I've only seen this strange sight from afar, so I'm a little apprehensive about witnessing it up close: I'm going to watch Peyton Manning tonight.
That's Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos.
No matter how many times I write some form of the previous sentence, it still feels wrong. Manning of the Bronocos? Yes, I know it's true. I saw his tearful goodbye to the Indianapolis Colts. I've seen him on ESPN in full Broncos gear. And he's going to be on Soldier Field tonight in Chicago in the preseason opener against the Bears.
(As fate would have it, I'll be back in Chicago in a few weeks to watch Andrew Luck and the Colts play the Bears in the season opener. That'll be different, too.)
The chance to see Manning play, this close to Indy, was impossible to pass up, given that it's the biggest story in an NFL preseason game since, well, ever.
This is Manning's first game since the Colts lost to the Jets in the playoffs after the 2010 regular season. We kept waiting for him to return from his offseason neck issues last year. He'd barely missed a snap, let alone a game, in his first 13 seasons. Yet the problem lingered and, even though he signed a contract prior to last year's camp intended to make him a “Colt for life,” within months the Colts as we knew them were blown up and he was given a farewell news conference.
Now we'll see, if only in a short appearance, whether Manning looks natural running an offense in a real (or pretty close to real) game. The Bears aren't planning to sit back and let him have fun, even in this scenario.
“You don't play the game to hurt anybody at any time, but it's a physical football game,” Bears coach Lovie Smith told the Associated Press. “Our pass rushers want to get to the quarterback, whoever he is. I started with Peyton Manning his first year at Tennessee; we've known each other for a long time. I'm happy to see him back out there on the football field, but we need to play well against them.”
Manning, a creature of habit, has said the same things about this preseason that he always used to say during his time with the Colts.
He'd like to get in some work in the red zone, in third-down situations and at the goal line. In other words, he'd like to make this preseason as routine as possible.
This preseason will be anything but routine for Manning. He's with a new team, new coaches, new receivers and new surroundings. He has to prove himself for the first time since 1998, his rookie season.
His health remains an issue. Most accounts have Manning showing the same old zip and accuracy on his throws that he showed for years with the Colts. But he's had four procedures involving his neck and he's missed an entire season. Playing NFL football is not easy, no matter how much Manning has made it appear that way over the years. He's bound to have rust.
It's a legitimate question whether Manning does indeed have the same throwing zest that he had before his lost season. Those watching him for the first time would not have the years watching him to have the best feel for it. Teammates who would know if Manning throws with the same skill, such as tight end Jacob Tamme, wouldn't share a negative review even if they had one.
My hope is that Manning has completely recovered, that he'll be his old self, flailing those arms, changing plays, making small-window completions that only the greatest quarterbacks are capable of making. I'd have rather seen him finish his career with the Colts, but I also understand the business end that led to his departure.
Maybe when Manning takes the field tonight, he'll make it seem like 2005 again, throwing short and long, deep and wide, completing everything in sight. Maybe he'll be the Hall of Fame-bound laser, rocket-arm man again. Maybe Denver houses the fountain of youth.
I doubt tonight will provide the definitive answer on Manning.
But if he looks anywhere near like he used to, it'll be the official start of a season filled with queasiness and angst for Colts fans everywhere.