DENVER — It’ll take some getting used to, seeing Peyton Manning with the orange-maned mustang on his helmet instead of the blue-on-white horseshoe.
The four-time MVP is making a comeback in the city defined by them thanks to another iconic quarterback.
When John Elway decided to go after the biggest free agent prize in NFL history, the Denver Broncos’ brassy boss was first in line to make his pitch. Then Elway gave Manning some space, figuring he’d appreciate not being pestered with follow-up calls.
It was a sign of respect from one superstar quarterback to another as Elway sat back and watched Manning meet with his other suitors and decide where he’d begin his comeback from a lost 2011 season.
“I knew if I was on the market in the prime of my career, then that’s the way I would want to be treated,” Elway explained.
Displaying the same icy resolve he demonstrated while leading the Broncos on all those fourth-quarter comebacks and to so many Super Bowls, Elway patiently told an ever-antsy coach John Fox one morning last March that they’d just sit back and wait for Manning to call them — hopefully with good news.
Just then, Elway’s phone rang. He took the call, gave his coach a thumbs-up and Fox jumped for joy, joking he nearly sprained both ankles during his silent celebration. When Elway hung up, they hollered and the rest of the coaching staff came running.
Elway’s strategy had worked.
Will his bold bet also pay off?
The Broncos are betting $96 million it will.
They jettisoned Tim Tebow a day after landing Manning, who was released by the Indianapolis Colts in March after missing last season following four neck operations. Indy will start anew with Andrew Luck.
Manning moved to Denver, rented Mike Shanahan’s massive mansion and went right to work, rehabbing in the morning, throwing in the afternoon and poring over the playbook and film into the wee hours.
During offseason practices, Manning showed no ill effects of the nerve issue that caused weakness in his throwing arm last year and led to his tear-filled divorce from the team and town he brought to the forefront of pro football.
The euphoric Broncos say they’ve seen no reason to go easy with Manning when training camp begins Wednesday. Although Manning insists he has a ways to go in his rehab, his arm strength looks good and his deciphering of defenses appears as astute as ever.
What he lacks is timing with his new targets, and old pals Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme are on hand to help with that.
“There’s no question it’s been a big change, a big switch. It’s one I’m trying to adjust to,” Peyton said at his family’s passing camp in Louisiana earlier this month. “There’s constantly something to learn, something to adjust to, new players, new teammates, new coaches, new surroundings. So when you’re 14 years in one place, you do kind of become institutionalized.
“Everybody keeps saying, ‘Are you settled yet?’ ... I don’t think anybody can get settled in a couple of months. So it’ll take some time, but I’m embracing the challenge and looking forward to getting to know my teammates more and more.”
One thing he surely wasn’t thrilled to learn about was the recent arrest of Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil on suspicion of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon following a traffic dispute in Miami.
Another of Denver’s stars, linebacker D.J. Williams, is facing a six-game drug suspension and an August drunken driving trial that could lead to an even longer absence from the Broncos’ retooled defense.
These are important developments because a good deal of Manning’s success this season will depend upon how Denver’s defense does. Will he have to play catch-up or can he play keep-away? Will he be leading furious comebacks in crunch time or directing clock-eating drives to protect leads? Will opponents spend most of the game dropping into coverage or blitzing?
The Broncos aren’t going to want Manning throwing as much as he did in his last full season, 2010, when he averaged a career-high 42 passes a game. What will really keep that pitch count manageable is a strong ground game, superb pass protection and a stingy, opportunistic defense led by Dumervil, Williams, Champ Bailey and Von Miller.
Manning said he still has more rehabilitation ahead and has “stopped giving percentages” regarding how healthy he is. But his goal remains to participate fully in training camp, preseason and the regular season.
“Like I said, I still have work to do, but certainly it’s nice to be back on the field. You know, 20 years of pretty incredible health, never having to miss a game, never in my entire life playing football, so last year was different,” Manning said.
At 36, Manning is eager to show 2011 was but a speed bump in his storied career and not a roadblock that portends a dead end.
“I just know that he is going to play great football,” Elway said. “That is when I played my best football, the older I got, 37 and 38 were the two best years we had in my career. I just know when you look at Peyton’s track record and his health ... he hasn’t had any other significant injuries. I think with the way he plays the game, we believe he can play as long as he wants.”
On the day Manning signed on the dotted line, Elway was asked who is the best quarterback in the building? Elway might not have some of Manning’s prolific passing statistics, but he owns two rings to Manning’s one.
“Is he ahead of me yet? That is for you guys to decide,” Elway replied. “I know one thing, he has a hell of a lot more yards than I ever had, he has more touchdowns. The thing is, we are in the conversation, I would like to get to the place where he is the best of all time.”