Next: Broncos-Colts at Indianapolis (6:25 p.m. Thursday, NBC, NFL, 850 AM, 107.9 FM).
DENVER — To hear Jordan Taylor tell it, Peyton Manning treated himself as just another guy with a bum foot.
A guy trying to get his job back. A guy who was down but not OK with being out.
And no, contrary to the cynical view, Manning's injury during the Super Bowl 50 season wasn't a cover-up for a legend. Stop being silly. Dude was hurt.
“The first two or three weeks all he could do was stationary throws,” Taylor told me Tuesday in the Broncos locker room at UCHealth Training Center.
Taylor's the guy who never played in a game and still caught the most passes from Manning during the quarterback shuffle of 2015.
“Our offense, it was under center, bootlegs, stuff like that. He couldn’t really move laterally or back. I'd run the route and he — (Taylor in a passing motion) — would get it out there. He worked and worked and we know the rest.”
Manning went to work with Taylor in tow. Thrice weekly during a two-month recovery, No. 18 and — what’s Sunshine’s number again? 87? — joined forces inside the plush Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse. Taylor studied the playbook and ran routes, the quarterback sometimes correcting the routes the wide receiver ran incorrectly.
In consecutive training camps Taylor flashed one-handed catches and an ability to make a difference, only to be passed up by higher draft picks with flashier pedigrees. Now Taylor has forced his way into what has become one of the most important positions on the Broncos roster, punt returner. (They'll never take it for granted again.) And Manning, step by ginger step, pushed himself back to working order. Some folks might argue that six missed games and the doubts that followed were the low point of his career, non-neck surgery division. He turned it into the high point, a second Super Bowl win.
No pouting. No tweeting. No throwing in the towel. (It looked a lot like Eli Manning's response when the Giants benched him, actually.) Ever wonder what it takes to score a statue outside an NFL stadium? Guess that's how.
The Broncos play the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday.
“You can’t respect him enough for how he handled that whole situation,” said Taylor, whose sure hands have calmed scarred hearts along the Front Range. “He had some injuries and some struggles early on. But watching him work through those six, seven weeks as he was rehabbing, it’s a credit to him and his will to get back out there and do whatever he could do for the team.”
Super Bowl history says the Broncos won “50” on the strength of a cocky and powerful defense. It’s a true story, of course, just not a comprehensive one. Here’s what it misses: the Broncos not only don’t win Super Bowl 50 without Manning returning from injury. I'm not sure they win a playoff game without seeing first-hand how Manning attacked the recovery process as if his legacy depended on it. Need proof? Look how it's gone since Manning retired.
The great house painter covered up all the cracks.
Now we have the Broncos returning to Indy, where the Manning statue was unveiled in October. It's 9-foot-1 and made of bronze, detailed down to the oversized shoulder pads and loose-fitting jersey. With the Broncos crushed by an eight-game losing streak and slogging through a low point in team history, it’s also a reminder it was during his low point — a mid-game benching in favor of Brock Osweiler, and can you imagine that now? — that Manning stood tallest.
The 2015 Broncos didn’t need Peyton at his best. They needed to see what Peyton was willing to do to finish it off right. The quote that lingers came from his dad after the AFC title game. Archie Manning made it sound like Peyton — seven touchdowns-in-a-game, 55-touchdowns-in-a-season, Nationwide-jingle Peyton — was simply along for the ride. And he was cool with it.
"It was a long year. He's hung in there with a lot of young guys, a young team, and he gets to join them in the Super Bowl," Archie told me. "I think that's what's it about for him."
Peyton delivered, with his attitude as much his arm. As Super Bowl 50 champ Ryan Harris said: “Guys watched his every move. When we saw what he was going through to get himself back, we had to put in just the same amount — if not more. It’s Peyton Manning. You don’t want to let him down.”
Thursday night promises (threatens?) to be the funkiest game on the Broncos’ schedule. NBC is rolling with the overhead “SkyCam” as its primary camera angle, a bold strategy, and the Broncos will curse tradition with all-orange jerseys and all-orange pants. The Broncos look like fresh produce.
“I’m still the same short pumpkin,” C.J. Anderson said.
“I think we look like human traffic cones out there,” Trevor Siemian said.
And more will be gleaned from a Thursday game against the achy Colts than any game the Broncos have played this season. Short week, Colts sore from a brutal snow game at Buffalo, playoffs long forgotten. Will the Broncos still perform for Vance Joseph or has losing stolen their edge?
Truth is, it’s better for their future if the Broncos lose these games, the difference between a spot or three in the NFL draft (and perhaps a franchise quarterback). But it’s a sure thing John Elway's front office is watching to see which guys show up and which guys don’t. Is it time to tank?
“That’s just not me,” Von Miller said, to which no one can disagree.
At his low point, Manning stepped forward when he could have stepped back. He identified a practice-squad rookie as his wingman. And before he returned from injury to win the Super Bowl — a high point, for sure — Manning purchased a dress suit for the rookie. It was Taylor’s first suit, a gray one, and it came from Andrisen Morton, an upscale shop in Cherry Creek.
“I mean, he didn’t have to do that,” Taylor said.
Guess that’s how you score a statue outside an NFL stadium.