Before he could become a big hit with the Denver Broncos, Peyton Manning had to take a big hit. The veteran quarterback — who missed all of last season with the Indianapolis Colts due to a neck injury that weakened his throwing arm — was slammed to the ground during an August preseason game. Manning picked himself up, much to the relief of his new fans in Denver. "I've never heard a crowd cheer for an incompletion before," he quipped after the game.
Should the 36-year-old Manning stay healthy, he will give the Broncos plenty to cheer about. "He looks like Peyton, and Peyton's the one guy who could lose a few miles per hour off his fast ball and still be incredible," says NBC's Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth, who calls the situation in Denver "the great Peyton Manning experiment."
The four-time MVP rejoins the elite ranks of quarterbacks "who seem to be able to control the game from the line of scrimmage in a way that we don't see very often," Collinsworth says, "and there's a lot of them doing it right now."
The others include Manning's brother Eli (defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants), Tom Brady (New England Patriots), Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers), Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints) and Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers), all Super Bowl winners.
Mike Tirico, play-by-play man for ESPN's Monday Night Football, says that in addition to those six super signal-callers, there's a large cadre of quarterbacks who could lead their teams deep into the playoffs. They include Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers), Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions), Jay Cutler (Chicago Bears), Matt Schaub (Houston Texans), Michael Vick (Philadelphia Eagles) and Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons).
NFL rule changes to further protect the quarterback and wide receivers, Tirico says, "have significantly impacted the offense for the better" by encouraging and rewarding a good passing game. "The rules, the development of the star quarterbacks, and the guys who haven't won the Super Bowl but are such good offensive leaders and their team is built around them — that's just elevated the level of play around the league," he adds. "Whenever you have a good quarterback matchup, I feel like you have the potential for a very good game."
And don't forget the rookies: Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts), Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins), Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins), Brandon Weeden (Cleveland Browns) and Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks). "We haven't seen a league where you're looking at five quarterbacks as the guys of the future," Tirico says. "We're seeing more than ever that if you don't have a quarterback who is a star leader of your team, it's very hard to be a championship-caliber team. They're trying to invest early in those guys so they can grow in those second and third years and be ready to win playoff games."
Collinsworth says in the past, quarterbacks were given three to five years to find their footing, but Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens), Andy Dalton (Cincinnati Bengals) and Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers) have produced results almost from their first snaps. "The expectations for these young quarterbacks have really been ratcheted up."
Manning, meanwhile, is having a rebirth in Denver. "It's been a long haul since this time last year for sure," he said after his first preseason game, adding the following week, "I'm still going through the adjustment. It's a process. I think it'll be all season long. It's definitely a lot of change."
On the other side of the quarterback carousel, Manning's signing by Denver sent Tim Tebow to the New York Jets. Tebow, whose fourth-quarter heroics helped the Broncos into the playoffs last season, is vying for playing time in the Mark Sanchez-led offense. "I'm a big fan of Sanchez," says Fox analyst Mike Martz. "I do know that Tebow is a winner — obviously that's why they want him there. Which one of them is the best quarterback, I'm sure that will play out. There will be a role, no matter what happens, for Tim Tebow."
Still, Tirico notes, "I just don't see the Tebow addition as the magic potion to get this team to a higher level." He calls the Texans and Patriots the teams to beat in the AFC and likes the Packers in the NFC, with "San Francisco nipping on their heels." Collinsworth takes New England as his early Super Bowl favorite "just with the way they came so close last year" before falling to the Giants in the title game. He adds that the 49ers "are very dangerous. Any team that can play defense like that, you've got to say they are a serious threat to win it all."
And yet it will all boil down to the quarterbacks. "There was a time in this game when [Philadelphia coach] Andy Reid was considered to be a rebel, because he believed the pass-run ratio should be at least 60 percent pass," Collinsworth says. "You wonder now if it's going to go to 70-30, because these quarterbacks are just so good. It's almost like sometimes you look at a run play as being a wasted down. The ability to throw it and catch it the way these guys do — it's like going to the circus." And the quarterback is the ringmaster.