DENVER | Less money. Fewer snaps. More days off.
The Denver Broncos are counting on this simple formula to help Peyton Manning win Super Bowl 50 just before he turns 40.
Cash-strapped after breaking the bank for free agents last year, GM John Elway asked the five-time MVP to take a significant pay cut last winter. The sides settled on a $4 million giveback, every penny of which Manning can earn back by winning the Lombardi Trophy.
The pay cut allowed Elway to go out and sign two-time Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis to an incentive-laden $4 million deal in August after it became apparent this rebuilt O-line featuring three greenhorns wouldn’t keep grass stains off Manning’s jersey.
New coach Gary Kubiak, cognizant of the torn quad muscle that ruined Manning’s season last year, gave him every third or fourth day off in training camp to keep him fresh and also to get longtime backup Brock Osweiler more work.
Kubiak also plans to give him plenty of Wednesdays off during the season.
The long-term benefit of getting so much rest is that Manning should be fresher in December. The downside? September might not be so smooth.
Manning heads into his 18th NFL season still showing some rust he’s normally brushed off by now, having failed to find the end zone in nine full preseason possessions.
“Well, maybe it’s not what he’s used to,” Elway said. “But I just think that at 39 years old, he can’t work like he used to work. And he’s got to be able to save that.”
Other things to keep an eye on this season as the Broncos’ reloaded roster seeks another Super Bowl appearance:
COMFORTABLY NUMB: A lot was made this summer of Manning’s comments that he still can’t feel his fingertips four years after a series of neck surgeries threatened to derail his career.
Yet, he has a better completion percentage in Denver than he did in Indianapolis and he’s averaged 44 touchdown passes in his three seasons with the Broncos, about 15 more than he did with the Colts.
So, Elway isn’t worried about his QB.
“Well, if I threw for 5,400-something yards and 55 touchdown passes, I wish my fingers would have been numb, too,” Elway said.
DOMINANT DEFENSE: Wade Phillips has never had this much star-power to turn loose on defense.
Not only does he have three Pro Bowlers in his secondary in Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward but he has a wealth of pass-rushers to turn loose in Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, first-round pick Shane Ray, Shaq Barrett, Lerentee McCray and Kenny Anunike.
The Broncos collected an almost-unheard-of 20 sacks in the preseason.
“That’s my motto: just be a menace in the backfield,” Anunike said, speaking for the entire group, really.
REBUILT OFFENSE: Manning has two NFL novices — Ty Sambrailo protecting his blindside and Matt Paradis snapping him the ball — to go with a rebuilt tight end group that features just one holdover in Virgil Green. His receiving group includes Bennie Fowler, who spent last season on the practice squad and Jordan Norwood, who spent 2014 on IR.
The offense clearly isn’t as far along as Denver’s defense.
“It’s going to be a work in progress through the year, too,” Elway said. “We’re not going to be kicking on all cylinders. We’d like to, but it’s still going to be a work in progress with this offense and people are going to continue to get more and more comfortable with it, even after we start the regular season. ”
DEMARYIUS’ DOLLARS: Demaryius Thomas insists there’s big plays to be made in this run-oriented offense “or they wouldn’t have paid me what they paid me,” which was $70 million over five years.
Despite Denver dialing down the passing game, Thomas is on record saying he’s out to break Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving record of 1,974 yards set in 2012.
“Everybody’s going to be trying to stop the run game,” Thomas said, “and there’s going to be lots of plays to be made deep.”
MATURED MCMANUS: Kicker Brandon McManus won back his job after eliminating the jab step in his delivery, improving his accuracy on field goals and beating out Connor Barth. He kicked a 70-yard field goal during a two-minute drill this summer and showed power and precision on kickoffs.
But he also had a couple of misses in the preseason, including a 55-yarder in the final minute of a 22-20 loss to Arizona.