Signing Peyton Manning last March was well and good for the Broncos, but if Manning was to resemble the quarterback he was during his first 13 seasons in Indianapolis, he needed reliable targets who could quickly read and interpret Manning's cues, run routes to the precision that Manning expected and make catches in tight coverage, since Manning likes to squeeze the passes through narrow windows.
The Broncos thought the best plan was to see if third-year wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas could develop into those targets. They'd shown flashes of brilliance in their first two seasons, and each had solid multi-game stretches at the beginning and end of the 2011 regular season, respectively. But the potential of the passing game with Manning would only be unlocked if each could display the consistency they had lacked in their first two seasons.
Mission accomplished. Both finished with more than 1,000 yards receiving. Thomas had more yardage and receptions; Decker had more touchdowns. Thomas led the Broncos in receiving yardage twice as often as Decker (10 times to five), but Decker tied or led the Broncos in receptions outright nine times, while Thomas did so eight times.
Like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne in Manning's mid-2000's salad days, Decker and Thomas are options 1 and 1a. And just like that duo, the Broncos' pair push each other.
"I think we definitely feed off of one another. There's that friendly competition," Decker said. "Obviously, we both want to be great and if he does something big, I want to do something big and vice versa."
A desire to spur each other to greater heights has worked well with Manning's perfectionist streak. They celebrate their accomplishments together and have become close friends on and off the field, but neither wants to see the other get too far ahead.
"I think with that combination, you're going to get guys with the right attitude, and that's perfect for them," said cornerback Champ Bailey, "because (Manning) is a guy that's going to put a lot of pressure on everybody to do the right thing, and that's what they need to be great pros."
Decker was the first of the duo to work with Manning, since Thomas was held back in the 2012 offseason after having pins removed from his pinkie finger, which he'd broken in practice before the regular-season opener in 2011.
Thomas quickly got up to speed, and eventually surpassed Decker early in the regular season before Decker caught back up. Now, defenses are faced with the conundrum Manning loves: that stopping one means being exposed to the other. That Decker and Thomas are bigger that Wayne and Harrison and give Manning threats in heavy traffic that he's never had before only makes the Broncos more potent.
But that wouldn't have happened without the work they did on the practice field, where they push each other just as they do on the field -- with an extra prod from Manning, as well.
"It was having him just walking us through -- whether it's film or on the practice field and certain routes he wanted or how he wanted run adjustments," Decker said. "And then our willingness to put extra work into just watching how Reggie Wayne ran certain routes or how their offense was set up.
"That's something we took and tried to do the best we could in the short time we had."
It's been enough to make Manning's Broncos as dangerous as his Colts once were.