Steelers Start ‘12 Against Broncos

DENVER – When the four-time MVP with the four-time surgically repaired neck takes the field tonight for the Denver Broncos’ opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it will have been 1 year, 8 months and 2 days since Peyton Manning’s last meaningful snap.

What a long, strange journey it’s been.

Manning’s march began with an irritated nerve in his neck that got worse and eventually weakened his throwing arm, leading to a series of operations that forced him to miss all of the 2011 season.

Without him, the Indianapolis Colts nosedived and then decided to rebuild from top to bottom, including selecting Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the top pick in the draft.

So, they cut Manning loose on March 7, marking the end of an era, a 14-year alliance between the team that drafted him No. 1 overall and the QB who brought Indianapolis from football irrelevance to the 2007 Super Bowl title and a second appearance in the NFL championship game three years later.

A thousand miles away, Denver was Tim Tebow’s turf. But management wasn’t completely sold on the exalted but erratic passer for whom coach John Fox had dusted off the old read-option offense last season.

Two weeks after he stood alongside Colts owner Jim Irsay at an emotional farewell news conference, Manning was standing next to John Elway, the powerful pair of Super Bowl winners talking about hoisting another Lombardi Trophy, this time together. And soon.

While that quest begins in earnest Sunday night, it had its roots in Denver long before Manning ever dreamed he’d be wearing the orange-mane mustang on his helmet instead of the horse shoe.

Shortly after signing with the Broncos, Manning visited Coors Field with wide receiver Eric Decker and revealed that he had worked out with his buddy, Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, during the NFL lockout last year.

While Manning, who unseated Helton as the starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee in the mid-1990s, was rehabbing from neck surgery, Helton helped arrange for him to use the Rockies’ facilities to work out.

“He’s a great friend,” Manning said that day at the ballpark. “What he did for me last year, allowing me to use this facility, use the trainers to work out as part of my rehab process. I’ve come a long way … They were a big part of it. The whole Rockies organization, I can’t thank them enough for opening their doors to me last year when I certainly was an outsider. I’ll always be indebted to them.”

Manning’s right triceps had atrophied after one of his neck surgeries. He told the New York Times recently that when he went with Helton and a Rockies trainer to an indoor batting cage at Denver’s downtown ballpark, the first pass he threw to Helton nose-dived so much that Helton actually thought he was just goofing around.

He was dead serious. His arm was shot, his future in football in doubt.

A few days later, an MRI revealed that Manning needed spinal fusion surgery. Nobody realized it at the time, but Manning’s days in Indy were numbered.

Brandon Stokley, who rejoined his former quarterback in Denver this summer, said he never knew things had gotten that bad for Manning.

“I really didn’t see him throw until we went to Duke” during Manning’s free agency tour in March, Stokley said. “And I purposefully didn’t ask him, ‘Hey, how you throwing? How you doing?’ I wanted to just go out there and judge for myself, and I was like, ‘Wow, he looks really good. And I was impressed. But I didn’t see him during the season or during the lockout.”

Few did.

Manning got stronger and stronger and by the time he left Indianapolis, he had a doctor’s note saying he was ready to return to work. He proved that in private workouts for several teams.

The Broncos signed him to a five-year, $96 million deal that can be torn up after this season if his health doesn’t hold up. But all indications are that his arm strength is no longer an issue, and he showed during the preseason he can take a big hit and bounce right back.

While it may still be a strange sight to see Manning in orange and navy blue, the Steelers see the same Manning they always have, decoding defenses as well as ever.

“I see no difference,” said Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison.

Neither does Steelers long-time defensive guru Dick LeBeau, who said, “I don’t see any throw that he can’t make. I’ve seen him get sacked and jump right back up. He just looks like Peyton Manning to me and that’s a challenge.”

Most days, Manning looks like he never missed a snap.

“He needs no endorsement from me, guys,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “This guy is Peyton Manning, and guys like him earn their reputations with their play, and usually rising up at significant moments. Obviously, this is a significant one for him and we’re expecting his very best.”

So are the Broncos.

“I know it is clich, but he’s like a coach on the field,” Fox said. “He raises all boats.”

The Broncos brought in Stokley and another former Colts teammate, tight end Jacob Tamme, as part of their offseason refurbishing.

On defense, Denver added cornerback Tracy Porter, safety Mike Adams and top draft pick Derek Wolfe, an end who should make Pro Bowl pass-rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil even more effective.

The Steelers have been among the NFL’s most stable franchises for decades. But after losing to the Broncos on Demaryius Thomas’ 80-yard TD catch and run from Tebow on the first play of overtime in the AFC wild-card playoff game at Denver, they endured a tumultuous offseason.

Veterans Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke either retired or were released. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians’ contract wasn’t renewed; Pittsburgh brought in former Kansas City coach Todd Haley to add a little bite to an offense that finished tied for 21st in points scored.

Yet the standard, as the Steelers like to say, is the standard. Tomlin insists the Steelers must be “a team on the rise,” even if that rise has been hampered by knee injuries to Harrison, running back Rashard Mendenhall and rookie guard David DeCastro.

Safety Ryan Clark will sit out due to a sickle cell trait that makes playing at high altitudes dangerous. He also missed the playoff game, where Thomas outraced his replacement, Ryan Mundy, to the end zone.

That electrifying moment seems so distant with Tebow now in New York and Manning in Denver, where expectations are higher than since Elway was leading fourth-quarter comebacks, not the Broncos’ front office.

It’s all because of Manning.