DENVER -- For Ryan Clady, watching February's Super Bowl was hard -- and understandably so. The Broncos' left tackle, among the best at his position in the NFL, had been out since Week 2 with a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot. He was powerless, a passive observer of his team's collapse.
I watched Clady watch a game once -- how meta is that? -- in Week 16 in Houston. He'd traveled with the Broncos to Texas, and he was seated in the press box, squashed between writers, too big for his chair, his legs pressed beneath the desk in front of him. He cheered, too, breaking the cardinal rule of press boxes, but he's Ryan Clady, after all.
He cheered, and he flinched. At first, it seemed as if he flinched for Peyton Manning and cheered for his throws. But no, Clady flinched before the throw, cheered at the release. He watched his offensive line, watched his replacement and the block, block, block that preceded each throw, and if he followed the same routine in New Jersey in February, well, it had to have been excruciating.
In the months since their Super Bowl rout at the hands of Seattle, the Broncos have made move after move, waving goodbye to the likes of Champ Bailey, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno, among others, and inking deals with big-name free agents. T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, boom, boom, boom. Denver owned the opening days of free agency, and yet in the weeks since, one name has come up more often than any of those ballyhooed acquisitions.
"We've got Ryan Clady back," Broncos coach John Fox said at the NFL's annual meetings in March. "That makes us better instantly."
"It's almost like Ryan Clady was a free-agent acquisition," Manning echoed last week before a speaking engagement.
It's almost like he was a free-agent acquisition ... and if he were, he'd have been the Broncos' best.
Sure, Denver's defense has added a serious dose of nasty, but these are the Broncos, and the Broncos mean Manning, and in the end, this all comes back to offense. Denver's defense certainly had trouble stopping Seattle, but it was its offense that managed to put up only eight measly points that night, Manning's fewest since a Jan. 3, 2010 loss to the Bills.
That's where Clady comes in. At times last season, his absence was easy to miss. Chris Clark, an undrafted nobody, seemed to be filling in just fine -- at least on paper -- for much of the season. That is the paradox that is protecting Manning, though: he makes his offensive line look great, until it looks terrible.
Manning's release time was the fastest in the NFL last season, when he averaged 2.36 seconds per throw. His speed at reading the field and releasing the ball take the brunt of the burden off of his line, which sailed smoothly through the season until the Super Bowl. It was then that the unit got exposed, and big time, when Seattle told Manning to take his 2.36 seconds and shove it. Without Clady, Denver's offensive line could do little to respond.
There were the little things, too, the subtle reminders of the Pro Bowler's absence. Manning has never been one to rack up massive sack numbers, but he still takes his share of hits, and last year, his gimpy left ankle was a direct result of blind-side blocking not quite at Clady's level. The older the quarterback gets, the longer it takes for him to get up, and next season, the Broncos can afford little short of perfection at left tackle
Enter Clady, who said that though he can't put a percentage on his recovery, he's "getting there." His rehab has remained on schedule, and the Broncos fully expect him to be ready to go come September. In fact, he's even managed to keep pace with much of the team's activities in these first days of offseason workouts.
"I'm getting able to do most of the things in the weight room and running, not quite full speed, but definitely running so far," Clady said.
"I don't have a timeline quite yet," he added. "It's just feeling it out and easing my way back in."
With more than four months to go until the Broncos open the season against Indianapolis, there's plenty of time for Clady to get back to 100 percent. There are also countless hours for him to obsess over what he could have done in the Super Bowl -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. After spending so much time away from his team, he's fueled to be that much better, and with every word he utters about motivation and improvement, Manning has to be grinning from ear to ear.
"It's definitely a situation where I'm trying to step up and be the best player that I can be and get back to the level that I want to be at," Clady said.
So, with apologies to Misters Ware, Ward and Talib, all eyes should now be on Denver's left tackle. The man who lines up behind Clady to the right is the one who matters most, and if he has anything to say about it, there will be no limping come November, no embarrassment come February, and maybe, just maybe, that coveted ring.