session that was open to the public. There was orange everywhere. More showed up for the three-week summer session to see Manning than ever did for Elway.
Speaking of whom: Remember, this entire grand experiment is an Elway production, the master plan of a guy with a golden touch. So this is about the Super Bowl, and nothing less, for all invested.
“I’m not sure if the clock is ticking, but I’m down to the home stretch here,” Manning said. “That sense of urgency is what the organization has, and it’s what I have, too.”
And yet, with the hurricane of anticipation whooshing all around him -- which he understands and accepts as the price of his comeback -- Manning just wants to be able to take a snap. When you strip away the Hall-of-Fame numbers and 11 Pro Bowls, the high national approval rating and the Tinkerbell commercials with Deion, it isn’t too complicated. Manning loves the game so much that he’s willing to, literally, stick his neck out to satisfy a competitive urge that puts him in the company of few others: Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Derek Jeter. The difference is, they’ve chugged victory champagne by the gallon while Manning, by virtue of his lone Super Bowl win, has savored only a single sip.
So in addition to the love, it’s the legacy, according to Elway -- himself tortured by an imbalance between Pro Bowls and Super Bowls until very late in his career -- that keeps someone like Manning on the chase.
And don’t forget the pride. Yes, pride, because Manning is not one who wants to overstay his welcome in the NFL. He’s not in this to be “hanging around,” in his words, to steal the five-year, $96 million contract that the Broncos gave him. He needs football -- but not like that. He refuses to go out that way. And maybe he won’t. The last time he played a full season he threw for 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns. That’s a career year for anyone else.
That convinced the Broncos that Manning still had the goods, even after the Colts chose to rebuild with a new franchise quarterback.
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Sift through NFL history and you’ll find plenty of former quarterbacks who tried and failed to cheat time when they parted ways with their original teams. Namath was a physical heap when he left New York for Los Angeles, same for Johnny Unitas with the Chargers. But those are extreme cases, involving players who were toast well before they left. For more relevant examples, it’s better to offer up Brett Favre and Kurt Warner and Montana.
When he pouted his way out of Green Bay, Favre, like Manning, was on a mission to double his Super Bowl victories. But wherever Favre went, drama, not Super Bowls, followed. He soon became a parody, talked more about for his will-he-or-won’t-he retirement stakeouts on ESPN and his embarrassing cell phone self-photography than for his play.
Then there’s Warner, who was largely seen as washed-up once he left the Rams. As fate would have it, he landed in New York to tutor young Eli Manning. From there he went to Arizona and delayed his professional demise with a smashing return to the Super Bowl, but he was robbed of a debate-proof Hall-of-Fame entry when Santonio Holmes squeezed the greatest catch in Bowl history.
Montana didn’t need any more championship rings for validation when he was nudged out of San Francisco by Steve Young, but in every other way his situation compares most favorably to Manning’s. Montana was 37 when he joined the Chiefs, yet he still had smarts and touch. But like the others, if a Super Bowl victory is the measuring stick, he, too, came up short in his second act.
None, in other words, did what Manning is trying to pull off.
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Before his neck issues, Manning has been amazingly consistent at the highest level, his body of work comparing favorably to that of almost any quarterback in Canton. He has 11 seasons of 4,000-plus yards, and with another four-touchdown game will tie Favre's all-time mark of 23. With the exception of a spike in his 2004 season, one of the best in NFL history, his quarterback rating (career 94.9) has hardly fluctuated.
But with the Colts, the scenery rarely changed, and Manning liked that familiarity. He had Tony Dungy as his head coach for seven years and offensive coordinator Tom Moore for 14. His main targets (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne) rarely changed. Jeff Saturday was his center for all but one year. He played in a single-running-back system. And he played indoors; in a 16-game season, Manning might get 10 to 12 games in the controlled atmosphere of a dome, with no wind or rain or chill or snow to overcome.
Now there’s a new coach, new coordinator, new system, new receivers, new turf, new climate, new everything. Except expectations -- those never change when your name is Manning.
His biggest fan, though, will not turn fickle, even if it goes south for him this season. Archie Manning, perhaps speaking more as a father, believes Peyton is playing with house money at this stage in his career, that nothing will diminish what he’s already accomplished.
“I’m at peace with it, his situation,” said Archie. “To be honest, the other day in Chicago for that exhibition game, his first game back, that was enough for me. I know how hard he’s worked, I know how important it was for him just to get back on the field. And when he did that, it was emotional for me. … He wants to be his old self and win another Super Bowl, and we’d all like to see that. But he’ll have to take baby steps at first, then go from there.”
Manning’s best asset at this point may be his brain, not his arm. He has the acumen that you’d expect from the son of a quarterback, and the brother of a quarterback, and someone who has played quarterback at a high level since he threw in the Superdome as a kid after his father’s games with the Saints. It’s the knowledge of the game that will bail Manning out when his arm can’t.
He has blown away the coaching staff with his preparation and his knowledge of a completely new system. The backfield will feature split backs and the offense will lean heavier on the run than the one Manning had in Indy. In team meetings, Manning has shown the ability to recognize and recall every detail, wrinkle and purpose of the new concepts thrown his way. That’s why he’ll likely have the same freedom to call his shots that he enjoyed with the Colts. More than once, his analysis left Broncos head coach John Fox and coordinator Mike McCoy shaking their heads in astonishment.
“You can’t overload him,” said Fox. “The guy is just extremely smart and sharp. Not only does he understand offensive football, he understands defensive football. He paints a great picture and can get you out of a bad play and put you in a good play. When you talk to him, you find out right away that not only is he on your level, in some ways he’s above it.”
His new teammates were sold on Manning from the jump, and not just because of his credentials. Manning doesn’t hesitate to explain, often in blunt terms, what needs to be done. He knows pass patterns as well as, if not better than, his receivers.
Everyone in the locker room realizes what’s at stake, and what brought Manning to Denver, and so there’s a collective desire to gain his respect, to get his wink of approval, to please him. That’s the response that leaders usually get.
Fox has noticed this, the power of Peyton. “Everybody has picked up their game,” the coach said. “Everybody. He’s a demanding guy. He expects for guys to know their jobs. He raises the bar around here. Not only are the players playing hard for their teammates and their organization and hopefully for their coach,” Fox pauses to laugh, “they’re playing hard for Peyton.”
Chris Kuper, a starting guard, suffered a broken forearm, and the Broncos elevated Manny Ramirez (who shares only a name with the former slugger). After his first session with the starting unit, Ramirez shuffled over for an interview looking dazed, a man who had just pushed himself to the limit.
“You got to make sure you know what you’re doing,” Ramirez said, “because you don’t want to make him mad.”
The fate of Manning could rest with the quality of his support. The Broncos led the NFL in rushing last season, and while Tebow certainly helped make that happen, Willis McGahee reached the Pro Bowl after a 1,199-yard season. The running back will need to be just as productive if the Broncos want the balanced offense that Fox envisions.
Denver might win games with its defense, the same unit that carried Tebow and the offense last year when they struggled to crack the end zone. Champ Bailey and Elvis Dumervil, veteran Pro Bowlers who aggressively recruited Manning, and linebacker Von Miller, the Rookie of the Year, are all healthy -- and relieved to know that they may not need to do all the heavy lifting anymore.
“Peyton gives you a chance to win every game,” said Fox.
His receivers are capable if not decorated, with Demaryius Thomas and Brandon Stokley, an old familiar face from Indy, perhaps the most reliable.
Can the line protect him? That’s an issue. Already without Kuper, who has allowed just 12 sacks in 73 career starts, the Broncos may resort to keeping a blocking back as a sentry next to Manning, as a precaution. Manning has a quick release but he’s two years older than when he took his last official snap, and a half-second can make all the difference.
The linemen know what's at stake, and while guard Zane Beadles said, “You’re not going to block any harder than you already do,” he added: “We know what he means to us. Obviously we’re aware of what he went through with his neck.”
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The neck. Manning had a damaged nerve in his neck that weakened his throwing arm. Doctors had to remove bone spurs that were pinching the nerve. Once that was done, two vertebrae had to be fused to provide stability. He underwent all the post-surgical tests, asked all the right questions. He has a wife and a set of infant twins. And more than enough money already (Manning has cleared $100 million in salary alone, not counting his many endorsements). And a life.
Aware of the alarm bells about his neck, Manning had stacks of medical tests and conclusions ready for inspection when the Broncos attended his March workout at Duke. And then, when he and the Denver brass hammered out the details of his contract, he volunteered to undergo a physical examination after each season. If he fails, the Broncos are off the hook. It was Manning’s way of alleviating all fears.
“He had a good handle on things,” said Archie Manning. “If those doctors were against it then Peyton would not be playing football. And he went to a few doctors. They all said the same thing. We felt fine with it. The doctors were looking out for him and didn’t feel his neck was at risk. That was enough for Peyton. That was enough for his family. That’s all he needed to hear, from the experts.”
Manning said he never thought about retiring once he got the medical green light, since the risk of injury from a big hit is no different now than it was before surgery.
“Other players have had the same surgery and they’re playing hitting positions, like linebackers, and they were cleared,” said Fox. “The surgical part is not what I’m concerned about. I’m concerned with him getting hit, of course, but just like I don’t want to see any of my quarterbacks getting hit.”
When Manning was dropped by Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin last week, you could hear crickets chirp at Sports Authority Field. It was his first taste of grass in 19 months. But he jumped to his feet (on cue, the stadium collectively exhaled) and threw a 22-yard completion on the next play.
Stokley, who knows Manning better than anyone on the club, said after the game: “We weren’t worried. I think everyone else was.”
More than anything, Manning wants to do right by Elway, who made this happen. Elway is the only guy who could get away with dumping Tebow, given the enormous popularity the flawed quarterback enjoyed last season, and Manning was the only guy who could be the replacement.
“John has always been one of my favorite players but I’ve gotten to know him as an executive and a leader,” said Manning. “There’s that same competitive desire and nature.”
Elway the front office guy is now charged with finding a Terrell Davis for Manning. At least he must make sure that Manning has enough help that he won’t be forced to throw 40 times for four touchdowns a game, and rack up 4,000 passing yards a season. Unless, of course, he’s still capable.
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Here in Denver, it’s all about Manning and whether he can end the town’s 14-year post-Elway dry spell, which saw Brian Griese and Jake Plummer and Kyle Orton and Jay Cutler try to fill Elway’s shoes. That was an eternity around here, but those 14 years still didn’t feel as long as the year Manning spent away from the field.
That Hall-of-Fame career now resumes in a place that knows its football, and is well-versed in how far a team can go when it rides a great quarterback in the twilight. If he still has his good touch and his good health, Manning could catch his second wind here in the high altitude and amid the high expectations.