Peyton Manning still has something left to prove. Only he knows what that might possibly be.
At 36 years old, coming off an injury that sidelined him for the entire 2011 and likely would have ended a lesser player's career, Manning decided against packing it up and starting the clock on his Hall of Fame induction. He still wanted to play.
Manning hasn't taken a meaningful snap since early January of 2011, yet still thinks he can play in the NFL.
The question about Manning changed this offseason from wondering if he was right to come back to figuring out just how right this comeback can be. He can still play, that's for sure, but can he be the same quarterback he was before he got hurt? Can Manning still play at the Hall of Fame level he did most of his 13 seasons in Indianapolis?
How many trophies can Manning win in Denver, and will he win one this year?
To figure out how far he can go, it's important to remember where he has been. When it became evident the Indianapolis Colts were selecting Manning's replacement Andrew Luck with the first pick in the NFL draft, the need to keep Manning around as a mentor seemed pretty ridiculous, especially given how much they would have to pay.
Rather than retire, Manning moved on, packing up his 54,828 passing yards, 399 touchdowns and four Most Valuable Player trophies and traveled 1,084 miles due west to Denver, agreeing to play for another all-time great in John Elway.
You got a sense during Manning's introductory press conference in Denver that something special might be happening. Manning gave Elway an easy way to jettison Tim Tebow without having the fanbase turn on him.
Manning, admittedly on the down side of his career and coming off a major injury, gives Denver a legitimate superstar quarterback for the first time since, well, Elway himself (that depends on how you feel about Jay Cutler—or Jake Plummer—I suppose).
Since arriving in Denver, Manning has looked better as the preseason moved along. Manning looked so good in his final preseason tune-up—10-of-12 for 122 yards and two touchdowns against the 49ers—that he left the game earlier than expected. It seems he is ready.
The question now, as Denver faces the Pittsburgh Steelers to open the season on Sunday night, is how ready can ready be? Can Manning get back to the MVP-caliber talent that took the Colts to the playoffs 11 times in 13 seasons? Can Manning do what his brother Eli did last season and lift his team to another Super Bowl?
Amazingly, the answer is probably yes. Manning probably can get back to that level. It may not all happen this year, but given the up-and-down nature of the ultra-competitive NFL, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Denver could make a deep run in the playoffs this season. So realistically, how much space in the trophy case might Manning need to clear? It could be a lot.
Comeback Player of the Year
Once Manning takes a snap in the first game, he is a lock to win NFL Comeback Player of the Year so long as he manages to stay healthy enough to also take a snap in his last game. Manning doesn't even have to play every game, let alone take every snap, to win Comeback Player of the Year.
In today's NFL, few starting quarterbacks play every game of the season. Manning just needs to avoid another potential career-ending injury and he is a flat-out guarantee for that award.
The guy with the second most comebacks in NFL history—tied with John Elway, just one behind Dan Marino—is off to a great start in the most important comeback of his career.
Most Valuable Player
MVP will be a little harder for Manning to win. Having said that, the guy does have four to his name, the most of any player in NFL history, so there is no reason to count him out for another.
Last season Denver made the playoffs after winning the AFC West with an 8-8 record. For Manning to be in MVP consideration, the Broncos will have to repeat as AFC West champions and likely win at least 11 games in the process.
Since the NFL expanded to 16 games back in 1978, the NFL MVP has led his team to fewer than 11 wins just four times, two of which came in strike-shortened seasons (Elway won the 1987 MVP after Denver went 10-4-1 but replacement players started the first few games of that season).
Since the league expanded the regular season schedule, no quarterback has taken home the NFL MVP with fewer than 11 wins (besides Elway in 1987). Only three quarterbacks have won with exactly 11 regular season wins; Rich Gannon in 2002 with the Raiders, Brett Favre in 1995 (his first of three MVP awards) with the Packers, and Brian Sipe in 1980 with the Cleveland Browns.
A quarterback has won or shared the NFL MVP 25 times since 1978 and 21 of them have recorded 12 or more wins in the process.
For Manning to take home the MVP, he may need to take Denver farther in year one than even he anticipates.
Offensive Player of the Year
One might think the MVP of the league, if an offensive player, would also be the Offensive Player of the Year. The award has actually become a way for Associated Press writers to split the vote, giving similar awards to two worthy nominees.
In the last four seasons, the AP Offensive Player of the Year has been a different player than the MVP three times. Drew Brees has no MVP awards to his name but has won two different Offensive POY awards.
From 1999 to 2001, Marshall Faulk won three consecutive Offensive Player of the Year awards despite winning just one MVP in 2000, flanked in the other years by his own teammate, Kurt Warner.
Brett Favre and Peyton Manning have seven MVP awards between them but the two have just one Offensive POY award apiece. For Manning, it will be much easier to win an award like the MVP, which is based on a nebulous concept like "value," than an award like the Offensive Player of the Year, which is habitually awarded based on a more linear concept like statistics.
Lamar Hunt Trophy—AFC Championship
Denver was one game away from the AFC Championship last season with Tebow lining up under center. Whatever Mile High magic the Broncos employed to upset Pittsburgh last season probably left town with Tebow, but Denver certainly plans to rely less on destiny and more on talent in 2012.
For the Broncos to get to the Super Bowl they will first need to make the playoffs. The AFC West should be stronger this season, especially if Kansas City can stay healthy. That said, the Broncos could still prove to be the class of that division, which, record-be-damned, would give them a home game in the playoffs no matter how many more wins their first-round opponent may earn (see 2011).
Is Denver better than New England or Baltimore or Houston? It's not even close, no. But nobody thought Eli and the Giants were better than Green Bay and look what happened at Lambeau last winter. Nobody thought New York could beat the 49ers in San Francisco and look what happened there as well.
Lombardi Trophy – Super Bowl Champion
Will it happen this year? No. Most likely the Denver Broncos will not win the Super Bowl in Manning's first year in town. Could it happen this year? Sure, anything can happen in the parity-rich NFL. It probably won't, but it could.
If it does, that would be some kind of comeback for Manning. For now, he may just have to settle for some of the more attainable trophies.