When Peyton Manning stepped out onto the practice field at Dove Valley today five minutes before the start of the first public training camp session, 4,000 fans cheered as one. He wasn't the first guy out there. Several made it out before Manning did, but all eyes turned to No. 18 once he arrived.
It's clear that Manning's presence has caused some changes to the way the Broncos run training camp, both for players and for fans. Today probably will set a record for Broncos training camp attendance, although they could have fit in many more. I was told by a member of the Broncos security staff that the facility only holds 4,200 fans, and apparently there were some that couldn't gain access for a short period because of the overcrowding. Indeed, the Broncos made several changes to their typical crowd control measures.
First of all, the gates to the parking lot opened much earlier than scheduled (7:50 a.m.). By the time I arrived at 7:30, the parking lot was already full and I was forced to park a half-mile away. I'm not sure when they started to let fans in, but it had to have been before I arrived. Thankfully, I still got a seat right on the field at the 10-yard line a short time before practice started at 8:50 a.m. Although the heat was fairly oppressive from the blazing sun, the fans were enthusiastic and loud throughout.
As a fan, the major difference to me was simply the pace of practice. This was my third year in a row going to opening day, and in previous years the action just wasn't nearly this brisk. First team offenses and defenses squared off each other a lot more than before, and Manning was given all the snaps with the first team. The rest of the squad went to the next field to do their own drills.
Manning looked sharp and accurate although he occasionally threw a little wobbler. As advertised, he constantly coached his receivers and occasionally the other quarterbacks when they were together in passing drills. The fans got involved at one point when Manning attempted a half-speed run to the outside against a live defense. Many hooted and hollered at Peyton not to run, and then at the defense to not touch him. Probably the most entertaining part of practice was the full-speed receiver/cornerback passing drills. When Manning would come up to throw, he called for Champ Bailey to step to the line so he could throw against him (I heard him clearly the first two times call out "Champ" when he got ready to throw).
Overall the entire team looked crisp and business-like. The general mood looked serious and focused. Clearly this is a much different team than last year, and the expectations are much higher than simply winning eight games. Fans should come out to training camp and get an up-close look at this team with Manning running the offense. It's definitely worth the trip.
Julie is a featured NFL contributor for the Yahoo Contributor Network. She started rooting for the Broncos upon moving to Denver in 2001 and currently lives three miles from the Broncos training facility.