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Manning has quietly been announcing his intentions ever since signing a five-year deal with the Broncos on March 20, following a surreal free agency period. He immediately moved in with his old college teammate, Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, and began gathering his new receivers for informal throwing sessions on various high school football fields. "We were trying hard to keep it light, but it was a pretty serious vibe," says wideout Eric Decker of the workouts. "We wanted to show him that we could do things the right way and that coming here was the right choice."
Throughout the summer word quickly spread among the Broncos of the long hours Manning was putting in at the team's headquarters, rehabbing his neck and drilling down on the playbook. The aura he created was such that at the outset of training camp second-year tight end Julius Thomas was calling Manning "Sir" in the huddle, until the QB told him to knock it off.
Even veterans remain comically deferential to the future Hall of Famer. Tamme was one of Manning's favorite targets in Indianapolis two years ago, and thus seemed like a good person to ask if Manning is back to 100%. He offered a slightly lower, highly specific number. It was offered in jest, and taken as such. But hours later a Broncos p.r. staffer called to say that Tamme was "freaking out" because he didn't want to come across as disparaging Manning. "He looks great," Tamme said, by way of clarification. "Whatever his 100 percent is, he's really darn close to it."
Manning concedes that he's lost a little velocity on his fastball—see several fluttering sideline passes against Pittsburgh—but so what? Plenty of rocket-armed quarterbacks have been busts because they lacked the intangibles that Manning's teammates rave about. "It's been an education to watch how he goes about his business," says Manning's 21-year-old rookie backup, Brock Osweiler. "The biggest thing is how precious every minute is to him. He does everything with a purpose and he makes all of us keep up. I can't daydream for one minute because he'll call me on it. It's like he has this sixth sense of when your mind might be wandering. We'll be watching film and out of nowhere he'll say, 'Hey Brock: In that coverage, what's your hot read?' You don't want to let him down."
That extra studying is necessary because the Broncos have revamped their passing game, which last year could be described as "Tim, don't screw up." The new playbook, says McGahee, is "sophisticated. We have Peyton Manning as our quarterback. Enough said."
Asked how that's different from a season ago, McGahee recoiled as if he'd caught a whiff of something foul. "C'mon, man! Be real. It's an upgrade, obviously. Manning is the guy who's gonna lead us to our destination."
That's a heavy load for a guy with a vertical scar traversing the back of his neck. The Steelers sacked Manning twice and got in a couple of other good shots on Sunday, but afterward Manning couldn't have been perkier. The Broncos, meanwhile, affect an air of studied nonchalance about Manning's health. Says Tamme, "He's a big, strong guy who proved his toughness a long time ago."
Still, being a Broncos offensive lineman is suddenly one of the most stressful jobs in sports, not that any of Manning's blockers wants to admit it. Denver's line operates under a code of omerta, whereby to speak to a reporter is to risk ostracization—or worse. Approached in the locker room after a recent practice, center C.J. Davis declined to comment, motioning toward his fellow linemen at a nearby table, where they were inhaling three humongous bags of Wendy's takeout, including a pair of milk shakes per player. "If I talk I'll get fined by them," Davis said.
"Yo, don't be selfish, it goes to charity," someone yelled.
Davis acquiesced, speaking over catcalls, taunts and a raucous chant of "Tell 'em, C.J., tell 'em!" "Oh yeah, there's big-time pressure to protect Peyton," said Davis. "We don't want anyone even breathing on him. At the end of the game his uniform needs to be clean."