Denver Broncos  

 

Peyton Manning brings leadership, bull's-eye to Broncos

The immediate gushing by Denver Broncos players over the acquisition of future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, while emotionally expected, should give fans pause. As great as Manning has been, he is not the sole missing piece. He's close, but relying on him as a crutch is about as dangerous as the Philadelphia Eagles thinking all those flashy transactions last August would make them impenetrable.

The Broncos won the AFC West and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs last season because they played with the aggression of fear. They knew they were a flawed team -- they did lose eight games -- but hid their blemishes with relentlessness, persistence and backed-into-a-corner heart.

The addition of Manning could cause some players to think they've got the crutch, a guy to make up for the weak spots many of them had to compensate for last season. That change in attitude could blow everything up. Manning made it happen in Indianapolis because the team was built around him. He's walking into a roster that is still being sculpted, but with the main pieces already in place for the most part.

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Manning is also coming back from nerve and neck injuries that look promising now but could look different after a few AFC West dates with Tamba Hali.

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. His abundance of juice made him the only player who could not only douse Tebowmania, but also likely send it packing after Tim Tebow rallied Denver to the playoffs and created a hysteria through effort, belief and something magical.

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.

The Broncos' coaching staff already is shredding much of its playbook from last season, adding its baseline agenda but leaving pages blank for Manning to fill in. The personnel staff is beefing up an offense that lost tight end Daniel Fells and wide receiver Eddie Royal, two nice young players. It's also looking at backup quarterbacks, possibly one in free agency and one to draft.

Frankly, what would be wrong with Denver adding Vince Young and keeping some of the run-pass concepts in its hip pocket in case he's got to play? Young would learn behind one of the best and also give Denver a backup with a twist.

As for the division, Chargers coach Norv Turner said Manning's arrival turned the once one-quarterback AFC West (San Diego's Philip Rivers) into one that boasts Manning, Oakland's Carson Palmer, Rivers -- and a good Chiefs team. While Denver clearly looks like the March favorite to win the division because of Manning, San Diego quietly has re-stocked in free agency and can't be discounted. The Chiefs won't be a walkover either.

Nobody knows about the Raiders, but with Palmer having an offseason to get ready, they could be as dangerous as any team in the AFC West.

Turner said that even though Denver will be much more of a passing team with Manning at the helm, it won't change how San Diego or other teams build their defenses. Since most teams are pass-first, possessing as many pass rushers, defensive backs and players that can tackle in the open field remains a premium.

"The tie-in is how you get ready to play against them knowing he's there," Turner said.

Last season, Broncos' opponents had to game plan for a running team with a running quarterback. This season, Denver will be more orthodox, even though Manning brings his own set of problems for defensive coordinators.

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Then again, the guy running things just put a bull's-eye on the Broncos. Denver faces a schedule as unforgiving as John Elway has been to Tebowmania. The non-divisional schedule is the NFC South (Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina), the AFC North (Cincinnati, Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh) plus Houston and New England.

Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, who no longer has to face Manning and the Colts twice a season, told me the Texans will be "excited" to play at Denver next season. That's code for: "We beat the Colts with him (rarely) and we'll beat the Broncos with him."

Teams will come at Denver much harder than they came at the Broncos and Tebow last season. Opponents didn't seem to ever take Denver as seriously as they needed to until Tebow made something special happen in the waning moments. Now, they'll be ready before kickoff.

It's a new era in Denver.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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