DENVER -- Standing behind a podium perched atop what will be playoff ice for the Colorado Avalanche in the coming days and surrounded by a crowd of Eagle Scouts and those hoping to be, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning offered his thoughts Wednesday on leadership, work ethic and community service.
He told a football story or two, including one about his first trip into a game-day huddle as the University of Tennessee quarterback. And within all those words was also a clear-eyed glimpse into Manning as a professional quarterback, into what the Broncos face in 2014.
When, in making a point about wrestling with, and ultimately overcoming, adversity, Manning told those assembled we must all "learn to thrive on discomfort."
Ah, discomfort. Maybe something on the order of a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, perhaps, or a double-overtime loss in the divisional round a season before. Maybe two playoff trips with home-field advantage, two 13-3 finishes, a pile of team and league passing and scoring records, and no Super Bowl ring to show for them.
Yeah, that’s some professional football discomfort, all right.
The Broncos thrived in the discomfort left from the shocking playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens in January 2013. They went on to win the division again and, this time, played their way into Super Bowl XLVIII after a season during which Manning hit career marks in almost every offensive statistical category, including NFL records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). The Broncos also became the first team in league history to top 600 points in a season.
That was before the Super Sunday cave-in, a football sinkhole in which the Broncos watched all their title hopes and dreams cascade into the abyss. Most troubling to those in and around the team was the fact after a bad snap on their first offensive play of the game, the Broncos didn’t respond, and one bad play became another and another until they were on the short list of most lopsided Super Bowl losses.
That they didn't rise up and put up a good scrap, make a game of it. The Seattle Seahawks simply looked more prepared, more talented, more motivated -- just more of everything.
Two Januarys ago, when the Broncos lost to the Ravens, John Elway, the team’s chief football decision-maker, said the Broncos should remember 2012 was a good season, but that those with the team couldn’t be "afraid to be honest with ourselves."
Manning even said last season Elway had tried to create "an uncomfortable atmosphere" as the team moved into the 2013 season to make sure all involved remembered the sting of the loss. An atmosphere that seemed to suit the Broncos last season as they piled up the wins and touchdowns.
It wasn’t always easy for those in the locker room -- expectations can be heavy when your boss is a Hall of Fame quarterback whom friends describe as the most competitive person to walk the planet, and the starting quarterback isn't far behind, if at all, in that department -- but, as Broncos coach John Fox routinely says, "if it were easy, everybody would be doing it." Winning is hard, an item Elway and Manning always want on the front burner. The burden of expectations gets a little heavier if opportunities to win the season's final game are lost, squandered or both.
Wednesday, in what was his first significant public appearance in Denver since the Super Bowl loss, Manning was in statesman mode, trying to help raise funds for the Boy Scouts in Colorado. His appearance filled the seats on the arena floor of the Pepsi Center.
Before he addressed the gathering, he lauded the Broncos' additions made in free agency -- players like Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward -- and lamented the departures of Champ Bailey, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno as he tried to leave at least some of the Super Bowl aftermath in the rearview mirror.
"First off, we lost many players and some great friends," Manning said. "It’s been a real pleasure to play the last two years with Champ, Knowshon, Eric, [linebacker] Wesley Woodyard, Chris Kuper retiring I’m probably leaving a name or two out. That's the worst part about football. When you form some friendships with these guys and really put a lot of hard work in -- the business side comes into play.
"You have to move forward," Manning later added. "You have to kind of re-establish your identity of the 2014 team. The 2013 team -- it was a good season in a lot of ways. There is no question it did not end the way we wanted it to, but we have to find a way to build off that and take a step further -- try to finish."
This is where the Broncos will begin their trek into 2014: as a team trying to finish what it started, in many ways, when Elway, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Fox enticed Manning to sign in Denver.
They are a talented team with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. They were one of the most active and successful teams in filling needs in free agency. They have worked the draft well in the past three years and once again will carry the label as one of the Super Bowl favorites.
But they are also a team that let two rare title opportunities get away and are now trying to beat the odds to position themselves for another. They will have to deal, again, with the idea that many folks won’t much care what they do in the regular season if they aren’t the team catching the confetti next February.
They will be asked about the Super Bowl, about the window to win a championship closing and about what happened inside MetLife Stadium until they are sick of answering for it all. Truth be told, they might have been sick of it already, even as they dispersed into the offseason, and the wheel hasn't even really started to spin on all of that yet.
Manning himself might be asked to throw less so the offense can be more. To face the realities of age and four neck surgeries and use his remember-when mind to help diversify the team’s attack, not only to help give it a plan B but endorse it in what he calls at the line scrimmage if things don’t go right on another important football afternoon.
To, well, thrive in the discomfort.