Relax: Peyton Manning is right on schedule

Q: Obviously, no quarterback wants to take a big hit, but you took a big hit, bounced right back up. Was it nice just to kind of get that out of the way?

A: Yes.

Q: How’d you feel? I mean, was it . . . ?

A: Do what? How did I . . . ?

Q: I mean, that just tells you everything’s OK?

A: Yeah. Yeah.

This was my favorite exchange between Peyton Manning and the wretches Saturday night after preseason game No. 2. It was sort of a Saturday Night Live routine, complete with laughter from the other wretches at a colleague’s inability to elicit a quote on Manning’s much-anticipated first hit.

You may find it unsettling that a professional wretch was unable, in three tries, to frame a question that couldn’t be answered with a yes or no, but I’m here to tell you that horse left the barn a long time ago.

Everything about Saturday night’s practice game will be deconstructed, because that’s more fun than talking about unemployment, but it’s important to remember that it was only practice. The Broncos got out of it exactly what they wanted, at least in the first half.

As for the second half, which Seattle dominated thoroughly, the Broncos didn’t really need to be told that their second string isn’t very good because they already knew it. When your second-string linebacking corps consists of a disappointing draft pick from a year ago (Nate Irving) and two undrafted free agents (Jerry Franklin and Steven Johnson), depth at that position is not a strength. This is partially because of a suspension (D.J. Williams) and partially because of injuries (Danny Trevathan, Keith Brooking, Mike Mohamed).

Whether they knew their second-string offensive line would be unable to sustain any sort of running game I don’t know. Actually, their first-string offensive line didn’t do much better opening holes for runners, but it did earn Manning’s praise for its pass protection. He threw 23 passes before intermission without being sacked, although he did take that first hit as he was throwing a ball away.

The main thing Broncos brass learned about their second string is that rookie quarterback Brock Osweiler is not ready to step in if something happens to Manning. At least, he wasn’t Saturday night.

The Seahawks drafted their rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson, 18 picks after the Broncos selected Osweiler, but he looked much more ready for prime time. Of course, Osweiler started only one season at Arizona State, so he might be expected to take longer to get up to NFL speed. In the entire second half, he and the Broncos managed one first down while Wilson and the Seahawks piled up 16.

It would be nice to see Adam Weber get some work with the second team next week, although coach John Fox may feel now that Caleb Hanie needs those snaps to get ready for the season.

Luckily, once the games begin to count, entire second strings will not get much of a chance to play one another.

In the first half, with the first strings in the game, the Broncos dominated the statistics while the Seahawks dominated the time of possession. This is mostly because the Seahawks ran the ball successfully while the Broncos, with the exception of their lone touchdown drive, did not. Manning ran the no-huddle throughout, completing 16 of his 23 passes. That’s 69.6 percent, which is very good.

But he also made a couple of bad throws or bad decisions that turned into interceptions, ending two of his five possessions. Lance Ball fumbled to end a third. The other two would have been touchdowns except tight end Jacob Tamme dropped a pass in his hands at the goal line with 6 seconds left in the half and they had to settle for a field goal.

“Obviously disappointing that we turned the ball over three times, two interceptions on my part,” Manning said. “No excuse for that. I thought we did move the ball well at times and took some long drives. Just got to do a better job of finishing drives and have to eliminate the turnovers and keep our defense out of bad situations.”

What caused the interceptions?

“Every interception has its own story; nobody really wants to hear it at the end of the day,” Manning said.

“They’re interceptions. The quarterback signs the check on every ball that he throws. There’s an old saying that the most important part about every play is to possess the ball at the end of that play. That’s the quarterback’s job and I have to do a better job of that. Two interceptions tonight, two in the red zone two weeks in a row. Just can’t have it. Tipped balls, whatever it is, can’t have it. Gotta find a way to protect the ball better and ensure we get some kind of points when we’re down there in the red zone.”

Somebody asked what happened on the throw to Tamme at the goal line, trying to get Manning to say Tamme dropped it.

“It’s hard to say,” Manning said. “I didn’t see the film. It was an incomplete pass. We got the field goal there. I thought we had good field position. The penalty (unnecessary roughness on center J.D. Walton) put us in a tough spot. First and 21 from the 21 wasn’t ideal. Got back into decent field position and had a shot at it and obviously it would have been nice to have a little more time there, have a couple more downs. But Jacob Tamme is going to play a huge role for this team this year and it’s not a factor in my mind.”

In other words, No, I’m not throwing Jacob Tamme under the bus for dropping a ball, especially on a night when I threw two picks. Why are you asking me what happened there? Weren’t you watching?

The interceptions were both Manning mistakes. The first, on his fifth snap of the game, he threw right at Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant. Bryant was so surprised all he could do was bat it into the air, where linebacker K.J. Wright grabbed it. I don’t know if Manning failed to see Bryant or misread a zone drop or what, but he’ll certainly be able to tell from the video. Consider it a bit of rust after 19 months off.

The second was a third-and-10 where he tried to force a ball down the field to tight end Joel Dreessen to avoid a three-and-out. It overflew Dreessen directly into the arms of Seahawks strong safety Jeron Johnson. Dreessen wisely took the blame.

“I’ve got to find a way to make that catch, honestly,” he said. “I don’t know, I kind of stuck my hand up there and was like ‘Crap, I don’t know if I can reach it.’ I looked like a chicken. It looked like I gator-armed it. But I’ve got to find a way to make that play.”

From my vantage point in the press box, the ball looked overthrown into crowded coverage. After watching the video, I’m sure Manning will come to a conclusion about whether the pass or the decision to throw the pass was the mistake. Either way, judging by the look on his face afterward, I’m guessing he won’t make that particular mistake again.

This is a perfectionist who had multiple neck surgeries, sat out a full season and is now coming back with a new team, new playbook, new terminology and mostly new receivers. This is not like making instant coffee. With apologies to Allen Iverson, this is what practice is for.

There were stretches of really good offense that reminded you of Manning’s offenses in Indianapolis, punctuated by mistakes, by short circuits, that will send him, his coaches and his teammates back to work.

“We did a lot of good things and then we kind of did a few bad things,” said veteran receiver Brandon Stokley. “That’s what you take away from this game. You look at the mistakes that you made and you try to get those corrected. And if we get those corrected, we’ve got a chance to do some good things.”

As for the chemistry between Manning and his new receiving corps?

“We’re still working on it,” Stokley said. “It’s still a work in progress. We know that and we’re working hard every day in practice trying to get to be perfect. That’s what good offenses do. It takes time, and we’re trying to get there.”

Most years, fans would like to see fewer preseason games. This year, Broncos fans should wish for more. Fox extended Manning’s playing time in preseason game No. 2 from the usual quarter or so to a half.

“It’s nice to be back out there playing,” Manning said. “And I think the more I play, hopefully the more comfortable I will get. It will be nice next week, I think I’ll play probably into the third quarter. I think the flow of the game tonight is why we probably played into the half, which I was happy about, and I know the offense was happy about. You always want to score points every single time. I think we can build on this, but I still think there’s some things that we have to improve on, some things I need to improve on.”

For the crowd, the biggest play of the night was probably when Manning went down late in the second quarter as he was throwing the ball away, sandwiched between two Seahawks defenders. Finally, that first hit he’d been asked about for the last five months. It was as if it held its collective breath, waiting for him to get up.

When he climbed quickly to his feet, the crowd roared. When he hit Stokley in stride for a 22-yard gain on the next play — “a great ball, perfectly thrown, right when I cleared the defender the ball was there,” Stokley said — it roared some more.

“It was kind of weird to cheer an incomplete pass, just cheering a guy getting up,” Stokley said. “Hopefully, we don’t have to answer that question any more.”

Doctors have told Manning and Broncos officials for months that his neck is stronger than it’s ever been; the issue related to his surgery is the regeneration of the nerves that provide his arm strength.

Nevertheless, the myth took hold that a single tackle could end his comeback. So the play that was a big event for fans was a non-event for Manning and his mates. But it was another mile marker on the road back.

The wretches, of course, came back around to it, still looking for a quote. Had he heard the cheer?

“I might have, yes,” Manning allowed. “I’ve never heard a crowd cheer for an incompletion before.”

Was the best part getting over getting hit or not having to answer any more questions about it?

Once more, the form of the question gave Manning an out, and once more, as if reading a blown coverage, he took it:

“Both of them are just fine with me,” he said.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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