ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – At one point during the opening practice of Denver Broncos training camp, so many fans were trying to get in that the fire marshals had to hold people at the gate.
"It's like being at a nightclub," a Broncos employee noted as more than 4,000 fans and media (a team record for training camp) watched some or all of the 2 ½-hour practice.
Welcome to Club Peyton, where the excitement is akin to a new hot spot on South Beach or Hollywood. The problem with nightclubs is they tend to come and go, burning out nearly as fast as Paraskevi Papachristou's Olympic dream. And that's the lingering question with Manning. For all the moments of sharpness and a couple of passes where Manning showed subtle arm strength by manipulating the arc of the throw, there was an ominous feeling from the crowd.
Is this really going to last?
"This was a good first day, but there are things I need to improve on," Manning said. "I'm just not going to share what those things are with the rest of the world."
Manning admitted that not everything is back to normal with his arm after four neck surgeries. The last of those was nearly 11 months ago, when two vertebrae in his neck were fused. While plenty of players have come back from that injury over the years, Manning isn't just any player and the demands of playing quarterback are different.
On Thursday, after a brief run of high throws during some one-on-one drills, Manning's accuracy was impeccable. He put throws in tight spots and consistently made it easy for his receivers. Working primarily with wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, Manning put throw after throw into the tight window between the top of their shoulders and the top of their waist.
"Sometimes you turn and the ball just drops in your hands," said Thomas, smiling like a guy who just found a stray $10 bill in his pocket. For Thomas, the transition from Tim Tebow to Manning has been dramatic.
"Tim was a running quarterback where sometimes you would see the ball coming out of your break and sometimes you were doing an adjustment because he broke the pocket," Thomas said. "Peyton is a pocket quarterback where you're getting the ball coming out of your break every single time."
To be clear, that's: Every. Single. Time.
"With him, everything has to be exact," Tamme said. "He demands that. You want the ball, you better be there."
Aside from accuracy, Manning's timing was terrific. Even when he had to recoil on a throw to manipulate a defender, he got rid of the ball quickly. His ability to run a practice is a thing of beauty, executing plays as if the field was a chalkboard. On Thursday, he had a firm grip of a giant piece of chalk.
The downside coming out of this practice was Manning didn't show arm strength in critical areas. The deep comeback routes that were essential during his time in Indianapolis weren't on display. Aside from one deep throw and a timing/lob pass over the top of the defense, Manning rarely went deep.
He did enough of that in the offseason to make people believe he still has the ability, but you have to wonder if those strong-arm throws are going to be there in September and on through the season. Can he make tough throws from awkward positions in real games? How will his body respond to more rigorous practice and eventually getting hit again?
The screenplay writer in all of us wants to believe that Manning will be fueled by his release from the Indianapolis Colts. But Manning isn't biting on that storyline. Even after he came close to breaking down when he was released in February, Manning is in full business mode now.
"Obviously, out on the field is where you are the most comfortable and where you want to be," said Manning, who signed with the Broncos in March. "You hope you can get there. Some of it may be Father Time. Some of it may be certain parts of the injury. This may be as good as it's going to be, but you just keep going. I don't think you know what the answer is, you just keep trying to get stronger and see what it is and where that may be."
[Related: Manning mania hits Colorado]
The truth is that Manning isn't a guy who needs more incentive. His work ethic was a product of mania. He threw incessantly with his receivers, even driving to see the rookies when they weren't allowed to be at the team facility because of graduation rules. Manning wants to know every subtle nuance of his teammates, such as where they like the ball and where they don't.
Manning was so over-the-top with his preparation that former coach Tony Dungy would occasionally tell him to stop throwing or force him to take a day off from offseason practices.
Thus, any burn he feels from being forced out of Indianapolis can't make him work harder. As it is, the new restrictions on practice are limiting him more than ever.
"It's a challenge and you have to talk to guys more than ever to make sure they know what you're thinking," he said. "That kind of timing takes years. It doesn't come in one training camp."
Just like a good nightclub, Manning probably doesn't have that kind of time.
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