That’s what Peyton Manning inspires around the Denver locker room, his new refuge after 14 Hall of Fame years in Indianapolis and an ugly divorce from the Colts. He makes his teammates stand a little straighter, study a little harder, and take copious notes.
“Every once in a while, he’ll say a specific thing about certain coverage or a certain play, maybe how you should read the play out,” Osweiler said. “And if it’s something specific coming from Peyton, I just make sure I put a little ‘P’ next to it so I know it’s him.
“Five, six, seven years down the road, when I look back at my notes when we’re getting ready to play a certain team, it’s like, hey, this is what Peyton said to do.”
The veneration is clear. Playing next to, or behind, Manning means something to his teammates, means hope for the postseason and a need to work harder. It means far more than playing with Tim Tebow ever did.
“It changes that attitude,” said John Elway, another Hall of Fame quarterback who is Denver’s executive vice president of football operations. “It gives hope to the other guys on that football team.
“They have a chance to compete for world championships, and I think, as a player, that’s what you want to be, is part of an organization that has that goal. And Peyton gives that. As [coach] John Fox has said, Peyton raises all boats.”
It wasn’t just any quarterback the Broncos signed in the offseason, after all.
“Most quarterbacks,” said receiver Brandon Stokley, “don’t carry that aura.”
Like a second coach
When Willis McGahee reflects on the last time the Broncos faced the Patriots — a humbling 45-10 loss in the second round of the 2011 playoffs — he notes the differences this time around.
There is a different work ethic, a different focus. There is, also, “our El Capitan, Peyton Manning out there,” McGahee said. “I think he’s given us an edge.”
He has also helped produce that new work ethic.
“It’s just a real sense of accountability,” said tight end Jacob Tamme, who played with Manning for four seasons in Indianapolis. “Everybody wants to do their job to the highest level. Nobody prepares harder than Peyton, so it helps everybody sort of step their game up.”
There are player-driven film sessions in which the Broncos watch as Manning runs the remote and offers his take, culled from thousands of plays, thousands of situations. There are moments in practice when Fox is silent, when Manning is the one calling out to receivers, cajoling them and positioning them.
They see the work. They see the desire. Neither was dimmed by the year off due to injury.
“I still have a passion for it,” said Manning, who has had a series of surgical procedures on his neck. “I still enjoy the preparation, the work of it, the offseason, the Mondays, the Tuesdays, the game planning, I still enjoy that.”
“I’ve learned from him how to not waste a single minute,” Osweiler said. “He comes in, and from the time that he gets to the building to the time he leaves, it’s all work. He’s not wasting any time.
“In his free time, he’s breaking down film, he’s working on the game plan, and as a young quarterback, that’s pretty cool to see what it takes to be successful at this level.”
“Oh, yeah,” McGahee said. “It changes a culture.”
Pressure to win
It’s not often that Stokley sees a hit to his quarterback. He’s usually facing away, concerned with running his own route, getting to his own spot. He saw the first one, though, a body slam on Manning by the Seahawks in the second exhibition game.
And then he saw the standing ovation.
“What are they cheering so loud for?” Stokley wondered.
Then he got it, realizing the crowd had picked up that it was Manning’s first hit since the surgeries. It was a moment that might have made the Broncos wince. No longer.
“It’s kind of one of those things where you don’t hold your breath anymore,” Stokley said.
Now, the Broncos are more concerned with winning than the health of their seemingly fragile quarterback. Because with the signing of Manning came pressure, to continue the team’s upward trajectory, to justify the signing. They are off to only a 2-2 start as they play the Patriots in Foxborough Sunday.
“I think the most important thing for me was, OK, Peyton’s here, now we’ve got to win some football games,” Elway said. “Because I think everybody was excited about him being here, but we have to win some football games.”
Despite the injury history, despite the questions, Elway makes it clear that it was “an easy decision for us.” The team didn’t feel it was going out on a limb, even as it shed a quarterback in Tebow who had led the team to a first-round postseason win over the Steelers.
The Broncos — from owner Pat Bowlen and Elway on down — thought it was the right direction for the franchise, to get it back to the heights it had experienced back when Elway was leading the charge. Still, there were no guarantees that Peyton would be Peyton — and the concerns were exacerbated in Week 2 by three interceptions in the first half against the Falcons, by a few passes that fluttered.
“I think there’s always a risk,” Elway said. “You never knew exactly how, physically, he was going to respond. But any time you make a decision, there’s a calculated risk with it. It was a risk that we were willing to take.”
Or, as team president Joe Ellis put it, “I wouldn’t call it risky. I would call it smart.”
A lot is expected
Admittedly, the Manning-Denver marriage is not destined to be a long one.
Manning, after all, is 36 years old and in his 15th season in the NFL. But he believes there is more football to be played, more titles to be won.
If anyone can understand that, it’s his boss. Elway, after all, won his Super Bowls in the final two seasons of his career, when he was 37 and 38.
“Obviously, physically you can’t do what you used to do in your mid-20s compared to your mid-30s,” Elway said. “There’s a physical balance that’s not quite the same.
“But the years of experience over the 10 years more than compensate for any type of loss of physical ability that you may have. And so I think mentally you overcome that.
“But whether you’re 25 or 35, to win the world championship, you have to have a good football team.”
That was what Elway tried to create, with Manning and for Manning.
There is talk of a “different breed of guys,” as cornerback Champ Bailey put it, different from the ones that ended the 2011 season in New England by not putting forth their best effort.
Now, they want to do more. They want to be more. They see a player with the ability to “elevate everybody in your organization and elevate the stature of your organization,” as Ellis said.
So they watch as Manning clicks the remote in film sessions. They listen to him talking through footwork after throws in practice. And they take notes, scribbling down his words on lines that will be referenced for years.
“It’s just a couple right now,” Osweiler said, of how many notebooks he has already gone through. “It’s early in the season. But the pages are filling up.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.