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Senior NFL Columnist

Peyton quickly working off the rust as Broncos kick off their minicamp

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Peyton understands he isn't where he needs to be just yet after a long hiatus. 'I still have work to do.' (AP)  
Peyton understands he isn't where he needs to be just yet after a long hiatus. 'I still have work to do.' (AP)  

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is a question the football world wants to have answered: Is Peyton Manning the same Peyton Manning?

The answer is no.

But before going nutty about that answer, ask yourself this: How can he be? Age, a year layoff, and working his way back from neck-fusion surgery that included nerve regeneration all make it impossible for him to be the same guy he was 10 or even five years ago.

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So as I settled in Tuesday to watch Manning's first minicamp practice with the Denver Broncos, the first time seeing him live in any helmet without a horseshoe on it, I had to keep reminding myself that the prime of arguably the league's greatest quarterback has come and gone.

Understanding that, I will say that there is very little difference between the version that won four MVPs and a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts and the one who was running the Broncos offense Tuesday.

The casual eye wouldn't notice the differences, maybe a tweak here and tweak there in the pocket, but Manning can still make all the throws, can still read the field and can still command the huddle.

He fired a 35-yard shot to Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown Tuesday on a perfectly placed pass. But he also missed a throw that bounced off a receiver's hands into the arms of corner Tracy Porter, the same Porter who took back one of his picks for a touchdown to clinch the Saints victory over Manning's Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

"I still have work to do," Manning said. "A lot of time people ask me how I am doing. I say I am working hard and people think in two weeks you ought to be 100 percent. Progress for me is that some days there are no setbacks. It's still good, but it's not like the next week it's going to be drastically better than the week before. "

Manning isn't 100 percent, but at 36 the issue might not be the arm as much as it might be his battle with Father Time as he recovers from nerve damage that limited his arm strength. And that's the tough part for any older player coming off an injury, trying to figure it all out.

We all expect him to be the same Peyton Manning, mostly because watching him play was such a treat for all those years, his ability to carve up a defense with his quick football mind and accurate passing causing many sleepless nights for the league's defensive coordinators.

But even though he isn't making guarantees that he will be that guy, he's hopeful, that's for sure. Yet when I talked to him for a half hour after the Broncos morning workout here, I sensed that he's anxious for more.

"I want it like yesterday," Manning said of his return to form.

That's because he's a perfectionist, a player who pushes himself to the limits as well as his teammates. They're already raving about the time he spends in the building in Denver, much like they did in Indianapolis.

His attention to detail was on display during the practice I watched. At one point, he coached up fullback Austin Sylvester about the depth of his route on a check-down drill. After practice, Manning spent some extra time working on a route with receiver Eric Decker, throwing shots to him in the end zone.

"He wants to make sure everything we do is perfect," Decker said. "He makes sure all the details are right. It comes down to expectations. I think how we run routes, with him, there's no gray area. You be in the right spot. You run the route the way he wants it. And again, no gray area so he definitely tests you every day you come out."

The mental side will be there. The work will too. But the toughest part, as is the case with any rehab, is the physical side of things. That's frustrating for Manning. The entire progress has been that and more.

"I spent a lot of time with the doctors and trainers and took their opinions and followed their advice," he said. "It's been a slow recovery. I'm dealing with a nerve. If they told you to do 10 reps when I was coming back from an injury, I always did 15 to make it better faster. That's not how it works on this deal. I was sort of open-minded about it. I knew I had some nerve issues. It took me a while to accept the fact that I couldn't do extra work and make it better. I had to be patient."

He began to throw some late last year with the Colts, but it was soft throws as he regained strength in the arm. Gradually, he could throw it a little bit harder and longer. That led to his whirlwind courtship after the Colts decided they weren't going to bring him back.

The Dolphins, Cardinals, 49ers -- yes, them too despite what Jim Harbaugh might have said -- Titans and Broncos all pursued him, but in the end he chose Denver, replacing Tim Tebow, who was a fan favorite.

Tebow led the Broncos to the playoffs last year in the gimmicked-up read-option offense. It was not an NFL offense. It did not have staying power and team president John Elway knew it.

That's why Denver went so strong after Manning. Now they have to work the plays he likes into what offensive coordinator Mike McCoy wants to do. So far, Manning is impressed.

"I like what we are doing," Manning said. "I'm trying to learn some of their passing concepts and they're putting in some of the things we used to do."

Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley spent four seasons playing with Manning in Indianapolis. He is one of his friends, and spent time working out with Manning when Manning came to meet with the Broncos.

So Stokley's opinion matters. I asked him what he saw in this Manning.

"He's the same to me as he was six years ago," Stokley said. "He's always been the accurate, anticipation quarterback. That's what he is. He's still very accurate and still anticipates throws so well. I don't see any difference."

The doubters will say his passes don't have the same zip, but that's not how I saw it Tuesday. The arm looked the same. He might have to make some adjustments at times to make a deep ball throw that he might not have had to do in the past, but there's little difference to the casual eye.

"I study more film to watch my mechanics," Manning said. "I want to see if I am compensating for the arm. Am I getting a bad habit or bad mechanics because of the injury? I am comparing the prior film to this film to see."

There has been some who have charted the plays during OTAs and minicamps. That led to coach John Fox joking about it to Manning as he walked by Tuesday.

"They charted you again," Fox said laughing.

"You work on things in practice," Manning said. "I am gathering information on plays. You test things."

I asked Manning if he gave any thought to quitting because of the neck injury and the potential for more problems down the road. He winced.

"I asked those questions to the doctors and there is no concern about that," he said. "I asked every question I could possibly ask. That gets emphasized because it's neck, neck, neck. That wasn't a factor. I just have to get back to where I can perform at a high level. That's what I am shooting for now."

Manning recently put on the Broncos uniform for the first time for a DirecTV photo shoot with his brother, Eli Manning. He also put it on Tuesday for some television shots. Was it weird?

"I didn't take a moment to reflect," Manning said. "I just enjoy being back out on the field. I really haven't been too nostalgic about it. I have so much on my plate. My rehab. New plays. New receivers. We could have 45 of these [minicamp practices] and I would take them. There is so much to do."

That's the way it is when you're trying to be Peyton Manning again.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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