With considerable fanfare, the television networks will no doubt declare that the Peyton Manning era in Denver begins with the first game of the new season. Don’t believe it.
Owing to Manning’s famous devotion to preparation, the era of his influence over the Broncos began Monday with the start of the team’s offseason program.
In fact, it may have begun even earlier than that, when Manning essentially took up residence at Dove Valley following his signing as a free agent nearly a month ago. He’s been working out with center J.D. Walton, receiver Eric Decker and a few other teammates at area high schools since then. But because the entire team had not gathered until Monday, make the official start April 16. When the four-time NFL most valuable player began throwing Monday, every receiver on the roster was there.
“It was a good workout,” Manning reported afterward. “Great turnout, attendance-wise. Good to see a lot of the new guys that I haven’t had a chance to meet yet. A lot of guys have been here already, this whole time, working out early, which has been good. But some other guys got here for the first day and I thought it was a productive first day. It’s April 16th and we’re just sort of trying to build a foundation for what we hope our team will be like this year.”
Taking leadership of the offseason preparation is even more important for Manning than usual this year. For one thing, obviously, he’s with a new team, meaning there’s more work to be done getting familiar with one another than, say, going into his thirteenth season with the Colts.
For another, new restrictions on offseason work supervised by coaches were built into the new collective bargaining agreement at the insistence of the players’ association. Although Manning is not likely to pick a fight with the NFLPA, it seems safe to say he was not one of those arguing for less supervised offseason work.
“I do believe in the offseason program,” he said. “I always have. I’ve seen it work and I’ve seen guys get better. I do think with these new rules, the ability to develop a player, a young player, there is more of a challenge. I mean, the coaches (have) limited time to work with a young receiver or a young running back that might need that work. I do think that’s one area that the new rules are going to challenge that. So anytime you have a chance to be out there, you take advantage of the opportunity to work on a timing route with Joel Dreessen, with DT (Demaryius Thomas), to work on a handoff with Willis McGahee, because you’re just not allowed that much time as you’re used to.
“OTAs will be starting soon, training camp will be here and then you’ll be playing the first game. So there’s a lot to do in a short period of time and you’ve got to be organized. Some of it has to be player-organized, some of it the coaches can do and I think we’re going to do a good job of that.”
Manning emphasized repeatedly that results in the fall will depend upon the work done now.
“You are working on different timing with different guys, which I’ve always enjoyed that time, working on timing in the month of April and hoping this timing, we can put it to good use and it comes into play in October on a critical third-and-five, if you will. I’ve been throwing to Eric and some of the other guys that have been here already, but today was the first time throwing to a couple other guys and it was good to have that first day and hopefully we can just keep it going.”
One indication of the youth of the receiving corps Manning takes over was his reference to Decker as the veteran leader of the group. At 25, Decker is entering his third season.
“He’s a natural-born leader,” Decker said. “In the weight room, he’s the guy taking command of running from station to station. On the field, he’s doing drill work, getting us lined up and having us do things for a particular reason. There are no wasted movements, no wasted time, and that’s a great thing to have in a leader like him.”
It’s also an opportunity for Decker to put in rigorous offseason work with a quarterback for the first time in his career.
“This is something as a receiver you dream about, playing with a guy of this caliber who has been an All-Pro every year of his career and has won a Super Bowl and, at the same time, for me to finally have an offseason,” he said. “I was hurt coming into my rookie season. Last year was the lockout, and during college, I played baseball. So I never really got that time to get this technique to get this extra work in. I’m excited for the next six weeks.”
Still, youthful receivers like Decker and Thomas won’t be Manning’s only offseason targets. In addition to earlier acquisition Andre Caldwell and new tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme, the Broncos added one of Manning’s old friends and former teammates to the roster Monday, signing Brandon Stokley to a one-year deal.
Stokley, of course, helped sell Manning on Denver, hosting him at his Castle Rock home the weekend that Manning visited during his free agent tour.
“I just tried to make my sell the best I could and tell him the strong points about the organization and the fans and living here,” Stokley said. “Ultimately, it was going to be his decision so I don’t know how much I helped. I tried, but I knew in the end it was going to be his choice, so I’m just glad he did pick Denver.”
Like Manning, Stokley will be 36 by the time training camp opens in July. There aren’t many 36-year-old receivers in the NFL, but the veteran is eager for the competition.
“I take it as a challenge,” he said. “That’s what I’m really looking forward to, is the challenge of getting in shape and going out there and playing with these kids that are 22, 23, and being 36. Just working as hard as I can, using this for motivation and showing people that you know what, I might be 36, but I can still make plays. I know there’s probably a lot of doubters out there, but I look at it as a big challenge for me and I’m looking forward to it.”
Throughout the Broncos’ complex, Manning has brought an optimism, an energy and a determination to make the offseason program count.
“He’s an amazing leader, and his leadership alone is, bar none, the best in the league,” said veteran cornerback Champ Bailey. “You need a guy like that on your team, and where I want to go, what I want to do towards the end of my career is win a championship, and I feel like he gives us the best chance.
“It makes you feel good about coming to work every day because you know there’s a guy on the other side of the ball that’s going to give it 150 percent regardless. To have him there leading that offense, it’s an amazing feeling. I read about how much he’s been with the receivers, working routes and whatever they’ve been doing. You don’t see that from a lot of quarterbacks, and we need that here.”
About the only thing Manning declined to discuss Monday was his ongoing rehabilitation from multiple neck surgeries that forced him to miss all of last season.
“I’m not going to get into these weekly reports,” he said. “I’ve kind of been there and done that all fall last year. I’m continuing to work hard on my rehab. Certainly, part of my phase is my time with Greek (trainer Steve Antonopulos) in the training room. It’s been good to get into that consistent routine with (strength and conditioning coach) Luke (Richesson) and with Greek. That’s one thing that I hadn’t been doing up until the time I signed here. I was kind of traveling, going different places, not really having a home base to set up out of. So I’m working hard with Greek and with Luke and just trying to make progress. But I’m enjoying being under one roof, being supervised by those two guys.”
Working out with Manning over the past month, Decker has seen no medical issues.
“I’m not his doctor, so I don’t know how to speak on his health, but catching balls from him, it looks like there’s nothing wrong to me,” he said. “He’s throwing great balls; he’s getting the work in just like we’re getting the work in and knocking some rust off. I see no issues at this point.”
For Manning, preparing for the season is a process, and never more so than this year.
“I think there’s kind of steps along the way,” he said. “Today was an exciting day. Seeing a lot of the players, meeting some of these players for the first time and getting to know them, I think you can use this time to get to know these guys off the field a little bit as well. There’s some bonding that goes on in the offseason with offensive linemen and what-not. I’ve enjoyed being around J.D. Walton. I think quarterback-center’s got to have a great relationship, so he and I have spent time together and gotten snaps together as well at the high schools.”
The curtain will rise on the new, Manning-led Broncos at their season-opener in September, but Denver’s new quarterback made it clear that whatever they are able to do there will depend on the work they do now and in training camp.
“I think you have to have a great work ethic.” Manning said. “I do not think you can just show up in September and expect to complete passes or execute in the running game. I do believe the weight room work, the on-the-field work, call it old-school, old-fashioned, that’s what I’ve always believed in. And I have seen guys get better, like the way I’ve tried to get better every offseason. I’ve tried to be a better player each year than I was the year before. That’s from the film study of the previous year, but also from the offseason work, that timing with the receivers.
“What we’re trying to do right now is you try to take maybe one or two routes a day and really try to master those routes because this is going to come up in November on a critical third-and-six. This is what it might be — zone coverage, man coverage. It’s a lot to do in a short period of time, but I do believe it’s what you have to do.”