Romilly Evans profiles the great Peyton Manning, who hopes to cap a glorious return from injury at the Denver Broncos
"Of more impediment to Manning and the Broncos’ championship chances could be an ominous schedule."
I don't know if any academic or geologist has ever produced a paper on the correlation between local landscape and local quarterbacks. But if they haven't, they might like to have a look at Denver's Mile High Stadium and its new resident quarterback, Peyton Manning.
The home of the Denver Broncos lies in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, offering glimpses of far off distant peaks. Manning, probably the greatest quarterback of his generation, returns to the NFL this Sunday from career-threatening neck surgery. It's a long way back to the heights he once scaled, but things are looking up.
A year ago, Manning could barely muster enough strength to shovel-pass. Now, however, after dangerous yet successful surgery and months of intensive rehab, he looks in rude health ahead of his 2012 curtain-call.
Pre-season has never been the province of definitive conclusions, but the league's four-time Most Valuable Player has certainly dispelled concerns that he won't don the starting jersey against Pittsburgh (for which they are two-point top dogs). In his last proper workout against the San Francisco 49ers, Manning threw for 122 yards off a limited series, completing 10 of 12 passes. His heavy-artillery arm is even back throwing bombs in practice.
Fantasy football rosters have been quick to secure Manning's services and all bets for Comeback Player of The Year are off. Sports Illustrated's esteemed scribe, Peter King, has even nominated him to lead to Broncos to this year's Super Bowl, collecting a fifth MVP award along the way.
Still, appearances can be deceptive. Manning is about to take his first snap in the regular season at the ripe old age of 36. He's clearly feeling the nerves, admitting to feeling like a rookie in the Rockies. Unfortunately for him, Manning won't enjoy the level of fan-patience usually afforded to rookies. That said, this consummate professional is used to performing under the weight of towering expectation. At Indianapolis (whose Colts he led to the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 2007), he rejoiced is being the lynchpin about which his team revolved.
The pressure at Denver is compounded by the fact that the man who staked his reputation on Manning and convinced him to choose Mile High was Broncos legend, John Elway. The Hall of Famer turned vice president of football operations has shown some good sense when it comes to Manning's contract, factoring in a release should those neck issues reoccur. Still Elway doesn't sound like a worried man when discussing Manning's prospects.
Instead, he speaks like a punter who's secured a big price on the back of some privileged information.
"I never knew Peyton Manning at 100%," Elway confessed.
"But I just know, seeing what I've seen, that he can win a world championship in his current form."
Elway elaborated that he had reviewed tapes of his latest acquisition from 2010/11 and discerned little difference in his throwing mechanics and movement. A similar ability to deliver the ball with speed and accuracy even when his feet weren't planted proved the clincher: Manning could cut it. And that was without allowing for more room for improvement as he naturally reacclimatises to the rarefied air of game-day scenarios.
Of more impediment to Manning and the Broncos' championship chances could be an ominous schedule, whose difficulty factor ramps up consistently over the first eight weeks of the campaign. Their team-sheet sports more exciting new names from some wily free-agency deals, but they are untested as a cohesive unit. And at the top of this pyramid sits Manning, whose leadership will instil the overall structure with either strength or fragility. At least he can draw on a classy running back - in the dynamic Willis McGahee - to divert attention and provide balance to his offense.
So if Manning can lead this fledgling team to at least 4-4 by the term's midpoint, his Broncos should benefit from the ostensibly easier tests ahead in the regular season (they are currently available at 20.019/1 to back for Super Bowl glory). It's a rocky road back from the lowlands of despair to the peak of performance. A trail perhaps best left untravelled. Manning, though, already knows that no summit is beyond his compass.