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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — “The perfect time to tell this story is after we win the Super Bowl this year.”
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Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Peyton Manning, with a new team and a fresh scar, said he was not as prepared as in years past. “No way it’s possible when you have new coaches, new players, a new offense,” he said.
Instead, Peyton Manning was telling it after a training camp practice. Uncertainty visited his career for the first time last season, the faint scar on the back of his neck mapping the detour from the smooth path he had followed since high school, the one that made him the biggest, most surreal free agent in football history earlier this year. He has landed here, in the unfamiliar shadows of mountains he has no time to appreciate, in a new offense whose terminology he is still learning, making jokes about how he feels a little like a rookie but is not allowed to play like one. He does not know what to expect when the Denver Broncos open the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday, let alone four months from now.
So Manning wants to tell his Denver story now, the one that — if the Broncos wind up in New Orleans in February as Manning hopes — will wrap his own recovery, and the Broncos’ big bet on it, in a neat bow.
“The first pass I threw in Denver was to Helton,” Manning said of his former college teammate, Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. Helton had invited Manning to use the Rockies’ facilities during the N.F.L. lockout last year, when Manning was without access to the kind of equipment and guidance he needed after such a serious injury.
Manning was not just frustrated that he had been cut off from the people in Indianapolis who knew his body best. He was also craving privacy. His arm had lost strength, his grip was soft, his triceps had withered after one of his earlier neck operations. It had all left him oddly vulnerable and isolated.
“I did not want people seeing me,” he said. “It becomes a private, sensitive deal.”
So last summer, before the Colts could finally get a look at him — before even they fully realized his condition — Manning worked in secret with Rockies trainers, in hopes of avoiding the September operation that ultimately cost him the 2011 season. In June, he, a trainer and Helton went to the indoor batting cages at Coors Field. Millions of people have marveled over Manning’s passes. This one to Helton, though, Manning wanted hidden from view.
“It was not good; he actually thought I was joking when I threw it to him,” Manning said. “The ball nose-dived. He was like ‘That’s funny.’ I was like ‘You don’t understand. I’m telling you.’ ”
Manning was leaning against a fence, still wiping away the sweat from his latest practice. He can laugh about that pass to Helton now, just as he did a few months later when, after a throwing session in which he tried to convince the Colts and himself that he was healthy enough to play in the season opener last September, he was told he looked like Chad Pennington, the former Jets and Dolphins quarterback whose lack of arm strength was often dissected.
A few days later, a magnetic resonance imaging test revealed that Manning would need spinal fusion surgery. The doctors told him then that at his age, they could not guarantee he would be able to return to playing football. That is the moment that set in motion the collapse of the Colts’ season, Manning’s wrenching departure from Indianapolis, the whirlwind free agency, the still-startling sight of him in a different jersey.
For all the upheaval, much about Manning has not changed. His new coaches and teammates attest to his exacting nature, to his famous attention to detail, to how all players raise their games around him.
He spent time at a recent practice working on the side with Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos’ top receivers. They ran the same route over and over, with Manning directing them, so they could learn one another’s idiosyncrasies, just as he used to do with receivers in Indianapolis.
Manning is careful, though, not to refer to the Colts or the teammates he had in Indianapolis by name, saying he has stopped using comparisons. And he bristles at the remarkable scrutiny, the charting of seven-on-seven periods, he has attracted during practices. He is still using practice to figure out the contours of what he is able to do again, before he has to do it in a game, he explains.
But Manning is not obtuse. He knows everybody in the N.F.L. is looking for markers of his progress. Manning was looking for it, too.
The Broncos are convinced they have seen enough. The offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said that from the day Manning arrived in Denver, other than monitoring the number of throws he makes, the Broncos have not held him back from anything. McCoy has never even asked Manning the one question all the armchair quarterbacks want answered: what percentage are you?
Elway looks at the throws Manning makes when his feet are not set. Those are the ones that convince him Manning’s arm is back.
“I didn’t know what 100 percent of Peyton Manning was,” Elway said. “I just know, knowing what I’ve seen, he can win a world championship.”
Maybe so. Manning was watching film one day in Denver, and finally found what he was looking for. It was a long pass, a comebacker from Manning on the right hash mark to Decker on the left side. It was, Manning recalls, “a pretty healthy throw.”
He took a video of the play with his cellphone and sent it off, a digital thank you note — “Hey, I just want to thank you for all your help,” he added — to the doctors in Indianapolis, to the former Colts coach Jim Caldwell and the team’s former general manager Bill Polian and a handful of others.
There were many people who saw Manning at his lowest physical state — he threw with his wife, Ashley, at one point, and with his brother Eli last summer in New Orleans, when Eli could see that Peyton could not complete his throwing motion. The video went to David Cutcliffe, Manning’s coach at Tennessee who now runs the Duke program.
Manning stayed at Cutcliffe’s home, and worked with him at Duke consistently after the spinal fusion surgery. It went to the trainers in Indianapolis, one of whom Manning turned into a makeshift quarterback coach.
That was an awkward time that Manning describes as being in “no man’s world” — with the Colts coaches having to work on their game plans and Manning unable to practice. Manning could not lift weights for months, and most of his rehabilitation took place on the field, not in the training room.
“I’m yelling at him, ‘No, you’re not doing it right, this is what a quarterback coach is supposed to do,’ ” Manning said. “He’s like, ‘I’m a physical therapist.’ ”
Manning thinks that even his current coaches and teammates do not realize how significant it was for him to take the field against the Chicago Bears in the first preseason game. It was a small step of success in a season in which personal success may be difficult to quantify. He smiles when he mentions that Ashley was able to take their son, Marshall, now almost 18 months old, to the game to see him play for the first time. And he was touched when he received a text message after the Chicago game from Steve Spagnuolo, the Saints’ defensive coordinator who held the same role with the Giants: “Nice to see you back out on the field.”
Manning wanted to send the video right away to the community of people who helped him because he does not know how good he or the Broncos will be against the Steelers.
“It doesn’t mean by any means that I’m back,” Manning said. “I really defend against people saying ‘He’s back.’ I feel like I’ve got to right that wrong. I still have work to do. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be, if I’ll ever know the answer. It might be when I stop playing, I’ll say ‘You know what, this is where I got to.’ ”
That looks to be plenty far. During a recent practice, Manning easily completed short touch passes into the left corner of the end zone and 25-yard go routes down the right sideline.
Tom Moore, Manning’s offensive coordinator, visited him at Duke and again in Denver, observing him in the no-huddle offense and a two-minute drill, and noted that he played with his usual rhythm and speed. Polian has watched tape of him and sees none of the shortcomings in velocity or accuracy to his right side that others have divined.
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Much has been made about whether Manning has lost the top-end velocity off his throws. That may be irrelevant because his game was never about having the biggest arm. In the days before the Colts played the Saints in the 2010 Super Bowl, Manning said that he developed his well-documented thirst for film study because he knew early on that he would not be able to run away from defenders “or throw through three guys.” His goal was to know where everyone else on the field would be.
Manning’s accuracy was particularly unerring in the third preseason game against San Francisco, when the first-team offense scored 17 points in less than one quarter. He completed 10 of 12 passes for 122 yards and took the kind of hit he will undoubtedly take during the season — a hard one to his upper chest near his right shoulder — as he put the perfect touch on a 38-yard completion down the right sideline. He drilled a 10-yard touchdown pass to Decker.
He looked very much like the Manning of Indianapolis vintage. Asked afterward if it was ridiculous for anyone to now question his ability coming off the surgery, he replied flatly, “Yes.”
“To me, it’s like he hasn’t missed a beat,” said Brandon Stokley, who played four seasons with Manning in Indianapolis and worked out with him at Duke before joining the Broncos. “Not his attitude or his drive or his will. That’s why he’s been able to play so well for so long. It’s always full speed ahead when it comes to football. I’ve never seen him not do that. That’s workouts, off-season, on the football field, in practice.
“In that aspect, I knew that would always be there. I knew from throwing with him early in the off-season. It seemed like every time we threw, he got better.”
With little doubt remaining about his physical readiness, a question that lingers is how quickly Manning and his new team can come together. The Colts operated largely out of a no-huddle with Manning directing plays at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos are likely to huddle more often. But the backbone of the Colts’ offensive success was Manning’s ability to play fast, to know that the receivers knew where to go, that the offensive line coach had told his unit the correct thing to do. That came from years of having the same coaches and players together.
Polian expects that it will take about half the season for Manning and his receivers to be entirely in sync — a half of a season that includes six of the first eight games against playoff teams.
Manning has compared being sidelined to punishment, like watching other children go to recess while he had to stay inside and write “I will not interrupt the teacher” 50 times on the chalkboard. He was excited just to be able to go on the field with no restrictions. But even Manning concedes that he is not as prepared for the start of the season as he was in Indianapolis.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “No way it’s possible when you have new coaches, new players, a new offense. It’s been energizing to be back on the field, but it’s very challenging with all the changes. It’s not comfortable all the time.”
That may not matter, given that it is coming from the game’s most obsessive preparer. After one practice this summer, Decker said he had never seen anyone else demand so much of himself or his teammates, and that has raised expectations within a team that made the playoffs at 8-8 last season.
Manning is reminded every day that he is not where he wants to be. He continues to rehabilitate, and he does not expect that to end any time soon, especially because he is now 36. The player who, until last September, had missed just one professional snap because of injury — a broken jaw, and he was not happy about missing that one play either — is now in the business of maintaining a body that has already betrayed him once. His contract is structured so if his health deteriorates by the end of the season, he could be cut loose after only one year.
“I’d like to be the player that everybody thinks they are used to seeing,” he said. “I want to be the player that they’re used to seeing. Is that possible? I’m going to work hard to be best player I can be. You’ve got to fight carrying that burden.”
Still, Manning and the Broncos have already won in at least one important way. More than a year of grueling work and crushing disappointment removed from the first pass he threw in Denver, nobody would want to hide the next one he throws.