The Denver Broncos understand that they must take baby steps with Peyton Manning; they have understood this all the way through the process. Manning, head coach John Fox and team president John Elway have preached patience with the future Hall of Famer in his recovery process as he attempts to come back from four neck surgeries, and the resulting nerve regeneration process in his throwing arm.
So, when the Broncos traveled to Chicago's Soldier Field to meet the Bears in Manning's Broncos debut, expectations were managed. As long as Manning didn't get hurt or frequently hit, or look awful on the field, it was all gravy. In a 31-3 rout of the Bears, where Manning went 4 of 7 for 44 yards and an interception, all parties involved will take the result and walk away happy.
"Considering where I was a year ago ... being out there today, it's been a long haul for me," Manning said after the fact. "That first snap, that first play, was a big step for me."
"He was remarkable," Fox said of Manning during a halftime interview. "He came back—he's worked very hard. He hasn't played football in [almost] two years. I thought it was a good first drive in these conditions—it was sloppy. It was sloppy by the receivers as far as the conditions, but I thought it was a very good first outing."
Manning's first pass, a quick in to Jacob Tamme, was dropped by the quarterback's former Indianapolis teammate. Two plays later, a quick pass over the middle to Tamme that was deflected in the air by Bears linebacker Geno Hayes -- Tamme caught it anyway for a short gain. On this play, as with the interception that ended his only drive of the day, Manning appeared to lack optimal velocity on short throws -- he may have been trying to finesse stuff when he used to throw fire.
A throw to Eric Decker on an out comeback, across his body to the left sideline and 10 yards downfield didn't have as much gas on it as you might like, but there's more than one starting NFL quarterback who can't throw across his body with any consistency at all. A pretty 12-yard seam throw to Demaryius Thomas was wiped out by a Ryan Clady holding penalty, and after a 3-yard dink pass to Lance Ball, Manning uncorked the throw we had been waiting for.
On third-and-17 from the Chicago 33-yard line, Manning threw a 19-yard completion to Decker on an in-cut (short slant) with perfect timing, touch, and anticipation. This throw was classic Manning -- he timed Decker's route speed and threw the ball just after Decker made his cut. Linebacker Lance Briggs was falling down in intermediate coverage, and Decker brought the ball in.
"I haven't played with Peyton before," Decker said, " but from what I know, he hasn't missed a beat."
Manning's last two throws of the drive, however, were less impressive. He missed Thomas on a right-side end zone fade with a wild overthrow, and the next play saw safety Major Wright pick off a ball intended for Brandon Stokley.
"The guy tipped it, but it wasn't a good route by me," Stokley said. "All around it was a good first drive, but you have to finish it off." That's as maybe, but Manning also threw the pass into a nest of Bears -- perhaps he was overselling his arm a bit after that Decker throw?
In any case, Manning looked enough like the Manning of old to provide a great deal of encouragement to the Broncos and their fans. Preseason Game 2 comes against the Seattle Seahawks next Saturday, and it's the first time the Broncos faithful will see their new quarterback in game situations. Fox said after the game that he won't really consider holding Manning out of preseason games to protect him, because he needs the real-time reps.