Published October 18, 2012
DENVER – Peyton Manning's arrival alone would have made John Elway's second year as boss of the Denver Broncos a success.
The powerful pair needed much more than each other's company, however, to have any realistic shot of hoisting another Super Bowl trophy like they talked about on that spring day when Manning decided to sign on with the Broncos and help them end more than a decade of disappointment.
After landing one of the biggest free agents in NFL history, Elway and his new front office team of Matt Russell and Keith Kidd kept searching for more building blocks for a club that has won two playoff games since Elway's Hall of Fame playing career ended with a second straight title in 1999.
They signed cornerback Tracy Porter, tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme.
The rest they found in the NFL's scrap heap:
— Slot receiver Brandon Stokley was lured out of retirement at age 36.
— Safety Jim Leonhard, who turns 30 this month, was signed while still rehabbing from knee surgery.
— Center Dan Koppen, 33, came to Denver after getting cut in New England, where he missed most of last season with a leg injury.
— Linebacker Keith Brooking, who turns 37 in late October, wasn't re-signed by the Cowboys after his playing time diminished last year.
— Defensive tackle Justin Bannan, 33, returned for his second stint in Denver.
"Add up our ages and it probably equals the rest of the team," Brooking joked.
Certainly, these old-timers have a larger collection of rings.
"Guys that have been there, done that, been on championship teams, veteran guys that young people can look up to, I think it's important to have," coach John Fox said. "I've always believed in a blend of youth, experience and veteran know-how."
These vets, though, aren't just here to provide advice, but to lead by example.
"It is a young man's game, but at the same time, you get exposed in this league quickly if you no longer have the ability to make plays," Brooking said. "It's a performance-based business regardless of what your resume is."
Like the resurgent Manning, all five free agents have proven to be clutch signings, playing critical roles in the Broncos (3-3) making it through the treacherous portion of their schedule and into their bye week tied with San Diego atop the AFC West.
Koppen and Brooking have joined Bannan in the starting lineup, and Stokley and Leonhard are playing key roles like they did Monday night in San Diego when the Broncos became the first team in NFL history to spot an opponent a 24-0 lead and then win by double digits.
Stokley's highlight reel touchdown grab gave him three TD catches in the fourth quarter so far, tied for the league lead among receivers. Leonhard outleaped Antonio Gates to jumpstart the Broncos' six-takeaway night and become one of just a half dozen safeties to have an interception in each of the last six seasons.
"My hat's off to our personnel department," Fox said. "You look back, Dan Koppen ended up being pretty wise. We brought in Jimmy Leonhard and Keith Brooking, everybody is looking at us sideways. They weren't healthy. Guys like that, that have been there before and done that, it's good to have those guys out there."
Of course, the Broncos' biggest acquisition, Manning, is coming up huge.
Returning from a year's sabbatical with four neck operations to match his four MVP trophies, Manning looks as good as ever. He leads the AFC with 14 touchdown passes and is on pace to throw for more yards (4,821) than he ever did in Indianapolis (4,700 in 2010).
If he keeps this up, he'll also post the second-best marks of his career in attempts, completions, completion percentage, touchdown passes and quarterback rating along with his second-fewest interceptions in a season while also setting a slew of franchise records.
"He's one of the best quarterbacks to play the game and so he's just trying to add to that legacy," Elway said. "Plus, he raises everybody around him because they know that he gives us a chance to compete every time we go into a ballgame. And that's huge for a team, to have that hope. That's what gets everybody fired up and ready to play week in and week out, to know that you can win that game."
Manning is coming off a three-week stretch like no pro passer has ever enjoyed. He's the first NFL quarterback to throw for 300 yards and three TDs while completing at least 70 percent of his passes in three straight games.
On Monday night, he engineered his 47th late game-winning drive, tying Dan Marino for the most ever. And he extended his NFL mark with his 67th 300-yard passing game.
Any questions about his health were answered emphatically in Denver's 35-24 win over the Chargers.
Manning's trio of TD throws against the Chargers was capped by a 21-yard strike to Stokley, his pal from the Colts, who plucked the pass out of the smallest of windows before skidding across the turf, his right arm raised in celebration.
That erased the last remnants of their 24-point hole, and Chris Harris' interception return for a TD sealed the comeback.
"It was a good way to finish that game," Stokley said, "but we need to put four quarters together."
The Broncos have developed a nasty habit of digging an early hole, but they have outscored their opponents 79-6 in the fourth quarter. Denver heads into the weekend furlough promising to fix the slow starts.
"Just imagine," Manning said, "what we can do when we don't put ourselves in a hole in the first half."
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