It was an eventful first Sunday of the NFL football season. The 49ers took out the Packers in Lambeau in what might’ve been a preview of this season’s NFC Championship game, RG3 looked like the real deal in his first professional start as the Redskins upset the Saints, the new look Bears offense dominated the Colts and ruined the dawn of the Andrew Luck era in Indianapolis, everyone’s preseason darling the Seattle Seahawks came up short against the Cardinals, and the Jets whacked the revamped Bills in a game that saw Mark Sanchez shine and Tim Tebow fade into the background.
All of these games occurred earlier in the day before what many considered the marquee matchup of Week 1, that being the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Denver Broncos in a Sunday night tilt that featured the return of Peyton Manning.
I was never an Indianapolis Colts fan per se, but as the years passed I began to appreciate more and more all the little things that Manning brought to the table every week to help his team win games. From practically his first day in Indy he fit the mold of what a franchise quarterback should be – reliable, durable, accurate, polished, studious, and most importantly, a winner. Manning’s stats speak for themselves, and he will likely retire as the best regular season QB the game has ever known.
The Colts imploded without him in 2011, falling to 2-14 and leading one to wonder how they seemed to stack up ten plus victories like cordwood (Scott Lillie™) each season Manning was under center. The sad truth is that Eli’s big brother hide a lot of deficiencies in Indy, serving as the de facto offensive coordinator on the field by calling out plays and line formations, and routinely turning good receivers into great ones and great receivers into future Hall of Famers.
He was delegated to the sidelines last year after experiencing a setback following offseason neck surgery, and though the NFL kept chugging along and we witnessed a great regular season, playoffs, and Super Bowl, it definitely felt weird without No. 18 on the field. It’s almost as if he had become a part of the game’s subculture; not only because of his play on the field but also his all-encompassing presence off of it. During my lifetime I can’t think of a more marketable athlete outside of Michael Jordan, as he has made a second career and brought in new fans with his entertaining commercials and easy demeanor.
All of which brings us to Peyton’s debut tonight in Denver. NBC put up a note at the start that it had been 610 days since Manning last participated in a game, so it would be natural for him to have some ring rust early on.
It was very strange to see him run out to the field in that bright orange Bronco uniform, almost as weird the first time Montana suited up for the Chiefs or Favre with the Jets. My eyes adjusted to this odd visual after a few minutes though, and by the time Manning completed his first pass of the game to Eric Decker it felt like he had never left an NFL huddle.
This feeling was hammered home in the second quarter when the Broncos started going no huddle on offense. The Steelers defense has long been considered one of the best in the league, making a habit of playing physical and beating teams into submissions. They were rendered helpless on this night however, as Manning put on a passing clinic. Pittsburgh’s defense was unable to slow down the Denver offense for any meaningful stretch once they got rolling, and Broncos ended up winning by a score of 31-19.
The night probably couldn’t have gone any better for the Broncos and their fans. Convincing Manning to sign with Denver was a bit of a coup for John Elway, but this has to be precisely what he had envisioned his team could look like with a great quarterback leading the way. Any lingering worries about Manning’s health or arm strength will be pushed to the side, as he took a few hits, made all the throws, and showed plenty of life on them on his fastball.
Manning has always been a model of consistency, not only for the Colts for all those years but also for the league as a whole. Having him back playing would’ve be great for the NFL under any circumstances, but it will be even better if he can replicate performances like tonight’s in the weeks and months ahead. Running the no huddle to perfection, changing protections and plays at the line; the guy is an artist out there and can put the ball wherever he wants. There is a new generation of signal callers making noise on Sundays, and as long as the Manning’s and Brady’s of the world are still playing hopefully we can see a few more classic quarterback duels.