Tebow mania cannot hold a candle to Manning mania. The evidence? Saturday afternoon, 41,304 fans packed the lower levels of Sports Authority Field at Mile High to watch the Broncos' annual preseason scrimmage. The attendance was more than double the amount who had turned out in 2010, Tim Tebow’s first year in Denver.
"I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like this … I think (the fans) are ready for some football," Denver head coach John Fox said after the scrimmage.
It was almost a game-like atmosphere. Fans sipped beer and munched on hot dogs and nachos and at every opportunity the 40,000-plus would stomp their feet to create the famed “Mile High Thunder.”
Peyton Manning echoed Fox’s comments about the passion of the crowd, "No question the fans are into it … it really felt like a game atmosphere with the crowd and our pre-game routines. I know players were pumped, they were kind of feeding off the energy of the fans."
The level of fan optimism for the Broncos chances this season are as high as they have been in recent memory, without a doubt that is in very large measure due to Manning’s presence.
For some fans, like Jim Collins of Littleton who came with his 9-year-old son Tyler, Saturday represented their only opportunity to see Manning in person. “I can’t afford game tickets but I really wanted Tyler to be able to watch Peyton play in person,” Collins explained. “(Manning) is one of the best ever, we couldn’t be happier that he’s playing for the Broncos.”
While no one seems even the least bit displeased to have Manning on the Broncos, a few fans questioned the wisdom of trading away Tebow.
22-year old Ashleigh Masterson and her friend Beth made the trek down from Wyoming to attend the scrimmage. Each sporting orange and blue face paint and Eric Decker jerseys, Masterson said, “I like Peyton but they should have kept Tebow. I mean, he took us to playoffs last year. He could learn from (Manning) and then play in a few years.”
The scrimmage itself, while largely uneventful, did give fans a glimpse into the team’s offensive and defensive strategies as well as an early look at the depth chart.
The quarterback rotation, after Manning, has been something of a mystery throughout training camp with Caleb Hanie, Adam Weber and rookie Brock Osweiler all getting work with the second-team offense. Saturday, the rotation went Manning, Hanie, Weber and Osweiler last.
Fox dismissed the idea that much could be read into the QB rotation displayed Saturday saying, “It's still way early … it's 2A, B and C and those guys will fight it out and decide who #2 is.”
As Broncos fans should be aware, there are some quarterbacks who are good practice players but fold in live action and vice versa. The coaching staff wants to see how each of the backups play in real game situations. For what it is worth, the Broncos released their first depth chart on Monday and have Hanie listed second, Osweiler third and Weber fourth.
The Denver first-team offense, including Manning, took a while to find their groove. The offense began the 11-on-11 scrimmage with a pair of three-and-outs. While it is still early, that could be cause for some concern considering the first-team offense was playing the second-team defense. The offensive line struggled in pass protection work early, especially inside, and a Manning pass was intercepted by safety David Bruton.
After the initial struggles, the offense was able to put together a scoring drive that was capped off with a picture-perfect pass from Manning to Decker in the corner of the north end zone. The pair has made news virtually since Manning’s arrival in Denver for their burgeoning chemistry with one another.
"I thought Decker's back-shoulder touchdown catch was awesome, it was excellent coverage by Florence … back shoulder fades are a hard route to cover, it's something (Decker) and I have been working on so it was good to put that into play today," Manning explained.
The first team defense looked to be in midseason form. They were, however, playing against Hanie and the second team offense.
Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller were terrors off the edge while Champ Bailey barely allowed the various receivers he covered to get an inch of separation. The defense used a mix of man and zone coverage with second-year cornerback Chris Harris working as the primary nickel corner as he did for much of last season.
The only bad news to come out of the scrimmage was the serious injury suffered by tailback Mario Fannin. The second-year runner, who missed last year with torn knee ligaments, tore his Achilles tendon on Saturday. The injury, which usually results in a 12- to 18-month long recovery process, likely puts an end to potentially promising NFL career of the former Auburn Tiger.