The father in him was just happy to see his son back on the field and throwing the football. But the quarterback in him was even happier to see him throwing it well. It's safe to say Archie Manning was thrilled to give Peyton Manning more than a passing grade in his highly anticipated and long-awaited return last Sunday night in Denver and is eager to see more of it Monday night in Atlanta.
"It was certainly a game I'll never forget,'' said Archie, three days after he and wife, Olivia, attended the Broncos' 31-19 season-opening win over Pittsburgh. "With Peyton missing the whole year and all the hard work he's had to do to get healthy, it meant a lot. We were excited for him, it was a wonderful setting and it was a very memorable night.''
Like most of the football-watching nation, Archie was transfixed and hung on every one of Peyton's throws against the Steelers, without seeing any indication there was anything on the field his four-time NFL MVP son couldn't do. It was a different stadium and a different color uniform, but pretty much the same old Peyton: 19 of 26 for 253 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Peyton even took two sacks and bounced right back up both times.
"We've all been saying it for 50 years, but you can tell about a quarterback on a deep sideline throw,'' said Archie, the former longtime NFL quarterback. "And he made one late in the game to No. 12. I believe that's [Matt] Willis. See, I don't even know all the players yet. But that was a good measurement [of arm strength].
"And then he had to make a throw out to [tight end Jacob] Tamme, and he was under some pressure and had to throw it out there without any step into it. It wasn't a bullet by any means, but I think if you're really limited you can't even get that ball out there. Because it was all arm. It's a tough game and you don't want to play with limitations, but I think he feels like he can still make the throws.''
After 611 days between meaningful games, and four surgeries on his neck in 2011, Peyton assuaged all concerns about the state of his health with his solid and steady showing against Pittsburgh. But while his passing performance was so familiar, the sight of Manning under center for the Broncos -- not the Indianapolis Colts -- is going to take a little getting used to for his mom and dad.
"Yeah, it was a little bit strange,'' Archie said. "It was different to get there and not see that horseshoe (the Colts' logo). You kind of roll on for 14 years, and now you're in another uniform in another city. I'm sure it was different for him. He's the one that has to make the big transition. We just fly off in a different direction. But it was so much fun. Broncos nation is excited. Their stadium is beautiful. And I saw a sign there that said young Colts become Broncos, or something like that. It was pretty cute.''
Peyton Manning's 2012 debut wasn't the only story that caught Archie's attention in Week 1. In New Orleans, where Archie played quarterback for the Saints from 1971 to '82 and where he still lives, Washington's Robert Griffin III made his career debut against the Saints, dazzling the NFL with his 320-yards, two-touchdown passing day in the Redskins' stunning 40-32 upset win. Forty-one years after the Saints made Archie the No. 2 overall pick out of Mississippi in 1971, New Orleans witnessed the unique package of skills of this year's second overall selection.
Archie marvels at the influx of talent at the game's most pivotal position these past two years, and made a point of making sure he watched Griffin's debut from Denver.
"The game changes,'' Manning said. "You only have to look at what Cam Newton did last year, and look at Robert Griffin and the start he made. Even Andrew Luck, he's going to have a really good year. And maybe all five of these rookie quarterbacks will. But there will always be a transition in how quarterback is played in the NFL. It's a faster game, and it's definitely a more complex game than it was in my day. That makes it tougher on them, but they're better prepared for it because they see a lot of the same things in college that they will in the NFL.''
The arms that enter the NFL these days, Manning said, are arms that have been schooled in the wide-open spread offenses so prevalent at the college and high school levels. The NFL is simply no longer a huge transition when it comes to the passing game.
"It's the trend out there,'' Manning said. "You combine the arms and the athleticism of some of these kids coming out, like RG III and Cam Newton, with the fact they've thrown so much and had so much success already, and they're making a pretty quick transition in this league. We've got a football camp that we've had for 17 years, and even the high school kids, they're just better the last four or five years than they were 10-15 years ago. Even the high schools have throwers, they've got passers. Kids just throw the ball more and they throw it better.''
Manning was available to share his thoughts on Week 1 in his role as a spokesman for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award, which honors a head coach in each of the four NCAA divisions, rewarding not only on-field success but exemplary sportsmanship, integrity and excellence off the field. Voting continues until Dec. 1 at coachoftheyear.com, with fans encouraged to post a pre-populated tweet of the coach of the year vote.
But with Manning a longtime resident of New Orleans, it seemed timely to ask him about a specific coach, the one who won't be leading his hometown Saints this season due a yearlong league suspension: Sean Payton. After the home-dome loss to the Redskins, have we all underestimated the impact of Payton's absence?
"Believe me, I know what a great coach Sean Payton is,'' Archie said. "Living there and seeing him work, it didn't take me long to figure that out. He's an excellent head coach and he's a great playcaller. But he's got a good staff that's been together and they've got good players. I think they're going to handle it. I do. I kind of give credit to the Redskins for Sunday. That team's going to give a lot of people trouble. But the Saints are going to be fine.''
As are Eli Manning's 0-1 defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, Archie said. New York has a target on its back this year after winning its second ring in five seasons, but if anything, we have learned to not judge the Giants too quickly. Fast start or slow start, history proves they might still be capable of making plenty of noise late in the season.
"Their division is really tough,'' Archie said. "I think the Eagles have a lot of talent, we talked about the Redskins being better, and the Cowboys, they based their offseason on going after the Giants and catching them. And New York's got a tough schedule this year. But the Giants, they're kind of hard-hat guys. It's Tom Coughlin's team, and they go to work. They'll hang in there. Most of their true fans have seen the way they've done things the past few years, and they'll hang with them.''
Between each well-chronicled step of Peyton's comeback saga and Eli's victory lap of an offseason, which included him hosting Saturday Night Live as his older brother did post-Super Bowl in 2007, Archie's 2012 has run the gamut. But at the moment, he's just back to watching his sons play quarterback each weekend in separate conferences, a routine he's far more familiar with.
"I'm proud of both of them,'' Archie said. "It's been something. But I've got to tell you, I get a little nervous before those Saturday Night Live's. That's high anxiety for a father. What I sensed in that deal was that I don't know how much either one of them wanted to do it. That's more peer pressure. With Peyton, it wasn't just his Colts teammates, it was his college buddies and his high school buddies saying 'You've got to do it.' So he went for it.
"Then, even with the fact that Peyton did it, I was proud of Eli not doing it one year later, after winning a Super Bowl. But he told [SNL creator] Lorne [Michaels], he said call me back when we win the next one. And he did, and Eli did the show. Eli has always been quiet, but people who know him know he's probably the biggest prankster of the three [sons]. But here of late he has really kind of blossomed in all his commercials and so forth.''
Say what you will about those quarterbacking Manning boys, they've always known how to put on a show. And the best part of it is once again taking place on the field.