Manning begins Chapter 2 of his career in Denver
DENVER (AP) - The cadence rings out every time Peyton Manning is done decoding the defense and J.D. Walton is about to snap him the ball
Call it the Denver Broncos' unofficial mantra for 2012.
They're in quite the rush this year.
They're running the no-huddle at altitude. They're mixing the four-time MVP's precision passing prowess with a ground game that led the league in 2011 - but replaced the legs of Tim Tebow with rookie running back Ronnie Hillman to complement workhorse Willis McGahee. And they're in a hurry to get back to the NFL's upper echelon, too.
That was evidenced in the big contract they gave Manning, who's coming off a year's sabbatical and now has plates and screws in his neck to protect the nerve that was damaged last year, causing him to miss all of 2011 and leading to his change of address.
Although he insists his transition, like his rehab, is a season-long proposition, Manning has already shown that his arm strength is back and that he can take a hit.
Manning was lured to Denver with a five-year, $96 million deal, yet the 36-year-old quarterback is admittedly on a year-to-year basis, which means he's all about winning now.
In search of their first winning season since 2006, the Broncos added two of Manning's friends from Indianapolis in wide receiver Brandon Stokley and tight end Jacob Tamme. They also added tight end Joel Dreessen, fullback Chris Gronkowski and wide receiver Bubba Caldwell. Throw in third-year starting wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas and Manning has plenty of targets.
Front office boss and Hall of Famer John Elway's offseason makeover of Denver's defense was just as dazzling.
He brought in veterans Tracy Porter, Mike Adams and Drayton Florence to team with Pro Bowler Champ Bailey in a star-studded secondary, and used his top draft pick on defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, who start at end.
When the Broncos won the Manning sweepstakes in March, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil immediately talked about the success the Colts' tandem of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis had in rushing the passer whenever Manning was able to give his team an early lead. And now, the Broncos have added Wolfe to the mix.
However, opponents surely will try to run the ball and keep Manning off the field as much as possible.
Denver hopes its prepared with veteran run-stuffers Ty Warren, Justin Bannan and Kevin Vickerson. Warren has missed the last two seasons, first with a hip injury and then with a torn triceps. Vickerson is coming off an ankle injury that cost him 11 games last season and Bannan is beginning his second stint in Denver after a soured season in St. Louis.
The Broncos will be without their top tackler in four of the last five seasons as linebacker D.J. Williams serves a six-game drug suspension that could be lengthened following a recent conviction for driving while ability impaired. Wesley Woodyard replaces Williams in the starting lineup.
The Broncos have one of the NFL's top special team duos in kicker Matt Prater and punter Britton Colquitt. Veteran long-snapper Lonie Paxton was beaten out by undrafted rookie Aaron Brewer, a 6-foot-5 center who posted 15 special teams tackles at San Diego State.
All eyes are on Manning, though, as the football world waits to see if he can be the latest superstar to make a successful comeback from a long hiatus like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady have done.
Manning told his new coaches he wasn't interested in lugging the Colts' playbook from Indianapolis, offering instead to fit into the Broncos' system just as much as they'd tailor the offense around him.
By meeting offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and quarterbacks coach Adam Gase halfway, Manning has more options for his comeback tour than he did in his 14 seasons in Indy.
"Everybody thinks that because Peyton is here we're changing everything,'' McCoy said. "But we have a system in place and that's the first thing Peyton said when he came here was, `Hey listen, I want to learn your system.'''
So, the Broncos are a blend of the power formations they used in leading the league in rushing last year with Tebow and some of the spread formations that Manning ran in Indianapolis.
A new twist for Manning is the presence of Gronkowski, which means Manning will run at times a two-back offense for the first time in his career.
Manning completed 71.4 percent of his passes in the preseason (30 of 42) and half of his misses were drops or holding calls that weren't whistled by the replacement refs. He threw two TD passes, both to Decker. Important, too, were the two big hits he took - one from Seattle's Bruce Irvin, the other from San Francisco's Parys Haralson. After Irvin's jaw-rattling tackle, Manning bounced right up and the crowd cheered.
"I never heard a crowd cheer for an incompletion before,'' Manning said.
Haralson hit him just as hard as he released his longest pass of the preseason, a 38-yarder to running back Lance Ball, and again Manning shook it off.
Manning is glad he got those out of the way. Now, he and everyone else knows he can take a hit, although it'll be up to his patchwork offensive line to make sure he doesn't get his jersey too dirty.
Manning is thrilled he's no longer a sideline spectator. And he's done talking about the road that led him here.
"I'm not really going down memory lane,'' he said.
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