Peyton Manning on the 1995 Alabama game
DENVER — So this is how quarterback is played. Peyton Manning has taught Denver Broncos fans more in six games about the craft of playing quarterback than Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow did in the previous 13 seasons combined. Playing quarterback is not about having Cutler-like arm strength. It's not necessarily about Plummer-like mobility, or Tebow-ish athleticism.
Manning can skip over prone, pass rushers with the best of them, as he showed Monday night against the San Diego Chargers.
"Luke Richesson was proud of that one," Manning said in reference to the Broncos' strength-and-conditioning coach who incorporates jump roping into the quarterback's program, but mostly he demonstrates that quarterback play is about vision.
Quarterback play is about intense preparation that allows Manning to know where up to five receivers will be on any given pass route. It's about having a mind that can process quickly enough to look at the first receiver, feet chopping, spot the second receiver, feet chopping, look over to the slot receiver and tight end, chop, chop, chop, and then realize tailback Willis McGahee is all by himself in the left flat.
"That's one where you do a progression drill in practice every day," Manning said Wednesday before heading off to enjoy the bye week. "You see guys, they hold two hands up if they're open, one hand up if they're not. So you work on that."
That 31-yard pass play to McGahee in the first half of the Broncos' remarkable 35-24 comeback victory against San Diego took very little arm. It required zero mobility.
It took a quarterback so well-prepared that Manning knew where McGahee would be if all his primary targets were covered. It took composure to not panic as he scanned the field standing in the pocket.
"I was saying, 'Eat it! Eat it!' '' said Champ Bailey, the Broncos' all-pro cornerback who was watching from the sideline. "Then he throws it out there and there's Willis."
It takes the kind of field vision where only the quarterback could see that McGahee was wide open.
"To me, it's about trying to move the chains," Manning said. "Whether it's about the little 5-yard checkoff, or throwing that — what was that pass to (Eric) Decker, 35, 38 yards in the air? Whatever it was, I have gotten over that. I feel like it's about trying to move the ball. We have been pretty selective in our shots down the field. I think we're second in the league in 20-yard plays but they haven't all been bombs. I feel like at my age, the (neck) injury, I have to be good on the intermediate throws and be good on your progressions."
His best numbers
Manning is not only back from his neck injury, the numbers say he is better than ever. He just became the first quarterback ever — first ever — to throw for 300 yards, three touchdowns and complete at least 70 percent of his passes in three consecutive games. His latest work of quarterback artistry turned a 24-0 halftime deficit into a stunning victory that earned Manning his NFL-record 22nd AFC offensive player of the week honor.
Manning's six-game start with his new team is the third-best, six-game start in his 15-year career, as measured in passing statistics.
Sure, Broncos fans were optimistic they were getting Manning circa 2004, when the former Indianapolis Colt signed with their team in March. But that wasn't reality. Reality was Manning coming back from a year-long neck injury, with a new team, at 36 years old. He wasn't supposed to be this good, this soon. Yet, the numbers say optimism was reality.
"I'm still trying to taper the expectations," Manning said. "I know we've done some good things at times offensively. I feel like we have found some plays that everybody likes. Some plays that I like and (offensive coordinator Mike) McCoy has figured out what those are, call these against certain coverages and we can make something happen. That's a comfortable feeling as a quarterback with a receiver."
But I'm still trying to lower the bar of expectations so we can keep getting better. I don't feel like 2004. I still feel like there's new players and still think there's some things where me and the receivers can improve on and things I can still improve on."
When this season began and Manning was returning from a one-year layoff because of a neck injury that required four surgeries — four! — to repair, his arm strength, or lack thereof, had been the NFL's most discussed topic for several months. Six games into Manning's comeback season, arm strength is right there with mobility, or lack thereof: They're irrelevant. It's like saying Manning doesn't throw well with his left hand.
What difference does it make?
"I didn't know what to expect because I couldn't find anybody that really had the same deal," Manning said. "(Tom) Brady and Carson Palmer had ACLs and there is a standard set with those injuries. All these trainers say this is where you should be at this point. There were a couple guys — Brad Johnson had something sort of like it. Chris Weinke had something sort of like it. John Lynch had something like it — if I could play safety it might be a little easier. I was kind of creating my own bar."
Nerves take time
When an athlete goes through four surgeries to repair one body part, the assumption is the first three didn't take and the doctor who performed the fourth sliced to the rescue.
"No, the surgeries were about fixing my issues with the neck, but the nerves — there's no surgery for nerves," Manning said. "That's been the issue and that's been rehab and the No. 1 thing doctors tell you on that is time. It's not a rep thing. Which is hard because when you get an ACL, you say, 'Hey I can do 10 more pounds.' With a nerve thing it's time.
"We're still learning as far as rehab and recovery but ultimately it's about what you do on the field from a performance standpoint. There's still some things that I wish would be easier."