We were all waiting to see if Peyton Manning's downfield velocity would return after the multiple neck surgeries that cost him the 2011 season, and according to the man himself, it finally happened at the Denver Broncos' most recent OTA event. With new receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas in tow, Manning aired it out during a 60-throw performance that had everyone on the Broncos' team and staff thinking that yes, indeed, it was the old Manning they signed to a five-year, $96 million contract in March.
"I think every day you have some point of emphasis, whether it's a screen play one day or play action one day, goal line, red zone," Manning said after Monday's practice. "Today it was kind of was a deep-ball shot, they call them, down the field. It's good to do that. We get great looks. First our defense, and you get great coverage, so that's something that the more work you get, the better you're going to be. It's going to be hard to get a more challenging look than going against some of the guys in our secondary, which is only going to make us better. The more times we can do it … I wish we could have more time for OTAs, but the limited practice that we have, we've got to take advantage of it. It's only going to make us better."
Head coach John Fox was predictably ecstatic after seeing what he saw. "I think he's doing tremendous," Fox said. "Physically, he looks the same to me as he's always looked. Whenever you get a new player out here, it's a new language, and he's making adjustments to that. Just like everybody else, we're hoping they get better every day."
Fox also said that "I think our passing game is way further along now than it was at this time a year ago," which, with all due respect to the legitimate abilities of Tim Tebow, should be the expected result. Though Tebow found unconventional ways to get things done in 2011 and the Broncos' coaching staff adjusted admirably to his specific strengths and limitations, the Broncos seemed to understand that without a more standard passing offense, it's very tough to go deep into the playoffs unless you have a dominant rushing attack and defense. Since the Broncos are working on assembling those two aspects of their team, it's always nice if you can get one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history and watch him return to form over time.
"I still have work to do in my rehab, and that's the good thing about these OTAs -- you really see where you are on certain plays because you are making different types of throws and you're learning a lot and you can know what to continue to work on even harder in your rehab," Manning said. "Some things you may just not quite be ready for yet. I think you really do get a good gauge going against the defense whereas before hand you're just throwing first just air and you may not find out and so this is good work from that standpoint."
Though Manning has been helped in his efforts by the familiarity he enjoys with former Indianapolis Colts teammates Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokely, what excites people familiar with the team is how he'll match up with Decker and Thomas, who could comprise one of the best young receiver duos in the NFL in the right offense. Team president John Elway might eventually have flashbacks to the days when he threw pass after pass to Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey in the late 1990s -- not coincidentally, the only time in franchise history the Broncos were winning Super Bowls.
"I really didn't know what to expect," Manning said of Decker, the third-year receiver out of Minnesota. "He certainly has a great work ethic, which I certainly have a great appreciation for in a young receiver. He's in outstanding condition and he really is a hard worker. I think his size and his speed are pretty rare. He and Demaryius both have that rare combination of 6-3, 6-4, over 200 pounds, that can still run well and you want to use that to your advantage for sure."
Thomas, taken in that same 2010 draft out of Georgia Tech, is best remembered for the deep drag route the Broncos used to confound the Pittsburgh Steelers on the first play of overtime in last season's wild-card round. Now, with a better and more demanding quarterback, he's looking forward to all Manning could bring to his own great potential.
"It's totally different," Thomas said. "Basically, it's knowing what you've got to do. If you know what you've got to do and are in the right spot, he'll get the ball to you."
So ... now that he's on the mend in a big way, will Manning be as much of a perfectionist as he's always been? This, after all, is a guy who's never been afraid to go after his own teammates if they're not doing everything they should on the field.
"That's probably something you could poll other people on, I guess," Manning said of his reputation as a taskmaster. "I will say, right now what I'm really working on the most is trying to do my job the best. Everybody is working hard out here, but I'm demanding a lot out of myself and to do my job. It's different because I'm still rehabbing and still have work to do there and yet mentally you're learning a new offense, but it's a great challenge and it's one that I have said, I think a couple of weeks ago, it's one that I do welcome and I look forward to it every day trying to improve and make strides and get more comfortable in all those things.
"So it's important for me to do my job well in order to help my team win."
As things progress in Denver, it will be most interesting to see how that manifests itself.