As Peyton Manning begins to reinvent himself at 36 years old, trading a horseshoe on his helmet for an entire horse, it’s easy to distinguish Manning the leader from Manning the passer.
Through the high walls that separate the Denver Broncos practice fields and facility parking lot, the first voice a visitor hears is Manning’s — firm, familiar, not quite a southern drawl, not quite heartland gravel — as he asks questions at the start of a mandatory June minicamp.
Later during a morning session, the quarterback makes his customary hand gestures at the line of scrimmage, directing traffic and pointing out defensive coverages. On breaks, he pulls aside receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas to chat. Finally, after practice, Manning worked on a short route into the end zone with Decker, repeating the throw several times. Here’s an elite quarterback as a conductor in action.
"He wants to make sure everything we do is perfect," Decker said. "There’s no gray area. You be in the right spot. You run the route the way he wants it. And again, no gray area, so he definitely tests you every day you come out."
"What we’re trying to do now is form our identity," Manning said. "I don’t think that necessarily happens over 14 practices in May and June … But I do feel we have a lot of options. We have a lot of guys who can bring certain things to the table."
This is the cerebral perfectionist Manning that fans, coaches and ex-teammates would recognize over his career with the Indianapolis Colts, only in different colors. But the physical makeup of a drop-back QB in his mid-30s is a concern even under the most optimal of circumstances. And after missing all of the 2011 season after several neck surgeries, no one knows for certain how Manning the passer will perform in Denver.
A scar snakes down Manning’s neck before slipping beneath his jersey collar — evidence of his spinal fusion operation last September and perhaps proof that, while the mind is willing, the flesh and bone is not the same and may never be.
The consensus after organized team activities and minicamp practices is that Manning’s arm strength isn’t quite there yet. In fact, the strongest thrower in Day 1 of the minicamp was rookie Brock Osweiler, a 6-foot-7 project who rifles his passes around the field. Still, Manning looked sharp in spurts. He mixed speeds and hit receivers nicely on short and intermediate throws, which was the quarterback’s specialty in Indianapolis. Manning’s one deep toss to Thomas in 7-on-7s was wobbly, but the 35-yard completion fooled veteran corner Champ Bailey.
Bailey, walking off the field afterward with new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, grinned and exhaled when asked about the play.
"It’s been a good week, so to speak," he said, admiringly.
There were some shaky moments for the first-team offense overall. The Broncos led the league in rushing last season, but Manning’s presence will obviously alter offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s schemes. The four-time NFL MVP did a lot of work out of the shotgun, missing several throws while others were dropped or tipped, including one picked off by free-agent signee Tracy Porter, who famously intercepted Manning for the clinching touchdown in Super Bowl XLIV.
"It’s hard to give a summary on that. Certainly, we’re working on our timing in our passing game, and we probably had a few tipped balls," Manning said. "As quarterbacks, it’s our job to put the ball in the perfect spot."
With the completion of these offseason workouts last Thursday, NFL facilities will go dark until the start of training camp in late July. But the team believes Manning is ready for a full workload during the preseason. Under head coach John Fox, Denver typically plays the starting quarterback in the first three exhibition games, then holds him out in the finale.
"I think he’s been tremendous," Fox said. "We still have a lot of work to do. Our measuring stick is wins and losses, and we’re not there yet."
Over the next few weeks, Manning will continue to rehab his triceps nerve in his right arm and work with his receiver group when he can. As always, Manning the quarterback makes smart, sensible decisions. Manning the passer, though, is still wait-and-see.