Four neck surgeries and an entire season ago, Peyton Manning stood atop the NFL mountain as one of the few quarterbacks in the league who would be a first ballot hall-of-famer once he retired from the sport. He was a master at throwing the ball down the field and finding the open receiver. He handed out touchdowns like they were candied treats and his receivers were eager trick-or-treaters. He rarely made mistakes - but when he did he quickly righted the ship and the scoring continued. But that was then - this is now. The old Peyton Manning is no more and I for one am thrilled about it.
After more than a year away from the game, Manning signed a five year $95 million deal with the Broncos in March of 2012. Football fans around the world wondered if Manning would be the same player he was before the surgeries. Would he still be able to throw down the field? How was he going to handle the inevitable big hits that all quarterbacks take in the NFL? Would a new team and a new offense temper Manning's ability to deliver in the clutch? Was the new Manning going to be as good as the old Manning? Peyton did his best to emphasize over and over that he was not the same player. He admitted that he needed to work on his velocity, his accuracy, and his ability to throw across the field. He admitted that he was rusty after being away from the game for more than a year. He tried his best to temper expectations in Denver, reiterating over and over that he is a work in progress. In short, he was telling the world that the old Peyton Manning was no longer with us.
But football fans aren't easily fooled (most of the time). Of course there was going to be speculation. Watching Manning play in the preseason, it was clear he wasn't the same player. All of the problems he vocalized during training camp were on display for the world to see. As he progressed, sports analysts everywhere began to speculate that his passes didn't have the same "zip". Some said he couldn't throw to his right.
Some said he looked nervous in the pocket. But Manning stayed the course, making slight improvements at practice and during each preseason game. As Manning improved, the receiving corps also began to gel. As the receivers began to better understand their new roles on Manning's team, it gave him an opportunity to create chemistry on the offense. While the team has experienced some missteps in the past few weeks, the offense has steadily picked up steam. The new Manning no longer needs to throw the ball 60 yards down the field. He is smarter and more cerebral than he's ever been. He educates every person on offense and works closely with the defense. Instead of giving every player a fish he is teaching them to fish. As a result, the Broncos are poised to win the AFC West and could wind up representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The old Manning is no longer with us. In his place is the new Manning - and I for one am very thankful for that.