CHICAGO – The pass fell incomplete, the play-clock started ticking, and Peyton Manning, football's ultimate stickler for detail, did something completely out of character.
The future Hall of Fame quarterback had just taken his first official snap in 19 months – and his first as a member of the Denver Broncos, the team he chose last March after his high-profile divorce with the Indianapolis Colts – and instead of gathering his offensive teammates and setting up for a second-and-10 play, Manning took a moment to gaze across the wet Soldier Field grass, reflect on a year's worth of intensive rehabilitation from a nerve injury to his neck and soak up the significance of his return.
No, Manning would not be perfect on this rainy night in the Windy City, completing 4-of-7 passes for 44 yards and ending his only series with a red-zone interception, and thus producing none of the points in the Broncos' 31-3 victory over the Chicago Bears in their 2012 preseason opener Thursday. Yet given how far he'd come, and how hard he'd worked to save his career, simply being back under center in an NFL stadium provided a brief rush of private satisfaction.
"I've just come a long way in a year," Manning told Yahoo! Sports afterward as he prepared to leave the visitors' locker room and head to the team bus. "I got an email from [brother-in-law Will Thompson] today that said, 'Hey, after that first snap, you ought to take a minute just to reflect about where you were at this point last year.' Just the fact that I was able to be out there taking a snap in an NFL game … anybody, if you asked … it meant a lot. You'd almost have to talk to the Indy trainers, the guys that really saw me, that really know. Without getting too deep, you couldn't make any predictions. There's a lot of unknown to this injury."
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His postgame honesty was disarming and refreshing. As hard as Manning tried to convince himself – and the outside world – that his eventual return from four neck surgeries was never in doubt, he'd clearly confronted the possibility that he'd played his last game more vividly than all but those closest to him knew.
And while all signs since the start of training camp pointed to a successful return to the field, when you're one of the best who has ever played and you haven't played in forever, you don't really know until you know.
So after his first pass on the game's first play from scrimmage, a quick toss out of the shotgun which was dropped by Denver tight end and former Colts teammate Jacob Tamme in the flat, Manning finally allowed himself to appreciate the milestone.
"I did take the time to reflect," he said. "It was an incomplete pass. Of course we were gonna throw it [on the first play from scrimmage]. I said, ‘Hey, why not?' So I took a moment and said [to myself], 'Hey, you've still got work to do … but I'm grateful and thankful for all the help I've gotten to get to this point. And plus I know how much time and hard work I've put into it as well.' "
If there was any doubt about how momentous this step was to the four-time NFL MVP, it was erased by his demeanor following his postgame media conference. He looked relieved, unburdened, even humbled by his journey, and he made a point of thanking those who'd helped him, like a man accepting an Oscar.
In addition to the Indy trainers and doctors, Manning referenced former Colts coach Jim Caldwell and ex-Indy president Bill Polian, saying, "I'd like to think there are some folks smiling tonight. I spent a lot of time with [Duke coach and ex-Tennessee offensive coordinator] David Cutcliffe, how much time he put into helping me. … And, of course, the trainers here in Denver.
"When I got here in March there was still work to be done. And there still is. That's the key. I keep having to fight this battle. I throw one good pass and everybody says, ‘He's back,' and I'm kinda going, 'Hey, I'm on the way.'
"But I want those people, the trainers and doctors and support people that have kind of helped me through this way – they all know who they are – to know how thankful and grateful I am for their help. And I'm thankful and grateful for the support of my family. So, it was all good."
It should be noted that family has taken on an entirely new meaning to the 36-year-old passer since he last played a game before Thursday. Sometimes, in assessing the actions of high-profile athletes, we forget that they, too, are human. This is especially true with transcendent performers like Manning who elevates to a superhuman level of excellence.
Surely, the man loves football on a level that few can comprehend. Yet he and his wife, Ashley (whose brother, Will, sent the email to which Manning referred), welcomed twins into the world in April of 2011, a son named Marshall and a daughter named Mosley – and there's little question that the proud papa's priorities have evolved.
"Not playing was tough," Manning said. "I really had a good attitude about the whole thing, I think. I never whined and complained, it was a learning lesson, and the year I wasn't playing football Ashley and I had kids. So I would take that swap any day: The year the greatest physical gift was taken away from me, God blessed us with the greatest gift you could ever have. I definitely have that in the right perspective."
It's also good to know that Manning's wicked sense of humor remains intact. On his second pass, which occurred two plays after he enjoyed his moment of reflection, Manning threw a short slant that was deflected into the air by Bears linebacker Geno Hayes and ended up in Tamme's hands for a 12-yard gain. In the middle of answering a question during his postgame media conference, the quarterback deadpanned, "Maybe in some ways I've even gotten better. Now I have the ability to throw a ball into a linebacker's hands and [have him] tip it to my own player. So that's a positive."
There were several non-sarcastic positives amid the 12 snaps Manning took on the game's first drive, after which he put on a baseball cap and called it a night:
• On second-and-7 from the Chicago 36, Manning faked a handoff and took advantage of great pocket protection to connect with wideout Eric Decker on a 10-yard pass to the left sideline.
• Two plays later, on second-and-10 from the Bears' 26, Manning fired an 11-yard completion to wideout Demaryius Thomas out of the shotgun. The play was nullfied, however, when left tackle Ryan Clady was whistled for holding after getting locked up with pass rusher Corey Wootton. After the game, Clady expressed disdain for the infraction – called by a replacement official, thanks to the ongoing labor dispute between the NFL and its regular zebras – telling Y! Sports, "I think it was a [expletive] call. This guy's clearly a rookie. Terrible call. Please quote me."
• On third-and-17 from the 33, Manning stepped up in the pocket and grooved a gorgeous ball to Decker over the middle for a 19-yard gain. If you squinted your eyes the right way, it could have been Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison on the receiving end during Manning's heyday with the Colts.
Alas, the drive – and Manning's night – ended with a third-and-8 interception that the quarterback's friend and former Indy teammate, 36-year-old receiver Brandon Stokley, blamed on poor route-running. As Stokley flashed across the middle, the ball, which was a bit behind him, bounced off his body and was tipped by Bears cornerback D.J. Moore before safety Major Wright lunged to pick it off at the Chicago 2.
"Bad route by me," Stokley said. "I kind of drifted up the field. If I'd run a better route, it wouldn't have happened."
One Broncos player who is somewhat of an expert on Manning's standard of excellence – perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, who was forced to defend the prolific quarterback in numerous big games over the years – gave No. 18's preseason debut high marks.
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"He looked as he did in 2010," Bailey said. "I didn't expect anything different, because he looks that good in practice. The guy's amazing, the way he carries himself and prepares, which speaks loudest of all. I'm just glad he had a good game. I'm sure he feels pretty good about it. I know I do."
It turns out Manning, while mindful that he still has hurdles to clear, felt better about his return than we suspected. That he didn't wait until after the game to let the emotion flow was an indication of how much getting back under center really meant.
"It feels good to be back in the mix," Manning said, a few seconds before leaving the locker room. A few minutes later, he emerged from a tunnel and headed out into the drizzly Chicago night, staring straight ahead into a future that seemed brighter than it had for a long, long time.
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