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Manning easily takes over as Broncos' leader, but can he be All-Pro again?

by | National NFL Insider
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DENVER -- Champ Bailey remembers when he first saw Peyton Manning in a Denver Broncos practice uniform. It didn't seem weird. No, that wasn't it. It was something else.

"Relief," Bailey remembered, when we spoke during a training camp conversation. "One of the greatest quarterbacks of all time was on my side now."

After Manning joined the team, players say privately, the atmosphere changed almost instantly. The general feeling seems to be that immediately after Manning began walking the hallways of the complex and situated in the Denver locker room everyone around him began stepping up their game.

Almost instantly, Manning began talking offensive philosophies with teammates. One of the bigger and immediate points of emphasis from Manning, players said, was how turnovers kill franchises. Players would gather in small huddled groups, listening to Manning's thoughts about how an offense should run, the way young fighters might listen to a decorated champion.

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Not long after getting heavily involved in the offense, Manning began changing some of the protection schemes to his liking. Not so long after that, he was holding hour-long meetings with offensive players about his frenetic pre-snap signal calling.

The word Broncos players use mostly to describe Manning is professional. And not just in describing him, but also in describing what he has done to the franchise in just a matter of months. There is, to be blunt, some Tim Tebow bashing from Broncos players when they talk about Manning, as some of them stated point-blank in interviews that Tebow was out for himself, and Manning is out for the team.

Most of all, when speaking of Manning, players express a sense of awe at not just his dedication, but how he's able to infect everyone else on the team with that emotion as well.

"He's one of the most dedicated players I've ever seen," said Bailey. And as one of the most dedicated defensive players ever, Bailey would know.

Manning's presence has led to a locker room that is more motivated, businesslike and ambitious.

Now, the question becomes: Can one of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks, fresh off four neck surgeries, translate all of that dedication and hard work into a playoff appearance and Super Bowl run? Can Manning make that big a difference in a franchise the way the man who brought him to the Broncos, John Elway, did as a Hall of Fame player decades ago?

The professionalism Manning brings -- the motivational aspects, the skill -- they all sound good on talk radio and generate column inches but they guarantee nothing. As the Broncos prepare to play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, what Manning and the Broncos are doing remains one of the great gambles in NFL history.

When considering Manning's surgeries, his age (36) and the fact he departed what was a football sanctuary for him where he set records and made Super Bowl appearances, nothing like this has ever been done before with a player of Manning's magnitude.

Previous greats have finished careers elsewhere. Emmitt Smith ended his legendary career in Arizona. Joe Montana finished in Kansas City. Johnny Unitas in San Diego. Those players were considered mostly done when they departed, but Manning isn't. He's considered a savior.

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"That's not something I really think about," Manning said. "The thing I try to do is just prepare and win games. That's the bottom line."

Three scouts who watched Manning in the preseason were asked their thoughts on his throws. Two said Manning looked as accurate as he has in the past. One said Manning's accuracy and zip on the ball had been somewhat reduced and estimated Manning is at 70 to 80 percent of normal.

What we know for certain is that, very quickly, Manning has become the leader of the Broncos. There are only, maybe, six or seven players in the NFL who could have four neck surgeries, effectively get booted from their old team, not play a meaningful game in almost two years, go to another team, and in a short time command it merely by his presence.

Players say Manning will scream at his new teammates in practices and the various scream-ees will have no problem with Manning doing it. That's because it's Manning. He has earned that right and everyone knows it.

In the locker room itself, the changes have been both big and small. There is more unity, players maintain, now that the divisive force that was Tebow is in New York. But also, things like little or no loud music in the locker room have become mainstays. That's also part of the Manning effect.

When Manning first met some of the Broncos players either in the hallways of the facility or in the locker room, he introduced himself. Players remember joking: Uh, Peyton, we know who you are.

We know who Manning is. We now get to see exactly what he's about.

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