At age 36—and with at least three surgeries performed on his neck over the last 20 months—one blindside blitz could be all she wrote for Manning's inaugural season in Denver.
But even if Manning's health is a question mark leading into the 2012 season, what he has already brought from a leadership standpoint has been and will be invaluable for the Broncos' AFC West title defense next season.
Manning wasn't your typical free-agent signing.
He didn't need time to fit in or feel comfortable in the locker room. From day one in Denver, Manning has commanded the attention of every single player in the Broncos' organization. You wouldn't expect anything less from a future Hall of Famer.
Any worry that Manning would need adjustment time in taking over for Tim Tebow as the franchise's face were thrown out in a hurry. He's already in a leadership position in Denver.
From Steve Wyche of NFL.com:
Manning isn't the type to allow for slippage. Whereas many free agents want to feel their way into a new environment and not threaten existing leadership, he walks into town with enough caché to have players following him from the get-go...Manning will hold players accountable and make them take co-ownership. This, after all, will be Manning's last fling at legacy-building and trying to win a Super Bowl.
In Indianapolis, Manning rose to Hall of Fame status by being one of the most prepared players in the game. No one knew the Colts offense better than Manning, and that included the offensive coordinator most seasons.
A tireless worker on the field, Manning was also a dedicated student of the game in terms of knowing the playbook and watching film.
In a sense, Manning was another offensive coach for the Colts that was masquerading around as an MVP-winning quarterback.
Despite being a member of the Broncos for less than three months, Manning is already imposing that same kind of knowledge on his Denver teammates.
Receiver Demaryius Thomas told the Broncos' team website that the offseason work with Manning is already starting to pay off:
I feel like just being out there with him, it helped because it seemed like he knew what was going on. He answered questions and he was like another coach because I was learning stuff from him that I didn’t know. I feel like he’s going to help me out this year.
Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy—the man whose job it is to structure an offense that fits around a second quarterback in as many years in Denver—will undoubtedly lean on Manning for help in rebuilding the Broncos' offensive package.
A season ago, McCoy helped redesign the Broncos offense on the fly when John Fox inserted gadget quarterback Tim Tebow as the starting quarterback.
This time around, McCoy won't need to draw up option reads and Wildcat looks. Manning will give McCoy the blueprint he needs to make this transition offensively an easy one.
From McCoy, via the Washington Post (Associated Press):
When a guy has played as long as he has, it’s not going to take him a long time to figure it out. I’ll tell you what: The way Peyton works and the way he wants to work is unbelievable. He doesn’t want to leave any detail out. He’s going to be very meticulous in everything he does.
McCoy also knows that everything about the 2012 season will be different with a caliber of leader like Manning running the offense.
"It’s going to be different. You’re going to see a different type of football, a different way we approach the game during practice," McCoy told the Associated Press. "Peyton, he’s one of the great leaders of the game.”
And beyond anything he can accomplish before the season starts, Manning's main leadership asset—given he can stay healthy in 2012—will simply be making everyone around him on the Broncos offense that much better.
Thomas could be in line for a monster year. Eric Decker is returning from a knee injury but figures to be one of Manning's favorite targets. Across the board, the offensive line will benefit from Manning's knowledge of defensive looks and a quick release. With the threat of Manning's arm, the Broncos' running game should stay on track.
Overall, the Broncos offense should be a much-improved unit over the one that scored just 309 total points during the 2011 regular season. If all the pieces fit right early on, the Broncos could be one of the AFC's best offenses.
Of course, the elephant in the room is still Manning's health, and it is impossible to know how his neck will respond to the numerous surgeries completed over the last two seasons. Another major injury could end Manning's career and send the Broncos' 2012 season into a tailspin.
But even though Manning hasn't been around the Broncos organization very long, you can already see the ripple effects of his presence in Denver.
Manning brings a sense of accountability and work ethic to the game's most important position—both on-field and off it. The offensive players are excited and learning. And the coaching staff is getting the sport's most cerebral quarterback to help redesign an offense that looked more suited to high school or college with Tebow in charge.
Manning obviously doesn't come to Denver without the risks involved with his neck, but the rewards for signing him this offseason already seem to be outweighing those potential risks tenfold.