The epicenter of the Denver Broncos this season was often the training room, where two crucial veterans sometimes sat side-by-side.
Quarterback Peyton Manning was trying to get plantar fasciitis to heal in his left foot. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware was rehabbing a knee injury.
Those two represent a combined 29 seasons of NFL experience and accompanying gravitas. There was a time this season when it was reasonable to speculate Manning, 39, might never take another NFL snap.
Yet now he’ll be the oldest starting quarterback in a Super Bowl when he faces the Carolina Panthers Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.
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Ware says if you witnessed Manning’s determination as a patient, you wouldn’t be so surprised how this played out.
“When we were in the treatment room, it was just the leadership that the team needed,” Ware recalled Monday after the Broncos beat the New England Patriots Sunday. “We had to get well. We had to have our full team. Everybody bought in, helped and pitched (in) like [outside linebacker] Shaq [Barrett] when I was hurt and [quarterback] Brock [Osweiler] when Peyton was hurt.
“Now, getting all of the guys back and winning that game, you look on the sideline and say, ‘You know what? We did it. We got in there.’ “
Asked about the foot and rib injuries and the time they cost him this season, Manning said sometimes one injury sitting you down allows the rest of your body to heal. He looked pretty spry Sunday on a 12-yard scramble for a first down.
Manning has always been about action and control. Going to the shelf for several weeks, then winning back his starting job in a second-half comeback against the San Diego Chargers, provided a different perspective.
“When you’re not able to contribute because you can’t participate, you try to be patient,” Manning said Sunday after throwing two touchdown passes in the Broncos’ 20-18 victory.
“My role has been different, and my contributions are different. I’m fortunate and grateful that I have the opportunity to contribute still in some way. It’s a great honor to go back to the Super Bowl.”
This isn’t the first time his body broke down. He previously came back from neck surgery to regain the strength to effectively throw the ball at the NFL level. It’s not possible for him to still have the huge arm he had at Tennessee and as an Indianapolis Colts rookie. But this will be his fourth Super Bowl and that’s invaluable experience for the starting quarterback.
“Take it one week at a time, stay patient,” Manning kept repeating Sunday as almost a mantra. “That has served me well.”
Because of Manning’s age, accomplishments and health, his relationship with first-year Broncos coach Gary Kubiak was complicated. Complicated but not unproductive.
They worked to be transparent with each other: Manning’s role was to get healthy and stay connected to the team. Kubiak’s job was to give the Broncos the best chance to win each week, and maybe that meant playing Osweiler over the future Hall-of-Famer.
“They were very good,” Kubiak said of his conversations with Manning. “I would say that they were tough from the standpoint of him physically trying to get himself back to that point” where he was a viable option to start.
When was Kubiak convinced?
“About seven or eight days before San Diego, when I watched him work out and watched where he was physically and the way he talked to me,” Kubiak recalled. “(Then) I knew that he was ready to get back in there and lead the football team.”
Three consecutive victories later Manning is a win away from a second Super Bowl ring. It’s hard to imagine what he’d have left to accomplish as a player, but Manning has been steadfast in not dealing with those what-ifs.
“It’s not really time to reflect,” Manning said. “We have two weeks to play.”
Play maybe the grand finale for No. 18.