KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Whether the Denver Broncos offense goes three-and-out or finishes a 90-yard touchdown drive, the players immediately head for the bench and gather around quarterback Peyton Manning.
No coaches are around. Just Manning and his new offensive teammates.
Sometimes an offensive lineman or a wide receiver has a suggestion or a criticism about the previous possession or what to try next. But there’s little doubt about who is in charge.
“We meet over there where the line likes to sit,” Manning said. “I’m talking, but everybody else is as well. It’s just the players. We’re just trying to kind of hash out what’s going on out there, good or bad. We kind of call it our debriefing session.
“It’s just kind of everybody saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on out there? Here’s what I need to do better. Here’s what we can do better.’ I think it’s been pretty effective for us.”
Indeed, Manning has elevated the Broncos and his own game far beyond what anyone expected when he left Indianapolis after 14 seasons and signed a five-year contract worth up to $96 million with Denver last spring.
Manning, 36, sat out all of the 2011 season after undergoing a fourth surgery on his neck, and though he has not totally regained the form that helped him win four league MVP awards and a Super Bowl, his comeback ranks as one of the most remarkable in NFL history.
Manning comes into Sunday’s noon game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium as the NFL’s second-rated passer with a 106.2 mark. He ranks second in completion percentage, 68.5; third in touchdown passes, 24; and first in average gain, 8.0.
But mere statistics don’t measure the value Manning has brought to the Broncos, who at 7-3 are running away from the rest of the AFC West. His leadership and indefatigable study and practice habits have permeated a franchise that hit the abyss when it went 4-12 in 2010 under Josh McDaniels and weathered Tim Tebow-mania a year ago.
“He’s probably as good as advertised and then some,” said Denver head coach John Fox, in his second season with the Broncos. “It’s hard to imagine, but if you look from afar, you hear about his work ethic and his football awareness, and football smarts. But to see it first hand, how he raises all boats in the locker room from an offense … and really it affects your defense, because they have tremendous confidence.
“What he brings to that locker room is probably bigger than I imagined.”
Manning still undergoes rehab treatments for his surgically repaired neck, and even he is unsure when or if he’ll totally regain the arm strength that set an NFL record with 11 seasons of 4,000 yards passing with the Colts.
“I didn’t have a set of expectations because there was so much unknown, and there still is in some ways,” he said. “I’m still learning about my injury and about my body, and I’m still learning about my receivers and new teammates. There was such unfamiliar territory for me, being with a new team and playing in a different physical state.
“Some things are hard to figure out. Are they injury-related, are they the fact you sat out a year or you’re 36, or playing with different teammates? It’s still very much a learning year. Anytime you can win some games while you’re learning, that’s always a good thing.”
There was some question whether the Rocky Mountains were still too steep to climb when the Broncos stood at 2-3 and trailed 24-0 at San Diego.
All Manning did was complete 24 of 30 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Broncos to a 35-24 victory, the fifth time in league history a team overcame a 24-point halftime deficit. With the performance, Manning tied Dan Marino for the most game-winning drives (47) in the fourth quarter or overtime since the 1970 NFL merger, a record he broke three weeks later.
And Denver has won five straight since the San Diego game.
Chiefs guard Ryan Lilja never had a doubt that Manning would try to come back from delicate neck surgery, nor did he question whether Manning would be successful. Most players at Manning’s age, with all he has accomplished, would take a job in television, make commercials and walk away from the risks of further damage.
Not Peyton Manning.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” said Lilja, who played left guard for Manning during 2004-10 at Indianapolis. “I know him. I know how he approaches the game, how hard he works, and how serious he is about football.
“He loves football. He’s good at it. Why do people do what they do? He’s arguably the best on the planet at what he does …’’
Manning became the most pursued free agent in NFL history last spring after the Colts, who would take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, released Manning rather than pay him a $28 million roster bonus.
Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt and head coach Romeo Crennel both publically expressed interest in Manning. Manning either visited, interviewed or worked out for several teams besides Denver, including Tennessee, Miami, Arizona and San Francisco, but he never considered coming to Kansas City.
Asked why the quarterback-starved Chiefs were never a factor, Manning bristled, saying, “I’ve covered that stuff so many times. I’ve moved past the whole free-agency process. I have great respect for the Chiefs, their organization, their staff …”
Crennel learned from the start the Chiefs had no shot.
“Peyton limited the places that he was going to talk to, and we were not one of those included, so we had no control from that point on,” Crennel said. “Once Peyton decided the teams he was talking to, then everybody else was on the outside looking in, and we were on the outside looking in.”
Manning, wooed by Hall of Fame quarterback and Broncos executive vice president John Elway, brought the Colts’ fast-paced, no-huddle offense to the Broncos, though Fox has tried to maintain some of the smash-mouth football he coached during his nine seasons at Carolina.
Manning also became the newest franchisee for Papa John’s Pizza a few weeks ago, signing a deal to own 21 stores in the Denver area.
“He’s the kind of partner we’re looking for,” said Papa John’s chief marketing officer Andrew Varga.
Crennel could only imagine what it would have been like to have had a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback throwing footballs and pitching pizza in Kansas City.
“With that kind of ability, you’d like to be able to talk to him and make your spiel,” Crennel said, “ but you can only control what you can control.”
Crennel is one of the few coaches in the NFL who have had some success against Manning, having gone 6-3 in matchups against him.
When Crennel was defensive coordinator at New England during 2001-04, the Patriots went 6-0 against Manning’s Colts, including a win in the 2003 AFC championship game. As head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Crennel was 0-2 against Manning, but the losses were by scores of 13-6 in 2005 and 10-6 in 2008.
In Crennel’s only matchup as defensive coordinator of the Chiefs against Manning, the Colts prevailed 19-9 at Indianapolis in 2010.
“It’s very hard to surprise him,” Crennel said. “I might be able to throw 12 guys out there, and that might surprise him …”
The key for the Chiefs is not to over-react to all of Manning’s gestures and gyrations while he’s calling plays, changing plays or acting like he’s changing plays at the line of scrimmage.
“You can’t over-think this guy,” Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali said. “He’s got to do what he does, and we can’t be too concerned with what he’s doing. He might throw us off if we try to catch on. We want to get him off rhythm and get him off the spot. We know that if he’s going to sit in the middle of the field, he’s going to be able to get his job done. As long as we can get him moving from that spot, that’ll help.”
Manning is 7-1 in his career against the Chiefs, losing only a 45-35 shootout at Arrowhead Stadium on Halloween 2004. At least the two teams punted in that game, in which Manning threw five touchdown passes.
In the teams’ previous meeting, in a 2003 AFC playoff game, the Colts came into Arrowhead and won 38-31 in a game neither team was forced to punt.
Manning, who completed 22 of 30 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions on that day, remembered it well.
“I thought one of the biggest plays for us that game was winning the coin toss,” Manning recalled. “We won the coin toss and scored, and we kind of said, ‘If we score every time, it would be hard for them to beat us,’ and we pretty much had to because their offense was rolling, too.
“Their kick returner, Dante Hall, ran a kickoff back (92 yards for a touchdown), and we forced one turnover. And that was the difference. Arrowhead was rocking that day … it’s always been a tough place to play. They have such great fans and such great tradition there …”
But not enough to convince Manning to give the Chiefs a look during free agency.