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CHICAGO – The first snap, that's where Peyton Manning's mind went after he'd spent most of his time on the sideline, watching a miserable NFL preseason game.
The first snap. A milestone for a guy whose career was turned upside down at least, and in serious jeopardy at worst.
The first snap back.
“That very first play,” Manning said, “that was a big step for me.”
Indeed it was. Many of us thought Manning was done playing when he spent the entire 2011 season trying to fix what ails his neck. He had several procedures and, somewhere along the line, one of them severed him from the Indianapolis Colts. That's oversimplified, of course. Many events transpired to send Manning from the Colts to the Broncos, and to his first preseason snap with his new team Thursday in a 31-3 win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
That first snap, out of the shotgun formation, went for an incompletion. He tried to hit Jacob Tamme, another former Colt, across the middle. Lance Briggs got a hand in there and the ball dropped.
Manning's second pass took an odder route, bouncing off Bears linebacker Geno Hayes' hands and into Tamme's.
Cue Manning's postgame humor.
“Maybe, in some ways, I've even gotten better,” he said. “Now I have the ability to throw a ball in a linebacker's hand and tip it to my own player. Maybe that's a positive.”
It was good to hear Manning's dry wit again. It was good to see No.18, even in a foreign uniform, dropping back, throwing the ball, hitting receivers.
Was he vintage Manning? No. But he's been out a year and a half.
No doubt it's been the longest stretch of his life.
“I always have to take time to say I've sure come a long way in a year,” Manning said. “I know how much hard work I put in, and the help I had along the way. …I took a snap and completed some passes. It's a long haul for me. That was rewarding.”
The last snap Thursday was one Manning would like to have back, of course, since it went from looking like a potential touchdown to a drive-ending interception.
Manning and the Broncos were at the Bears' 12-yard line. Manning dropped, locked in on a cutting Brandon Stokley (yet another former Colt), and fired. The ball looked a tad behind Stokley. Bears corner D.J. Moore caught a sliver of it. It bounced off Stokley and into Bears safety Major Wright's hands.
Manning left the game with 4-of-7 completions, 44 yards, one pick and plenty to build upon in this strange, new phase of his career.
He took 12 snaps. He handed off three times to Willis McGahee. He had one completion erased by a penalty.
“There's a little more pressure in some ways when you only have 10 or 12 plays that you have to get it done,” Manning said. “In a (regular) game, you have four quarters to try to make something happen.”
It was clear being back on the field after missing the entire 2011 season – he had never missed a single game before that in his career – was a point of pride for Manning. Some thought he'd never play again. Some wonder if he'll ever return to his Hall of Fame-caliber form.
We can't know where Manning will end up this season. Twelve snaps and eight passes aren't enough to make a lasting judgment.
But here's something else to chew on from Manning's post game.
He looked back at his passes, and one of them stood out.
It was a left sideline out route to Eric Decker, a 19-yard gain. Manning had great protection, made easier no doubt by the absence of Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers on the Bears' defense.
“That was the fifth read in the play, and that's not one you usually get back to,” Manning said. “Some good protection.”
On the surface, that's praise for his offensive line. Read between the lines, however, and you'll realize that Manning went to his fifth read. There's the Manning mind. There's the quarterback who can find that receiver, given the time, who's open for a big gain.
Some question his arm strength, whether he yet has recovered the zip on the ball that made him famous. Maybe it's not there yet. Again, the number of snaps he took make a definitive assessment impossible.
But he won't be outsmarted.
Give Manning time, give him a chance, and he'll find a way to make a play. He's done it for more than a decade.
His body kept him out of the game for a year. His will, and his doctors, have brought him back. He mentioned the trainers and doctors “in Denver, in Indianapolis when I first got injured, have really been supportive with my injury and have really helped me. I have to thank them. They know who they are.
“It's been a long haul since this time last year, that's for sure.”
It's been a long haul, but Manning reached the first snap of the second act of an NFL career not quite over yet.