Tag Archives: Brandon Stokley

The turning point of a game, and maybe a season

If the Broncos make the playoffs this year — and given the competition in their division, that’s probably the way to bet — they may well look back at halftime in San Diego as the turning point of their season.

Trailing 24-0, they were looking at a record of 2-4 and a two-game deficit to the Chargers. More important, they were looking thoroughly unable to get out of their own way. They couldn’t field a punt or a kickoff. They couldn’t get their passer and pass receivers on the same page. They couldn’t even run unmolested to the end zone without falling to the ground for no apparent reason.

“We had the big play to (Eric) Decker and that guy made a great tackle,” Peyton Manning deadpanned afterward. “I mean, the piece of grass made the tackle, excuse me. So when those things happen, you kind of wonder, hey, golly, is it meant to be? That’s the play we have to have in order to help this comeback.

“We put that play in and thought we could get that exact result, thinking more the touchdown though, not the 50-yard completion and fall down. That was frustrating, obviously, a potential 14-point swing. We’ve got a chance to get a touchdown and then (Quentin) Jammer makes a play and they go up 17. ”

This is what makes sports more intriguing than scripted entertainment, because it is so often utterly inexplicable. The Broncos were as bad as they could be in the first half, then about as good as they could be in the second. The Chargers were the opposite. By the end, it was the biggest comeback in the history of Monday Night Football.

So, naturally, everybody wanted to know what was said in the locker room at intermission. Some sort of Knute Rockne thing?

“There’s no magical words of wisdom, that’s for sure,” coach John Fox told KOA afterward. “I think as I looked in their eyes, and I told them this, I could see they thought they could come back and win the game. The whole thing is believing. They did, and we were fortunate after digging ourselves such a big hole to be able to come back.”

They did have one thing going for them — plenty of experience fighting back from large deficits.

“There’s no speech that causes that turnaround,” Manning said. “It’s simply a matter of will. I do think offensively the fact that we had been there before, we have shown the ability to score quickly. It was nice to finally get a lead there in the fourth quarter and give our defense a chance to play with the lead and they could really peel their ears back and rush the passer.”

The litany of mistakes in the first half made the Broncos look as incompetent as they had looked since Manning’s arrival:

— In his first attempt to field a punt for the Broncos — a fair catch, no less — Trindon Holliday, signed just last week after being released by Houston, dropped the ball. The Chargers recovered and kicked a field goal three plays later.

— Rookie Omar Bolden fumbled the ensuing kickoff. The Chargers kept trying to give the Broncos the ball and the Broncos kept giving it back. The Chargers required only two plays to score a touchdown, making it 10-0.

— Following a Jim Leonhard interception, the Broncos were driving when Manning and Matt Willis miscommunicated on a sight adjustment. Instead of completing a long drive with a score and pulling themselves back into the game, the Broncos watched Jammer, the Chargers cornerback, pick off Manning’s pass and run it 80 yards the other way for a 17-0 lead.

— As if to rub it in, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers drove the ball down the Broncos’ throats in the final four minutes of the half, capping the drive with a touchdown pass to tight end Antonio Gates.

“We were really down,” said veteran receiver Brandon Stokley. “Anytime you’re down 24-0 in the first half and played like we played, we were disappointed. But we’ve got a lot of professionals in this room, a lot of guys with heart and character, and I knew we were going to come out in the second half and give everything we had, and that’s what we did.”

The Broncos emerged from the visitors’ locker room and drove the length of the field to their first touchdown, a 29-yard strike from Manning to Demaryius Thomas.

Just like that, everything changed. Now it was the Chargers making critical mistakes. When Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil got the first of his two quarterback sacks on San Diego’s first possession of the third quarter, Rivers fumbled the ball. Cornerback Tony Carter picked it up on the run and raced 65 yards for a touchdown. With 4:41 still to play in the third, the Broncos had pulled to within 24-14 and made it into a game again.

“DBs are taught to scoop all balls, whether it’s a fumble or not, so we were just doing something carrying from the practice field to the game field,” Carter said.

“We’ve been working on that since OTAs,” Dumervil said. “It was like a domino effect. We finally got one and they just started coming in bunches. That’s just the way it works with turnovers, man, and sacks and interceptions. They come in bunches and at this point now we’ve got to stay consistent with it.”

“We kind of unraveled after that,” Rivers said. “They scored and made it 24-7 and we were driving, just kind of moving right along down the field and they got us in a third down and they brought an all-out blitz. I was trying to just lose a little ground and lay it to Malcolm (Floyd). I was throwing it really to be incomplete or maybe get interference or anything. Malcolm’s one-on-one. We either punt or try a long field goal there. And then obviously that play happens and then we go three and out and then they score again and then we throw an interception and they score again. It kind of unraveled after that play.”

Decker, who had fallen down with nothing but green grass between him and the end zone in the first half, carried three San Diego defenders with him across the goal line early in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to three.

On the Chargers’ next possession, the Broncos produced yet another turnover, this one an interception by Carter. Four plays later, Manning approached the line of scrimmage and spied single coverage on Stokley, his old friend, and checked off at the line of scrimmage.

Manning was so busy changing the call he almost ran out of time. Center Dan Koppen had to motion to him to get back into the shotgun to take the snap before the play clock ran out. Manning turned to his right and launched a perfect fade into the end zone. The 36-year-old Stokley went up and took the ball from cornerback Marcus Gilchrist to give the Broncos their first lead at 28-24.

“I’ve thrown that route to Stokley quite a few times,” said Manning, who played four seasons with Stokley in Indianapolis. “That’s one of those that all the years and all the practice repetitions, it sure does pay off.

“We got man-to-man coverage, got him in press coverage, and I’ll take Stokley in the slot over anybody. I love Wes Welker and some of the all-time slot greats, but he’s my favorite, he’s the best in my opinion, and he’s really hard to cover there.

“I just gave him a little fade route and the guy really had pretty good coverage. It was kind of an in-between decision whether to throw the fade or to throw that back shoulder, and I decided to give him a chance to make a play on the ball. The fact that he caught it and got the feet in bounds, it sure was an awesome play and the team sure needed it at that point in time.”

“Peyton made an audible at the last second and actually made a great throw. I guess the catch was all right,” Stokley said.

“We’ve been talking about starting fast and starting fast and starting fast and we just didn’t start fast. So that was disappointing to come out the gates like we did. But we’ve shown all year we’ve got a lot of heart. That first half was embarrassing, but we fought back.”

Cornerback Chris Harris, elevated to the No. 2 cover position with Tracy Porter home in Denver nursing an illness, ended each of the next two Chargers possessions with interceptions. He returned the second 46 yards for the clinching touchdown.

Rivers finished with a remarkable five second-half turnovers — three interceptions and two fumbles.

“Mostly just poor throws,” Rivers said. “I wasn’t fooled out there once today. The first interception, I didn’t see exactly how it ended, but I know I gave (tight end Antonio) Gates a chance down there and they ended up with it. The other ones were bad throws. There’s really no other reason for them.”

Even after adding three turnovers to their own mounting season total in the first half, the Broncos ended up winning the turnover battle.

“You get what you emphasize,” Fox said. “After that first half, I was like, I’m not sure that really worked. But it’s kind of how you finish and I was proud of the way our guys pulled together as a football team. That’s as good a second half as I’ve ever seen.”

“I think the identity is slowly starting to come,” Decker said. “I think we understand who we are and what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are. I would say offensively, if we don’t hurt ourselves, we’re an explosive team. Defensively, if we can make plays on third downs, we can stop anybody. That’s our mindset. That’s the attitude we have.”

The Broncos still aspire to play well enough early in games not to require all these big comebacks. But as a gut check and a turning point, Monday night in San Diego will do nicely. Maybe it was a halftime speech after all.

“Coach Fox just told us we’d better pick it up,” Decker said. “Otherwise it’s going to be a sad, sad bye week.”

Instead, the Broncos head into the bye week with reason to believe.

This is how good the Broncos can be

If you’ve listened to various Broncos coaches perform the required post-mortems after being sliced and diced by Peyton Manning over the years, the words coming from Raiders coach Dennis Allen on Sunday should sound familiar.

“They out-coached us, they outplayed us, they beat us in every phase of the game,” he said after the Broncos routed the Raiders 37-6.

“The time of possession is killing us. We’ve got to be able to get off the field on third down defensively so we don’t play so many plays.”

The Broncos had the ball for 37 minutes, 25 seconds of the available 60, the Raiders for the other 22:35. You may recall the Broncos winning the coin toss in Indianapolis under former coach Josh McDaniels and deferring, giving the ball to Manning to open the game. Allen did the same thing Sunday, with the same result. Manning took the ball on the opening possession and marched it down the field to give the Broncos a lead they would never relinquish.

One of the unwritten rules in the NFL is you’re not allowed to make excuses, so one very relevant fact got almost no attention after Manning’s best game yet as a Bronco — the Raiders’ secondary was in tatters. Oakland was without both of its starting cornerbacks and Manning exploited this weakness at will.

When I mentioned to Allen that it’s hard to play Manning without either of your starting corners, the former Broncos defensive coordinator said what he was required to say.

“Well, it’s hard to play against Peyton Manning no matter what. He’s a good quarterback. He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback and there’s a reason why he’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. But we’ve got the guys that we have and that’s who we’ve got to go out and play with. And we’ve got to play at an NFL level. So we’re not going to use injuries as a crutch. That’s all of us.”

The Raiders signed a pair of 30-year-old free agent cornerbacks during the offseason. Ron Bartell lasted one game, breaking his left shoulder blade in the Raiders’ opener against the Chargers. Shawntae Spencer lasted twice as long, sustaining a foot injury in Week 2.

So the Raiders rolled into Denver with backup Pat Lee at one corner and safety Michael Huff at the other. Manning feasted, completing 30 of 38 passes to eight different receivers for 338 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.

“They’re still professionals out there and they’re still NFL players,” said veteran Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley. “You have to go in with the same mindset every game. I think we did that this week. We knew if we went out there and executed, there’d be some plays to be made. And that’s what we were able to do.”

Behind Manning, the Broncos converted 10 of 16 third downs, a remarkable 63 percent. Behind Carson Palmer, the Raiders converted one of 12, or 8 percent.

For a while, it looked as if the Broncos wouldn’t take full advantage. Demaryius Thomas was on his way to the end zone early in the second quarter when he fumbled the ball trying to shift it from his right hand to his left.

On their next possession, the Broncos had a fourth-and-one at the Oakland 36-yard line. Head coach John Fox had at least three choices: Let Manning go for the first down, as he had, successfully, on a fourth-and-one in the first quarter; let kicker Matt Prater try a 53-yard field goal, well within his range, especially at altitude; or fake the field goal and let Prater try to get the first down.

Inexplicably, Fox chose the latter, which produced a bizarre spectacle of the place-kicker rolling to his left and lofting a pass apparently intended for offensive guard Zane Beadles.

“I’m not sure it will go down with Montana-Rice or any of those great passing combinations,” Fox said. “We probably won’t see that one again for a while.”

Following the coach to the podium, Manning deadpanned: “Well, Fox took my line . . . I just kind of told them to maybe give Manning-to-Stokley a chance, maybe before Prater-to-Beadles. It’s one of the all-time great combinations, right? Kelly-Reed, Montana-Rice, Prater-Beadles, you know.”

It was easy to laugh because the Broncos erased any regrets in a fabulous third quarter. For the first time this season, offense, defense and special teams all reached the top of their game at the same time.

Having deferred to the second half, the Raiders got the ball to open the third quarter. The Denver defense forced a three-and-out, the big play a tackle by nickel back Chris Harris of Raiders receiver Denarius Moore one yard short of the first down. Manning and the offense responded with a nine-play, 79-yard touchdown drive capped by Manning’s 17-yard scoring strike to Eric Decker.

The Broncos kicked off and the defense forced another three-and-out. Champ Bailey put Oakland in a hole right away by tackling fullback Marcel Reece four yards behind the line of scrimmage on first down.

When Shane Lechler tried to punt the ball back to the Broncos, special teams ace David Bruton got his hand on it. Because the ball traveled two yards beyond the line of scrimmage, it didn’t count as a block, but no matter — the Broncos got the ball at the Oakland 18 and four plays later had another touchdown.

“They know what I did,” Bruton said. “They know what it is. It doesn’t bother me at all.”

In fact, Bruton wasn’t going for the block until the Raiders invited him in.

“I wasn’t even supposed to rush on that punt,” he said. “I was supposed to just pin the wing inside. He gave me a soft shoulder and I just ended up reaching over his shoulder and got my hand on the ball.”

I asked Bruton to describe the feeling when he felt his hand meet the ball. “Can’t nobody block me, that’s the feeling,” he said with a broad smile.

“And they can’t!” said safety Rahim Moore, eavesdropping from the next locker.

A third consecutive three-and-out for Oakland followed. This time linebackers Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard did the honors, stuffing Raiders running back Darren McFadden two yards behind the line of scrimmage on a third-and-two.

As night follows day, it produced yet another Broncos touchdown, this one taking only five plays to cover 63 yards. That made it 31-6.

In less than 12 minutes of game action, the Broncos had turned a nail-biter into a blowout. That’s why coaches talk so much about the three phases of the game working together. When they do, your players start to feel like a bunch of supermen.

But just as some fans overreacted negatively to the Broncos losing back-to-back games to Atlanta and Houston (which are now a combined 8-0), some are liable to overreact positively to the rout of the Raiders. Next up, the Broncos travel to New England to take on the Patriots, who put 52 points on Buffalo this week. The last time the Broncos played in New England . . . well . . . you probably remember.

“I think the key that I’ve said all along is just trying to keep making progress somehow,” Manning said. “That doesn’t always show on the scoreboard. You’d like to win every game as you’re feeling your way and learning about your team and learning about yourself a little bit. So there’s still a lot of that going on, for me out there as the quarterback and for our team, sort of figuring things out. But I think today we learned some things. We still have some things to improve on, but anytime you can be working on things and get a win at the same time, that sure is nice.”

“He’s getting more comfortable,” Fox said of Manning. “Let’s not forget he didn’t play all last season. This is a new team, a new coaching staff, a new city, a new field, a new everything for him. The type of guy he is, he’s just going to get better and better. He’s a championship guy and he’s going to get used to his teammates, our players. He just was better at it today than earlier.”

As Manning adjusts to Denver, Denver adjusts to Manning. Running the offense almost exclusively out of the no-huddle Sunday, several times Manning had to shush the excitable Orange Sunday crowd so his teammates could hear him calling signals at the line of scrimmage. This produced a novel instruction from the video screens, which often exhort crowds to make noise. “Quiet,” the boards instructed.

There will be more ups and downs, of course. It’s the NFL. But this was more than the Broncos’ most lopsided win over the Raiders in 50 years, more than putting a stop to four years of struggling at home against their longtime rivals from Oakland, more than a good start to the competition within the AFC West.

This was a template for how good this Broncos team can be. Everything came together, including a little bit of luck in the form of the Raiders’ banged up secondary. The question now is how often they can live up to it.

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.

Do the Broncos have enough weapons for Peyton Manning?

It’s not that fewer people had opinions in the old days. It’s just that before Twitter and Facebook, we didn’t experience the pleasure of hearing every single one of them.

Today, in order to stand out from the technologically-enhanced peanut gallery, your opinion has to be different, or at least loud, which is why any unexpressed view, no matter how inane, is just a vacuum waiting to be filled.

So we had the original reaction to the Broncos’ signing of Peyton Manning, natural and reasonable, that any team quarterbacked by a four-time Most Valuable Player should likely be included on any list of prospective championship contenders. That’s why there are nearly as many national media types at Dove Valley this week as there are players on the Broncos’ training camp roster.

Then came the first wave of blowback — the harbingers of wait just a minute. They wonder about the defense, they wonder about Manning’s health and even his prodigal perspicacity after a year off and multiple neck surgeries. But mostly, they wonder about Manning’s weapons.

Demaryius Thomas may have been a first-round draft pick, they allow, but through his first two pro campaigns, his high-water mark for catches in a season is 32. Eric Decker strikes a similar national profile — big, fast and athletic, granted, but also a similarly modest career high in receptions of 44.

Certain facts tend to go unmentioned in these revisionist bits of analysis. For example, the fact that each is entering just his third season. Or the fact that Kyle Orton threw nearly all of his passes to Brandon Lloyd during their rookie season. Or the fact that the Broncos reverted to a single wing offense last season, producing the 31st-ranked passing game in a 32-team league.

Mere details. Those who now differentiate themselves from the crowd argue Manning won’t be Manning without the crew of Hall of Fame-bound receivers he enjoyed in Indianapolis.

Of course, Manning had a little something to do with the pending Canton reservations of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Good receivers make a good quarterback better, but a great quarterback makes good receivers better, too.

Anyway, we turn to someone who knows a little something about quarterbacking championship teams for an expert view on this dispute.

John Elway might be a tad biased — he’s the architect of the Broncos’ roster — but he’s also a guy who helped make famous largely unknown young receivers named Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.

“As a former quarterback, I like the targets,” Elway said when he stopped by the KOA broadcast tent at Dove Valley.

“When I look at Demaryius Thomas going into his third year and the way he played the last half of (last) year and the confidence that he’s going to come back into this year with, and the OTAs, I mean, he improved immensely in the OTAs. He had a great day (Thursday). Eric Decker I really like. Those are big, fast wide receivers that I always liked.

“Brandon Stokley’s going to come in and add some experience. Bubba Caldwell from Cincinnati has got some experience in the league and has great speed, has the ability to make the big play. And then we’ve got some young guys that we’re excited about — D’Andre Goodwin, Mark Dell, who got hurt in the preseason last year.

“Plus we feel really good about the tight ends (Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme, Virgil Green, Julius Thomas). We’ve got (Ronnie) Hillman in the backfield with Willis (McGahee) and so I believe we’ve got a lot of good things going on on the offensive side also.”

Elway was convinced last season that the Broncos’ biggest weakness was not the receiving corps but the defensive backfield. Aside from the courtship of Manning, that’s where he concentrated his attention during the offseason.

“Other than the quarterback position, that’s probably where we’ve improved the most,” he said. “If you look at the football team last year, when we got exposed is when people spread us out — Detroit, New England, even San Diego, although we did a good job against San Diego.

“When we got spread out, we struggled. But Tracy Porter coming in with the experience he has, Drayton Florence has great experience, and then Omar Bolden, who we drafted in the fourth round. Chris Harris, the year he had last year. We bring Mike Adams in at safety and then Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter are going to have a year under their belts. So I’m excited about what we’ve got back there.”

Elway isn’t afraid to talk about championship contention — he thinks the potential is there if fortune smiles — but he knows from experience that predictions in July are subject to the vicissitudes of November and December.

“If you look at where we started a year and a half ago (when Elway took over the front office) and where we are right now, we’re really excited about it,” he said.

“Like any season, you have to get lucky. Injuries can always kill you. The unknown is always there and that’s why I always kind of temper my enthusiasm and excitement, because you never know what can happen. But I think with the people that we’ve got on this football field, we have an opportunity to compete for a world championship. There’s a lot of things that have to fall in line. But we’re excited about where we are.”

Broncos summer school: Peyton Manning 101

Last summer, when we got our first chance to see the 2011 Broncos on a practice field following the NFL lockout, the quarterbacks were Kyle Orton, Brady Quinn, Tim Tebow and Adam Weber.

Monday, when we got our first chance to see the 2012 Broncos on a practice field, the quarterbacks were Peyton Manning, Caleb Hanie, Brock Osweiler and . . . Adam Weber.

If you conclude from this that Weber is the veteran of this year’s group, welcome back from your trip to Neptune. Hope it was fun.

Change is a constant in the NFL, but not like this. In sixteen months, John Elway has remade the Broncos in his image, and nowhere is it more obvious than at his old position. In a single offseason, the Broncos went from an early 20th century option offense to a thoroughly 21st century aerial attack.

“Now’s when you kind of form the identity of your football team,” Manning said following Monday’s workout, the only one of three days of organized team activities this week the inquiring minds were permitted to watch. “I’m looking forward to being part of that.”

The change in the offense was obvious to even the casual observer. Near the end of a one hour, 45-minute workout, Manning led the offense in the no-huddle, two-minute drill, reading the defense on the fly and hitting open receivers in the numbers or hands, most of them check-down routes.

“I’ve always believed that you develop your timing for the passing game in the offseason,” Manning said. “I don’t think you can just show up in September and expect to be on the same page. What a great opportunity for these receivers going against these corners. If you can’t get better going against some of these top cover corners, it’s just not meant to be. It’s a great challenge for everybody. Offseason workouts are a great time to make an impression on the coaches. This is where roster spots are made and the coaches are constantly evaluating. So there are a lot of benefits to this work.”

In the excitement over Elway’s overhaul of the offense, it’s easy to overlook the addition of veteran cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence to the roster. Along with holdover Champ Bailey, they give the Broncos a much-improved cover capacity that should test the team’s young receivers as the offense comes together this summer.

Two receivers begin with the advantage of having worked with Manning in Indianapolis — tight end Jacob Tamme, who caught one of his throws in the two-minute drill, and slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who, like Manning, will be 36 by the time training camp opens.

“Tamme and I had a talk today,” Manning said. “We were both excited about this practice, probably more excited than most other guys. It’s a new team for us, a new place. Stokley, this is his second stint here. But this is an exciting time. (Offensive Coordinator Mike) McCoy was great about, ‘Hey, we’re working hard, this is serious business, but it’s important to be excited out there, to be encouraged, enthusiastic and have fun.’

“I think we’ll do that all through OTAs and minicamp. I thought the tempo of practice was excellent. Guys were flying around, a fast-moving practice, upbeat—that’s the way I like to work. It was good to see that from everybody today.”

Manning was barking orders during the hurry-up offense just as he did for so many years with the Colts, motioning players into position.

“He’s not bashful, let’s just put it that way,” Stokley said with a smile.

“Guys that command the respect of their teammates can do that,” Tamme said. “He’s a guy you know is going to do everything he can to be his best every day. That’s what you want in a quarterback — a guy that leads, and he’s certainly one of the best.”

Manning’s former teammates seem more comfortable letting him do the talking, which is another example of the tone set by many team leaders in sports. For example, when I asked Stokley about the differences between the new Broncos offense and the old Colts offense, he politely demurred.

“No comment on that,” he said. “I mean, why would I tell you that? That’s just going to help the other teams out. Everybody will just have to wait and see.”

Manning was somewhat more expansive on this topic. The new Broncos offense, he said, is not simply a transplant of the old Colts offense.

“You’ve got different terminology and different players,” he said. “There’s no question it’s different. So the more repetition you get — I do feel on-the-field reps are the best type of reps. There’s classroom work, which is important, you have to study and take your notes, but there’s nothing quite like being out there on the field, executing the play, going against fast defensive players like Von (Miller) and Champ. That’s the best way to learn, in my opinion.”

Bailey, along with Elvis Dumervil, was one of the Broncos’ leading lobbyists while Manning was determining his destination as a free agent. Anxious to compete for a championship in the final years of his career, Bailey believes the new quarterback puts the Broncos on a different level.

“It feels good to know he’s going to be on my side,” the eleven-time Pro Bowl selection said. “What I saw today, he’s going to give us some good work. We might not see a quarterback like that all year. It’s going to be something that’s going to get us prepared for games.”

Manning continued to avoid talking specifically about his recovery from the multiple neck surgeries that kept him out of action all last year, but he acknowledged that missing a full season means he has some catching up to do.

“I certainly have different checkpoints,” he said. “I kind of like (getting) hit. There’s no question that this work will be significant for me, because going against air is one thing, but getting the snap — for me, there’s the physical challenge and the mental challenge of being able to execute these new plays, knowing where these new receivers are going to be and also seeing what you can do.

“There’s no question it’s a different mentality for me in these OTAs (than) it has been in other years because of all the changes. But I look forward to the challenge. I just can’t tell you how important these OTAs are. I think they’re important for everybody, but when you’re a new player on a new team coming off an injury, they take on added importance. I thought today was an excellent start and I look forward to the rest of the time we’re here.”

Manning continues to describe his recovery as a process. Watching him throw, it was hard to distinguish him from the player we saw for so many years with the Colts.

“This injury has been a new experience for me,” he said. “I’m following the orders of ‘Greek’ (Broncos trainer Steve Antonopulos) and (strength and conditioning Coach) Luke (Richesson), who have been excellent in my rehab and training. I’m taking their orders. I realize I still have work to do. But any time you can go out there and go through a practice, make a good throw or if you have a mistake you can learn from it, I think that’s progress. I still have work to do, like I’ve said all along, but I look forward to making that progress and putting the work in to make that progress.”

The organization is a little less cautious describing his progress.

“Dealing with the physical part, he’s getting better every day,” coach John Fox said. “It’s something we felt good about, our medical people felt good about. His progress has been outstanding. We’re excited about where he is.”

Elway was on the field for most of Monday’s workout, standing alongside Manning during one period when other quarterbacks were running the drills. Seldom has so much quarterbacking expertise occupied such a small space. In the space of his sixteen months in charge, Elway has changed the Broncos dramatically, and the direction and purpose of that change is personified by Manning.

“I think you guys got to see him today,” Tamme said. “Things are going well. I’m not going to speak for him, but it’s been fun. Offensively, I think we’ve got a chance to be good if we just keep working hard.”

“It’s different when you’ve got Peyton back there playing quarterback than most quarterbacks,” Stokley said. “Everything’s a little bit more precise, a little bit more uptempo. It’s just like I remember.”

Broncos’ Peyton Manning era begins

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.”

Brandon Stokley knows what the Broncos will see from Peyton Manning

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.