ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On an idyllic Friday, with the sun blaring across Colorado, the fans stretched as the players did. That's what they do before the Broncos practice.
The team gets loose with windmills, and so does the crowd. The full roster of Broncos players are in sync with their enthusiastic fans. It is a comedic choreography full of symbolism.
High-tempo, crisp and ready to start the year like they ended the last one. Here is what I learned after spending the day in Dove Valley:
1. Look where they are starting: The way the Broncos sailed through the regular season last year, cruising to 11 straight wins while eliminating any concerns about Peyton Manning's arm, it made us all forget a little reality. Like how the team started 2-3 and were down 24 points against the Chargers, threatening to go 2-4. Some of the optimism this training camp comes from where the Broncos are starting.
When I asked coach John Fox what stands out to him thus far in the preseason, he said, "Just how much further ahead Peyton is. A year ago this time, we were trying to get him to relearn how to throw. He's way more comfortable, way more ready to play."
The feeling-out period with a new quarterback, the receivers trying to learn a complex system, an offensive line altering the way it called a game -- it was all new. And as demanding as Manning is, finding perfection wasn't easy. This year, even with a few new faces, the starting line is so much further ahead. Thus, the playing speed has accelerated. And now, as new offensive coordinator Adam Gase told me, "It's good to see that Eric (Decker) and Demaryius (Thomas) can play at the speed that they need to play at because they understand what's going on. That's great. It's good to see them be able to get to that point." The less thinking there is, the faster you can play. That's their reality.
2. You thought last year was up-tempo and crisp? Just wait: The biggest byproduct of a collective understanding is tempo. That's what Manning and Gase crave. Not just being able to snap it fast, but finding a rhythm for every facet of their offense. How a play is called, how it's communicated to the outside receivers, how they can all see things together, how Thomas and Decker -- and now Wes Welker -- move from check-to-check seamlessly.
"I'm telling you last year, we had some times where it's like, 'I'm not sure,'" Gase said. "(Manning) played with the same guys for a long time and with these guys, it was his first year. Now it's his second year that chemistry is there."
Case in point, the Broncos huddled much more than anyone expected to start last season. By the end, their machine didn't always require a huddle. This season, it should start clicking like it was in 2012. "Last year, we were feeling things out," Gase concluded. "If you go no-huddle and somebody's wrong, that's a problem. Now, it's more of, 'Hey, we're on the same page a lot sooner than last year.'"
3. What happens if Von Miller is out the first four games? It's a topic no one enjoys talking about, with mostly vague generalities and no-comments. And yet, the looming potential drug suspension for Von Miller could become real by the season opener. Thanks in part to Fox's ability to shrug and refocus on the task in front of him, the players have not allowed the issue to become greater than it is. The mindset is, if Miller is out, someone else will play. Like an injury -- it's not ideal. But life isn't always.
"Much like any time, an injury, a guy out of the game, sometimes when the door closes for somebody else, the door opens for the next guy," Fox told me. "Our coaches, that's what we do, we adjust. If anything happens, we'll adjust." The defensive line was bolstered by first-round pick Sylvester Williams and the signing of Terrance Knighton. Defensive end Derek Wolfe is ready to break out. Sure, losing Elvis Dumervil to "faxgate" wasn't ideal. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio pointed out that even by now, no one knows for sure what his starting defense will look like. "Any time you take a great player out of the mix, you're hoping somebody else emerged, somebody else picks it up," Del Rio said, generally. "You do what you can to fill it in. Those are legitimate questions that can't get answered until you do it. Until we go out and play we'll find out the morning after."
4. In the center of it all: When center Dan Koppen went down for the season with a torn ACL, it meant Denver was down to its third center. In stepped Manny Ramirez, possibly temporarily, and off the couch came Ryan Lilja, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts. For most teams, it's not good to play the third-string center. When the center is the person snapping to Manning, serving as the control center for the offense, it's even worse. But when I asked Gase about the alleged hole in his offensive line, he pointed out that Ramirez started 11 games at guard last year in this same system. "He's been working center and guard since he was drafted into the league," Gase said. "He doesn't have any starts at center. But it's not like this guy hadn't started. He was a starter on a 13-3 team last year." Or, it could be Lilja turning back the clock. At the least, one thinks, it's better to solve this issue now than in September or October.
5. It's not all familiar: There is so much about the Broncos that looks just like last year. Manning, his two outside receivers, much of his line, the familiar faces on defense ... But spend a day in Dove Valley and you'll see a few shiny new objects to play with. Like cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, even with his injured ankle, who has been more than the Broncos expected. Athletic tight end Julius Thomas (who?) will be a name you'll know once the season starts. Guard Louis Vasquez will help solidify any issues up-front. Safety Duke Ihenacho is primed to make a leap from the practice squad if he keeps heading in this direction. Running back Ronnie Hillman figures to allow the Broncos to withstand what Fox called "a leap of faith" in releasing back Willis McGahee. Oh, and then there is Welker. "He's pretty good," Gase deadpanned. Perhaps Manning has met his match as far as practice intensity now that Welker is on board. Of course ... there is still Manning. "When you have a star quarterback," Del Rio said, "a future Hall of Famer like Peyton, obviously, your team is going to have more fun. Because it's more fun to win."