More than a month after having knee surgery and enduring weeks of rampant speculation about whether the injury was worse than first feared, two-time league MVP Peyton Manning finally provided his doubters with one emphatic answer Tuesday: He's back, right on schedule.
"This is a significant step for me to get back out on the practice field," Manning said before throwing and running with teammates. "If things go well, as we expect they will, then I hope to be full go next week and ready for the season opener."
Manning will be limited in practice initially after being activated from the physically unable to perform list.
Coach Tony Dungy said the Colts will be cautious with the franchise quarterback during this short week _ Indy played Buffalo on Sunday night and faces Cincinnati on Thursday _ before giving him a full complement of snaps next week.
"We're going to monitor him and (rookie tight end) Tom Santi, who will start practicing today," Dungy said. "So we do have a pitch count on those guys."
It's been a crazy month for Manning, the Colts' iron man who has never missed a start in his 10-year NFL career.
He was instructed by doctors not to report to training camp with his teammates July 24, 10 days after having surgery to remove an infected bursa sac from the left knee. Team officials said it would take Manning four to six weeks to recover, and the six-week anniversary came Monday when the Colts did not practice.
Still, local radio talk shows, bloggers and fans continually questioned Manning's whereabouts and readiness even after Dungy said July 29 that Manning had arrived in Terre Haute, Ind., the Colts' training camp site.
When Manning didn't appear at any practices or games, the doubts increased. A local television station ran what appeared to be a cell phone photo of Manning wearing a brace on his right knee _ a photo Manning later called not true. Late last week, a national blogger suggested Manning had a second surgical procedure on the right knee, something Manning would not confirm Tuesday.
"I think it's somewhat irrelevant because of where we are today, and I kind of like to keep you guys guessing," Manning said, drawing laughter. "I never really like talking too much about an injury because if you play well, they say 'Man, look how tough he is.' And if you don't play well, they say 'That's the reason.' "
Manning's return has taken on even greater significance given the Colts depleted situation at quarterback.
Longtime backup Jim Sorgi was expected to play into the third quarter Sunday night but never made it out of street clothes because of what the team described as a gimpy knee. Dungy said that although X-rays and tests were negative, Sorgi wasn't at practice Tuesday because doctors were still trying to control the swelling.
Sorgi's absence means the Colts have just two quarterbacks, Jared Lorenzen and Quinn Gray, who were both signed July 24, available against the Bengals. Last weekend, Lorenzen produced one significant drive in the first half while Gray threw four interceptions and one touchdown in the 20-7 loss.
But activating Manning doesn't necessarily mean he will start the season opener, Sept. 7 against Chicago.
"I'm not really doing predictions at this point," Manning said. "I hope to be ready, and I certainly don't want to create this dramatic announcement. I think I will do some parts of practice today and tomorrow and I may even dress for (Thursday's) game though I won't play. We'll do a short practice Monday, and then, hopefully, I'll be full go Wednesday."
If all goes according to plan, No. 18 will then start against Chicago.
The question that still lingers is how long will it take for Manning to round into MVP form?
Even he's not sure.
Manning has never missed this much time as a professional or college athlete. One thing that should help in getting the timing down, is that Manning did participate in the team's spring and summer minicamps and teammates know Manning well enough to know he won't be behind when he steps onto the field.
"He's been doing it forever, he's been doing it since he was 6 years old in his backyard," two-time Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne said. "He and Marvin (Harrison) have been together forever, and this is my eighth year, so you kind of get used to it."
With the Manning saga perhaps nearing a conclusion, there are more injury concerns for a Colts team that has opened the past three seasons with at least seven straight wins.
Indy is still trying to figure out what's wrong with Jeff Saturday's right knee. Saturday, a three-time Pro Bowler at center, was injured during Sunday's game and Dungy said doctors are evaluating how serious the injury is.
"We really don't know, at this point, where it is," Dungy said. "It could be anywhere from a couple of weeks to a major injury. We don't know that yet. Jeff has some options, but we don't know how bad it is and it could be through this weekend before we know for sure."
Fortunately, the Colts drafted three college centers in April _ Mike Pollak in the second round, Steve Justice in the sixth and Jamey Richard in the seventh.
However, Pollak also injured his knee Sunday and isn't expected to play Thursday.
But at least Manning is back in a helmet and pads.
"I've always been confident he'll be ready (for the opener)," Dungy said. "We'll start to see how that goes. One thing is we don't want to put him out there if he's not physically or mentally ready."