Peyton Manning looking better and better, but still not old self


Peyton Manning isn't happy with his two picks, especially in the red zone. (US Presswire)  
Peyton Manning isn't happy with his two picks, especially in the red zone. (US Presswire)  

DENVER -- Peyton Manning is not Peyton Manning. At least not yet. Maybe not ever.

What he is, is a very savvy veteran quarterback, capable of brilliance, who will likely get better and healthier and more comfortable as the weeks go on. But to compare the man -- still feeling his way back from over a year away from competitive football, after yet another neck surgery and with the nerves in his throwing arm still regenerating -- to his Hall of Fame form is folly, unfair at this point. It was clear tonight, in his second preseason outing, that so many of his characteristic mannerisms are still there, that he remains a football savant, but his body will not always do exactly what his mind demands.

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Manning, playing his first home game for his new club, threw two more interceptions in Denver's 30-10 defeat to Seattle at Mile High Stadium, and appeared rusty at times. All of this is to be expected, of course, and if anyone is capable of overcoming these physical hardships and willing himself to greatness, it's Manning. But no one knows exactly how this comeback will play out, and lest we forget even the Broncos hedged their bets by securing the legend to a contract that is essentially a year-by-year proposition with various outs based on Manning's health.

There were plenty of flashes of the old Peyton, especially during a two-minute drill at the end of the first half, when he exhibited precision and sprayed the ball around the field, going 8-for-11 for 87 yards. But he's also clearly still getting on the same page with his new teammates, he wasn't exactly airing the ball out, and for the second straight week he came up short over the middle in the red zone, with another pass there deflected and intercepted.

Given all he has been through, it was an impressive performance, but, nonetheless also served as a reminder of the work that still needs to be done if he is going to recapture his greatness of yore.

"We can build on this," Manning said. "But there were some things we have to improve on, and some things I have to improve on."

Manning finished his half of work 16-for-23 for 177 yards and two interceptions (55.9 rating). In fairness, Jacob Tamme, his former teammate in Indianapolis, dropped an easy touchdown pass on Denver's final offensive play of the half. Eric Decker also had a drop on an otherwise masterful drive in which Manning came out firing, completing five of his first six passes to move 63 yards -- including consecutive gains of 19 and 22 yards -- before questionable penalties and bad drops killed the drive.

It was vintage Manning, in the shotgun, directing traffic, sprinting back up the line to conserve time, utilizing five different receivers on the drive including passes to his old Colts pals, Tamme and Brandon Stokley.

"He definitely looked like himself in the two-minute," said one scout in attendance.

The atmosphere here, too, while hardly raucous, had more than a preseason feel, with a legitimately packed house (over 70,000 in attendance) and the stands actually shaking on a few occasions.

"We've been working in the two-minute a lot," Dreessen said, noting that twice the up-tempo game forced Seattle to use timeouts. "We feel like we have a real home-field advantage here with the altitude and we're getting more and more comfortable going no huddle."

Manning, beginning his 15th season, seemed to have a certain spark to him on Denver's other scoring drive as well, which came in the first quarter after his first interception. He went heavy no huddle, again largely in the shotgun, running back and forth to the line of scrimmage to bark out instructions and make adjustments as we've seen over all these years.

"We want to play fast and use that to our advantage," Decker said. "That's our goal."

Manning looked good putting the ball right in Dreessen's arms for a 20-yard gain over the middle, and was 4 for 4 for 47 yards on that drive, which ended with a one-yard touchdown run from Willis McGahee. There were also a few times when Manning rolled left and really stepped into his throws, putting some extra oomph into the delivery.

But Manning was also restrained in his approach, not attempting many deep throws. Some balls were wobbly and he was clearly not pleased with the interceptions. The first was a flashback to Chicago a week ago, with the ball tipped and then picked off. The second was a shaky throw, well overthrown for Dreessen, right into the arms of safety Jeron Johnson (Dreessen also pulled up on the play, not going all out in this exhibition affair for a ball likely too far out of reach, anyway).

"I should have jumped and tried to get my hands on it better," Dreessen said.

All but three of Manning's 23 pass attempts came in the shotgun, with play action generally a part of the times he lined up under center. Besides his overall comfort level in the gun, it's also a means to help protect the 36 year old. Manning was hit only once, by explosive Seattle rookie end Bruce Irvin -- the first real contact since his return -- but this was mundane stuff, knocked to the ground after making a throw late in the first half. Still, the crowd applauded as he got to his feet.

"I never heard a crowd cheer for an incompletion before," Manning said, ever self-deprecating, joking about the cheers as he got up.

"You never like to see your quarterback hit," Broncos coach John Fox said, "but we feel pretty confident where he is right now, health-wise, and he'll just continue to get better."

The other former superstar trying to rekindle the past, Seahawks receiver Terrell Owens, had considerably less success. He's hardly assured of making this roster, according to team sources, and while quarterback Matt Flynn targeted him a team-high five times in the half the starters played, Owens didn't have a catch. A few times he seemed to have communication issues, Champ Bailey broke up one pass adroitly and Owens flat out dropped a beauty bomb by Flynn in the end zone.

Manning will likely see even more playing time next week in the third preseason game, and then that could well be it, for as much as he needs reps there is also a unique injury risk here as well. "The more I play, the more comfortable I'll get," Manning said. Denver faces a very tough schedule, and soon enough he'll have to absorb real punishment and teeth-chattering hits. This was certainly progress from his brief debut a week ago, but for a perfectionist like Manning, it's still not close to being good enough.

"I don't try to critique Peyton's game at all," said Stokley, who has become a close friend. "He's above my level. But as a whole, as an offense, we did some good things and we did some bad things. We have some things to correct this week."

Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.

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