On a normal week for a regular NFL team heading to its bye week in the playoffs, the first practice day would elicit only minor media intrigue. With an unknown opponent for a game in two weeks, about the only media interest would be how to fix whatever current weaknesses might exist, impact of known injuries, and of course a premature weather report for a game in 13 days.
But not in Denver.
On the Thursday of the 2016 postseason bye week, there was a barrage of cameras in the locker room, all shining on one player and all asking a dozen forms of one question - Can Peyton Manning win it for the Broncos?
As a 39-year-old quarterback trying to
take go with a team all the way for perhaps the last time in his illustrious career, Manning was always destined to provide a dramatic storyline this season.
But few would have predicted the actual drama that saw the NFL's future first ballot Hall-of-Famer throw a league-leading 17 interceptions in the first half of the season before being sidelined seven games with an injury, which led to playing backup for the first time ever as a pro.
And when that first-time backup started throwing the ball on the sidelines halfway through the third quarter of the Broncos' final game of the regular season, it was an instant no-brainer for every sports editor and producer in the country.
Suddenly, Manning - not the outcome of the game - became the story.
Because wherever he is, Peyton Manning has always been the story.
The ovation at Mile High when "backup No. 18" entered the field is all you need to know about the star power of Manning. For fans in need of a savior and sports media in need of a hero, Manning was so often both.
It's no surprise then that Super Bowl 50 - which did in fact turn out to be The Sheriff's last rodeo - was the third largest audience for any TV program in history.
So what will it mean in Denver now that the Broncos no longer have that national media star in Manning?
Manning always a big story
From the day Archie Manning's middle son announced his somewhat controversial allegiance to the University of Tennessee, Peyton has been sports media's favorite son. And that is no doubt because he was always destined to do big things in this sport while also doing big things for the sport - and for its fans.
Former Broncos' GM Ted Sundquist wrote recently that Manning's impact went far beyond his own statistics:
Peyton Manning has changed the NFL more than can be addressed in anything shorter than a book. His impact is undeniable. But it's the subtle effects that sometimes go unnoticed - the careers he enhanced, the draft strategies he influenced, the defensive coordinators he haunted season after season.
But an even more subtle impact than his once dominating skills or his football mind has been Manning's "star power" that has transcended any one team.
Forbes Magazine named him the "33rd franchise of the NFL" for his continuous and far-reaching impact on everything from jerseys to pizza sales. In fact, Manning himself generates more income from advertisers than many entire NFL rosters.
A sports business professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania noted to the New York Times recently that more than any other NFL player, Manning helped drive revenue for the industry.
"The NFL, like any sports league, is in the star-making business," said Scott Rosner. "He's not a NFL player in that context, he's a pop culture star. There's absolutely going to be a vacuum for the league."
With Peyton Manning's retirement, the NFL loses a quarterback who was the headliner in any game in which he played https://t.co/Ifu3ud5tgT— NYT Sports (@NYTSports) March 8, 2016
So when Manning signed with the Broncos on March 20, 2012, he not only brought his legendary quarterbacking to Denver, he also brought a constant national media spotlight to Dove Valley and the Mile High City that previously had not existed.
There was Tebowmania, of course, but that was a short-lived media circus. And John Elway's reign was during a vastly different media landscape.
Gregg Doyel can attest to this "Manning phenomenon" in the news media.
A reporter/columnist for the Indianapolis Star, Doyel didn't cover the Colts when Manning was its quarterback, but he often covers Manning now. Because, as Doyel says, "if Peyton is involved, he's making the news every time."
And that's for a former Colts quarterback who then played fours years on a rival AFC team. How often does Denver media cover a former player now suiting up for another team? Maybe once if the national storyline is big enough - or it's a really slow news day.
"Even to this day, if Peyton does anything at all, we put it on the site," Doyel said earlier this year. In fact, since the Super Bowl, there have been more than 50 stories on Manning in the Star. "Peyton stories are read more than anything."
So now that the Broncos - and Denver - no longer have Manning, it's an interesting question to ponder whether a franchise not in a major media market like New York and not without dynasty success like the Steelers or the Cowboys can still maintain the national media's attention without having a media star, not just a football star.
"John Elway will not let this team become irrelevant," USA Today's Lindsay Jones told Mile High Report back in December when Manning was on the bench and there was question of when - not if - Oz would take over the team.
Even now with Oz out of the equation and questions at quarterback looming, that is still the case for Elway and his Broncos.
But Jones, who covered the Broncos for the Denver Post from 2008 to 2012 before moving to the national stage with USA Today, pointed out even then that if Oz remained the heir apparent in Denver, there will be "a definite drop off in national coverage. That name just doesn't have cache yet."
And now that the quarterback will be neither Manning nor Osweiler - and could be either a complete unknown or an eight-year veteran whose college star power has never lived up to its hype in the NFL - what could that mean for Denver and the Broncos?
Broncos need a star
Flashback to Oct. 9, 2011, when Broncos' quarterback Kyle Orton was benched midway through a losing effort to the Chargers in favor of second-year backup Tim Tebow.
The former Heisman winner fumbled three snaps and completed just 4 of 10 passes but still rallied the team back from 26-10, ending the game just shy of a victory at 29-24.
For Broncos fans it was support for their cries in recent weeks to start Tebow as the team found itself in a 1-4 slump.
For football fans, Denver had just introduced NFL's next favorite darling. When fans in a New York bar 2,000 miles away from Denver can start chanting "Tebow! Tebow! Tebow!" you know a star has been born.
Following the Broncos' bye the next week, Denver traveled to the state where Tebow had won two national championships for the Florida Gators, and the former college star started against an abysmal 0-6 Miami Dolphins team. What could have been the least-watched football game in America that day suddenly had star quality.
The L.A. Times reported that football ratings all over the country began improving once Tebow began playing, and Rich Eisen noted that "Tebow conquers all" for football coverage. Denver's KCNC, which carried the majority of Broncos games, saw its local ratings jump 13 percent compared with earlier in the season, the L.A. Times noted, when Tebow was riding the bench and the team was struggling. CBS and NBC even had a good old-fashioned coverage battle over which network would get the Broncos-Patriots game Dec. 18.
Jones had reported in the Denver Post that season that Denver had games shown only in the home markets and broadcast by lower-tier announcers and analysts the prior season. The Broncos averaged a 23.8 Nielsen rating and 48 share in 2010, compared to a 41.6 rating and 68 share in 1998, the team's last Super Bowl season. But once Tebow came on board, the local ratings went up 18 percent.
Flash forward to March 2012 when then four-time NFL MVP was a risk to just about every franchise in the league except to Elway's Broncos.
Elway: "Any time you have a guy like Peyton Manning on your team, you've got a chance to win, and players in the NFL know that."— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) March 20, 2012
A new partnership between two GOAT quarterbacks had so many potential storylines for the Broncos and for the NFL - but whether Elway's gamble would be brilliant or moronic would fall solely on No. 18's shoulders.
Manning embraced that challenge and the rest is history. A bumpy 2-3 start gave way to an 11-game winning streak in which Manning broke the NFL record for 300-yard passing games as well as game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. Had it not been for one very unfortunate interception in a double-overtime game in the divisional round of the playoffs, many believe that team was the most complete Broncos team with the goods for winning it all.
But nevermind the outcome, Denver had its star once again. And where Tebow had been a "media circus," according to Jones, Manning brought a constant football spotlight to Denver that had not existed.
The star quarterback's second season in Denver was nothing short of amazing as the "second coming of Peyton Manning" re-energized a skeptical fan base and took the Broncos all the way to the Super Bowl.
That one didn't end well, and we all remember it all too fondly. But the Broncos beefed up on defense in the offseason, getting heavy hitters such as T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. The season was up-and-down as Manning's performance seemed to go steadily downhill toward the end, capping off with a dismal playoff performance by all in a one-and-done loss to the Colts.
And then there was this season's drama-filled chase for the Lombardi, which ended with numerous stories about Manning's (non)-role in the defense's historic performance that pulled out a 24-10 victory.
There's no point in rehashing the Manning sagas in all that, but there is a point in noting that there was in fact a saga. Only a few players in the NFL merit such attention to the point that their time in the spotlight may also determine the franchise's time there.
The media needs stars, after all, and not every team has them. Or the right ones.
Life after Manning?
Now that Manning has officially moved out of the on-field NFL spotlight, there is still no question that the Broncos will continue battling for a top spot in the division as well as conference. With the longest sell-out crowd in the NFL plus just capping off a Super Bowl-winning season, local attention will remain high no matter who is at quarterback.
But the Broncos without a star QB could very well mean a lot less national attention.
USA Today's Jones pointed out that while New York teams and Green Bay tend to always create national buzz no matter how good or bad they are, "everywhere else needs star quality to get attention."
Quarterbacks Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning always get that attention.
"Brock Osweiler certainly won't elicit everyday coverage," Jones noted in the regular season.
And it's unlikely that Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian or some rookie QB does either.
Even the drama of Osweiler's odd departure from the Broncos to the Texans a few weeks ago only garnered a day of national media interest before it became only a "Houston story." Compare that to the Niners' somewhat maligned star quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who conceivably isn't going anywhere but has been talked about for weeks in the media - and continues to be.
ESPN's Jeff Legwold doesn't think the loss of a star player like Manning will suddenly mean national media irrelevancy for the Broncos.
"Post-Manning it will depend how much the Broncos win," Legwold told MHR in January. "Their national profile won't necessarily drop unless they have a lot of playoffs misses."
But Legwold also acknowledges that most successful franchises build around a strong quarterback - something the Broncos may not be doing this season for the first time in a while.
And even though Manning wasn't a star player last season, his "star quality" still earned far more national attention than the Broncos' own defense, which was atop the NFL almost the entire season.
Coach Gary Kubiak even alluded to Manning's own awareness of this phenomenon. While rehabbing his injured foot this season, Manning told Kubiak he didn't want to come back too soon because it would be "a distraction."
"[Peyton] said, ‘Listen, I don't want to be a distraction. I'm not ready to play yet. If I go back on the field with that team, it's going to be all about me," Kubiak recalled during Manning's retirement news conference. "You keep everybody focused on the team. I'll get myself well.'"
Jones ran into this dilemma when Manning was on the bench and the defense kept winning close games in amazing fashion. Writing for a national audience, Jones said her editors would never bite on a story about the defense because there wasn't enough interest for "national perspective."
"I'd pitch stories on the defense, and they'd always say 'nahhh,'" she said, adding that the day news got out Manning started practicing, suddenly they were interested. "Osweiler certainly wouldn't elicit that kind of everyday attention."
@docllv I would have been there anyway .... but I bet a lot of others will now be joining me!— Lindsay Jones (@bylindsayhjones) January 7, 2016
Even with characters like Von Miller - whose antics will easily attract cameras and whose magnificent plays will most definitely be on the highlight reel - it seems unlikely the Broncos will maintain the national spotlight.
Miller, Emmanuel Sanders and maybe a few other Broncos will get the camera's attention. But only the rare player captivates a nation.
It's an interesting question, even if ultimately not all that important.
But relevancy in the national media does bring larger benefits that seemingly can improve the team's overall reputation - which can improve its win-loss record.
Star players mean more national TV time and that can mean more prime-time games and major announcers. It means more coverage on national news networks like ESPN and NFL Network. More prime-time exposure improves a team's standing among the league's many players and attracts big-time playmakers even if not always "stars." A national stage is almost never bad for a franchise - especially a solid one like the Broncos.
But national TV audiences love their star quarterbacks and networks like high-powered offenses that put up big numbers. Defenses may win championships, but they don't usually win primetime.
Last year, Denver had both.
This year could be a different story.