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Sunday, July 29, 2012
Camp Confidential: Denver Broncos

By Bill Williamson

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A veteran Denver Bronco was relaxing after the first training camp practice of a monumental season for the franchise.

He shook his head.

“When was the last time we had something like this here?” he asked. “This is something.”

This is No. 18. This is Peyton Manning.

Everything has changed for the Broncos.

With one phone call from Manning to Denver leader John Elway in March, the landscape of the organization changed. The Broncos are no longer a league curiosity caused by Tim Tebow-mania. They are now relevant because Manning, who missed last season with a neck injury, is the story in the NFL.

The Broncos, though, aren’t consumed by being a popular story. They are focused on the impact Manning, at age 36, will  have on the team. In public and in private, the Broncos are not worried about Manning’s health. They are simply in awe that he is on their side.

The organization feels it’s time to make a major push because of  Manning.

“It’s very similar to the Super Bowl year we had in New Orleans," said new Denver cornerback Tracy Porter, a former Saint. "We have extremely high expectations on this team, starting with Peyton, all the way down to the last guy on the roster. Our expectations are not just to hopefully get to the playoffs. Our expectations are to get back to New Orleans to play for the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl. ”

THREE HOT ISSUES:

1. Manning’s health: The Broncos operate as if Manning will be ready for the Sept. 9 opener against visiting Pittsburgh, but they won’t know if he will be fully healthy until he takes a few hits. Again, all indications are that Manning should be fine. He is throwing well, he hasn’t suffered a setback and he is practicing at a strong tempo. He is on pace to be ready for the season.

Denver's Peyton Manning
The Broncos won't know exactly what they have with Peyton Manning until he starts taking some hits.
2. Defensive readiness: The Broncos’ defense is still a work in progress. It went from No. 32 to No. 20 in the NFL last season under the guidance of head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Allen parlayed the success into the Raiders' head coaching job. Former Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio, Fox’s defensive coordinator in Carolina in 2002, stepped in to replace Allen. The Fox-Del Rio pairing is strong, but this unit must continue to improve. It will have to play the first six games of the season without weakside linebacker D.J. Williams because of an NFL suspension, and pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil could face a short suspension for a recent gun arrest. So, the team will have to get a lot of players ready during camp as the Broncos try to continue the upward defensive swing.

3. Young receivers: Third-year receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will be in the spotlight throughout camp. Both are talented players who have a lot of promise. Playing with Manning should hasten their learning curve. But there is not a quarterback in the NFL who is as particular about his receivers as Manning, and both must adjust to Manning’s game. The early word is that both players are earning Manning's trust.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Broncos have a terrific head coach in Fox, whose presence and impact should not be discounted. He is an upper-echelon coach who has a firm grip on this program. His players love him and the overall spirit of the franchise is probably as high as it has been since the back-to-back Super Bowl-winning years in the late 1990s.  Fox did a wonderful job last season turning a 4-12 weakling into an 8-8 team that won a playoff game. In Fox’s second season in Carolina, he led the team to the Super Bowl. Will it happen again in Denver? We’ll see, but his players fully believe in him, and that’s a huge head start.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

We do not yet know if the Broncos are loaded enough with talent to make a long playoff run. There are a lot of questions.

Will the team be able to run the ball enough to help Manning now that the Broncos aren’t using the Tebow-led option? Are the youngsters on the offensive line ready to protect Manning? Will they be good enough at defensive tackle and safety?

This team is far from a finished product and it faces a brutal schedule. Still, expectations are high because of Manning. But the truth is, Denver must build itself around Manning very quickly -- the chief challenge of training camp.

OBSERVATION DECK: