All it took was Manning and the Broncos going no-huddle midway through the first half of their game Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He led the Broncos on three consecutive 80-yard drives — the second produced the 400th TD pass of his career. Kinda made a person forget the four neck surgeries and all the angst about whether the nerve in his neck had regenerated and whether he’d lost anything on his passes. To be clear, work remains to be done on his passing, but, at 36, he, as Peter King wrote, “made every fan in Indianapolis who'd been fine with the Manning-for-Andrew Luck trade-off think, ‘My Lord, can we have this guy back?’ ”
The performance, with a 129.2 passer rating, was a reminder that Manning’s best weapon is his brain. It can compensate for any lingering physical deficiency, as he was quick to point out.
“It’s just a start. There’s a lot of things we can build on,” Manning said (via the New York Times’ Judy Battista) after completing 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. “It felt good to get the win. I’m still feeling my way out. I still have some limitations.”
Manning wasn’t particularly taxed — he took only two snaps in the third quarter and hit Demaryius Thomas on a 71-yard pass for his 400th TD pass (watch here). He reached 400 in his 208th game. It took Dan Marino 227 and Brett Favre 228 to reach 400. Manning appreciated the significance of the moment — “I love those guys,” he said of Marino and Favre — but let Thomas keep the ball.
“I talked to him after the game,” Thomas said, “ ‘You’re going to let me keep the ball right?’ He got one of the game balls, so he gave me that ball. That's great to be able to catch his 400th. Hopefully he'll sign it for me. I can go back and show my grandkids in the record book.”
It was a special night, made more special by the knowledge of just how far Manning has come. He described his workouts, just before he knew he needed spinal fusion, to Battista:
So last summer, before the Colts could finally get a look at him — before even they fully realized his condition — Manning worked in secret with Rockies trainers, in hopes of avoiding the September operation that ultimately cost him the 2011 season. In June, he, a trainer and [his friend, Todd] Helton went to the indoor batting cages at Coors Field. Millions of people have marveled over Manning’s passes. This one to Helton, though, Manning wanted hidden from view.
“It was not good; he actually thought I was joking when I threw it to him,” Manning said. “The ball nose-dived. He was like ‘That’s funny.’ I was like ‘You don’t understand. I’m telling you.’ ”
Manning was feeling, Battista writes, “oddly vulnerable and isolated” from the Colts during the NFL’s lockout of players.
“I did not want people seeing me,” he said. “It becomes a private, sensitive deal.”
Not any more. And the prospect is that Manning, who played Sunday as if “he had burning coals beneath those ever-chopping feet,” Denver’s Mike Klis wrote, will continue to improve.
“I still have work to do,” Manning told Battista. “But I know I can throw it a lot better than that day.”