EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.- Peyton Manning seemed determined.
As the first-team Denver Broncos defense worked on red-zone plays against the scout team offense during a spirited practice on Thursday afternoon inside the New York Jets training complex, Manning and the rest of the offense had a mini-break.
This idle time apparently did not sit well with the MVP quarterback.
It seemed that he needed to do something. After chatting briefly on the sideline with offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Manning went looking for a receiver. He wanted to throw.
It took only a matter of seconds before he found his willing partner: Wes Welker.
For the next few minutes, Manning set up at mid-field and Welker ran one route after another – with various patterns and depths – as Manning fired away.
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It didn’t matter whether Manning pump-faked or used a play-action sequence.
The football never touched the ground during this sequence.
After Manning got it out of his system, he waved off Welker to indicate that this session was complete. Then he met his receiver and gave him a quick a fist-pound.
A couple minutes later, they were back on the field with the rest of the offense.
That snapshot was just one illustration of the sense of purpose that Manning – as his reputation suggests – carried throughout the week of practice.
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I watched the Broncos’ three full practices under heavy security at the Jets’ headquarters in Florham Park, N.J. during the week — and yes, the quarterback barked his signature “Omaha!” call repeatedly – and was struck by how Manning appeared to be urgent-yet-relaxed as he approached Super Bowl XLVIII.
Manning hardly came off as uptight, which one could wonder about amid all the talk about his legacy and a resume littered by postseason disappointments.
Certainly, that could change with the circumstances attached to his biggest challenge of the season. A day after Manning, 37, was officially named as recipient of his record fifth NFL MVP award, he needed to prove one more thing against the Seattle Seahawks and the NFL’s best defense.
Transferring the vibe from the practice field would be a good start.
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As they have all season, the Broncos began each of their practices with what they call “Speed Ball” – a full-team session pitting the starting offense against the starting defense in a frantic, mad-dashing no-huddle drill. This tends to raise the energy level for practice, as the Broncos go directly from stretching to a no-huddle.
That’s an NFL version of the sports car than can accelerate from zero to 60 in a few seconds.
It also underscores the idea of starting fast.
Manning got into a good rhythm with the early no-huddle drills, and throughout the week was generally sharp with his throws.
But the other element of Manning’s package that blared was his leadership.
We know the Broncos are Manning’s team. Yet he has habitually preached how winning big takes a team effort, and there was no doubt that he walks the walk with this.
During one portion of one the warm-up periods of practice, he was seen helping the running backs with ball-skills drills. Later, after the special teams came off the field, he complimented Trindon Holliday for a kickoff return up the middle that had it occurred during the game rather than in half-speed practice conditions, had the look of a runback that could have gone the distance.
“Let’s get one of those on Sunday,” Manning urged Holliday.
Later, he dropped to one knee and watched the first-team defense against the scout team – which involved a lot of backup quarterback Brock Osweiler mimicking a scramble-to-throw Russell Wilson.
“C’mon, D!” Manning pleaded.
Manning, 11-11 in career postseason games, has a chance to become the first quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl with two franchises. Yet a loss against the Seahawks would leave him with a losing career playoff record and perhaps shape the narrative about his legacy.
Of course, Manning is already in the conversation when considering the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. That status is cemented now, especially given the manner in which he rebounded from the four neck procedures that forced him to miss the 2011 season.
He has just produced the most prolific season by a quarterback in NFL history, with his 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns during the regular season.
And he had no plans to ride off into the sunset, regardless of what occurred on Sunday.
Assuming that he passes a physical in March and that doctors tell him that his neck is still good enough to play, he will return next season. He still enjoys the game. He’s still one of the NFL’s best.
For Manning, at this point – and for all that it has taken to get back to this point – there’s no reason beyond health not to come back.
Yet his big season, with that fresh MVP trophy, would be incomplete without a Super Bowl triumph.
It’s tricky. Manning’s the triggerman, the marquee attraction, the consummate leader and the one standing to gain the most glory or most blame – whether it’s deserved or not.
Still, it’s a team game.
When Manning won his first crown with the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI, he was given Super Bowl MVP honors but it did not occur in classic form. The Colts rushed for 191 yards against the Chicago Bears and forced five turnovers to complement an efficient, 247-yard game from Manning.
No, it doesn’t always have to be on Manning’s shoulders.
Throughout the week, that was also so evident on the practice field that a Broncos defense that has improved down the stretch seemed poised for a big performance.
Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie snatched interceptions on three consecutive days against the scout team during the practices.
On Thursday, it was an essential interception fest. Broncos defenders intercepted four passes.
Hey, it was “Turnover Thursday.”
And after one of the picks, against the scout team, Manning cheered.
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