ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are snap decisions and then there are decisions to take some more snaps.
Peyton Manning has never really done the first one, at least not when it comes to playing quarterback.
In March 1997, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Manning spoke of the potential an NFL career held. But he had made the decision to stay at the University of Tennessee instead of entering the draft.
“I’m not going to try to make this a dramatic ordeal, but there are a few comments I’d like to make,” he said then. “I knew whatever decision I made it had to be my own decision and nobody else’s. I thoroughly researched the situation and gathered a great deal of information, I’ve asked dozens of people what they thought and I prayed a lot about it also. I knew I wanted to be 100 percent sure of my decision. ... I made up my mind and I don’t ever expect to look back.”
Two days before Super Bowl XLIX earlier this month, with plenty of NFL road traveled since Manning’s college days, he said: “I’m not into anything dramatic.”
He said he had gotten plenty of “feedback,” he is comfortable with the decision and in his role in a new offense designed by coach Gary Kubiak and his staff. And perhaps most importantly, Manning wants “to be able to look Coach Kubiak and John Elway and [Broncos CEO] Joe Ellis in the eye and say: ‘Yeah, physically, I honestly feel I can contribute and help.’ It’s one thing to play and have a uniform and be on the roster; it’s another to truly contribute and help.”
So, there it is. Manning’s back for the Broncos, back for his 18th NFL season in an already storied career, because he thinks -- more importantly believes, in his analyze-everything soul -- he can contribute and be better than he was in 2014. We know that because if he didn’t, Manning wouldn’t have come back.
He wouldn’t have committed to working with his third offensive coordinator in four seasons with the Broncos, to put the time in, if he didn’t honestly believe what happens in the coming months has the potential to be better than 2014. He also wouldn’t have re-worked his contract to come back, to aid the Broncos in fixing the roster, including his own protection, if he wasn’t all-in.
Manning’s 2014 was a curious collection of this and that which included scrutiny on how he threw, how he looked, his body language, his, well, decline. Still, the Broncos won a fourth consecutive division title, had their third consecutive 12-win season, were second in the league in scoring and Manning finished with the second most touchdown passes in the league -- 39, also the third highest single-season total of his career.
But Manning was not himself down the stretch, the uber decision-maker wasn’t making good ones. The offense was disjointed, his timing was off and at times, the game video has shown, the ball simply was not going where it was supposed to.
The pocket wasn’t clean and defenses were someplace they had rarely been in previous years -- in Manning’s head. Kubiak has promised to do “whatever we can to build an offense where he can do the things we need him to do and that he wants to do. I have no doubt about that."
Manning’s decision puts the Broncos in the Super Bowl conversation. But it also comes with the need for compromise from both coaches and the player to make a championship possible.
Manning has to be ready to be a 38-year-old quarterback with definitive characteristics in his game that have come with age and surgery. Defenses took advantage of these characteristics in the latter half of last season and forced him to throw the ball toward the sidelines. The Broncos couldn’t find a way to mix a run game into their passing attack and everything, including Manning, looked unsettled.
That means Manning has to be ready, and willing, to play within the adjustments the Broncos make with the new coaching staff. He has always said he wants to do what’s necessary to win, and it might be time for Manning to be a part of the play-to-play solution and not the solution when his bad day becomes the team’s bad day.
Kubiak has to remember his time as an offensive coordinator for a team with Super Bowl designs with another 38-year-old quarterback who had lost some of his skill set. The same guy -- Elway -- now happens to be his boss.
Kubiak, with offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, has to build an offense that fits Manning and protects him better, especially in the middle of the formation, and that has some kind of Plan B if defenses load up the same way in 2015 as they did last season.
Kubiak has called football “the ultimate team game," as has Manning. And for the return of a Canton-bound quarterback to end in a championship, they will both have to give a little bit.