Manning marches toward game action

Peyton Manning looked sharp during his first minicamp with the Denver Broncos. Ron Chenoy/US Presswire

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tuesday marked another milestone in the reconstruction of Peyton Manning.

As he led his new team through the first day of a mandatory minicamp Tuesday on a majestic day in the Rockies, Manning took another positive step toward getting back on the field for the first time since January 2011.

Manning is 58 days away from the preseason opener at Chicago. It will be one of the most anticipated preseason performances in recent NFL memory.

All systems go. The Broncos have no plans of holding back Manning in preseason, despite the four neck procedures that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season. John Fox, starting his 11th season as an NFL head coach, said he plans to use Manning as he always has with his starting quarterbacks in the preseason. Manning will play a series or two in Chicago, will likely play into the second quarter in the second preseason game, and will likely play into the third quarter in the third preseason game. He will likely take the finale off to prepare for Denver’s season opener against Pittsburgh on Sept. 9.

“Everything is ready to go,” Fox said. “He’ll be out there.”

Manning said Tuesday it is fair to proclaim this preseason paramount because of his long layoff. Yet Manning, one of the NFL’s great preparers of all time, said he has always valued the preseason. He said he knows some players don’t look forward to playing before the season starts, but he never has been one of them.

“I’m looking forward to the preseason and getting used to the speed of preseason,” Manning said. “To me, every part of the year has a different speed and it is important to go through each speed. You have the OTA speed, then the minicamp speed, the [training] camp speed, then the preseason speed, then the regular season speed and then the postseason speed. Each step is important … I’ve always thought about the preseason. But certainly because of the fact that I haven’t been out there for a while, you could say there is an importance to this preseason.”

Fox doesn’t think the preseason games will be a time for Manning to knock off the rust or work out of the kinks. He said Manning is doing that now and will continue to do so in training camp, which is expected to begin July 26.

“He’s getting acclimated to everything, new offense, new coaches, a new center,” Fox said. “He’s going through the process and doing well.”

No one knows Manning the NFL quarterback better than Tom Moore. He was Manning’s offensive coordinator and close confidante for 13 seasons in Indianapolis. Moore worked with Manning in March as he prepared to sign with a team, and he was a camp visitor Tuesday.

“He looked excellent,” Moore said of Manning after the practice. “He looked the same. He looked good in March and I saw the progress from then to today. … He looked as good today as he ever has on any June 12th.”

On Tuesday Manning did not look like a player who is coming back from a critical injury and a year off. He looked sharp and his passes had good movement.

The deep ball is one area he still needs to work on, although it was never a major part of Manning’s game. The Broncos didn’t run many deep plays Tuesday, but in a recent OTA workout Manning looked good going long.

Earlier in the offseason, Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said the Broncos do have Manning on somewhat of a "pitch count” as they monitor his progress. It seems to be a liberal count. Manning didn’t look like a limited player Tuesday although he still is not all the way back.

Overall, it was Manning -- just without a horseshoe on his helmet.

He took charge, he constantly directed teammates on the field and on the sidelines, and he worked extra after practice. Manning’s new teammates are using this time to get used to playing Manning’s precision game.

“There’s no gray area,” said starting receiver Eric Decker, who was often talking to Manning between plays Tuesday. “You be in the right spot. You run the route the way he wants it. And again, no gray area, so he definitely tests you every day you come out.”

What struck me most about seeing Manning in a Denver uniform for the first time live was that everything is moving forward at the right pace. Signing him was considered a gamble in some circles, but nearly three months after Manning chose Denver over Tennessee and San Francisco (several other teams were interested as well), it doesn’t seem like a gamble.

There are no hints of buyer’s remorse in the organization. Privately, the team is giddy to have to Manning, choosing to look at the Tim Tebow experiment as a fun but distant memory.

“History in the making,” running back Willis McGahee repeated as he watched Manning being interviewed by a media throng.

Tuesday was simply another step in the process.