ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning is about to face his first pass rush in 579 days.
The four-time MVP makes his Denver Broncos debut in the preseason opener at Chicago on Thursday. If he has an extra pep in his step or anticipates a larger than usual adrenaline rush against the Bears, he’s not showing it.
He insists it’s simply the next steppingstone in his comeback in Denver (No. 10 in the AP Pro32) after missing all of last season with a nerve injury in his neck that weakened his throwing arm and led to his tearful farewell from the Indianapolis Colts.
He’d like to face some challenging situations during his cameo appearance at Soldier Field, and if he happens to get hit, he’s certain he can bounce right back up.
Broncos boss John Elway and Denver’s coaches will certainly cringe whenever that first big blast comes, but durability is really the only question mark left with Manning. His arm strength and pinpoint accuracy are back.
Manning’s comeback is the biggest story line in the league heading into the 2012 season.
“It’s great for him and he’s great for the NFL,” Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. “With the things he’s done, he’s one of the great quarterbacks in the history of the game. I’ll just be happy he’s in the AFC, still.”
This will be Manning’s first game since the Pro Bowl following the 2010 season and his first with a pass rush to contend with since the Colts lost to the New York Jets in the AFC wild-card round on Jan. 8, 2011.
Bears coach Lovie Smith isn’t going to have his guys go easy on Manning.
“You don’t play the game to hurt anybody at any time, but it’s a physical football game,” Smith said. “Our pass rushers want to get to the quarterback, whoever he is. I started with Peyton Manning his first year at Tennessee; we’ve known each other for a long time. I’m happy to see him back out there on the football field, but we need to play well against them.”
Manning wouldn’t want it any other way, and neither would his coach, John Fox.
“For the record, we’re not going to hold back on them, either,” Fox said.
The Broncos-Bears game is the highlight of the first full slate of exhibitions spread out over five days. It also marks the reunion of Bears stars Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, who haven’t played together since spending their first three pro seasons in Denver.
Meanwhile, Caleb Hanie returns to Chicago (No. 11, AP Pro32), where he was Cutler’s backup for three years.
All eyes are on Manning, though — even Cutler’s.
“I think everyone is” eager to see Manning, Cutler said. “Caleb’s out there, and he says everything looks great, that Peyton looks great. It will be interesting to see how much carry-over offensively they brought over from Indy, how the new receivers are doing. There are a lot of question marks over there, but Peyton’s Peyton. He’s going to be on top of things, and I’m sure he’s going to look fine.”
Manning, who figures to get fewer than six quarters of work in the preseason, revealed no emotion over his much-anticipated return to action this week.
“I’ve always said you love to get a bit of everything in the preseason if you can,” Manning said. “You love to get some short-yardage work, some third-down conversions. You’d love to get some red zone, goal line.”
Rookie quarterback Brock Osweiler said he doesn’t detect any anxiousness in Manning behind the scenes, either.
“He’s been around a long time and he’s played in a lot of football games,” Osweiler said. “He’ll be ready to go. He understands what kind of mentality you have to go into a game with and how you need to prepare for that, and I think he’s done a tremendous job.
“I’m sure No. 18 will be ready to roll.”
One Chicago player who’s particularly eager to see Manning is cornerback Tim Jennings, who used to play in Indianapolis.
“When I first got in the league, I thought I wasn’t that good, when I was there. He just makes you feel that way,” Jennings said. “He had a lot of guys around him: Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Brandon Stokley. And I came in there and it just kind of made me feel smaller than what I was. But I just had to realize I was going against a lot of Hall of Famers for the future.”
Manning’s pocket awareness and quick release make him hard to hit. He’s averaged just 13 takedowns over his last three seasons, whereas his predecessor, Tim Tebow, was sacked 33 times in just 11 starts last year.
So, the Bears will have their work cut out for them even though Manning’s pocket of protection is unlikely to include right-side starters Chris Kuper, coming off knee surgery, and Orlando Franklin, recently cleared from a concussion.
“I know a lot of guys want to be able to get their hands on him,” Jennings said. “Hopefully we can get to him quicker than anybody else can. But we don’t want to put him in any danger or anything like that. It’s preseason. We just want to go out there and compete, and hopefully if their line protects well, then they shouldn’t have a problem.”