We can all recite the story by heart by now—just over two years ago, former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had several neck surgeries and had two vertebrae fused, causing him to miss the entire 2011 season.
The next offseason, Indianapolis cut ties with the veteran quarterback—replacing him with top draft prospect Andrew Luck—and Manning went on a free-agency tour that ultimately ended with him singing in Denver with the Broncos.
Here we are eight months later and Manning's year-long absence from the game is unnoticeable to the common fan. Hurdling his doubters and overcoming perceived loss of arm strength, Manning has barely missed a beat, leading comebacks, routs and putting his name in the 2012 MVP race.
So, how did he do it?
Since he started training for the 2012 season, Manning has gone through countless footwork and passing drills over and over and over and over again. Even when he was a free agent taking his tour, Manning found time to get former teammates Dallas Clark, Austin Collie and Brandon Stokley to workout and run routes for him in the offseason.
(Incidentally, Stokley would go on to also sign with Denver.)
Manning actually bribed the three players, offering them tickets to a Duke/University of North Carolina basketball game if they would work out with him. Per Manning, it was an "easy sell," according to a tweet by Gray Caldwell of Denver Broncos Team Media.
In addition to running specific drills and working with his teammates and former teammates, Manning has also worked with his receivers and coaching staff to perfect Denver's offense. Staying after practice to perfect routes with his receivers, Manning and Demaryius Thomas have literally drawn up plays in the dirt.
Got this gem from Yahoo! Sports' Mike Silver:
I really enjoy working with the young receivers. We're learning each other and I'm still feeling my way out, but they're buying in.
Exhibit A: Manning's one-yard touchdown pass to Thomas with 9:30 left in the third quarter, which gave the Broncos a 24-7 lead. The play was installed weeks ago by Manning in practice: Thomas, lined up to the left, begins what appears to be a fade route, then abruptly breaks it off and runs a quick out to the side of the end zone.
When we first ran it in practice, it was against [future Hall of Fame cornerback] Champ Bailey. He said, 'Man, that's an unstoppable route.' When I hear Champ Bailey say that, it gets my attention.
Unsurprisingly, Saints cornerback Johnny Patrick couldn't stop it. Hey. We had one play that worked that [Manning] put in [during] this game.
Manning drew up a play, Thomas ran it in practice, it worked on game day. A thing of beauty.
He Makes Players Around Him Better
This may be Manning's single greatest talent—the ability to make players around him better. Denver's offensive line, after having an arguably poor season in 2011, is playing lights out with Manning directing the offense and getting the ball into skill player's hands quickly.
The running game is benefiting from Manning's presence, as Willis McGahee rushed for over 120 yards against the Saints. And the receivers' numbers are off the charts, with Thomas averaging the second-best (97.0) yards per game average and the most receptions of 20-plus yards (16).
Manning pushes the offense to rise to his level, and they have stepped up. As a result, the Broncos have the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL. For comparisons' sake, consider that Denver's offense was ranked 31st in 2011 (in terms of yards per play).
He Knows His Strengths, Weaknesses and is Returning to Old Form
"I've had an injury," said Manning, “I’m a different player coming off the injury. I’m on a different team, and so I’m just working on kind of finding my way, and our team is finding our way.”
He has certainly found his way. Throwing for 300-plus yards and three scores in five consecutive weeks, Manning's 109.0 passer rating ranks first in the NFL, and he's on pace to throw for 4,829 yards and 38 touchdowns.
If he's not at full strength already, when 100 percent healthy, the NFL will not be able to stop him from winning his fifth Most Valuable Player Award.
Dominating the NFL after several neck surgeries, Manning has proved there's little he cannot do. Can he lead Denver to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1999? Time will tell.
If there's one thing we've learned from Manning's return, it's not to doubt the determined QB.