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Leader of the Broncos
By Mike Klis, Mark Kiszla, Woody Paige, Scott Monserud, Meghan Lyden, David Wright
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 The Denver Post
All rights reserved.
LEADER OF THE BRONCOS
READY TO WIN
Prepared Manning Eager to Lead Reloaded Broncos to Greater Heights in 2013
They'll get over it. Broncos fans might continue to dwell on the demoralizing way the 2012 season ended. The local media might become a constant source of nightmarish reminders.
Joe Flacco threw the ball how far? Rahim Moore stumbled backwards with how much time left? For the Broncos' players and coaches, though, there will be no problem putting that 38-35 double-overtime playoff loss to Baltimore behind him. They've moved on to 2013.
The Broncos will carry on because the most important person on this team is almost demented in his love for the process. Peyton Manning so much loves the preparation, the result is almost anticlimactic to him. When Manning won his one Super Bowl for the Indianapolis Colts after the 2006 season, he seemed far more relieved than exuberant.
He was thankful that the film study, the game planning, the dinners with teammates, the meetings, the practices, the attention to detail and more practice had all paid off.
That's the stuff that gets Manning out of bed at an absurdly early morning hour each day. Win it all, as Manning did in 2006? That's nice. Now, let's go to work.
Lose in devastating fashion to the Baltimore Ravens? That stinks. Now, let's go to work.
"I know this is the time when people talk about expectations," Manning said after the Broncos' final minicamp workout in mid-June. "But I like to go in phases along the way."
After Flacco's 50-yard rainbow over Moore's head became a 70-yard, game-tying touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with a mere 31 seconds remaining in regulation — the signature play in the Ravens' Super Bowl run — the Broncos wouldn't have been blamed if they lacked motivation in doing it all over again for 2013.
They had finished the 2012 season with an 11-game winning streak. And none of those victories were nail-biters. Entering the AFC postseason, the Broncos were clearly the team to beat. They earned the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. After a bye week, the Broncos were leading Baltimore 35-28 with seconds remaining in their second playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Then came Flacco's Fling, a Manning interception late in the first overtime quarter, and a lengthy Baltimore field goal in the second overtime.
After that bitter defeat, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said in an interview with The Denver Post that he wouldn't mind bringing the nucleus of the team back the next year and try it all over again.
"A lot of those guys are going to be back," Bowlen said on Jan. 13, the day after his team's season ended. "Some of them won't be back, some will go to other teams or whatever, but I'm very comfortable that the nucleus of this football team will be back."
Given two more months to reflect, Bowlen was reminded how the man he has forever entrusted, John Elway, is not one to wait to react. Elway makes it happen.
When Elway was a Broncos quarterback, he gave Bowlen many an exhilarating victory through his let-'er-rip, fourth quarter comebacks. Thirteen years after Elway retired as a player, Bowlen brought him back to the NFL to run his football operations department.
After luring Manning, the most decorated player in NFL free-agent history, to the Broncos before the 2012 season, Elway sought to reinforce the players around his quarterback for 2013.
His first move was to add up-front protection. By signing right guard Louis Vasquez to a four-year, $23.5 million contract, the Broncos not only added strength to Manning's front line, but weakened the protection for nemesis Philip Rivers, the Chargers' quarterback.
Vasquez was signed within hours after the 2013 NFL business season opened on March 12. The next day, the Broncos jolted the NFL nation by signing Wes Welker, arguably the best slot receiver in league history, away from the mighty New England Patriots.
The Broncos, good enough to finish No. 2 in the league in scoring in 2012 thanks largely to Manning and his terrific young receiving duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, appeared loaded.
"They are all saying the same thing: 'You guys are stacked over there," said cornerback Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie, another of the Broncos' free-agent signings in March.
Elway didn't stop tweaking his roster with free agency. The draft brought defensive tackle Sylvester Williams in the first round and Montee Ball in the second.
There was one troubling hic-cup in the Broncos' offseason plan. Hiccup? Make that the great Fax Fiasco. The Broncos lost defensive end Elvis Dumervil, one of the top pass rushers in the league, to free agency and the dreaded Ravens after the documents to a revised contract didn't get transferred in time to meet the league's deadline.
Then the 2013 NFL schedule came out and — wouldn't you know it — the first game in the entire league will be Broncos vs. Ravens on Sept. 5 at Sports Authority Field. The last time these two teams met, the Ravens were prancing off the frozen turf elated while the slunk-shouldered Broncos exited in sorrow. The Broncos won't be downtrodden come kickoff on Sept. 5.
They're rather looking forward to it. "You keep giving yourself opportunities," Manning said. "I like to be in the arena. I like to be in the mix. We were in the mix last year. We want to be back in it this year but we've still got a lot of work to do. This is a totally different season than last year, but hopefully we give ourselves a chance."
WILD RIDE ENDS IN DENVER
Manning's Arrival Sparks Broncos' Success, Hopes for Future
It all began with The Great Toyota Sequoia Chase.
Peyton Manning, the NFL's only four-time MVP and among the all-time greatest quarterbacks, had arrived by the private plane of Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and was on his way to the Broncos' Dove Valley headquarters.
Could this be? Could the Broncos really be bringing in Manning to be their quarterback? A television helicopter was among the hundreds of thousands along the Front Range that wanted to know.
As Manning and a Broncos' contingent, led by football operations boss John Elway and coach John Fox, climbed into the sports utility vehicle owned and driven by the team's do-everything assistant Fred Fleming on a Friday afternoon, a Denver and national cable audience was spellbound.
The whirlwind visit with Manning was a clandestine arrangement until the shroud of secrecy was pulled back as the free-agent prize sat alone in Bowlen's plane on a runway in Stillwater, Okla.
On March 9, 2012 Elway, John Fox, quarterbacks coach Adam Gase, then general manager Brian Xanders and then offensive coordinator Mike McCoy flew on Bowlen's plane to Stillwater. They had dinner that night with quarterback prospect Brandon Weeden, who was to perform in Oklahoma State's pro-day workout the next morning.
As the Broncos' contingent sat down to dinner, Bowlen's plane was flown to South Florida, where Manning and his family have a condominium.
The next morning, Elway and his Broncos group watched Weeden while Manning was flown from Miami to Stillwater.
Meanwhile, Bowlen had taken a redeye commercial flight from Hawaii, where he keeps an offseason home, to Denver. Make no mistake, Bowlen had his priorities in order.
The Broncos' group joined Manning on the plane in Stillwater, then flew to Centennial Airport near the team's training facility. Manning had to walk only a few feet to the Sequoia.
With a large Denver audience looking on, a TV camera-equipped helicopter followed the SUV carrying Manning until it arrived at the team's headquarters and disappeared into Bowlen's personal garage. About 50 media and fans were standing outside the gated parking lot and watched the vehicle pull in.
The visit went well. Manning would meet with other teams during his free-agent period, but on March 20 — 10 days after his trip from Florida to Denver with Stillwater, Okla. in between — he called Elway to inform him he had decided to continue his career with the Broncos.
After 13 celebrated seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning brought along significant concerns. Up to 10 teams expressed interest in Manning, based on his past accomplishments. But 22 others declined to pursue him because future performance was in doubt.
Manning had had four neck surgeries. The procedures caused him to miss his entire 14th season at a time when he was about to turn 36 years old.
What he did was answer all his skeptics — none more so than himself — by leading the Broncos to a position where they were favorites to win the Super Bowl entering the 2012 postseason. He led the Broncos to 11 consecutive victories at regular season's end, a run that nearly brought Manning his fifth MVP award.
The playoffs would end in bitter disappointment. Manning had engineered the Broncos to a 35-28 lead with less than a minute remaining in a second-round home game, only to have Baltimore tie it on a 70-yard touchdown pass by Joe Flacco with 31 seconds remaining in regulation. The Ravens then won it in double overtime after an ill-advised Manning pass was intercepted, a turnover that set up the winning field goal.
Still, what Manning did in 2012 was unprecedented. Yes, Joe Montana finished his career in Kansas City after leading the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles. Yes, Brett Favre finished in Minnesota after a great run with the Green Bay Packers.
Montana and Favre, though, were healthy as they rewrote the ending to their storybook career. No quarterback had ever come back from four neck surgeries that forced him to miss the entire previous season, as Manning did when he left the Colts and joined the Broncos.
Despite the neck, despite his advanced age, despite playing with a new set of teammates and despite operating a new offense, Manning posted the second-best statistical season of his career. His 105.8 passer rating was computed off 37 touchdowns against only 11 interceptions for 4,659 yards. He completed 68.6 percent of his throws.
During Manning's first season in Denver, he moved past Hall of Famer Dan Marino for second-place on the all-time quarterback list in touchdown passes, passing yards and completions. And, Manning even went past his boss, Elway, for second all-time in wins by a quarterback.
Elway was happy to fall one spot.
Although there was not a happy ending to Manning's first season in Denver, there is the hope, maybe even the expectation, that the Broncos can finish the job as their star quarterback becomes more comfortable in his second season.
Whatever happens, it's already been an incredible journey. From Indy to Stillwater to the well-followed drive in a Toyota Sequoia, the ride that brought Manning to Denver has riveted a region of Bronco fans.CHAPTER 2
A CALCULATED RISK
PEYTON THROWS, 'LOOKS GREAT'
Stokley Says Manning Passing Like He Did In 2006
If you happened to be walking a dog past a small Castle Rock park the morning of March 10, 2012 and thought, "Gee, that guy throwing the football looks a lot like Peyton Manning," your eyes did not deceive.
That was none other than Peyton Manning throwing passes to his former teammate Brandon Stokley. From about 8:30 to 9:30 on just another gorgeous morning in Colorado, Manning threw about 50 passes to the route-running Stokley. Like Manning, Stokley was a free agent at the time.
"I saw him for three days at Duke and he was the only quarterback (throwing to four or five receivers) and he threw a ton of balls for three straight practices and the guy looked to me like he did when I was there six years ago," said Stokley, the former Broncos receiver who was Manning's teammate with the Indianapolis Colts from 2003-06. "He threw on Saturday here on a little field and maybe because he had some rest, I think he looked better than he had last week."
Between a plane ride from Stillwater, Okla., to Centennial Airport, a six-hour meeting at the team's Dove Valley headquarters and a 2½-hour dinner at Cherry Hills Country Club, Manning spent all the previous day visiting with the Broncos. He spent the night at Stokley's home, in part because he wanted to both rest and get a workout in. Stokley drove him to the Centennial Airport for a 5 p.m. flight to Arizona the next day for a meeting with the Cardinals.
Manning then returned to his offseason residence in the Miami area.
The Broncos and other teams who are pursued the free-agent Manning received some criticism for trying to lure him without watching him work out. But Manning's five-day workout at Duke was filmed, and distributed to teams upon his release March 7 by the Colts.
Manning missed all of 2011 because of complications from multiple neck surgeries.
"People who say the Broncos are crazy for not watching his balls fly, or what are they doing? Those people are dead wrong," Stokley said. "I'll put whatever reputation I have on the line behind that guy right now. He looks great."
EUPHORIA AND REALITY
Manning Signs With Broncos, Not Yet 100 Percent
Eventually, the thrill subsides, euphoria loses some steam and reality checks in. Peyton Manning is officially the Broncos' quarterback. Incredible. Manning has the Broncos believing they are instantly a Super Bowl contender. Unbelievable.
Manning has a ways to go before he's 100 percent healthy.
"I have some strength that I have to get back," Manning said March 20, 2012 in a private conversation with Denver Post reporters.
This is not to scare the Broncos. They're not frightened, because they know. Manning told them everything. The superstar quarterback even may have been the first free agent in NFL history to negotiate terms into his contract that could potentially cost him — and save the team — millions of dollars.
It's no secret Manning has a neck issue. He has undergone four neck surgeries in little more than a year, which is the reason he missed all of 2011 with the Indianapolis Colts and eventually was released to free agency.
Yes, the occasional thought crossed Manning's mind that he might not play again.
"Yeah, you just sort of process it," he said. "I think this process showed that if this was easy, then it would tell you that it didn't really matter that much to me in Indianapolis. All I know is whatever team I'm on, I'm all in with it."
Manning didn't hide his neck condition with teams pursuing him. He put his entire medical history on a disc and gave it to all suitors. He threw for teams interested in signing him, bum neck and all.
While John Elway and Ruston Webster, the front-office bosses for the Broncos and Tennessee Titans, respectively, sent out statements that flattered Manning's throwing audition, the executives, at best, left out some truth and, at worst, told a white lie.
"John said it was great," Manning said. "It wasn't great throwing. It's not supposed to be great because I'm not where I want to be. I just said: 'Here it is, guys. If you're not interested, you're not hurting my feelings. You've got to tell me.' It bothers me that I don't feel the way I want to feel.
"I have a lot of work to do. I'm not where I need to be."
The Broncos signed Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract, but the story is in the details. Only the first-year $18 million in salary is fully guaranteed. His $20 million salaries for 2013 and 2014 will be guaranteed unless the neck prevents Manning from playing. The fourth and fifth-year salaries are not guaranteed.
"I'll say this, Peyton was great about giving us protection against his neck," Elway said.
In terms of what football agents, players and accountants would classify as "real money," Manning took a substantial pay cut from his previous deal with the Indianapolis Colts.
He got $26.4 million without playing a down for the Colts last year — 32 percent more than his first-year salary with the Broncos. He was to make $61.8 million after two years with the Colts, $23.8 million more than what the Broncos are planning to pay out through 2013.
"They've got to be protected," Manning said. "That's why the whole medical — I was as open a book as I could be. I told them exactly how I feel, what I was working on. They have to know everything to make their decision.
"Even today, at the last minute, I said, 'John, put it the way you want it.' He and I talked about that from the get-go, on that first visit. You don't want to start off on a bad foot. I kind of argued with them a little bit, on their side. Nobody believes that when you say that. But it's got to be what they're comfortable with."
The reassuring news for Broncos fans is that Manning has been told by three doctors, from three separate medical teams, that he will fully recover. And even if he doesn't, the sentiment among Elway, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and coach John Fox is that Manning at 90 percent strength, or even 75 percent strength, is better than almost any other NFL quarterback.
So how did Manning go from a quarterback who needed only 13 seasons to reach No. 3 on the NFL's all-time list in touchdown passes, yards and completions, to one whose cursed number became four? As in four surgeries.
When a neck undergoes four surgeries, it prompts the question: Did somebody mess up the first one?
"No, I went through that history too," Manning said. "I don't think there was a mistake made there. It was just the way it worked out. I haven't played that game on anybody. The Broncos had to make a projection, just like the other teams did. And they all kind of made the same projection. It couldn't happen soon enough for me."
Excerpted from Peyton Manning by Mike Klis, Mark Kiszla, Woody Paige, Scott Monserud, Meghan Lyden, David Wright. Copyright © 2013 The Denver Post. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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