After a full season of recovery from surgery, a great deal of speculation regarding his NFL future, the release from the only NFL team he ever knew, and a whirlwind tour around the league's free-agency process, Peyton Manning was finally back where he's happiest -- away from the drama and on the football field. On Monday, Manning was one of the first to arrive at the Denver Broncos' Dove Valley facility for his first organized team activities in the Mile High City.
"It was a good workout," Manning told the media on Monday afternoon. "Great turnout, attendance-wise, and it was great to see a lot of the new guys that I haven't had a chance to meet yet. A lot of guys have been in here already working out early, which has been good. Some of the other guys got here for the first day, and I thought it was a productive first day. It's April 16, and we're just trying to build the foundation for what we hope our team will be like this year. I think the guys are enjoying working with our new strength coach, Coach Luke [Richesson], and getting to know him, his program and his philosophy. I thought it was a good start from that standpoint."
Richesson's efforts will, of course, be closely watched. Though Manning was seen to throw at an optimal level during the Pro Day-style workouts he went through for the teams interested in him before he signed with the Broncos on March 20, there is still some concern about the long-term effects of three neck surgeries in a two-year period, and the nerve impingements in his right arm that resulted from those procedures. The Broncos certainly believed enough in Manning's future to throw serious money his way -- a $96 million contract over five years -- but the nature of the deal also essentially allows the team to bail after one year if things go the wrong way.
With football fully on his mind, Manning seemed less than concerned with the other stuff.
"I'm not going to get into these weekly reports," he said, when asked for a health update. "I've kind of been there and done that all fall of last year. I'm continuing to work hard on my rehab—certainly part of my phase in my time with [head athletic trainer Steve] 'Greek' [Antonopulos] in the training room. It's been good to get into that consistent routine with Luke [Richesson] and with 'Greek.' That is one thing that I haven't been doing up until the time I signed here—kind of traveling and going to different places and not really having a home base to set up out of. I'm working hard with 'Greek' and with Luke and just trying to make progress. I'm enjoying being under one roof, being supervised by those two guys."
Manning is throwing to new receivers in new uniforms for the first time in his 14-year career -- he had only known the Indianapolis Colts uniform, so this is a new beginning. However, he's got some old friends on board. Tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Brandon Stokely (both former Colts) are on the Broncos' roster, and Manning has already developed a bond with Broncos receiver Eric Decker through unofficial workouts. The new collective bargaining agreement limits the degree to which teams can prepare in the preseason, but Manning is as much a coach on the field as any NFL player has ever been, which certainly lends a more professional air to those throwing sessions on high school fields.
"They have rules and restrictions, which are new," Manning noted. "We had a good workout session, did get on the field for a little bit, but we can do that on our own at this point with informal workouts or whatever you call it—with players organizing it. That's one thing that in some ways can be a positive with the players being accountable yourselves to be there on time and organize it yourself to work on some things that you want to work on in a controlled environment. We'll do that for the next couple of weeks. I think in two more weeks coaches are allowed to be out there on the field. So, there are all these different phases that are kind of new. I think everybody has to follow the boundaries that are placed in front of us and get good work in no matter what restrictions they put on us."
Decker has already seen the effects of Manning's football intensity, and the third-year player is very impressed. "He's a natural-born leader," Decker said of Manning on Monday. "In the weight room, he's the guy taking command of running from station to station. On the field, he's doing drill-work, getting us lined up and having us do things for a particular reason. There are no wasted movements, no wasted time, and that's a great thing to have in a leader like him."
Even the guys on the other side of the ball noticed a difference. For Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller, the switch from Tim Tebow to Manning -- as much as Miller liked Tebow -- was one that obviously had to be made. When you get a shot at a player like Manning, you have to take it.
"I thought going into the year, this is the NFL, you never know what could happen," Miller said. "I had grown close to Tebow on and off the field. We were friends off the field, close friends. Whenever you see a guy leave like that there are always some emotions involved. The changes that we made, they made them for our team. You can't just keep a guy here because he's a great guy. I'm going to miss Tebow, but the quarterback that we do have now is an elite quarterback. Whenever you get a chance to pick up a guy like that, you have to pull the trigger."
Miller also endorsed Tebow's efforts in New York, which became a reality when the Broncos traded Tebow to the New York Jets shortly after Manning was acquired.
"I think everybody is making a mistake if you think he's just going to go there and be a wildcat quarterback or a situational quarterback," Miller said. "The Tebow that I know is just going to take it one day at a time, he's going to grind, he's going to come in and be consistent and you never know. He could have that starting spot. You never know what happens during games. An injury and he's the next guy up. So, I think guys are mistaken if they just think he's going to be a situational quarterback. He's going to go in there and he's going to compete for that starting job."
However, that's Mark Sanchez's problem. Back in Denver, everyone's just excited to see where a team that won a playoff game in 2011 with Tebow at the helm can do with Manning -- especially if Manning can return to optimal form. None more so than the quarterback himself.
"I think it's just the offseason," Manning said, when asked if the reality of his new environment had really hit him yet. "I'd like to get into a game first. I think there are steps along the way, but today was an exciting day. Seeing a lot of the players, meeting some of these players for the first time and getting to know them—I think you can use this time to get to know these guys off the field a little bit as well during this time. There is some bonding that goes on during the offseason with offensive linemen and what not. I've enjoyed being around [center] J.D. Walton. I think quarterbacks and centers have to have great relationships. He and I have spent time together and gotten snaps together as well at the high schools and whatnot. I think you take advantage of this time, getting to know your teammates on the field and getting to know them as people as well."
Speaking of relationships, what was Manning's take on brother Eli's recent decision to host "Saturday Night Live," as Peyton once did?
"I'm excited for him. He'll do a good job. I have a prior commitment in May so I won't be able to make it, but I'll be tuned in."
All business and tuned in -- no matter the surroundings, there are some things about Peyton Manning that will never change.