Behind Manning is a great supporting cast

ASSOCIATED PRESS Peyton Manning talks to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who caught three touchdown passes.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Peyton Manning talks to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who caught three touchdown passes.
Posted: January 31, 2014

JERSEY CITY, N.J. - A lot of Eagles fans wondered aloud this season how much better Chip Kelly's high-powered offense might have been with the injured Jeremy Maclin mixed in among the wide receivers. Here's one obvious answer: not nearly as good as Peyton Manning and his cast of dynamic wide receivers with the Denver Broncos.

This, of course, will forever be known as The Season of Peyton. It will be his name next to the NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and the 5,477 passing yards. With a win in the Super Bowl on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks at MetLife Stadium, he will have completed the greatest season by any quarterback in the league's history.

But these things don't happen alone. Manning has been blessed with hard workers, quick learners, big bodies, and a kindred spirit with the free-agent addition of Wes Welker, who led the league in receptions three times when he partnered with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. After spending his first season with the Broncos, Welker wonders why they even needed him.

"I didn't really have to bring too much," Welker said Wednesday as he sat aboard a shaking cruise ship on the Hudson River just outside the Broncos' team hotel. "I wanted to bring the mind-set of going out there and working hard and playing hard and never quitting and just trying to make plays whenever I can. With all these guys . . . I just wanted to find a role to help these guys win in some way, shape or form."

He became one of the guys, probably the fourth-best receiver in a cluster of stars. DeSean Jackson led the Eagles with nine touchdown catches in 2013 for an offense that finished fourth in the NFL in scoring. That number would have ranked fifth on the Broncos, who became the first team in league history with four receivers with double-digit touchdown catches.

Add running back Knowshon Moreno and they had five players with double-digit touchdowns. No other team ever had more than three in a season.

The Broncos were a dream team, especially if you had them on your fantasy team.

You want big, they have 6-foot-3, 229-pound Demaryius Thomas, a former first-round draft pick who made the transition from good to great under the forceful guidance of Manning. In Manning's two seasons with Denver, Thomas has 186 catches for 2,864 yards and 24 touchdowns.

"The main thing that helped me out is just being in that meeting room with Peyton," Thomas said. "He wanted the best for everybody. He wanted everybody to know the little things. The little, the big, and whatever he knows. Being in the meeting room with him and seeing how he looked at the coverages, it made me go out on the field and play faster. I didn't have to think anymore."

So it must be a pleasure to be in that meeting room with Manning.

"Sometimes it was," Thomas said. "Sometimes it wasn't."

When wasn't it?

"When you mess up," Thomas said. "He takes it well, but he wants you to know what you're doing."

You want a bigger Thomas? That would be Julius, a great basketball name and a former college basketball player who has emerged as one of the best tight ends in the league despite having little football experience coming into the season. He had played in nine games and caught one pass for 5 yards before this season.

He is still a student at Manning University, but he's on track to graduate with honors. The 6-foot-5, 251-pound tight end finished the season with 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. Only New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and San Francisco's Vernon Davis had more TDs among tight ends.

"Peyton has said he has to remind himself that I haven't been doing this very long," Julius Thomas said. "By no means does that let me off the hook on anything. I'm just the guy who has to be there long and spend a little more time in the class room preparing."

The unsung hero among Manning's targets is Eric Decker, who will be eligible for free agency after the season. He was Manning's slot receiver in 2012, but moved outside more with the addition of Welker. His numbers got better as he finished the season with 87 catches for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns.

"When you have a quarterback as great as Peyton throwing you the ball, you want to get open," Decker said. "He makes you want to be great. We've had an opportunity this year to really mold together and be unselfish and do things that no one has done in history. With that mind-set and that unselfishness, we were able to accomplish something special."

Only one thing remains on the to-do list, and the Broncos will attempt to check that one off Sunday against the Seahawks. It should be some aerial show.


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