NEWARK, N.J. — When Peyton Manning returned to the NFL after a series of neck operations that sidelined him for the entire 2011 season, there was plenty of talk about when — and even whether — he would return to the level of play that earned four MVP awards and two Super Bowl appearances.
He ignored others’ voices.
He couldn’t ignore his own questions.
“I certainly had my concerns that entire time,” Manning said Tuesday at Super Bowl media day, less than a week before he’ll lead the Denver Broncos against the Seattle Seahawks.
“I had my concerns, because the doctors just couldn’t tell me anything definite. They wouldn’t say, ‘You’re going to be back at this time, at 100 percent strength level.’ They couldn’t tell me,” he continued. “So when the doctors can’t tell you that, how do you really know? It was a matter of a lot of faith and trust.”
Manning scoffed as he recalled what some said as he prepared to move to the Broncos from the Indianapolis Colts.
“There was a lot of ‘narrative’ out there. That’s kind of my new word for the year,” he said with a smile.
“There was a lot of ‘narrative’ out there on what I couldn’t do: ‘He can’t throw to the left.’ And, ‘He really struggles throwing to the right.’ I’m like, ‘How do they know? I’ve been throwing in private the entire time.’ … At the time, throwing to the left was about the only thing I could do well,” Manning said. “So there was a lot of misinformation out there.”
As it turned out, Manning would be just fine.
Last season, he led the Broncos to the playoffs, earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
“I kind of joked, ‘I never wanted to be eligible for that award.’ When you’re injured and you’re out for a year, I guess that’s kind of what it gets labeled,” Manning said. “I’ve got to call it more of a second chance, second opportunity.”
Broncos coach John Fox called Manning’s immediate success in Denver “truly remarkable.”
“To build on that,” Fox added, “and to have the kind of season he’s had to this point this year, I think is unprecedented.”
From the very moment it began in September — on opening night, Manning threw a record-tying seven touchdown passes in a victory over the reigning champion Baltimore Ravens — this season has been all about Peyton.
In Year 2 of his second act, Manning threw for 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards, both records. If the Broncos win Sunday, Manning will become the first starting quarterback to lead two franchises to Super Bowl titles.
Still, he has zero interest in discussing where his career stands.
As collected and measured as he is while scanning the field from the pocket, Manning coasted through the circus that is media day, opining on his family’s favorite beer, politely evading silly questions about reality TV — and avoiding any wild pronouncements.
He deflected questions about his accomplishments by talking about the “team” and “organization.” He praised the Seahawks. He talked about how “excited” he is, how “exciting” this all is.
Others were less shy about characterizing Manning’s place in the game.
Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas: “I was nervous the first day I met him. … He’s definitely the best.”
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson: “He’s one of the best — if not the best — quarterbacks to ever play the game. One day, I want to be like him, in terms of the way he thinks. He’s just a master of the game.”
Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor: “In my book, he ranks No. 1 at quarterback. I have tons of respect for that guy.”
When reporters repeatedly raised the word “legacy” to the 37-year-old Manning, he never took the bait.
“I’ve been being asked about my legacy since I was about 25 years old. I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you’re 25 years old. Even 37,” Manning said in response to the first such query. “I’d like to have to be, like, 70 to have a legacy. I’m not even 100 percent sure what the word even means.”
Then, in about the closest thing to a stumble, Manning continued: “I’m still in the middle of my career.”
At least one of the dozens of assembled media members gasped, “Middle?!”
Realizing his miscue, Manning chuckled and went on.
“Let me rephrase that,” he resumed. “I’m down the homestretch of my career, but I’m still in it. It’s not over yet. And so it’s still playing out.”