Peyton Manning: Denver hopes he's 'comfortable' as NFL preseason kicks off

Peyton Manning debuts in a Broncos uniform Thursday night for an NFL preseason game in Chicago. John Elway says the veteran QB will play 'one or two series.'

Jack Dempsey/AP
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning throws during NFL football training camp on Saturday, Aug. 4, in Denver.

Peyton Manning will play his first NFL game in a Denver Broncos uniform Thursday night, 18 months after being sidelined by neck injuries and 6 months after saying goodbye to the Indianapolis Colts.

Well, OK, “game” might be exaggerating a bit. Manning probably won’t take more than a few snaps when the Broncos visit the Chicago Bears, headlining a slate of six evening games that will get the NFL preseason fully underway.

The Broncos brass won’t expect too much from Manning during his first outing. “It's just [about] him getting more comfortable,” head coach John Fox told NFL.com “This is a pretty good situation for him, but it's still the first time. So getting him comfortable is probably the biggest thing.”

Broncos president John Elway told reporters that Manning would play “one or two series” depending on two things: The success of the Broncos’ opening drive, and the amount of time the first-team offensive line is on the field.

“If things go well right off the bat, have a nice scoring drive, then get him out,” Elway said. “You don't want to have three three-and-outs. You want to get some confidence, get some first downs, and maybe put some points on the board. If we do that, get him out.”

Preseason games, of course, mean zilch when it comes to how well any team, or player, will fare during the regular season. Their main function is determining a team’s supporting cast: the starters barely play, and the second- and third-stringers fight to get noticed while coaches make their final cuts.

Manning should see a bit more field time in later preseason games, but teams will be less concerned with winning and more focused on solidifying rosters and trying out new schemes on offense and defense.

But anyone who says Manning’s Bronco debut won’t be discussed and dissected to pieces is kidding themselves.

Second only to his Broncos predecessor, Tim Tebow, now jogging shirtless through another training camp a continent away, there was no bigger sideshow than Peyton Manning during the NFL offseason.  Even before he began taking snaps for the Broncos in May, the Internet was abuzz with daily musings about his arm strength, rehab, potential secret neck surgeries, and even his new house in Denver.

The most intense speculation, though, has been about what will happen when he gets tackled again for the first time. While a great many fans and sportswriters are optimistic that Manning is back to his old pre-neck-injury self, just as many think one huge hit could knock him out for the rest of the season (and potentially end his career).

 Elway, for one, says it’s a non-issue: “I’m not afraid about him getting hit. I’m really not,” the former Broncos’ QB said. “Everybody's worried about whether he can take a hit or not,  [but] he wouldn't be on that football field if he couldn't take a hit.”

Manning, who gets rid of the ball quickly and has made a special skill out of thoroughly confusing opposing defenses, doesn’t get tackled much. So given his limited playing time, it may not happen in tonight’s game, or the next, or the next. But when it does, we’ll have a better sense of what to expect from the Peyton Manning era in Denver.

What else to watch for Thursday night:

• Second-overall draft pick Robert Griffin III will make his NFL debut for the Redskins against the Buffalo Bills. The charismatic Griffin has gotten even more offseason attention than Manning replacement Andrew Luck, and there’s been speculation that the Redskins have been holding their cards close to the chest when it comes to showing off what the quick, super athletic Griffin can really do in training camp. Still, he’s being expected to carry a team that only won five games last year.

• The New Orleans Saints will pay a visit to the perennial Super Bowl favorites New England Patriots – their first outing as they prepare for a season without head coach Sean Peyton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, suspended for their roles in the defensive bounty scandal earlier this year.

• The Atlanta Falcons host the Baltimore Ravens, the Green Bay Packers visit the San Diego Chargers, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will square off against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tebow will suit up with his new Jets teammates Friday night when they take on the Bengals in Cincinnati.

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