DENVER -- As a man who has thrown more touchdown passes than any player in NFL history, and one whose personal performance standard rivals that of anyone who has ever stepped on a playing field, Peyton Manning isn't one to hand out high fives or hyperbole after failing to guide his team into the end zone.
And sure enough, when I bull-rushed (OK, it was more like a polite shuffle) the 39-year-old quarterback at his locker about 15 minutes after his Denver Broncos had pulled out a dramatic but ugly 19-13 opening-day victory over the Baltimore Ravens at Sports Authority Field on Sunday, Manning refrained from passing out heaping portions of praise to himself or the men with whom he shares a huddle.
"I'm sure there's nobody on offense that's happy," said Manning, whose first regular-season game in new coach Gary Kubiak's scheme looked every bit as shaky as his final outing for former coach John Fox and ex-offensive coordinator Adam Gase in a desultory divisional-round playoff defeat to the Indianapolis Colts last January.
"Everybody on offense has high goals and a high accountability rate, and we'll just keep trying to improve. We've just got to keep working and keep trying to get better.
"If you're gonna try to make a summary for the season in Week 1 ... then it's not gonna be a great summary. That's why you don't make a summary in Week 1."
It's hard to argue with a quarterback who ranks among the greatest of all time, and whose command and understanding of the position is historically unparalleled. In that context, Manning's 24-for-40, 175-yard, no-touchdown and one-interception-returned-for-TD performance in a new offense might be excused as a predictably choppy inauguration.
And yet ... I can't help but measure against this game Manning's past Broncos openers, all at home, beginning with his nerve-wracking Denver debut three years ago. On that surreal Sunday night, Manning -- coming off four neck surgeries and a lost 2011 season, and playing his first NFL game out of an Indianapolis Colts uniform -- fashioned a 19-of-26, 253-yard, two-touchdown, no-interception gem in a 31-19 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A year later, I watched Manning open his 2013 campaign by throwing an NFL-record-tying seven touchdown passes, and no interceptions, in a 49-27 thrashing of the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens.
So now, with Manning having turned 39 in March, is it fair to wonder whether the living legend is in the midst of a precipitous and irreversible decline? Some of the NFL's top players and talent evaluators have done as much in the wake of his sluggish second half of the 2014 season. One veteran coach and longtime Manning admirer recently told me, after studying Manning on film, "He looks like an old boxer."
Whether he still packs a knockout punch remains to be seen -- but because the Broncos' defense was squarely in Manning's corner on Sunday, the quarterback was able to walk off a winner. So yeah, Denver got away with one against a good team, but whether that's a sustainable strategy for a squad with Super Bowl aspirations is highly debatable.
"We better figure out something, and fast," star receiver Demaryius Thomas said in a private conversation on the edge of the locker room, shortly before hitting the shower. "We can't really rely on the defense scoring more points than the offense every week. We haven't scored a touchdown, [shoot], in this new offense, even in the preseason. We've gotta figure it out very soon."
Kubiak, the former Houston Texans coach who spent the 2014 season as the Ravens' offensive coordinator, certainly seems to be aware that the transition has not been abundantly smooth. In what appeared to be a nod to the fact that Manning is still adjusting to Kubiak's system, the Broncos opened Sunday's game in the style of no-huddle, shotgun-based offense with which he is most comfortable -- and emerged with field goals on consecutive drives, thanks to the ultra-strong leg of Brandon McManus, who connected from 57 and 56 yards.
Denver led 9-3 early in the third quarter when, on third-and-10 from his own 20, Manning, forced to throw early by blitzing cornerback Kyle Arrington, sailed a low-velocity pass toward receiver Jordan Norwood on the left sideline. Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith went over the top of Norwood as the ball arrived, deflected the pass and caught it on the fly, racing 24 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
Baltimore increased its lead to 13-9 and appeared to be in control of the game late in the third quarter when, on third-and-6 from their 45-yard line, Flacco threw a pass for veteran wideout Steve Smith in the flat, and Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib jumped it and slithered 51 yards for a pick-six of his own.
"We feel like we've got a great defense, and a great defensive coordinator," Talib said afterward, referring to the recently hired Wade Phillips. "If we have to be the ones to win a game, we can do it. We can't always hang all the pressure on Peyton."
Added outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware: "The way we won that game was a big deal. So many times last year, the defense was out there and it was our opportunity to win the game, and we didn't. This lets you know the defense has matured. Everybody's used to these 45- and 50-point games, but at the end of the day you win as a team."
In fairness to Manning, there were plays Sunday during which he appeared to have his old magic. His sublime 6-yard pass to receiver Emmanuel Sanders on a third-and-3 slant midway through the first quarter was as perfect as that throw gets, and he later lofted a gorgeous deep ball that Sanders should have hauled in for a touchdown 19 seconds before halftime.
Then again, there were plenty of cover-your-eyes moments as well. On the play after Sanders caught that slant, Manning faked a handoff, rolled to his left on a naked bootleg (a staple of Kubiak's scheme) and threw on the run for Thomas, who was wide open near the Baltimore 15, with room to run. Manning, however, misfired badly, and the Broncos had to settle for the second of four McManus field goals.
There were other anomalies, including a delay-of-game call, a false-start penalty on Manning and four sacks. If nothing else, the growing pains in a new offense were debilitating and obvious.
"We're in Week 1 of an offense that's made some changes," Manning told NFL Media after the game. "We've made strides -- I think we'll continue to make strides throughout the season -- and still trying to kind of form our identity a little bit, to see kinda what we're gonna hang our hat on. Sure, you hope to have that in Week 1, but the times that I've been part of some changes and whatnot, it takes time to build up and form that. And so if you can get a win while forming that, I think that's a good thing."
Said tailback C.J. Anderson, who was held to 29 yards on 12 carries: "We're similar teams. They've pretty much been practicing against us for a whole offseason [because of their familiarity with Kubiak's attack, much of which is still employed by successor Marc Trestman], and it was just a tough game because of that."
Perhaps Anderson is right, but that won't stop outsiders -- and perhaps even those inside the Broncos' locker room -- from wondering whether Manning has lost his fastball.
"Of course they're gonna say that," said Thomas, who in July signed a new five-year, $70 million contract. "They have to understand, [lining up under center is] something he's never done. He'll get better, like the rest of us. We weren't there as a group. It's frustrating."
Let the record show that Manning and the Broncos' offense did come through when it absolutely needed to: Pinned at its own 4-yard-line with 13:51 remaining, Denver produced a 17-play, 81-yard drive that ended with McManus drilling a 33-yard field goal to extend its lead to six. The Broncos ran 11 times on the drive, with Ronnie Hillman (12 carries, 41 yards) and Anderson sharing the load, and Manning completed all five of his attempts (an incompletion to Sanders was wiped out by a Baltimore holding penalty).
"We finally got something going there at the end, and we sorta had to have it there on the last drive," Manning said. "So that's what we'll try to build off."
Talib bristled at the notion that Manning has fallen off, saying, "At the biggest moment of the game, he had a long drive that put them in a bind. That field goal made them need a touchdown to win the game, and Peyton was the one who put it all together. Look, if we hit a couple of those deep balls to 'E' [Sanders], it's a blowout. Trust me, it's coming. It's a storm waiting to happen."
Unless and until it does, however, some who suspect Manning can no longer perform at an elite level will put forth gloomy forecasts, privately or otherwise. As one Broncos source said Sunday, "Look, he's 39. Do people think he's going to be the same at 39 as he once was? He isn't. But he's good enough, especially if the running game can help him."
As he closes in on virtually every meaningful career passing record -- Manning needs 134 passing yards in Thursday night's game against the Kansas City Chiefs to join Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks to hit 70,000 -- Manning hopes he's opening a new and fulfilling chapter of his storybook career, rather than wheezing toward an abrupt and unsatisfying ending.
For now, it remains a mystery, and we wonder: Can an 18th-year pro with impossibly high standards who notoriously abhors change figure out a way to make it work with a new coach? And given that he took a $4 million pay cut to return to Denver for a fourth season, despite the departure of an offensive coordinator (Gase) with whom he had a close personal and professional relationship, will he start regretting his decision if there are more games like Sunday's?
At the end of my conversation with Manning, I asked him if the choice to renegotiate his deal and return to the Broncos had been an easy one.
"That's the kind of question that, after a game like that, I would rather not answer," he said.
He doesn't have to; not with a one-game sample size, at least.
If all goes according to plan -- and with Manning, it usually does -- I won't have to ask it again later in the season.