CHICAGO -- John Elway said Peyton Manning is two Super Bowls shy of being the best quarterback the NFL has ever known. The Manning we saw briefly in his preseason debut with the Denver Broncos looks just like the one we used to know. Cue the overplayed Gotye indie pop ballad.
"He was remarkable," head coach John Fox said. "He came back -- he's worked very hard. ...
"For a guy who hadn't played last season and had some medical issues, I think he has done an outstanding job, which is what you would expect of him."
Save for the mediocre first preseason game's numbers (4-for-7, 44 yards) and a red-zone interception stalling his only drive, Manning looked every bit like the former Colts version on a rain-soaked Soldier Field on Thursday night. Elway looks justified in his hope of engraving a couple more of Vince Lombardi trophies.
"I have high expectations, as well as I know he does," Fox said.
If there is any residual weakness -- or rust -- in that legendary right arm and shoulder, stemming from the multiple neck surgeries and lengthy rehab that knocked him out all of 2011, it sure didn't show in the passes he threw under little duress from the Bears on this night.
"Considering where I was a year ago, this was big for me," Manning said. "It has been a long haul."
Manning is back, folks. Defenses, be damned.
He donned NFL gear in a game for the first time since the Pro Bowl in February 2011. His last official game as a Colt was a 17-16 playoff loss to the Jets on Jan. 8, 2011. In this brief return to the game, he incredulously looked like he never left.
"I thought it was a great first drive in these conditions -- it was sloppy," Fox said. "It was sloppy by the receivers as far as the conditions, but I thought it was a very good first outing."
Elway, Fox, the Broncos and Manning himself could have not expected much better.
Lining up in the shotgun on the game's first play, Manning slipped a quick pass to former Colts teammate Jacob Tamme that was broken up by Lance Briggs. Two plays later, he completed a first-down toss to Tamme for 12 yards that went through a defender's hands before landing in the tight end's [that led Manning to joke he found a new way to complete passes by targeting the defender first].
That bit of good early fortune started a drive that would end with Major Wright's interception near the goal line. The turnover wasn't entirely Manning's fault. It was a tipped pass thrown slightly behind former Colt teammate Brandon Stokley.
"It is disappointing, obviously, to get into the red zone and not come away with points," Manning said.
But on the drive, Manning did make a small variety of throws to cross off his checklist. A sideline ball to Eric Decker for 10 yards came amid an inordinate amount of time to throw.
"He was the fifth read on the play," Manning said. "We had some really good protection."
It was the kind of protection that has helped Manning carve up defenses for years, like the 19-yard gasher to Decker over the middle on third-and-17 a few plays later.
"It doesn't look like he missed a beat, being out all of last year; it's just exciting" said Decker, who looks like he could be Manning's target of choice downfield, with Tamme and the backs the men underneath.
Manning did fail to connect with Demaryius Thomas on one that counted. An 11-yard sideline pass to Thomas was negated by a holding penalty and another fell incomplete.
"I think we were close on that play," Manning said. "We'll try to get all of the incompletions out of the way in the preseason."
The Broncos did an outstanding job giving Manning time to throw against a Bears defense that shouldn't be considered a slouch this season. He wasn't truly pressured when he did throw on the 12 snaps he took in the game's opening drive.
Asked if he wanted to pass the test of taking a hit, something he didn't get ...
"I think it would be a dumb answer if I said yes," Manning said. "The four games in the preseason tend to combine to give you a little bit of everything."
Regardless of the finish, Manning looked about as good as can be expected with such a long layoff and returning from such a serious injury. That is great news for Elway and the Broncos, who banked the franchise on the fact the 36-year-old would be able to not only play, but play something close to his Colts' form.
That form would not only be that of an NFL Hall of Famer, but arguably the best-ever at the position. The league's only four-time MVP has 11 4,000-yard passing seasons. The next closest are Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Hall of Famer Dan Marino each with six. Manning trails just Favre and Marino in career yards, completions and touchdowns and is the NFL's active leader in over a dozen categories right now, even after a wiped-out 2011.
Clearly, Manning is one of the best regular-season quarterbacks to ever play. He is 141-67 (.678) as a starter. Only Favre (188-114, .623), Elway (148-82-1, .643) and Marino (147-93, .613) have more victories.
Elway, now running the Broncos' front office, wouldn't mind to see his reclamation project pass everyone else across the board. Elway had to like what he saw on this first look, even if it was the first preseason game.