DENVER – They’re crazy about Peyton Manning here, obviously, because, well, how could they not be after last year? He came to Denver as a rickety 36-year-old legend with a precarious neck, a diminished arm and an unclear future. He had missed the entire previous season. He looked odd in orange. At least as a pro.
Then what did he do? He smashed every passing record on the Denver books: Most completions, most yards, highest completion percentage, most touchdown passes (by 10!), highest quarterback rating (105.8!).
He led Denver to a 13-win regular season, the best record in the conference. And even though the season ended miserably with a heartbreaking home playoff loss to Baltimore – with an ill-advised Manning interception proving decisive in overtime – the overall story was still absurdly good. Look: A legend many wrote off as finished came back to have a spectacular season in one of the great football cities in America. It was more than absurdly good. It was Disney good.
So, yes, absolutely, another football season is about to begin, as the Broncos kick off the season against Baltimore at 8:30 p.m. ET Thursday night on NBC, and teammates talk about how well Manning is throwing the ball, and the Broncos and fans are thinking Super Bowl, and they love Peyton Manning here in Denver. Right?
“I think Denver fans really, really like Peyton Manning,” one Broncos fan says as she stands outside a downtown restaurant called “Elway's.” Then she points at the sign. “But we only love one guy.”
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What are you supposed to do with other people’s legends? That’s a fascinating sports question these days as players move around more than ever. What are Anaheim fans supposed to do with Albert Pujols (even if he starts hitting again)? How are Brooklyn Nets fans supposed to feel about Paul Pierce? Yankees fans are used to their team scooping up other team’s legends, but can they ever feel about Ichiro Suzuki the way Seattle Mariners fans do (or the way Yankees fans feel about Mariano Rivera or Derek Jeter)?
Sure Denver fans will cheer hard for Manning. There’s no doubt about that. They will pray for Manning. They will believe in Manning. They love their Broncos.
But can Denver Broncos fans ever LOVE Peyton Manning?
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When Manning arrived in Denver, he was more than just an Indianapolis Colts legend and the only four-time MVP in NFL history. He was America’s quarterback. He was the guy driving the Buick and throwing the Nerf Football and pitching NFL Sunday Ticket and Papa John’s Pizza, the guy kicking his brother on ESPN commercials, the guy shouting “Cut that Meat!” and “You’re my favorite accountant!” on the MasterCard commercials. He was the guy who hosted Saturday Night Live. He was the star-crossed superstar who pointed madly in every direction before the snap, threw some of the most accurate spirals in the game’s history, and lost too many heartbreaking playoff games.
He also OWNED the Broncos, having destroyed them twice in the playoffs.
In other words, he had a history, a full life, before he ever came to Denver. Then, he arrived, and nobody was quite sure if he could play football anymore. The neck injury seemed pretty bleak. Manning took over for Tim Tebow, who had somehow run and bulled and willed the Broncos into the playoffs for the first time in five years. Nobody was especially confident that Tebow could do it again, but Denver fans had kind of adopted him.
“Timmy was everybody’s son,” Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla says. “Heck, they called him, ‘Timmy.’”
And Manning? Well, sure, fans were excited about acquiring one of the purest passers in the history of pro football. How could they not be? But there was a feeling-out process too. Manning had always been the enemy. Now, they were supposed to root for him? Manning had always inspired furious feelings. Now, they were supposed to adore him? Manning had always worn a horseshoe on his helmet. Now he was supposed to look right with a Bronco there?
It was strange for Manning too. Hard for him. He had been in Indianapolis for 14 years, ever since he was a kid. Denver … was … different. The light air. The bluer sky. The different rhythm. The new offense. Manning would talk about getting lost just trying to find his barber. Funny, Manning seems so carefree in the commercials – you see him rapping “Football On Your Phone” while he wears a groovy wig, and you might see someone who shakes off the small issues and doesn't worry about too much.
The real Peyton Manning is precisely the opposite of that guy. Well, he still seems a genuinely nice guy, but he worries about EVERYTHING. He is a perfectionist. He is a workaholic. He desperately needs a sense of control. That’s why he’s standing back in the pocket, pointing at every blitzer, barking last-second blocking schemes like they are directions to defuse a bomb. It’s because he needs to do everything in his power to control the situation. Nobody watches more film. Nobody analyzes from more angles. Nobody comes into a game more prepared. Nobody puts more pressure on himself.
“In a new town, you could tell, he felt a little bit out of control,” says Kiszla, whose new book, “No Plan B: Peyton Manning’s Comeback with the Denver Broncos," comes out this week. “You could tell he was uncomfortable. Elway even told me at the end of the season, ‘Once I got to know Peyton better, I realized that it’s amazing he played as well as he did in his first year in Denver.‘”
Kiszla remembers another conversation he had with Elway, now Denver’s Executive VP for Football Operations: "I told him, John, you were like the ultimate fireman. When the Broncos were down in the final minutes, when the flames were burning, you were at your best. It’s like you would arrive on the scene of a burning house, say to the woman, 'I’ll get your cat and save your photo album and be out in two minutes.' Then you would come out with the cat, and the book and a big old smile like you were thinking, 'Yeah I fooled them again.'"
Then he asked Elway: Is Peyton Manning like that?
Elway smiled that famous smile and said, no, Manning would not go into the house until he had seen a full blueprint, learned all about the builder and determined the exact dimensions of each bedroom.
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Denver has had some experience with other people’s sports legends. Back in 2000, the Colorado Avalanche traded for one of hockey’s all-time greats, Ray Bourque. He had played defense for the Boston Bruins for the better part of 20 seasons. Bourque was as ingrained in one team and one town as any hockey player ever, as ingrained perhaps as any American athlete ever.
Boston Bruins: Ray Bourque.
Ray Bourque: Boston Bruins.
And yet, Avalanche fans for the most part embraced Bourque immediately. “Hockey fans are more diehard than any other fan, but for Avs fans it was like Bourque was one of us from Day 1,” Kiszla says.
Bourque played one full season for the Avalanche. One. But it was a magnificent season, a Stanley Cup season, and Bourque was a leader and driving force on that team. Then he retired. A few months later, the Avalanche retired Ray Bourque’s number 77. It was the first retired number in Avalanche history.
“I was like: ‘Really?’ Kiszla says. “Was he even here long enough? I don’t even remember his number. … But that was different. Avalanche fans are passionate. But like a lot of sports towns, there is a lot of passion here for different sports, but there’s only one team that is a religion.”
This sort of thing has worked in football too. Joe Montana ended his magnificent career in with the Kansas City Chiefs … and Kansas City adored him. It was a bit different, though. The Chiefs had been all but dead for 20 years. They were as nondescript a team as any in sports. And then, suddenly, they had Joe Montana, and he still had something left, and the waiting list for season tickets reportedly swelled to more than 50,000, and people outside Kansas City started wearing Chiefs jerseys, and the Chiefs went to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the glory days back when Len Dawson played quarterback. So that worked out.
But for every Bourque or Montana triumph, there is Joe Namath in Los Angeles or John Unitas in San Diego or Tom Seaver in Boston (remember that?) or Shaq in Boston or Willie Mays with the Mets or Pete Rose with Montreal or many, many other sad and crushing endings. In that informal poll near Elway's, I asked seven people if Denver really loves Peyton Manning. Two said unequivocally yes. Two said no, not love. Three said they would wait to see how it goes this year.
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Peyton Manning is not one to talk about his legacy any more than he is one to talk about last year’s playoff loss to Baltimore. On that loss, his response is simply: “I covered that just about all offseason.” When asked what he said, Manning’s reply is even simpler: “I guess you just have to probably check some old (newspaper) clips.”
(If you check the clips you will see what you already knew: The loss devastated Manning).
When asked about legacy, he will shrug and in a lighthearted but firm way say that it is not his job to worry about legacies. That’s for sportswriters and analysts. Fortunately, sportswriters and analysts have strong opinions. Everyone concedes that Manning is as successful and brilliant a passer as anyone, ever. Twelve times he has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season – nobody else has done it more than seven.
But: There’s the other thing. In the local newspaper, Woody Paige wrote a column saying that Manning was well on his way to being the greatest regular season quarterback ever. It was no compliment. It was a direct reference to the only knock on Manning’s career – his 9-11 playoff record. His single Super Bowl victory. The crushing interceptions thrown at the wrong time (in the Super Bowl against New Orleans, in the Ravens game, etc.
There are many different ways to look at those playoff losses; often Manning was carrying a team that really wasn’t good enough to win. But, like the Baltimore playoff game, that’s all in the past now. Manning knows time runs out.
He’s 37 years old now. He has been sacked more than 250 times in the NFL. He has thrown almost 8,000 passes – only Dan Marino and Brett Favre threw more. He takes the losses as hard as anybody; he has admitted that they haunt him. He has, by all accounts, worked as hard this preseason as at any point in his career. He says that, like always, he feels butterflies entering the season. You know he wants one more Super Bowl. At least.
“So where does Peyton fit in Denver?” Kiszla asks. “Well, John Elway is No. 1. Elway was here a long time. Put it this way: People love John Elway. They admire Peyton Manning. There’s a difference.”
What happens, though, if Manning does win that Super Bowl this year?
“Well,” Kiszla says. “That obviously would change things.”