ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — His passes were hitting receivers in stride and right between the numbers, not skipping off the ground or whizzing behind their heads like so many of Tim Tebow’s.
The Denver Broncos got their first real taste of Peyton Manning on Monday with a spirited, fast-paced workout, the four-time MVP’s first full practice in more than 16 months.
“It felt good to be out there. It’s been a while for me,” Manning said. “It’s been about a year and a-half since I’ve been in uniform, been in an organized practice. So, it felt good to be out there. And it will be a good film to study.”
Monday also was the first chance for the media to get a look at the progress Manning has made since a series of neck operations sidelined him all of last season and led to his release from the Indianapolis Colts.
And Manning looked great, showing zip and accuracy on his passes, comfort under center, complete command of his offense and no ill effects from the nerve injury that caused weakness in his throwing arm.
“Man, it feels good to know he’s going to be on my side because what I saw today, he’s going to give us some good work,” star cornerback Champ Bailey said. “And we might not see a quarterback like that all year.”
Manning became the most prized free agent in NFL history following his release from the Colts after 14 seasons. His signing in Denver led to Tebow’s trade to the New York Jets, despite a thrilling run to the playoffs guided by the younger QB.
The Broncos and a handful of other suitors watched Manning throw during his whirlwind free agency tour in March, but before Monday, reporters had to rely on his receivers for updates on his progress. Manning had refused to talk about it.
“Well, you guys got to see him today,” tight end Jacob Tamme said.
And he looked like the Manning of old. His throws, most of which were intermediate, were strong and on target. His only deep pass was true, too, hitting Matthew Willis in stride before being broken up by cornerback Tracy Porter at the goal line.
Watching his pinpoint passes zip around Dove Valley, one never would have guessed he’d been forced to take a sabbatical and go under the scalpel multiple times since his last game, a wild-card playoff loss to the Jets in January of 2011.
“Oh, no. Absolutely not,” Bailey said. “You know, it’s not live, but from what I see right now, the guy hasn’t missed a beat.”
Coach John Fox said Manning’s “getting better every day.”
And so are the Broncos, on account of Manning’s presence.
“He definitely raises all boats, that’s for sure, and that’s not just with the young players, (but also) the veterans,” Fox said. “We’re excited where that is and what’s he’s done to raise those boats.”
Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas and the other young receivers have all been refining their route-running so as not to endure Manning’s famous wrath.
“Well, I think they’re on their way,” Bailey said. “Obviously, I want to help them as much as possible, try to sharpen their routes up and things like that, but one thing about them is they get open a little bit, they’re open a lot to him. That’s one thing that’s a big difference this year.”
Manning wouldn’t gauge the progress he’s made in his two months in Denver, first during private workouts at local high schools and then at the team’s training facility.
“It’s hard to say. I try to get better every day, you know, that’s my goal and I really need to use this time,” he said. “I do think there’s a difference when you are on the field in helmets going up against a defense. Up until now, we hadn’t been able to go against a defense. So, this will be great work for me going against Champ Bailey and Von Miller and Elvis (Dumervil) and (Tracy) Porter, Drayton Florence.
“We’ve got three great cover corners to work against. So, until now we’ve been kind of throwing passes versus air, and you can work on your timing with receivers but it’s a great test to go against these corners.”
Manning is clearly more concerned about ironing out the wrinkles in his new offense than what fans seem to be harping on: his health status.
“I’ve always believed you develop your timing for your passing game in the offseason, I don’t think you can just show up in September and expect to be on the same page,” Manning said. “So, what a great opportunity for these receivers going against these corners. I mean, if you can’t get better going against some of these top cover corners, then it’s just not meant to be. So, it’s a great challenge for everybody.”
Monday marked one signpost. Up ahead is putting on the shoulder pads, training camp, taking that first hit in the preseason.
“There’s no question it’s a different mentality for me in these OTAs than it has been in other years because of all the changes,” Manning said. “But I look forward to the challenge and I just can’t tell you how important these OTAs are. I think they’re important for everybody. But when you’re a new player, on a new team, certainly coming off an injury, I think they certainly take added importance, and I thought today was an excellent start.”
Notes: Among the no-shows for the voluntary workout was DT Ty Warren, whom the Broncos are hoping takes a pay cut, and LB D.J. Williams, whose DUI case ended in a mistrial Monday.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton