- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
- 0 Shares
In between, Manning marched his new team, the Denver Broncos, down the soggy Soldier Field turf, and he finished his one-series cameo appearance in one piece, thus making his first NFL action in 19 months a relative success.
Madison Avenue's favorite quarterback is back, football fans, but whether the 36-year-old Manning can recapture that familiar "Cut that meat!" magic when the regular season begins is up for debate. It was a good start in that it was normal.
After the game, Manning wasn't about to diagram his one series, but he was aware of the meaning behind this preseason start.
"Considering where I was a year ago, the fact that I was out there and took a snap, completed some passes today, it's been a long haul for me," Manning said. "That was rewarding. Even that first snap, the very first play, that was a big step for me."
While he made sure to mention the trainers and doctors in Indianapolis and Denver, Manning said the story of his recovery is one he wants to retire in a few weeks.
"I know when we get to Pittsburgh [for the regular-season opener], it'll all be about the game, and I won't be too reflective," he said.
And while his timing with Demaryius Thomas in the red zone needs polishing, Manning's comic timing is still sharp. He could host "Saturday Night Live" in a pinch.
"Maybe in some ways, I've even gotten better," Manning said. "Now I have the ability to throw a ball into a linebacker's hands and tip it to my own player. So maybe that's a positive."
In a soggy preseason opener -- neither team got much early warm-up time with a tarp on the field -- Manning went 4-for-7 for 44 yards and the Broncos picked up 60 yards in his only series of the game, with an 11-yard pass erased by a 10-yard holding penalty. Manning looked in command, as usual, during those 12 snaps, as the offense quickly marched on the Bears.
"He's going to continue to improve," Broncos coach John Fox said. "That's the whole challenge of our team. It was a good first start and a good first outing. It's what we do with it from here on out that's going to count."
With the exception of his last two passes, the future Hall of Famer (36.3 quarterback rating) was fairly accurate in his brief appearance.
Considering he's an aging quarterback with a surgically repaired neck trying to knock off considerable rust in his first non-training camp appearance with his new team, it was a good night.
"There's always a little bit of unknown," he said. "A lot of change. New team, new players, not ideal weather conditions. There were some different elements for me. It was hard for me to know what would happen. I felt like we had a little rhythm there on offense. There were things to build on and obviously things to improve. It was a good start."
On one play, Manning got about six seconds in the pocket as he surveyed the field, resulting in a first-down pass to Eric Decker on the left sideline.
"He's like the fifth read on the play," Manning said. "That's not one usually you get back to. That's some good protection."
Manning's best pass was a 19-yard slant on which he led a wide-open Decker perfectly across the middle to get Denver to the Bears' 14-yard line. It helped that Briggs slipped in coverage.
"It didn't look like he missed a beat, being out all last year," Decker said. "It's just exciting."
In related news, Manning's handoffs were superb, and his pre-snap histrionics were muted. His sideline presence was Manning-esque. That guy knows how to wear a visor.
But the last two throws showed he needs time to get his sea legs back. On second-and-8 from the Bears' 12, he tried to hit Thomas on a fade route to the back pylon, but he overthrew him by a split-second.
The next play, Manning had Brandon Stokley open at the 2-yard line, but he threw just behind Stokley on a slant route. Bears nickelback D.J. Moore got credit for a deflection, and the ball ricocheted off Stokley's pads into Wright's diving hands.
"I heard Caleb Hanie talking about it, the key to the preseason is how you evaluate yourself and how you improve throughout the preseason," Manning said. "It doesn't matter what year you are in the NFL, the key is to try and get better through the preseason. That's what we hope to do, what I hope to do."
Manning's health is a national curiosity after he missed last season following several neck procedures, including cervical neck fusion in early September. Manning was asked whether he wished he got hit, just to get the first one out of the way.
"I think that would be a dumb answer if I said yes to that," he said. "In the preseason, usually I've found in the four games you play, it usually works out where you get a little bit of everything. So I'm sure that will happen. That seems to be a hot topic, but it's just not a big deal to me."
After a Michael Bush fumble, Manning then gave way to his backup Hanie, who infamously torpedoed the Bears' 2011 season when he had to replace an injured Jay Cutler in Week 12. Hanie was booed loudly by the fans when he entered the game and performed as remembered, misfiring throws in the red zone. Hanie settled down, though, completing seven of 14 passes for 79 yards while getting sacked three times.
While Manning got his throws in, Cutler, the ex-Broncos quarterback, took the night off. One day after his fiancee, reality star Kristin Cavallari, gave birth to their son, Camden Jack, Cutler arrived early at Soldier Field, warmed up and suited up, but didn't play.
While Cutler celebrated the birth of his first child, Manning got to revel in the rebirth of his career.
Peyton Manning's return showed progress and ended with him in one piece.