Manning, who retired in early March weeks after Denver's Super Bowl 50 victory, will join his former teammates Monday in Washington as the Broncos will be honored by President Obama at the White House. It will be a brief return to how things used to be in what has so far been an exercise in Life Without Manning.
And that has been a significant change.
“Those guys come along once in a lifetime or once every 100 years or whatever," Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “He instilled something in this [team's] culture that will be here for a long time."
Manning’s absence has affected much of what the team has done thus far. Its quarterback depth chart, with Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian and rookie Paxton Lynch, has launched thousands of drive-time conversations and plenty of hand-wringing among the team's faithful.
Replacing Manning, and to a lesser extent Brock Osweiler, who left in free agency, has been the top item of interest as the Broncos have gone through their offseason program. Replacing Manning's presence both in the locker room and the lineup has been at the front of the franchise’s collective mind.
“Obviously, the leadership of our team has changed a little bit without [No.] 18 around here," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “There is going to be some of that going on. It’s going to be fun as a coach to watch that take place. Our work habits are really good. Our offseason has been tremendous."
Manning’s tenure with the Broncos lasted just four seasons but he led them to four AFC West titles, authored the highest-scoring season in league history (606 points in 2013) and made two Super Bowl appearances to go with this past February’s title-game win against the Carolina Panthers.
Even when Manning missed seven starts last season because of a foot injury, and wasn’t the hub of the Broncos’ wheel, his teammates said it mattered when Kubiak put Manning back in the lineup for the regular-season finale and playoffs.
“Oh yeah, he’s Peyton Manning," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “We knew what it meant to him."
"It’s just different without 18," Marshall said. “I’m not going to lie, it was a sense of comfort when you had 18 under center. Everybody was kind of at ease. Last year he didn’t have his best year, but regardless you still went into the game each and every snap comfortable because you had Peyton Manning under center. And he won us a Super Bowl."
But several Broncos, including Marshall, said it was Manning who may have helped the Broncos begin to prepare for when he was gone.
“Honestly, when I first got here [in 2013] Peyton was on everybody’s asses," Marshall said. “On everybody. I think as the years went on, he kind of ... wasn’t as 'c’mon, let’s go.' On defense, we took ownership last year of our group. ... Him just being here, it definitely lives on, on and off the field. Just who he was, just such a good person, he was such a great player, it would be hard for it not to live on."
“Nobody will ever forget what he did, what he meant," Broncos running back C.J. Anderson said. “But the next season comes no matter what, it doesn't wait for anybody."