By Paul Klee The Gazette
DENVER — Roughly two weeks ago, Ron Jaworski, the quarterback guru from ESPN and a former NFL MVP, traveled to Virginia for a round of golf.
His playing partner: Peyton Manning.
“He’s long off the tee,” Jaws told me, breaking down the golf film of the Broncos’ quarterback who starts training camp Thursday. “And he’s a very good putter.”
Manning is a 6 handicap. Jaws is a 9.
“But I got him! He has to give me shots, man,” Jaws said. “He’s a young guy. I’m just hanging on.”
It’s OK to admit it. When we watched Manning throw three interceptions in a Monday night loss at Atlanta last season in Week 2, we wondered if the aging quarterback was simply hanging on.
Heading into his first season with the Broncos, we didn’t know Manning’s football handicap. He was a 36-year-old quarterback coming off four(!) neck surgeries. He didn’t play a single snap the year before in Indianapolis. We had no idea what the Broncos were getting in return for the $96-million contract given to Manning.
No one knew for certain.
“Being perfectly honest, which I always am, after watching that first week of the preseason, I did have some concerns about Peyton,” Jaworski said.
“I’m always optimistic when it comes to Peyton. But I wasn’t sure he was going to get back to that form.”
What did the Broncos get?
Arguably the best season of Manning’s Hall of Fame career. If not the best, it was in his top three.
He completed 68.6 percent of his passes, a career high. He threw 37 touchdown passes, the second-most in his career. He passed for 4,659 yards. Just one more 42-yard bomb to Demaryius Thomas, and that would’ve been a career high.
Think about this: During his past three seasons, Manning has thrown for 4,500, 4,700 and 4,659 yards. Those are three of the four highest totals in his entire career.
At 36, Manning’s numbers were better than his numbers at 26.
At the same time the football world wondered if Manning was past his prime, the quarterback is building a convincing case he is in his prime.
“I’ve certainly made strides when you talk about in comparison to this time in 2012,” Manning said during the team’s minicamp.
The Broncos’ quarterback is the face of the NFL. The league arranged its 2013 schedule to make Denver its featured attraction.
Television cameras will show the Rocky Mountain backdrop so many times this season, the rest of the world might finally figure out Denver is not a snowy hideaway high in the mountains.
We don’t live in tents and eat from a Coleman stove. Not all the time, anyway.
Still, I don’t think we truly grasp what Manning did last season.
“I think you’re absolutely right. It’s one of the most remarkable comebacks of all time,” Jaworski said. “Here’s a guy that could not throw the football two years ago. He could not throw it. No one knew if he would be able to come back or not. Peyton himself didn’t know. There was nerve damage.
“Everyone was optimistic and hopeful. But until it actually happened, no one was really sure.”
As someone uneducated in the mechanics of an older quarterback, I am hardly qualified to break down one of the five best to play the position.
So we found the man who is.
“I’ve watched every throw he’s made in his career,” Jaworski said.
Here’s how Manning, the quarterback, has evolved.
“He’s lost some arm strength,” Jaws said. “That’s a given.”
To make up the difference, Manning’s lower body is stronger, Jaws said. His legs and hips are more involved in each throw. It’s similar to the evolution of a golfer, really.
“When those cleats are entrenched in the ground and he can snap his hips, you don’t notice any loss of arm strength.”
The final pass of Manning’s first season with the Broncos is an example of what can happen when the quarterback isn’t entrenched in the ground, as Jaws put it.
In the playoff loss to the Ravens, in overtime, Manning pitched an interception to Corey Graham. Throwing off one foot, the pass lacked the same zing.
“He had to arm-throw it,” Jaws said.
“It’s human nature. I played 17 years. You know how you get hurt? Your cleats are dug into the ground and you get hit. So your natural instinct is to lift your legs to avoid the hit. But that’s how you’re going to lose power.”
Here’s a friendly tip: Manning and the Broncos open training camp at Dove Valley on Thursday. If life allows, get there. Who knows how long Manning will play.
The questions about Manning’s football handicap are gone.
“His arm appears to be a little stronger, more zip,” Broncos head coach John Fox said during minicamp.
Manning is back to a scratch quarterback.
Perhaps the only question that remains is this: For how long?
“I got zero indication that this season is it (his final season),” Jaworski said. “Peyton reeks of football. He loves football. I got no indication this is it, whatsoever.
“I hope he plays until he’s 50.”