Peyton Manning works to connect with younger generation, his teammates

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's a question of birthdays.

Candles on a cake, miles on the human odometer and experience. And Peyton Manning has had 39 birthdays; that's the number in his age-is-just-a-number approach to his 18th NFL season.

Manning sets the tone for the Denver Broncos, a team that from the executive offices on down believes it can be in the Super Bowl conversation.

One of Manning's biggest football jobs for the coming season may not have a whole lot to do with X's and O's. Certainly, he needs to adapt to a new offense, throw touchdown passes and lead a team through the inevitable ups and downs of the season. But to do that he also will have to connect with teammates, many of whom are getting younger all the time.

"I understand it's different for me now, and I understand I need to be more conscious of it, work at it, understand it," Manning said with a laugh. "A couple years ago I think one of the rookies said: 'I was 5 years old when you were a senior at Tennessee.' I don't want to hear that, but it teaches you a quick lesson of where you are and what you need to do."

The 53-player roster the Broncos figure to take into Sunday's regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens features 20 players who are 24 or younger. The youngest Broncos player -- rookie cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who is 21 -- was 6 months old when Manning started his first game at the University of Tennessee.

"When I got drafted, one of the first things I thought was playing on the same team as Peyton Manning," Doss said. " . . . An incredible person, one of the best ever and just wants to win."

The opposition also can become enamored. Houston Texans practice squad cornerback Charles James approached Manning during warm-ups before a preseason game to tell Manning he's "a f---ing legend," a free-spirited moment caught on the HBO series "Hard Knocks."

Manning knows he has to bridge the gap between where he has been to get to where his teammates are at the moment. When the Broncos claimed two players off waivers Sunday -- tight end Mitchell Henry and center James Ferentz -- one of the reasons coach Gary Kubiak offered was: "We got a little younger . . . so, that's a good thing."

"You've got to work at it," Manning said. "When you first get in [the NFL] and you don't have kids, you're the same age and you're all kind of doing the same things. But now things are different, life is different, things change when you have kids. It changes your time; it changes your life. ... Get to know [your teammates], when you have the time, when you do those things, any functions, or eating lunch, sitting in the cafeteria, whenever you have a chance."

Former Broncos guard Orlando Franklin has portrayed Manning as distant at times. In a Pro Football Talk appearance shortly after he signed with San Diego in free agency, Franklin said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was "more approachable" than Manning.

For his part, Manning took issue with Franklin's assessment.

"I really disagree," Manning said. "I'm approachable, I like to engage, but I think you do have to work a little harder at it as you go. ... There is an age thing. You can outgrow the locker room and if you remove yourself too much, then you become distant. I try to cut up, I'm the butt of many a joke in there; I like that."

But much in the way he attacks a game plan, he believes a little more information can go a long way.

"It's a conscious decision," Manning said. "But I try to study the bios, get to know them, talk to them, introduce myself, the sooner we can get to work together, the better. If you're going to succeed you need everybody, I know that, I understand it. I really do."