John Elway, John Fox, Brian Xanders, Mike McCoy and Adam Gase are in the Broncos party that flew to Raleigh, N.C., this morning to watch Peyton Manning throw at an indoor facility at Duke University.
What are they likely to see?
Brandon Stokley knows. The former Broncos receiver, who played with Manning for four seasons in Indianapolis from 2003-06, including a 68-catch, 1,077-yard receiving season in 2004, worked out with Manning at Duke two weeks ago and again near his home south of Denver when Manning visited the Broncos last weekend.
So how did he look?
“When we got to Duke, he had thrown a couple days prior than we got there and they had some film on it,” Stokley said Wednesday on the Dave Logan Show. “I didn’t want to watch any of the film. I wanted to kind of go in there with an open mind and see for myself, first hand, what I thought of how he was looking.
“I was really impressed and really surprised at how good he looked. I had talked to him a few times before that and I hadn’t asked him how he was throwing and how he felt, really. So when I got there and I saw him throwing, I was impressed, I really was. He could make all the throws — on the run, in the pocket, comebacks, posts, any throw that a quarterback needs to make, he could make.
“What even impressed me more was he did it for five straight days. And he was the only quarterback there. If you know Peyton, he throws a lot. So he threw a lot of footballs during those five days.”
Following the Duke throwing sessions, Manning returned to Indianapolis for the emotional press conference of March 7 where the Colts announced they were releasing him after 14 seasons. Indianapolis finished a league-worst 2-14 in a 2011 NFL camapign Manning missed due to multiple neck surgeries. As a result, the Colts are starting over, beginning with the first pick in the April draft. Manning was just one of a number of veterans Indianapolis released.
Two days after that press conference, Manning flew to Denver on Broncos owner Pat Bowlen’s private plane and met with Elway and Fox for much of the day and evening Friday in the first visit of a free agency tour that would end up including meetings with the Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans as well.
After a dinner Friday evening with Elway and Fox, Manning spent the night at Stokley’s home in the Castle Rock area. Saturday morning, a week after the Duke sessions, he and Stokley went out to throw a football around, like two regular guys out for a little weekend workout. Stokley picks up the story from there.
“He slept at the house on Friday night and we woke up Saturday morning and he was worn out. But he said maybe we can go throw. I had scouted a field out and had it all ready. He decided he wanted to throw so we were going to the field and of course there was a lacrosse game going on. So we had to backtrack and we ended up throwing in my driveway for a little bit.
“Then my wife came up with a little field in the neighborhood. So we went to that field and he looked even better to me then than he did a week prior. I think the rest of three or four days that he had off definitely helped him.”
I asked Stokley if the neighborhood park was big enough to accommodate NFL pass patterns.
“It’s probably about 50 yards by 40, or 50 by 50, so any NFL throw you’ve got to make you could make on the field,” he replied.
What if any difference did he see between the Manning he played with from 2003-06 and the Manning he worked out with in Raleigh and Denver this month?
“I didn’t see any, I really didn’t,” Stokley said. “That’s what I wanted to see. He looked like the same guy to me when I played with him and that I saw two or three years ago on TV. He just throws a nice, catchable ball, very accurate. So, to me, if you didn’t know, you would have never thought he would have had the surgeries that he’s had. I think he could step in and play a game right now.”
That’s the money quote from Stokley’s throwing sessions with his old teammate: I think he could step in and play a game right now.
Stokley never asked Manning where he might play next, but he did get a sense of what he was looking for.
“I think he’s just trying to find the right fit and the right chemistry with the coaching staff and the philosophies and make sure they’re kind of on the same page,” he said. “I think that’s really high on his list.
“Last weekend, I think he was just trying to get himself wrapped up into what this whole free agency process was going to be. And I think that was one of the main reasons why he came to Denver first, was because of his relationship with Elway and with Fox. He knew he could come here and be himself and just kind of see what the whole process was going to be like.
“I think moving forward he’s kind of taking his time, (although) he’s been rushed around. I don’t know where his head’s at as far as what team he’s going to pick, but I know that he’s going to do his due diligence and whatever team he finds, he’s going to make it a lot better and a lot more competitive right away.”
It didn’t hurt the Broncos’ chances that it was sunny with temperatures in the 60s on the March weekend that Manning visited.
“I pointed that out to him,” Stokley said. “When we were throwing Saturday morning, I said, ‘Look at this day. It doesn’t get any better than this.’ So he definitely took notice.”
In fact, Stokley did what he could to play the role of Colorado ambassador.
“I would love to see him play here,” he said. “Obviously, I’m biased. I’d get to watch it first hand. I think the city, the state would get to see something special if he came to Denver. So I’m definitely putting my two cents in and hoping that he comes to Denver.”
The fact that top Broncos officials flew across the country today to watch Manning throw demonstrates that Denver is still very much in the hunt. And based on Stokley’s testimony, the Broncos brain trust won’t see anything that discourages them in their campaign to bring the four-time NFL most valuable player to Denver.