The wait is over, the verdict is in: Peyton Manning's commanding performance against Pittsburgh put to rest questions as to whether he could regain his old form and turn the Broncos into contenders. And if this isn't Peyton at 100%? Whoo, boy...
Twenty-two minutes into his first football game in more than 20 months, Peyton Manning shifted the NFL's balance of power with one perfect little pass on Sunday. The starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos—it's still hard to believe, isn't it?—had yet to put a point on the board as he faced a first-and-10 on his own 35-yard line. Manning was looking a little tentative against a snorting Steelers defense that was hell-bent on avenging last year's overtime playoff loss to the Broncos. That was the final shocker in Denver's carnival of a 2011 season, during which Manning's predecessor, Tim Tebow—equally hard to believe, in hindsight, no?—played the role of freak show curiosity as much as signal-caller.
The arrival of Manning—at 36, a four-time league MVP and obsessive-compulsive student of the game—immediately changed the culture in Denver, giving the quarterback position an air of competence not seen since John Elway went out on top following his Super Bowl XXXIII win. After four surgeries on his neck, questions remain about Manning's physical prowess, but no one doubts his football intellect.
Back at his 35-yard line, Manning was under center when he recognized the Pittsburgh formation from his marathon film sessions. He knew that after the snap he would be looking to the left flat, where receiver Demaryius Thomas was in one-on-one coverage. Thomas, 24, is a freakish physical talent, but his development was stunted last season when he was used mostly as a decoy or downfield blocker in the rudimentary passing schemes meant to minimize Tebow's myriad weaknesses. (The notable, stunning exception was the 80-yard overtime catch-and-run that knocked Pittsburgh out of the playoffs.) Throughout this summer and preseason Thomas had become a kind of teacher's pet to Manning. "He's made me a smarter receiver and taught me how to run routes the way he wanted them," Thomas said last week. Now he was being crowded at the line of scrimmage by cornerback Ike Taylor. The play call had Thomas on a go route, but 20 yards upfield he broke off the pattern.
"It's his read," Manning said afterward. "First choice is to go over the top, but D.T. read the situation perfectly."
So did Manning. His pass tore through the thin Mile High Stadium air, and even before it reached its apex the sellout crowd loosed a throaty roar. Some of football's most passionate fans, these Denverites have consistently had their hearts broken during the post-Elway administrations of Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton and Tebow. The Manning mania that has since swept the Rockies is quantifiable: Individual ticket prices are up more than $100 on the secondary market over last year, and Manning's orange number 18 jersey is the league's top seller. In the days leading up to Manning's debut, the Broncos had tried futilely to lower expectations. "We won't know he's back from one particular moment," said offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. "It will be a body of work."
Now Manning was putting the lie to this with one spectacular throw. When Thomas turned to the sideline, the ball was already on his back shoulder. "That's Peyton," he said later, laughing. "If you are in the right place at the right time, he will always find you."
The completion was equal parts trust and timing, and its precise execution impressed one discerning onlooker. "There's such a small window on that throw," said Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president who led Manning's recruitment. "It was a perfect ball. If there was any doubt whether Peyton is back, I think he answered it with that throw."
Manning called his connection with Thomas "a big play at a big moment," and it energized the Broncos' offense. Eight plays later Knowshon Moreno's seven-yard scamper gave Denver a 7--3 lead. Manning and Thomas struck again late in the third quarter on a screen pass that went for a 71-yard touchdown. (It was the 400th of Manning's career, accomplished in his 209th game, 19 games ahead of the pace set by Brett Favre, the alltime touchdowns leader with 508.) And Denver took the lead for good after Manning connected with four separate receivers on an 80-yard drive that was capped by a one-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme. For the game Manning went 19 of 26 for 253 yards, two TDs and no interceptions, good for a 129.2 rating.
Asked to assess Manning's play, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin conjured up the gaudiest of superlatives: "He's Peyton."
That's crushing news for the rest of the NFL. The Broncos were already equipped with a stout defense, a high-powered ground game (tops in the NFL in 2011, actually) and a high-altitude home field advantage. If Manning goes back to the future as a preeminent passer, then Denver must be elevated to the short list of Super Bowl favorites. The team understood the larger meaning of Manning's performance. "This was an important opportunity to define ourselves," said cornerback Champ Bailey. "A chance for us to make a statement."
Manning has quietly been announcing his intentions ever since signing a five-year deal with the Broncos on March 20, following a surreal free agency period. He immediately moved in with his old college teammate, Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, and began gathering his new receivers for informal throwing sessions on various high school football fields. "We were trying hard to keep it light, but it was a pretty serious vibe," says wideout Eric Decker of the workouts. "We wanted to show him that we could do things the right way and that coming here was the right choice."
Throughout the summer word quickly spread among the Broncos of the long hours Manning was putting in at the team's headquarters, rehabbing his neck and drilling down on the playbook. The aura he created was such that at the outset of training camp second-year tight end Julius Thomas was calling Manning "Sir" in the huddle, until the QB told him to knock it off.
Even veterans remain comically deferential to the future Hall of Famer. Tamme was one of Manning's favorite targets in Indianapolis two years ago, and thus seemed like a good person to ask if Manning is back to 100%. He offered a slightly lower, highly specific number. It was offered in jest, and taken as such. But hours later a Broncos p.r. staffer called to say that Tamme was "freaking out" because he didn't want to come across as disparaging Manning. "He looks great," Tamme said, by way of clarification. "Whatever his 100 percent is, he's really darn close to it."
Manning concedes that he's lost a little velocity on his fastball—see several fluttering sideline passes against Pittsburgh—but so what? Plenty of rocket-armed quarterbacks have been busts because they lacked the intangibles that Manning's teammates rave about. "It's been an education to watch how he goes about his business," says Manning's 21-year-old rookie backup, Brock Osweiler. "The biggest thing is how precious every minute is to him. He does everything with a purpose and he makes all of us keep up. I can't daydream for one minute because he'll call me on it. It's like he has this sixth sense of when your mind might be wandering. We'll be watching film and out of nowhere he'll say, 'Hey Brock: In that coverage, what's your hot read?' You don't want to let him down."
That extra studying is necessary because the Broncos have revamped their passing game, which last year could be described as "Tim, don't screw up." The new playbook, says McGahee, is "sophisticated. We have Peyton Manning as our quarterback. Enough said."
Asked how that's different from a season ago, McGahee recoiled as if he'd caught a whiff of something foul. "C'mon, man! Be real. It's an upgrade, obviously. Manning is the guy who's gonna lead us to our destination."
That's a heavy load for a guy with a vertical scar traversing the back of his neck. The Steelers sacked Manning twice and got in a couple of other good shots on Sunday, but afterward Manning couldn't have been perkier. The Broncos, meanwhile, affect an air of studied nonchalance about Manning's health. Says Tamme, "He's a big, strong guy who proved his toughness a long time ago."
Still, being a Broncos offensive lineman is suddenly one of the most stressful jobs in sports, not that any of Manning's blockers wants to admit it. Denver's line operates under a code of omerta, whereby to speak to a reporter is to risk ostracization—or worse. Approached in the locker room after a recent practice, center C.J. Davis declined to comment, motioning toward his fellow linemen at a nearby table, where they were inhaling three humongous bags of Wendy's takeout, including a pair of milk shakes per player. "If I talk I'll get fined by them," Davis said.
"Yo, don't be selfish, it goes to charity," someone yelled.
Davis acquiesced, speaking over catcalls, taunts and a raucous chant of "Tell 'em, C.J., tell 'em!" "Oh yeah, there's big-time pressure to protect Peyton," said Davis. "We don't want anyone even breathing on him. At the end of the game his uniform needs to be clean."
Davis said the linemen have been energized by Manning's magisterial presence. "There's pride in blocking for him," he said, pretending not to notice the french fry whizzing past his noggin. "He's given all of us a little extra swag."
This extends to the defense, too. The Steelers held the ball for 35:05 on Sunday but scored only 19 points as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times, his passes repeatedly batted around by Broncos defensive backs. "When you have a quarterback like Peyton Manning, it brings a sense of urgency," says defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. "The guy is all about winning, for real, for real. So we all know it's time to take care of the things that need to be taken care of."
After all he's been through, Manning has no trouble leaning on a larger perspective. Asked about the mile-high expectations in Denver, he says, "I don't really carry that burden. I know how hard I've worked to get back to this position, how much time I've put into rehab, how much time I continue to put in. I'm gonna play as hard as I possibly can. That's all I know to do." He did allow on Sunday night that, "It's a special win, don't get me wrong. I'm grateful and definitely appreciative of the moment and opportunity."
His famous father, Archie, was even more effusive. In the Broncos' locker room the 63-year-old former quarterback doled out hugs to the training staff and got a little misty talking about bringing his grandchildren, Peyton's 18-month-old twins, Marshall and Mosley, to their first game. On his way to Denver, Archie had stopped in Indianapolis to deliver a speech supporting the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital. It was his first time back to Indy since his son's wrenching split with the Colts. "It was a funny feeling walking through the airport," says Archie. "It was kind of lonely. I was used to seeing number 18 being sold in every store. Now there's a lot of number 12s. I guess times change."
They do and they don't. Brandon Stokley spent four seasons as a Colt alongside Manning, and now that the pair have been reunited in Denver, Stokley has reclaimed the role of best friend and favorite third-down target. "I never doubted he would make it all the way back," says Stokely. "To me he's the same as he's always been."
And who, exactly, is that?
"The best to ever play the game."
ASKED TO ASSESS MANNING'S PLAY, STEELERS COACH MIKE TOMLIN CONJURED UP THE GAUDIEST OF SUPERLATIVES: "HE'S PEYTON."
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
HE'S BACK Number 18's anything-but-Rocky beginning in Denver included 240 passing yards and 31 points—totals that the Broncos topped only twice in 2011.
ROBERT BECK (MANNING AND FOOTE)
BATTLE TESTED In his first regular-season action since January 2011, Manning was hit three times and sacked twice (here by Larry Foote), but on the whole it was a night to celebrate.
PETER READ MILLER
[See caption above]