ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning’s two biggest targets are a pair of promising young receivers who have already made their mark in the NFL despite spending lots of time on the sideline.
Neither Demaryius Thomas nor Eric Decker has put together a complete season in the NFL — or, for that matter, a full offseason. Both missed much of the lead-up to their rookie year in 2010 with foot injuries. Last year there was the lockout, plus another injury for Thomas.
Decker shined for two months last season but faded after Tim Tebow took over at quarterback for Kyle Orton. Thomas missed the first half of the season with a torn Achilles tendon and a shattered thumb but was unstoppable down the stretch.
Decker went down with a knee injury early in the Denver Broncos’ wild-card playoff game against Pittsburgh, and Thomas stepped up with four catches for 204 yards, including an 80-yard TD catch from Tebow on the first play of overtime.
Like Kirk Gibson’s improbable homer off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series, it’s an electrifying, iconic moment in sports that’s been replayed countless times.
“Yeah, I’ve replayed it a couple times myself,” Thomas said Wednesday. “I actually replayed it last night. I was in my bed on I was on the computer and I typed my name in.”
He said it was just as thrilling watching it for the thousandth time on YouTube as it was on that January night in Denver when he dashed into history.
“Yeah, it puts chills in my body,” said Thomas, who has been dogged by a broken foot, sprained ankle, concussion, torn Achilles and broken thumb since turning pro.
Once the season was over, Decker’s strained knee ligament quickly healed. He said Wednesday he would have tried to play in the AFC title game had the Broncos gotten past New England that following week.
Thomas had to undergo another operation to remove pins from his left thumb. So, he was sidelined once again when Manning signed with Denver in March and immediately began throwing passes to Decker, his new workout buddy.
Thomas insists he wasn’t jealous that Decker quickly formed a rapport and rhythm with Manning and wasn’t about to rush back to catch up.
“I basically just wanted to come in healthy and whenever I started, I started,” said Thomas, who returned to the field last month and has been doing yoga in hopes it will help him stay healthy.
While the biggest question facing the Broncos in 2012 is whether Manning can take a hit and get back up after missing all of last season because of a nerve injury that caused weakness in his throwing arm, another big issue is whether Thomas can finally stay off the sideline.
“That’s my question mark,” he said.
Decker knows he has to stay strong, too. He admits now that he wore out last season.
“I think for me it’s finding that right balance nutritionally, getting enough sleep, working and grinding in the weight room, because I did feel I lost some weight, lost some strength, mentally, it dragged on me a little bit because that was my first full season of playing a lot every game,” Decker said.
Now, both Thomas and Decker are at full strength, running routes at practice and eager to see what roles they can play in Manning’s aerial show.
For once, they’re not sitting out the offseason.
“It’s been great,” Decker said. “Just the fact of having time to work your craft, to get in the weight room and focus on certain things that make you more explosive, that can help you on the football field and also just being able to catch balls every day and run routes and go against the defense … it makes it so much easier when training camp rolls around in August.”
“I think it’ll be a big impact just to come in healthy, go through OTAs and be able to go through minicamp,” Thomas said. “Just to see stuff and to get the reps. Because I was here, I saw it, but I never got the reps. And I think that will help me out.”
Now that the offense and defense are facing each other, Thomas and Decker are getting used to Manning switching things up at the line of scrimmage as he steps up to the line and digests the defense.
“The famous Peyton Manning,” Decker said. “It’s been great. He’s such an intelligent person, it’s unbelievable. He’s almost too smart for himself. He’s very communicative, so he digests and tells us what is rolling through his mind.”
Thomas also worked out this offseason at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, catching passes from Cam Newton and collecting tips from Calvin Johnson. Manning said it’s the Broncos’ collection of experienced cover cornerbacks — Champ Bailey and newcomers Drayton Florence and Tracy Porter — who will really help Denver’s young receiving corps blossom.
Decker said it’s a dream to catch passes from Manning and nightmare to face Bailey. The two have 22 Pro Bowls between them.
It’s a mix he’s sure will pay dividends this season — providing he and Thomas can stay healthy.