CHICAGO — Peyton Manning’s preseason debut with the Broncos lasted 12 plays, 11 of which counted officially, and a few of them were not bad.
You could not blame the Broncos if they had played safely with their new franchise QB, considering the conditions. It rained off and on most of the evening before the game, saturating a Soldier Field surface that routinely ranks as one of the NFL’s worst. The grounds crew took the tarp off the field about two hours prior to kickoff but hurriedly put it back on as the rain picked up.
Despite the slick track, Broncos head coach John Fox gave the green light to Manning hanging in the pocket a few times on Thursday night.
“It was a defensive coordinator’s best friend out there. But we managed it pretty well. Very sloppy conditions early on, as far as receivers being able to hold on to the ball,” Fox said. “I think it’s important (Manning played). We only have four of these (preseason games), and we wanted to take advantage of this first one.”
Manning’s play at times, though, was like the field: a little messy. He bookended his quick-work evening with two off-target passes, including an interception at the Bears' goal line that ended his night. His first pass of the night was incomplete and his second was nearly picked by Bears LB Geno Hayes, somehow coming down safely in the hands of TE Jacob Tamme for 14 yards and a strange first down.
Although his game still needs refinement, Manning showed that his sense of humor hasn't skipped a beat.
"That first snap was a big deal, and maybe I am even getting better," Manning joked. "Now I have the ability to throw the ball in a linebacker's hands and tip it to my own player."
He was less jokey about his final pass of the game. It was thrown behind WR Brandon Stokley deep in the Bears' red zone, first tipped by Bears CB D.J. Moore and then picked off by S Major Wright.
“I couldn’t really tell you what happened,” Manning said. “I didn’t have a great view of it. I didn’t see the deflection. Disappointing anytime you get down in the red zone and don’t come away with points.”
For his first action in more than 19 months — his last official pass came in a playoff loss to the Jets on Jan. 8, 2011 — Manning looked OK. He finished 4-of-7 passing for 44 yards and the pick, saying he wasn't worried about protecting his surgically repaired neck or being hit in conditions that were less than ideal.
“There’s always a little bit of unknown,” Manning said. “New team, new players, not ideal weather conditions, so there were some unknown elements for me. It was hard to know exactly what was going to happen. But it felt like I had a little rhythm there, some things we can build on.
“But, obviously, some things we can improve on, for sure.”
Manning’s teammates were upbeat about his live-bullet debut.
“It was a live scrimmage,” said WR Eric Decker, who looked like he could develop into one of Manning’s top targets. “It didn’t look like (Manning) missed a beat, being out all last year. It’s just exciting. This is a building (block) for us, and I think from the (starters) all the way down, everybody played great.”
“It’s great. You know where he’s going to be,” OG Chris Kuper said, when asked how the team was transitioning from the scrambling style of predecessor Tim Tebow to the more scripted, stationary Manning. “He’s a great decision maker. He knows where he’s going with the ball. It’s great to have a guy like that here.”
In between the shaky start and the interception, Manning had some nice moments. On 2nd-and-7 from the Broncos’ 36, he hung in the pocket on a five-step drop and ended up throwing to (according to Manning) his fifth option on the play, Decker, for 10 yards and a first down.
After a run and a penalty (negating a nice 11-yard catch on a comeback route by Demaryius Thomas), Manning dumped off a pass to Lance Ball for three yards and found Decker mismatched against Lance Briggs, who fell down on the play. Decker gained 19 yards on the catch and run, but notable was that Manning hung in there as the pocket collapsed around him and made the throw — just like he did in the old days.
“Really good protection there,” Manning said. “That’s not one you really get back to (in the progression).”
Manning and Thomas couldn’t quite hook up on a fade route in the endzone right before the interception. The throw looked pretty good, placed well in the back of the endzone, where the 6-foot-5 Thomas should have had the length — and space — to make the catch.
Manning said that’s the kind of play that he and his Broncos receivers, over time, should become more familiar with.
“I certainly hope so,” Manning said. “It’s a play we worked on a lot in practice. We hit on a few of them in practice. I think we were close on that play. Obviously, you try to get all the incompletions out in the preseason.”
The interception was intended for Stokley, and the first two passes went to Tamme, Manning’s buddies from Indy. But overall, Manning’s only drive of the night featured balance. He was in the shotgun five times, under center seven. The Broncos ran a mix of two-, three- and four-WR sets. But the pass-run mix was about what many will expect this season: eight called passes, four runs.
“I thought he was good. Very good first outing,” Fox said. “There were actually some bright spots on offense, defense and the kicking game. You know, for a guy who hadn’t played last season and had some medical issues, I thought he has done outstanding with that. I thought it was very good.”
The offense clearly has potential. The Broncos racked up 177 yards — 117 of them with Caleb Hanie under center — and the first-team offensive line not playing in the first half. Manning said he thought there was work to be done on his end, but his teammates think this is just the tipping point of what can be.
“The sky is the limit, man,” RB Willis McGahee said. “We really don’t even know our potential yet. We are getting a little better each week. You can see it.
“I am excited for (Manning), I am happy for him. He really showed the patience, sitting in the pocket. That told us a lot — that he is trusting us and that we are trusting him.”
Just the first, brief step in a very exciting chapter in Broncos history.
“Overall, I thought it was a decent start,” Manning said.