In what is set to be one of the most exciting and unpredictable NFL seasons to Denver have elected to put all their money on one of the few sure things left in the game. Last night’s opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers showed that their acquisition of veteran Peyton Manning, following his release from Indianapolis after fourteen years, could be the most significant move of the NFL season.
Dealing with veteran quarterbacks is always a tricky thing. Manning was the heart of the Colts for so long that choosing the right time to let him go was always going to be difficult. He had to go at some time but finding that perfect window of opportunity for player and team is never easy. That window was crowbarred open with Manning’s last season for the Colts cut short with injury and the requirement of four separate surgeries on his neck. Most felt that he would never reach those heights again, that whoever did acquire him was taking a gamble.
Denver on paper had no reason to take that gamble. At the time Colts were making their difficult decision they were in possession of one of the hottest properties in the game, namely the born-to-win Jesusfreak Tim Tebow. The youngster, despite constant criticism about “faulty mechanics” and dubious politics took the Broncos and turned them from a toothless team sinking straight to the bottom of their conference into play-off contenders. It was surely his team to show what he could do.
Whatever lead the powers that be to decide to bring Manning to Denver and ship out Tebow to the Jets, the opener must have seen plenty of alka-seltzer passed around the private box. After all, if it all backfired they’d be the people that let a Heisman Trophy winner slip through their fingers in favour of a 36 year old who is one big hit away from the end of his career. It would almost certainly spell doom for whoever could have the most blame apportioned to them in the aftermath of that potential future, a point made in the press with gusto.
Those that envisioned such a fate are the same sort of people who never speak about Peyton Manning in the same breath as the greats. After 611 days without a game the quarterback showed just why Denver were right and silenced the doubters with a master class that will today see him compared to the greats as he set records that eclipsed their own.
Throwing for 253 yards the first of his two touchdown passes saw him hit the 400 TD pass milestone in 209 games, which was faster than Brett Favre and Dan Marino. These are the sort of statistics that always get lost in favour of that other benchmark of greatness – championship rings. His own brother Eli, nowhere near the standard set by Peyton, has one more with two and this always seems to keep him down the pecking order.
Yet away from the statistics, there are the performances like last night that show he is one of a very few elite quarterbacks still playing the game. It was illustrated beautifully as he went up against a much improved Ben Roethlisberger whose often criticised style seemed more polished than it has been in a Steelers jersey. Either side of half time two lengthy drives showed the everything good about Roethlisberger whose efficiency on the third down kept the ball out of Manning’s hands for round about an hour. When he did finally get a touch of the football it only took 36 seconds to throw for a touchdown pass. That is the tangible difference between “good” and “great”.
The Broncos already had the bones of a potentially good team and their ability to stifle a running offence will serve them well this season. Defensive monsters such as Von Miller, who stepped up late in the game to shut down any hope of Roethlisberger upstaging the great one, keep quarterbacks up at night. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas already proved his value last season when he returned from an achilles injury to become the outlet for Tebow. What the team lacked, a reliable quarterback with an on field presence that transcends hype, they have found in Manning.
He will face sterner tests as the season wears on and there will always be question marks about his ability to stay fit. There are plenty of defenders who, in their own perverse brans of logic, would like to be the one that finally snapped Manning and forced him to retire. Yet, any notion that his ability had been dampened by time on the sidelines was laid to rest with faultless efficiency and, unlike his Pittsburgh counterpart, no interceptions.
The disparity in points in this 31 – 19 triumph doesn’t show the gulf of class that was evident for all to see. He read the game perfectly in a way that few can and left the Steelers defence dejected, so much so that in the post-match press conference they didn’t even want to talk about the Manning factor. It was, like death and taxes, depressingly inevitable they conceded. Those hangdog expressions from the assembled Steelers players will lift Denver going into week two and if triumphant against Atlanta then you can expect more and more to be talking them up. After all, if Tim Tebow was cause for such hysteria, how much faith will people be willing to place in a man up their with the quarterback gods?
The man himself will be quietly pleased. It’s unlikely he’ll add to his championship ring haul at Denver. There are stronger teams, teams that have already shown that they have a bit more razzle dazzle than the slow and steady Broncos. It is unlikely for sure but Manning’s presence alone does not make it impossible.