SAN DIEGO — By all accounts, nobody in the Denver Broncos locker room put his fist through a blackboard at halftime Monday night. Nobody yelled and screamed, or kicked over a water cooler.
The Broncos, trailing by 24 points at halftime, were surprisingly calm. But it did not mean they were not filled with regret.
Omar Bolden was sorry he fumbled a kickoff. Trindon Holliday lamented the punt he muffed. Matt Willis bemoaned the wrong route he ran — leading to an interception return for a touchdown. Linebacker Danny Trevathan was called for holding on third down that kept another Chargers scoring drive alive.
And Eric Decker, almost comically, fell down on his way to a touchdown that was not.
Yet, the man who would be permitted to have the most remorse was the man who had the least to apologize for — Peyton Manning.
Front and center in this nationally televised debacle was Manning, who having been placed in another 20-point hole, could not be blamed for having second (and third) thoughts about this decision to come to Denver after being turned loose by the Colts.
He could have gone to Arizona, San Francisco, Miami or even the Jets.
Instead, Manning delivered a performance that might just inspire a football team to follow him, and his coaches to put more faith in him, rallying the Broncos to a 35-24 victory over the collapsible Chargers.
Manning completed 13 consecutive passes during the second half, squirted away from the Chargers pass rush with a dainty hop, and dropped passes into enveloped-sized windows, answering questions about his health and prompting more about just where this team is going.
In addition to the slow starts and slew of mistakes, what is most glaring is how unwilling Broncos coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy are to place the game in Manning’s hands — until there is no choice.
When the Broncos sent Tim Tebow to New York, they apparently forgot to send their playbook with him. And why is it that Fox’s offense continues to look like something that’s been tailored for Jake (The Mistake) Delhomme?
It seems as if the last ones to realize the Broncos have one of the NFL’s best-ever quarterbacks are the ones calling the shots.
Just as in last week’s loss to New England, the Broncos ran the ball — and were stuffed — on third and 1 with the game’s most accurate passer. Early on, a bubble screen was called on third and 10. And late in the fourth quarter, the Broncos ran the ball on third and 11 while nursing a 28-24 lead.
It became a non-issue when Chris Harris subsequently intercepted a Philip Rivers pass and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown with 2:05 to play.
Manning, who was given free rein in Indianapolis to dictate whether the Colts ran or passed on given plays, was asked how much say he had with the Broncos.
“I don’t get into all of that,” Manning said, reading the intent of the question like a corner blitz. “(McCoy) is still getting a feel of what these players do best, guys like (Brandon) Stokley, (Joel) Dreessen, (Jacob) Tamme and myself. That’s part of different players with change.”
One of the early lessons of this season is that having franchise quarterbacks is nice, but they cannot do all the heavy lifting by themselves.
Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Manning would be, by many accounts, the best quarterbacks in the NFL. And yet six weeks into the season, none have a winning record.
It has been easy to see with the Packers’ shaky offensive line, the Saints’ absent defense, and in the bravado of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, the “gimmicky” offense of the Patriots.
As for the Broncos, it’s been pretty much everything not named Manning blowing up.
Manning did throw those three early interceptions in Atlanta, his first road game. But he’s been magnificent since, throwing for more than 300 yards in each of the last four games. His only interception in the last 19 quarters came Monday when Willis, a seldom-used receiver, failed to break off his route, leaving San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer alone to pick off Manning’s pass and race 80 yards for a touchdown.
But then Manning made all the shortcomings disappear. His 21-yard touchdown pass to Stokley was quintessential Manning — running up and down the line of scrimmage, gesticulating as if his hair is on fire, getting the play off just in time and then lofting a pass to Stokley inches out of the reach of a defender in the far corner of the end zone.
Earlier, Manning threw a similar pass to Tamme to convert a third-and-16 situation.
“He was playing like (Ben) Roethlisberger,” said Tamme, who like Stokley played with Manning in Indianapolis. “I’m running my routes and I’m turning around and he’s slipping tackles. I guess he’s been in the weight room.”
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said he hoped the victory would restore a sense of urgency that has been missing. The Broncos last season developed it with Tebow at quarterback, a bruising rushing attack and an improved defense. Those qualities have not been apparent this season.
“Nobody’s killing us,” Bailey said of the defense. “But in crucial situations, like third down, we’re not playing well and that’s something we did well last year. New England ran hurry-up last week and we were two steps behind. You can’t beat the great teams like that.”
They didn’t beat one Monday night, but they did learn how they can, both coaches and players alike. Turn it over to Manning and don’t screw it up.