ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Peyton Manning was so good, so soon during his triumphant return to football in 2012 that it was easy to forget his personal journey was as choppy as a Tim Tebow pass through a stiff Mile High breeze. Once a regimented resident of football's most carefully crafted comfort zone, Manning spent his first year with the Denver Broncos confronting challenges he hadn't faced since leaving the University of Tennessee 14 years earlier.
While the physical struggles Manning experienced in returning to the field following four neck surgeries and a 19-month absence have been well-documented, the quarterback's transition to a new city, team, coaching staff, system and set of teammates was a similarly jarring endeavor, one he managed to navigate with far less fanfare.
The transition was so overwhelming that Manning, who has always regarded his penchant for impeccably detailed preparation as his greatest edge, had to adopt a less stringent standard in the name of self-preservation. That he thrived so conspicuously in the process, putting up one of the best statistical seasons of his phenomenal career while leading the Broncos to an AFC-best 13-3 record, earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors and a second-place finish in the MVP balloting, as the NFL's only four-time winner of that award was edged by Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
On a metaphorical level, Manning might as well have been considered for Rookie of the Year honors, too. Not since his initial NFL campaign with the Indianapolis Colts, who selected him first in the 1998 draft and released him following his lost 2011 season, had the future first-ballot Hall of Famer felt so burdened and unsettled.
"Yeah, yeah, I would have to say that," Manning told Y! Sports on Monday following an organized team activity (OTA) practice at the Broncos' training facility. "Because [I] felt like a rookie in some ways – just from an offensive standpoint, with totally new coaches, new receivers that you're throwing to, trying to get on the same page with 'em. And I signed in, what, late March, and you really can't work out with 'em till April, kinda like when you get drafted as a rookie, you only have a certain amount of time to get on the same page with your receivers before the season starts.
"You know, football's hard enough, just dealing with the football part of it, the execution. Then you're dealing with your own physical struggles, and that adds stress, that adds time. It's nice when you have an extra hour or something you go watch some extra film or whatever. [Last year] there were no extra hours cause I was in the training room. My day was covered. So that'd be a good way to put it: It was similar to a quarterback's first year, where your head was kind of on a swivel the whole time."
Unnerved by the move from Indy to Denver and unsure that his surgically repaired neck would allow him to return to form, Manning fooled a lot of observers into believing all was well on a relative stage. From the Broncos' season-opening victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, which launched a stellar campaign that included 37 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, a 105.8 passer rating and tied for an NFL-best 68.6 completion percentage, Manning had fans and media members fawning over his smooth comeback, even as he did his best to convince us he was dealing with some very real shortcomings.
As the season progressed and the Broncos got on a roll similar to those experienced by some of Manning's best Indianapolis teams, the quarterback's skepticism became harder to reconcile.
Beginning with a stunning, mid-October road victory over the San Diego Chargers in which the Broncos trailed 24-0 at halftime, Manning led Denver to 11 consecutive wins. The streak would end abruptly in January, when the top-seeded Broncos were stunned by the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in a double-overtime, divisional-round playoff defeat.
Manning, whose interception set up the Ravens' game-winning field goal, was understandably crushed after the defeat. Once he began to decompress, however, he derived some quiet satisfaction from a season-long effort that was a lot more strained behind the scenes than it seemed on Sundays.
"You're very accurate in saying how disappointing that loss was," Manning said, "but I will kind of put an asterisk by the 2012 season because really, from May of 2011 all the way through January 2013, it was a year-and-a-half unlike any other from a professional standpoint. When you do have some time to sit back and look back on it, it was somewhat of a gratifying feeling to have persevered through the obstacles that were thrown in front of me – with the change of a team, which is harder than people realize.
"I think the hardest part was when you're so ingrained in one place, embedded in the city and in the community, and all of a sudden it changes. [Some of] these players that change teams and coaches a lot, I mean, they kind of get used to it. It's probably not what you want to do as a player, but you kinda know how to do it.
"It's not only just one uniform and one city; it's one offense. Up until that point, I'd played in three offenses—one in high school, one in college, one in the NFL. I think [Kansas City Chiefs quarterback] Alex Smith has played in [seven NFL] offenses, which is not what he wants – I know he's said that before – but you probably learn a little bit how to [adapt]. Unlearning an offense is very difficult."
Manning, of course, didn't attempt to assimilate in a vacuum. Notoriously demanding of his receivers, he had to convey his expectations and preferences to a whole new group of teammates, save a couple of familiar targets in ex-Colts wideout Brandon Stokley and former Indy tight end Jacob Tamme. After Manning signed, Stokley warned the Broncos' relatively young starting receivers, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, that they were not in Tebowland anymore. The new field general did not disappoint.
"The stories I'd heard [from Stokley] just became true," Decker recalled Monday. "[Manning] wants the best out of us. There was probably like a little grace period, but once you do the same thing twice, he lets you know. He's nice and sarcastic. Say an 'out' route is supposed to be 12 yards, and you run it 10. He'll say: 'So, that out route is 12 yards, right?'"
Added Thomas: "You mess up the first time, he'll tell you how he wanted it. The second time, he'll yell at you. Drama! Now I'm at the point where I joke with him from time to time. Not much, though. I know my boundaries."
As much as Manning tried to delve into the nuances of offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's scheme and ensure that Thomas, Decker and company shared his sensibilities, time became an enemy. Though he put in exceptionally long hours, as per usual, Manning spent so many hours in the training room tending to his physical issues that certain staples of his weekly routine, such as film-watching and post-practice fine-tuning sessions with his receivers, tended to suffer.
"All the time that went into just rehab was significant," Broncos coach John Fox recalled. "His time management's unbelievable. I think I saw [him struggle] more early. He's such a grinder, and I say that affectionately, that he did it all without us noticing too much. It's a tribute to his work ethic, professionalism."
Nonetheless, Manning now concedes, the inability to prepare the way he had during his 13 uninterrupted seasons as the Colts' starter was a serious source of stress.
"I sort of re-established my bar last year," Manning says. "Because there was no bar. It wasn't fair for me to compare something to 2009. And I was doing that early on and finally I said, 'I'm gonna stop doing it. It's no fun. Cause otherwise, you will drive yourself crazy.'
"So I sort of created a new bar, I guess would be the best way of saying it. Instead of lowering it, I was sort of establishing a new one. The only reason maybe I did was just to lower my frustration, to keep from getting frustrated every day. Because I just knew that certain things were harder, weren't as easy as they used to be. So I don't know if you had to lower your expectations a little bit – otherwise, you would come out of every practice or game just mad."
The frustration was compounded early on as the Broncos lost three of their first five games, with Manning throwing three first-quarter interceptions in a Monday night defeat to the Falcons in Week 2. Four weeks later in San Diego, when Denver went into halftime down 24 to the Chargers, it looked like the Broncos would have to play catchup in the AFC West. Instead, Manning led Denver to 35 consecutive points and an outcome that sent the two rivals careening in opposite directions: The Chargers, who were 3-2 going into that game, wheezed to a 7-9 finish that cost Norv Turner his job at season’s end, with the team hiring McCoy to replace him.
To Manning, it underscored the fine line between winning and losing at the NFL level and reinforced the importance of momentum. He compared that victory over the Chargers to another of his epic comebacks, the 2003 Monday night classic in Tampa in which he brought the Colts (guided by ex-Tampa Bay mentor Tony Dungy) back from a 21-point deficit with 5:09 to go to win in overtime.
"Certainly, 2-3 going to San Diego, if that game goes the other way, you could. … I've seen seasons break that early in the year," Manning said. "I remember [ex-Bucs safety] John Lynch always said that when we came back on them in that Monday night game in Tampa, their season totally changed. [If we'd lost to the Chargers], who knows what would have happened? I'm glad we didn't have to find out. But it definitely propelled us to another level after that where we did have a lot of confidence and gained some momentum."
Manning, to his surprise, also found that Thomas and Decker were operating at a level beyond their years.
"I'll say this about the guys here: Certain receivers that you play with the first time, some guys you keep working with, as much as you put in, the timing never comes," Manning said. "And other guys, you kinda throw with them early, and you go, 'Boy, I really feel like I know this guy. … Before I say it out loud, let me keep working to see. …'
"And I did have kind of that feeling with Decker and Thomas last year. I was like, 'Boy, I've got a pretty good idea of where they're going, but let me see how it holds up throughout the season.' And it just got better all the way throughout the entire season. They both want to be great. Not good – great. I've played with guys like that. Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne. These guys are too young to be compared to those guys, but that attitude, that work ethic, I appreciate that."
In March, Manning got another potent weapon in former New England Patriots star Wes Welker, football's most accomplished slot receiver, who signed with Denver as an unrestricted free agent. Welker, who has more receptions over the past six seasons than any NFL player, has already established some timing with Manning – comedic timing, that is.
In April, Manning flew a group of receivers to North Carolina to work with him at Duke, which is coached by David Cutcliffe, Manning's offensive coordinator during his collegiate days at Tennessee. On the final night of the trip, Manning treated players and coaches to dinner at a nearby steakhouse, where during the meal he passed out envelopes.
Inside Decker's envelope was an invoice for more than $3,000, with charges that included "on-field instruction from Duke coaching staff," "laundry service from Duke football equipment staff" and state sales tax at a 7.25 percent rate. Everyone else, including Welker, got a note explaining the prank and urging them to play along.
"It was too good," Welker recalled Tuesday. "I was just like, 'This is so perfect.' I'm sitting next to Peyton, and Decker's on the other side of Peyton, so I said [quietly], 'I'll just send you a check to cover this…' And Peyton's like, 'Yeah, yeah, that's fine.' And Decker's kinda like looking over like, 'WHAT? I thought he invited us.' Trying to keep a straight face was tough."
Said Decker: "I was stressing. I've got a wedding coming up. After five minutes of everyone saying things to mess with me, he finally told me it was a joke. It was pretty good. He got me."
It was also a clear sign that, more than a year into the second chapter of his professional football life, Manning is very much in command of the Broncos' universe – and he's getting more comfortable by the day.
"This year, I have more of an idea of what to go off of," Manning said. "I can say, 'Boy, this is better than last year,' or, 'Hey, I know I can do this better 'cause I did it last year [when it was harder].' I did play at a high level last year, and we really had a chance to win the whole thing, but there were obstacles. I certainly feel like I should be better this year."
If so, the rest of the NFL had better watch out: Manning, who turned 37 in March, doesn't feel like a "rookie" anymore.
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