The choreography looks the same: Peyton Manning, standing a few strides behind center, pointing at one linebacker, running up into the gap between his center and guard and yelling instructions to 300-pound men, all bent at the waist. Then he’s backing up, barking some more, signaling toward one last defender. Finally, he lifts his leg, the ball arrives in his hands, and it starts.
The helmet Manning wears now bears the side of a horse’s head rather than the bottom of a horse’s hoof, but the results — his Denver Broncos have won nine in a row and now must be considered a favorite in the AFC — seem so familiar. This offseason, Manning was the NFL’s greatest question mark. Now, as the holidays approach, he is back to playing the part he assumed for more than a decade: one of his sport’s greatest certainties.
Yet even as he racks up numbers that could put this season among the best of his 13 with the Indianapolis Colts, he insists it all feels different. New city, new fans, new offense, new teammates, new expectations — even now, with just two games remaining.
“Every day, it’s new,” Manning, 36, said after the Broncos demolished the Ravens Sunday in Baltimore. “You try to learn something every day, get a little more comfortable at something every day. But it’s still very new. There’s no question about it.”
There is no question that the past 19 months — during which he had two neck surgeries, missed the only 16 games of his career, was released by the Colts and signed by the Broncos — brought unprecedented personal and professional upheaval. But even as Manning laments the continuing adjustments, those around the Broncos franchise say that Manning has brought unmatched professionalism and a generosity of spirit that has an impact not only on the entire organization, but the city.
“His greatness is on display publicly each Sunday or Monday night on he field,” said Joe Ellis, the Broncos’ team president for the past 15 years. “He’s much more private about all of the great things he does off the field. He’s humble about that and chooses to remain low-key. But in very, very significant ways, he helps a lot of different people.”
After the mass shooting in July at a movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora that took 12 lives, Manning reached out to families of victims, not for hugs in front of cameras but for private moments of support. He has obliged fans who have written asking for a short meeting and a picture, at home and on the road. At Thanksgiving, he provided more than 4,000 meals to local Boys and Girls Clubs. He bought a house.
For years, the Broncos have organized autographs during training camp by position group: wide receivers one day, offensive line the next, etc. In August, Manning signed every day.
“My dad always used to sign a lot,” Manning said earlier in the season, noting how much he learned from his quarterback father, Archie. “My mother always reminds me, ‘They’ll stop asking at some point,’ which I’m sure they will. I guess until then, you try to do it.”
In his first 13 seasons in the NFL, Manning never failed to start a game — 208 straight, 227 including the playoffs. Then came the neck surgeries and 2011, which he missed entirely.
So even as the Colts prepared for life without Manning, he prepared for life without the only NFL team he had ever known. Last December, Cooper Helfet, whose career as a tight end at Duke had just ended, received a call from his head coach. David Cutcliffe was Manning’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Tennessee back in the late 1990s, and there is no one Manning trusts more with his throwing motion, his mechanics.
Cutcliffe told Helfet that Manning would be working out some at Duke, and he needed receivers. “I was like, ‘Ooooh, man,’ ” Helfet said. “I’d love to. Nothing would be better than that.’”
Beginning with workouts in December, Helfet saw what the Colts already knew and the Broncos would later find out: Manning’s demand for perfection, not only from himself but from those around him. During Manning’s career in Indianapolis, the Colts had a tough time keeping a backup sharp because Manning wanted to take every rep in every situation.
“It was a sight to see for an aspiring athlete,” said Helfet, who spent the preseason with Seattle before he was hurt and released.
Manning clearly had a way to go when he first started his workouts at Duke. Initially, he lobbed balls. He couldn’t throw tight spirals downfield. Cutcliffe talks about rotations per minute on a properly thrown pass, and Manning’s were low.
But he returned after the New Year, and Helfet saw changes. “By the end of February or the middle of March, he was throwing 50-yard balls on the money, and doing drills where Coach Cut would pretend to have a safety, and he’d have to look off his eyes and really kind of gun balls on a line into a small window for receivers,” he said. “He was unbelievably stronger.”
Manning is on pace to throw for 4,590 yards, which would be the second-highest total in his career. With three touchdown passes in the season’s final two games, he would have 34, a total he has surpassed just once.
His quarterback rating of 103.5 would rank as the third-best of his career; he trails only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and San Francisco’s Alex Smith by a scant margin; Rodgers’s league-best rating is 104.7.
“Nothing that he’s done this year has surprised me at all,” said veteran wide receiver Brandon Stokley, an Indianapolis teammate of Manning’s for four seasons and a Bronco now.
Stokley knows the foundation for all this: Manning’s unrelenting attention to detail. As offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said earlier in the year, “He challenges everyone in the building every day.” During the workouts at Duke, Manning would tell Helfet what he expected, how to burst out of a route, not to turn his eyes to the quarterback until he had finished his move. Those kinds of conversations have continued with the Broncos and young wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, Manning’s primary targets.
“You’re trying to use every piece of practice that you have,” Manning said. “Walk-throughs, meetings, special teams periods where you might get them off to the side. We try to use all those things to talk football and talk about things, and there’s some things we’ve made strides on. There’s some things I think you just have to have more time in order to get more on the same page.”
Mileposts along the way have shown Manning is again healthy, and the offense is, in fact, one of the best in the league. On Dec. 2 against Tampa Bay, Manning stared straight downfield against a Buccaneers blitz and threaded a touchdown pass to Thomas that John Elway, the Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback who is now the team’s executive vice president of football operations, called “one of the best throws I’ve ever seen.” In the win against Baltimore, Manning threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Decker that came in on a line and seemed to befuddle the defensive back.
But asked after the Ravens game whether his arm had fully recovered, Manning all but stammered.
“I mean, I just, I just . . . I throw it,” he said. “I don’t really know how to answer that. I still have rehab I have to do. I still have strength to recover. I would not say that, no.”
During the Broncos’ nine-game winning streak, the team has averaged 30.4 points per game. They are fifth in the league in total offense, second in scoring, third in touchdowns scored. Those around the Broncos marvel.
“To come back after the injury he had, the residual of the injury he had, it takes a special guy,” Coach John Fox told reporters earlier this month. “To come to a new team, new teammates, new city — everything about it new other than the conference — it’s pretty amazing, actually.”
Only two other quarterbacks have led nine-game winning streaks in their first year after switching teams. Yet Manning wants this all to feel like a work in progress, not work completed.
“What are we, into Week 15 here?” Manning asked after the win over Baltimore. “That’s all the time we’ve had to improve our timing. It’s not what it’s going to be if you play with guys six, seven, eight years. It feels like a scramble.”
That’s what it has always looked like, from the outside, as Manning stands back and waits for the snap, choreographing everything. But he is showing now, in a new city with a new team, that the same qualities that brought him success in Indianapolis can be transferred halfway across the country, and the results will follow.
Rick Maese contributed to this report.
More Redskins and NFL coverage:
Jenkins: Shanahan can coach — who knew?
Photos: Latest NFL power rankings