DENVER (AP) — Denver is now Peyton Manning’s town and the Broncos are his team.
It’s out with the turn-back-the-clock option offense and in with the no-huddle — at altitude, no less.
Goodbye Tim Tebow and all those No. 15 jerseys that are everywhere. Hello four-time MVP and surefire future Hall of Famer.
It will take some time for everyone, Manning included, to get used to seeing him in an orange uniform, but when John Elway flashed that mile-wide grin and turned the microphone over to his new quarterback Tuesday, he was symbolically handing over the keys to the franchise to the biggest free agent acquisition in NFL history.
Talk about a powerful pair.
Introducing Manning as the newest Denver Bronco on Tuesday, the two Super Bowl winners each talked about hoisting another Lombardi Trophy, this time together. And soon.
“I realize I don’t have 14 years left, by any means,” Manning said. “This isn’t something where I’m just building a foundation to do something in two years or three years. This is a ‘now’ situation. We’re going to do whatever we can to win right now. That’s all I’m thinking about right now.”
Just so long as Manning’s surgically repaired neck goes along with the plan.
His surgeon has cleared him, and Manning passed all medical tests for his new team but acknowledged he has a long way to go in his rehab from a series of neck operations that sidelined him all of 2011 and led to his release by the Colts two weeks ago.
His new five-year, $96 million contract has $58 million in guarantees and also some protections for the Broncos in case his neck issues pop up again. His deal includes no signing bonus and a fully guaranteed $18 million salary next season. The salaries jump to $20 million in 2013-14 but with protections against neck problems, and he’ll make $19 million in each of the final two years, both of which non-guaranteed.
Neither he nor Elway has a doubt that he’ll recover completely by the start of the season, and the Hall of Famer-turned-executive knew the NFL’s only four-time MVP was just what his club needed.
The franchise has won just two playoff games since Elway’s career came to an end with a second straight Super Bowl triumph in 1999.
“He’s a guy that raises all boats. He’s already made (his teammates) better, and they haven’t met him yet just because of the type of person he is, his reputation and what he’s done in this league. So, he’s just going to have a tremendous effect on the Denver Broncos.”
That’s because Manning is like Michael Jordan was in basketball — a perfectionist who demands a similar commitment from his teammates. They all know they’d better be ready from Day 1 when they can gather for offseason workouts starting April 16.
No more rounding off routes, imprecise patterns, concentration slips.
Although Manning got a playbook Tuesday, Denver’s offense is going to be drastically different in 2012 with Manning deciphering defenses and switching calls at the line of scrimmage like he did so well in Indy.
The free agent floodgates should open wide for the Broncos now that Manning is their quarterback, putting them in the mix for quality veterans, possibly including Manning’s former teammates Jeff Saturday and Dallas Clark.
“Anytime you’ve got a guy like Peyton Manning on your team, you’ve got a chance to win,” Elway said. “And players know that … and so a lot of guys that are out there that are free (agents) want to go to a place where they have a chance to win a championship. So, it’s a huge benefit for us.”
The Broncos still have roughly $20 million in cap space and could really use a running back who can catch 40-50 balls out of the backfield like Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes did for the Colts all those years. They could also use a center such as Saturday, who played with Manning in Indianapolis, where he handled the line calls in adjusting protections and block schemes while Manning conveyed the changes to the running backs and receivers.
After holding up his new, bright orange jersey in a photo op with Elway and owner Pat Bowlen, Manning answered many of the questions that have been bouncing around since March 7, when the Colts released him to avoid paying a $28 million bonus and set in motion one of the most frenetic free-agent pursuits in history.
The first issue on everyone’s mind: So, Peyton, how do you feel?
“I’m not where I want to be. I want to be where I was before I was injured,” Manning said, referring to the neck problem that kept him off the field in 2011 after he’d started every game for the Colts for the previous 13 seasons. “I have a lot of work to do in getting to where I want to be from a health standpoint and learning this offense. This is going to take a ton of work.”
As far as being the man who could bring about the end of Tebow’s stay in Denver, Manning said: “I know what kind of player Tim Tebow is, what kind of person he is … and what an awesome year he had this year. If Tim Tebow is here next year, I’m going to be the best teammate I can be to him, he and I are going to help this team win games. If other opportunities present themselves to him, I’m going to wish him the best.”
As excited as Elway was to welcome Manning on board, he was just as sad for Tebow, who’s expected to be on the trading block.
“Tim Tebow’s a great kid. If I want someone to marry my daughter, it’s him,” Elway said.
But to run an NFL offense, to get a title, he wanted Manning.
“My goal is to make Peyton Manning the best quarterback that’s ever played the game,” Elway said, “and he’s got that ability with the football that he’s got left.”
Manning, who turns 36 on Saturday, said he made a quick connection with Elway, who won his two Super Bowls in Denver after his 37th birthday. Since No. 7’s retirement, Denver has had 11 quarterbacks, each trying in vain to replace the irreplaceable. If anyone can get out of that shadow, Manning could be the man.
He has one title in two trips to the Super Bowl, 11 Pro Bowls and was the fastest player to reach 50,000 yards and 4,000 completions. His first TD toss for Denver will be his 400th.
Manning’s familiar No. 18 was actually retired — a tribute to Denver’s first quarterback, Frank Tripucka. But Tripucka was more than happy to let Manning bring it out of mothballs.
Denver’s last playoff victory came over Pittsburgh two months ago, when Tebow delivered a stadium-rocking, 80-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime.
But things change, and in the NFL, they can change fast. Tebowmania is now a passing fad in Denver.
A couple of photos of Tebow that once adorned the halls at the Broncos’ headquarters were gone Tuesday by the time Manning was introduced.
Elway and coach John Fox were strategizing in Elway’s office Monday morning, wondering if they should reach out to the prized QB one more time.
Just then the phone rang. It was Manning.
Elway told him he sounded tired and Manning replied that he’d had a tough morning calling teams to say thanks, but no thanks.
Elway’s heart sank, then skipped a beat when Manning said he wanted to join him in Denver. Elway gave the thumbs-up sign to Fox.
“He was doing a little jig over there,” Elway said.
“I almost pulled both hamstrings,” Fox said.
Then, Elway hung up and they high-fived each other and the rest of the coaching and scouting staff and began preparing for life with the next elite quarterback in this QB-crazed town.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton on Facebook and http://twitter.com/arniestapleton