Last year at this time, there was no bigger question than how healthy Peyton Manning would be for the Denver Broncos. The previous year, the question was whether he would ever be healthy again. It seems to be an annual tradition to check in on his neck, but this year, there's no doubt at all.
Peyton Manning is back.
There's more to it than a single, simple answer, but at the heart of it is confidence. It's the lack of questions in Manning's mind heading into this season, one that should remind us of the uncertainty he faced before.
2011 wasn't the first time Manning knew he had neck problems or headed into a season with issues. It was the last time, and that has made all the difference.
The surgery last year, a single-level anterior fusion done by Dr. Robert Watkins, worked perfectly. The titanium hardware held up to hits and gave the nerves coming out of his spine and leading down to his arms the space they never quite had in seasons past.
The procedure did enough to let him play, even to lead a team back to the Super Bowl, but Manning was struggling.
People around the Indianapolis Colts' complex had seen it. He was spending more time in the training room than he was in the film room. Some of those "apple-apple" checks were out of plays that he knew he couldn't make any more.
The rehab was methodical.
It must have felt painfully slow for Manning, exacerbated by having to watch the Colts collapse around him. He couldn't do anything to help, or even shake his head at the losses.
People questioned him. His future in Indianapolis grew cloudier. He looked to his brother Cooper, whose own career had been ended by a neck issue, and wondered if he wasn't seeing himself.
As things grew darker on the field, with the Colts plummeting into position to draft Manning's replacement, Manning was seeing things change off the field as well. His family doubled with the arrival of twins. His relationship with the team, while never strained, was tested by the business of football. Manning held in the tears—just barely—as he left Indianapolis, but it also fueled him.
Manning began working with David Cutcliffe, his collegiate quarterback coach and now the head coach at Duke. He had always touched base with Cutcliffe during the offseason and at his famous Manning Quarterback Camp, but this was more.
Manning was learning how to be a different quarterback.
He was not back to 100 percent when he started work. It wasn't even close. While the footwork and the mental game were still sharp, his arm was...well, let's just say that no one described it as "laser rocket" any more.
Instead of using an asset that wasn't what it was, he adjusted. Manning learned what he could do and what he couldn't. He focused on the smart throws, not the big throws.
The grainy cell phone videos of some of those early workouts were carefully scripted. A 15-yard out is easy enough to throw in a practice bubble, but shooting things with Andrew Luck's cell phone helped hide some of the wobbles.
It took John Elway, another great quarterback who made adjustments at the end of his career, to see that what Manning could do far outweighed what he couldn't anymore.
The nerve slowly regenerated. Imagine it like when your foot "falls asleep." The nerve is pinched slightly and takes a few painful minutes to get back to normal. Manning's neck had been like that for five years or more.
His throws got stronger—if not as much as they were, then enough to do a lot. He also knew that there might be more coming, and with another full offseason to train and learn, even Peyton Manning had room for improvement.
In 2012, it was clear that Manning's arm strength was off. Vertical throws were out of the playbook, as were off-balance throws. John Fox and Mike McCoy made continual adjustments to the play-calling, just as Manning was doing with his body. He prepped, game-planned and read defenses more, but it wasn't quite enough to make it back to where he wanted to be.
He's back at it in 2013.
He's still hungry, powered by knowing that some people question if he's even the best quarterback in his own family. He knows that when he's remembered, some people will start the discussion with rings, not stats.
Most of all, Manning is working harder. He's never been the most athletically gifted player, but he's never coasted on his name or his past.
Watch to see whether Manning can make a few more of those downfield throws. See if he can make a few more off-balance passes or if he notices some of those small windows in the downfield cross and thinks, "Yeah, this season I can make that pass."
Scouts I have spoken with say from what they saw last year and through limited preseason action this year that Manning is about 90 percent.
One scout nailed it when he told me "But that 10 percent might be bigger for Peyton Manning than it is for any other player in the league."
Manning's looking for that 10 percent, and I don't believe he can even think about walking off into the sunset until he finds it.
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