DENVER – The old gunslinger strolled through the locker room with a subdued smile, looking less like a man that had just won the lottery than one who'd been told his five-year IRS audit had just come back squeaky clean.
If John Elway were a different kind of cocksure – and not so blessedly forthright, nor so accomplished – the Denver Broncos' executive vice president of football operations might have copped some I Told You So attitude after watching Peyton Manning look like, well, Peyton Manning in a 31-19 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday night.
Instead, Elway expressed quiet satisfaction, if not relief, following Manning's masterful performance in the 36-year-old quarterback's first regular-season game in a Broncos uniform. And with good reason: No NFL executive stood to suffer a more severe blowback had things blown up on the first Sunday of the 2012 season than Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback who'd gambled $18 million and a whole lot of political capital on a guy who hadn't played a real game since January 2011 and was coming off multiple neck surgeries.
Well, there was one NFL power broker with as much on the line as Elway on Sunday: Mike Shanahan, the coach with whom he combined to win back-to-back Super Bowls here in the '90s. Shanahan, now the Washington Redskins' head coach and de facto front-office chief, was the driving force behind the costly trade to acquire the No. 2 overall pick in last April's draft, with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III as the prize.
[Les Carpenter: Robert Griffin III is real deal in debut]
It took about an hour into Sunday's first slate of games to conclude that Shanahan's bold gamble wasn't a frivolous one. By the time the rookie had finished off his phenomenal debut – and led the visiting 'Skins to a 40-32 stunner over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints – RG3 had infused a floundering franchise with the magic ingredient that every player, coach and executive seeks from the team's most important player.
Hint: It shares a name with the Arkansas town where a certain former president was born, and it's the precise quality that the Broncos – whose Tebowmania-tinged drive to the playoffs last season evoked all sorts of faith-based proclamations – are brimming with after Sunday night.
"It's huge," Elway said of Manning's triumphant return following the lost season that compelled Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay to release the future Hall of Famer last March. "It gives you hope. As a player, that's what you want – to be able to have that hope, to know you're on a good, legitimate team that can compete week in and week out. And with Peyton, we have that."
This is not to say that Manning's 19-of-26, 253-yard, two-touchdown, no-interception performance stands as conclusive proof that he'll enjoy another MVP-caliber season, any more than RG3's first game means he'll avoid the choppiness and adversity that for so long have been endemic to rookie quarterbacks.
Remember, in the 21st century, the first week of the NFL season brings up the curtain on Overreaction Theater like few other happenings. And in Manning's case, he's the first to stomp on the convenient storyline, conceding that over the long haul, he may not be able to do it like he once did.
"It's one game," Manning told Y! Sports as he dressed at his locker long after closing things out with a pair of kneel-downs in the Pittsburgh red zone. "I try to keep it in perspective. There's always some unknown going in. There's still some unknown. I have some limitations. And this team's still got to figure out what our identity is.
"Somebody asked [in the postgame news conference] if I felt vindicated. I don't know what that meant. It's just one game. I still have a long way to go. I still have limitations I'm dealing with, and I'm trying to play with them, and the team is feeling itself out in the process. If we can win while we're doing all that, it's a pretty good thing."
When I pressed Manning on the limitations – specifically, I asked if he meant physical limitations, and if so what kind? – he was predictably thrilled. "Aw, I don't really get into all that," he said. "Me and the trainer [Steve 'Greek' Antonopulos] spend a lot of time together, so we sort of know. We kind of know what I can and can't do and where we're trying to go."
Are we talking about permanent limitations?
"I don't really know about all that," Manning said, poker-faced.
[Winners/Losers: Andrew Luck, other rookie QBs unable to measure up with RG3]
For what it's worth, he didn't look limited. As he had in his anxiety-inducing preseason debut, Manning put zip on his passes and seemed capable of making many different types of throws.
After three fruitless drives, the Broncos allowed Manning to run his signature no-huddle attack, and he promptly marched the Broncos 80 yards for their first touchdown (on a seven-yard run by Knowshon Moreno) and a 7-3 lead with 5:16 left in the second quarter. "He controlled the tempo," Elway said of Manning, who stayed in the no-huddle for the balance of the game. "That was huge. He was so good at the line of scrimmage."
On that second-quarter drive, Manning even took off on a bootleg – undoubtedly improvised – and picked up seven yards on second-and-six before scooting out of bounds.
"It was seven yards," he said, laughing, "and it felt like 20."
He unleashed one pure deep ball late in the first quarter that traveled about 40 yards in the air, and one which wideout Demaryius Thomas looked like he might have been able to catch, but didn't. (When I told Manning it sure looked like he had the ability to throw deep, which has been among the uncertainties surrounding his recovery, he gave a sarcastic smile and said, "Well, I'm really happy to hear that, because you're a renowned authority on the deep ball." Hilarity ensued.)
Thomas made up for it in the third quarter by taking a short screen from Manning and racing 71 yards for a score that put Denver up 14-13 and put Manning in the three-member, 400-career-touchdown-pass club. For the record, Manning got there in 209 career games, 18 fewer than Dan Marino and 19 fewer than Brett Favre.
"He gives everybody hope," Thomas said of Manning, further confirming Elway's hypothesis. "Everybody. I don't care who you are."
[Eric Adelson: Bucs get in Cam Newton's face on frustrating day for Panthers QB]
Manning got TD pass No. 401, and put the Broncos ahead to stay with 9:23 remaining, on a one-yard quick-toss to tight end Jacob Tamme, a former Colts teammate. Broncos cornerback Tracy Porter – in a Peace Out move reminiscent of the one the ex-Saints player pulled on Manning in Super Bowl XLIV – clinched the game by jumping a sideline pass from the otherwise terrific Ben Roethlisberger (22-of-40, 245 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) and cruising to a 48-yard touchdown with 1:58 remaining.
Porter's old team, alas, was not so fortunate. After a tumultuous offseason marred by a bounty scandal and a slew of suspensions, including the yearlong banishment of head coach Sean Payton, the Saints were looking to begin an us-against-The-Man march toward redemption, ideally ending with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell awkwardly handing team owner Tom Benson the Lombardi Trophy in the Superdome next February.
It's a whimsical vision, and one opening-game defeat certainly doesn't disqualify the Saints from fulfilling it, but Sunday's effort was not an encouraging sign. If anything, as the New Orleans defenders attempt to adjust to new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's dramatically different scheme, it looked like they might have missed Gregg Williams of leaked-audio infamy.
The kid playing quarterback on the other side of the line, of course, had something to do with the Saints' struggles. As with the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton a year ago, Griffin instantly looked like he belonged, and like the Next Level wasn't too big for him, by any means.
If Elway felt relief Sunday then Shanahan, his former mentor, surely had even more reason to exhale. Having dealt three first-round draft picks (including the sixth overall selection in 2012) and a second-rounder to the St. Louis Rams for the No. 2 pick – which, given the Colts' obvious desire to draft former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as Manning's successor, likely meant the rights to RG3 – this was an all-in maneuver like few others in recent memory.
Imagine if Griffin had looked utterly unprepared for the moment. Shanahan, in his third year with the 'Skins and with a trail of failed starting quarterbacks (Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman, John Beck) to his discredit, would have been immediately besieged by critics howling that he'd lost his touch. Had Griffin thrown three interceptions (as Luck did) or, heaven forbid, produced a 5.1 passer rating, the worst in a Week 1 rookie debut since at least 1960 (as fellow rookie Brandon Weeden did for the Browns), the negative inertia would have been tough to combat.
Instead, buoyed by an innovative game plan from Shanahan and his son and offensive coordinator, Kyle, Griffin (19-of-26, 320 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions; 10 rushes, 42 yards) shredded the Saints and controlled a game in one of the league's toughest road venues. But don't take it from me – take it from the RG3 admirer who emailed me Sunday evening after processing the rookie's accomplishment.
"He's incredible," Tom Brady said of Griffin.
Brady, who had a stellar game of his own on Sunday in leading the New England Patriots to a 34-13 victory over the Tennessee Titans, understands as well as anyone that the impact of such a quarterbacking performance can be far-reaching. Watching the Redskins perform with intensity and audacity on both sides of the ball Sunday was a revelation: Sensing that they had a quarterback capable of taking them to great heights, Griffin's teammates displayed a fearlessness and urgency that clearly caught the Saints off guard.
"Sure it [made us more aggressive], because if we can continue to put up points like that, our [guys up] front can pin their ears back," Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander wrote via text Sunday night. When I asked Alexander if Griffin's performance surpassed his expectations, he said, "Yes, especially outplaying Drew. No turnovers, and he kept his composure. It was great for the defense, and the offense."
All in all, it was a great day for the two leaders most associated with the Broncos' championship teams.
Elway, who even during the height of Tebowmania was never comfortable with having an untraditional and blatantly flawed quarterback (albeit one who played brilliantly in the Broncos' playoff upset of the Steelers in the same stadium last January), had 18 million reasons to pursue Manning after the Colts cut him in March.
Even if Manning hadn't been able to resume his career, or resemble his former self, the move would have had value to Elway, as it allowed him to move on from Tebow without reproach.
After what he saw on Sunday night, Elway is thinking much, much bigger.
"Peyton is pretty close to being back," Elway said. "It's nice to be able to get a win like that, to have some balance, to be able to run the ball, to be able to throw the ball. We're a better football team this year.
"There've been so many questions – we've been talking about it for six months. Well, you just saw that Peyton Manning has a lot of football left in him. I'm just glad to have him here with us."
A few minutes later, Elway admitted just how important beating the Steelers was, from his perspective: "I didn't say it, but this was a huge game for us. We go to Atlanta, and then Houston comes here. I didn't want to say it, but if we didn't get off to a good start, it would've been tough."
A first-game disaster by Manning would have been even tougher on Elway – not that the old gunslinger would admit to sweating the possibility. Remember, he has seen some things; this is not his first saloon staredown
"Pressure is pressure," Elway said, just before leaving the locker room, with Manning still dressing a few feet away. He paused for a moment and then pointed to his $18 million trophy-quarterback.
"I'll put all my money on him."
1. Adrian Peterson, who got stronger as the game went on for the Vikings in their overtime victory over the Jaguars, is well on his way to shrugging off reconstructive knee surgery and reclaiming his status as the league's best back. Chris Johnson, once his chief rival for that designation, looks as lifeless as he did in his lost 2011 season.
2. If the Saints can't rebound from their opening-game defeat, and the season starts slipping away from them, look for a martyr complex to kick in like we haven't seen since Spygate (only more tragic, given that the '07 Patriots went 16-0).
3. Redskins long snapper Nick Sundberg, who suffered a broken left (non-snapping) arm on a blocked punt in the first half, sucked it up and finished out the game – but, really, what else would you expect from someone who attended the University of California?
4. I'm a fan of Braylon Edwards, and the veteran wideout had a decent day in his first game with the Seahawks, but he couldn't come up with that potential winning touchdown catch on fourth-and-goal with 18 seconds to go against the Cardinals – and I have the distinct feeling that Terrell Owens would have hauled it in.
5. Thanks to the incompetence of the scab (er, replacement) officials, the Seahawks got a fourth timeout on the final drive of that 20-16 defeat to the Cardinals, but what they really needed was a Colorado-style fifth down.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How spot-on former President Bill Clinton's Democratic Convention speech was, and how I miss his arithmetic as much as all my other discontinued guilty '90s pleasures (Tupac, Biggie, Nirvana, The X-Files etc.) combined.
2. That Weeden, minutes before his first NFL game, ended up underneath the oversize American flag draped across the entire Cleveland Browns Stadium field in preparation for the national anthem. Weeden, who was warming up near the 35-yard line and caught unaware when servicemen carrying the flag swept in, experienced some weird moments during his stint as a minor-league pitcher, but this is more surreal than any of them. "Got no warning," Weeden wrote via text Sunday night. "Was throwing like I always do and they came haulin' ass with that thing right at me." Weeden dropped to his knees and assessed the situation under the stars and stripes before plotting his escape and scurrying out. He felt fortunate that none of his teammates witnessed the embarrassing episode – the only thing worse than getting devoured by a flag as a rookie is having it happen as a 28-year-old rookie – but the incident was captured by television cameras, which blew his cover. "I was kneeling and just crawled out," Weeden said. "It was about 10 seconds but it felt like forever." If all goes well, Weeden will eventually look back on the pregame snafu, and the brutal statistical day that followed it, as battle-hardening episodes in a successful career. In the meantime, if his rookie struggles continue and he wishes he could disappear, he knows at least one good hiding place.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I picked the Jaguars to upset the Vikings, and I was impressed with the way they came out and executed in their first game under coach Mike Mularkey. Blaine Gabbert, as I'd suspected, looked much, much better in the first game of his second season than he did during his unsightly rookie campaign, and Jacksonville came within 20 seconds and a rookie kicker's 55-yard, game-tying field goal of winning in regulation. However, with the game on the line in overtime – in the first regular-season implementation of the NFL's new format, with the Vikes having gone ahead 26-23 on a first-possession field goal – and the Jags needing to convert a fourth-and-2 from their own 31 to stay alive, Mularkey treated Gabbert like the second coming of Dan Marino.
The coached called for (or, perhaps, green-lit offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's call for) a deep ball to Laurent Robinson down the right sideline. The pass was significantly overthrown, and that was that. I actually admire the boldness of the call, but context is everything. If my quarterback is Brady or Manning or Roethlisberger or pretty much any experienced passer with a long record of success, I'm comfortable trying to catch the defense off guard and taking that all-or-nothing shot. If my quarterback is Gabbert – his terrific, 39-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass to Cecil Shorts with 27 seconds to go in regulation notwithstanding – I'm calling something safer and trying to extend the game. The weird thing is, this is Mike Mularkey, whose lack of bravado and creativity as the Falcons' offensive coordinator last year was the subject of much criticism. The fact that Atlanta seemed to function much better in 2011 with Matt Ryan calling his own plays in the no-huddle didn't reflect all that well upon Mularkey – and made me question the Jags' decision to hire him.
When I visited the Falcons' training camp last month, several players spoke glowingly of Mularkey's replacement, ex-Jags offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, citing the new coach's aggressive approach. The Falcons, incidentally, were high-energy-rock-and-roll in Sunday's 40-24 victory over the Chiefs, with Ryan adroitly utilizing big-play receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, slot receiver Harry Douglas and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, with running back Michael Turner (11 carries, 32 yards) playing a blatantly reduced role. They looked the way many of us thought they'd look in 2011, after general manager Thomas Dimitroff's risky draft-night deal to land Jones with the sixth overall pick.
Now back to Mularkey: As bold as his call at the end of the game was, his decision to settle for a 19-yard Josh Scobee field goal on Jacksonville's second drive was flat-out flaccid. The Jags had marched 77 yards on 17 plays in a scoreless game. They'd had the ball for nine minutes, 22 seconds. This was their chance to force the issue, on the road. They could have handed the ball to Maurice Jones-Drew or let Gabbert attempt a quick throw and, worst-case, had the Vikings backed up on their own one-yard-line. The more I think about it, the more I hate the meekness of that move. One other thing: Having seen the new overtime rule in real-time for the first time, I'm not sure I love it. The Vikings had an organic drive that resulted in a field goal. The Jags, who could have extended the game with a field goal or won it outright with a touchdown, then had what amounted to a four-down drive (at least before reaching field-goal range), a circumstance which affords play-callers a much different mentality. Indeed, imagine if Gabbert's fourth-down pass to Robinson had gone for a game-winning touchdown – Jacksonville would have benefitted immensely from the reality that a punt in such a scenario was not an option. I'm not saying the old overtime rule was perfect, but I don't think the new one is, either.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Was a good win. But we can play A LOT better!!!"
– Email Sunday evening from Brady after the Pats' 34-13 victory over the Titans in Nashville.
"He is a beast"
– Text Sunday evening from Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, on teammate Adrian Peterson.
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