ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Peyton Manning sauntered over to the podium after his first full practice since the Denver Broncos’ loss to Baltimore in the playoffs, weaving his way through all the outstretched microphones, smartphones and bank of cameras.
Right out of the gate, somebody asked about his health.
“Yeah, I feel fine,” he responded.
Really, it’s no longer about Manning’s health but his hardiness. He proved he could come back from a year’s forced sabbatical. Now, he’s out to show he can put it all together again and reach the Super Bowl he seemed so destined for by the time the playoffs rolled around last year.
Manning may be another year removed from those neck surgeries that were such a hot topic a year ago, but he’s under just as much scrutiny heading into his second season in Denver.
At 37, he shoulders the heavy weight of high expectations after such a successful return in 2102, when he threw for 4,600 yards and 37 touchdowns after sitting out his final season in Indianapolis.
There’s a Super Bowl or bust kind of buzz in Denver after John Elway added Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez and Montee Ball this offseason to Manning’s already impressive supporting cast.
The Broncos easily could have stood pat in the offseason, figuring like so many that their double-overtime upset loss to the Ravens in the divisional round was simply a fluke.
Instead, Elway’s signing of Welker to team with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker was the highlight of another active year in free agency, and in the draft he grabbed Wisconsin’s Ball, giving the Broncos the big, bruising running back they sorely missed in the playoffs.
Adam Gase, who was elevated to offensive coordinator after Mike McCoy got the head coaching job in San Diego, favors a more up-tempo, aggressive approach with so much talent surrounding one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks.
Speeding things up will help give Manning more snaps to share the ball with his terrific trio of wide receivers who combined for 297 catches and 29 touchdowns last season.
Manning got a jumpstart on practicing with the new Three Amigos when he invited them to work out with him and his brother at Duke University this spring.
“Especially as a quarterback, you like wide receivers that like to work, that like to perfect their craft, and all three of those guys really like to do that,” Manning said.
Welker was Tom Brady’s favorite receiver for six seasons in New England, but when he became a free agent, he jumped at the chance to work with Manning.
The pair got a head start by working out at Duke.
“We’ve put a lot of time in together as individuals, but just versus air,” Manning said. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking, as well, and going against a defense. We’ll continue to learn, and there’ll be some things we need to work on and improve, but that’s what OTAs and training camp are for.”
Manning seems relieved that he’s back to working on tweaks, rather than making all the adjustments himself as he had to do a year ago after his departure from Indy, where he spent his first 14 seasons as a pro.
“We have a new offensive coordinator, but I do think there is more of a comfort level for the guys that are returning,” Manning said. “I know that I do feel more comfortable, but I do think you always have to challenge yourselves to learn new things, to work on your weaknesses in the offseason.”
Manning said he still gets lost driving around Denver, but his growing comfort level is evident in the pranks he keeps pulling on his teammates.
He engineered a gag in which Decker sneaked up on right tackle Orlando Franklin at a Yankees-Rockies game earlier this month and smashed the 330-pound lineman in the face with a shaving cream pie while he was doing a live TV interview.
Decker, by the way, was the victim this spring when Manning tricked him into thinking he owed $3,000 to cover the costs of working out with him at Duke.
One of Manning’s favorite tricks is befuddling teammates by switching their iPhone language to Chinese.
“I actually caught him in the middle of it,” tight end Joel Dreessen said. “I was in the shower and I get back to my locker and he was standing at my locker with a towel.”
Dreessen plotted his revenge and actually carried it out — before having second thoughts.
“He was charging his iPad at my locker, so I set a dog barking alarm to go off at like 2 in the morning,” said Dreessen, certain that the meticulous Manning would take his digital playbook home with him as always.
“I got home that night and I was like, ‘Man, he’s got twin babies and I don’t want to wake his wife up.’ So I totally chickened out and I texted him that night, ‘Hey, I set your iPad to go off at 2 in the morning. Turn it off.’ He’s like, ‘Actually, I didn’t bring it home.'”
Manning is the one who lined up a bus to take three dozen of his teammates for a night of bonding at the ballpark. He said he got the idea after coach John Fox gathered his players for a nine-hole golf tournament last year.
“It’s probably a good thing it’s nine holes and not 18 — 40 sets of rental clubs last year, which tells you how many non-golfers we have on this team. But it’s fun,” Manning said.
“It’s little things like that that I’ve always thought made a difference. The good teams that I’ve been on in the past had guys that got along, guys that went out to dinner, guys that hung out, spent time away from the playing field. I’ve always thought that’s important. I think it can win a game for you sometime down the road.”