Peyton Manning was understandably the focal point of the nationally televised broadcast, and he didn’t disappoint. If anything, most of the causal fans tuning in to while away a few Sunday afternoon hours arose from their easy chairs muttering, “So what was the problem with this guy?” He looked like the only thing that had changed about him was the uniform.
It was significant for Manning, but unless he was injured, it was not going to be career-altering. Such gravity was in play for another quarterback, backup Caleb Hanie, who entered Sunday in desperate need of positive momentum — and got it, thanks to a chance to work with most of the first-team offense.
After an interception on the first play of the second quarter that Eric Decker, the intended receiver, attributed to miscommunication, Hanie settled into a rhythm in his first work with the No. 1 offensive line, wide receivers and tight ends. He followed the Perrish Cox pickoff by completing six of his next seven passes for 80 yards, a run that was sullied only by a Matt Willis drop.
“It was great that he went out there and took control of the huddle,” said WR Brandon Stokley. It’s easy to get down after an interception, and he just led us down on that last drive. I thought he did a great job.”
Where Hanie showed promise beyond his struggles at Chicago last season and in a preseason game there this month was on two throws. The first, a third-and-5 to Willis, was a perfectly thrown 10-yard pass. Willis was blanketed by San Francisco’s Tramaine Brock, who permitted a narrow seam to Hanie, but the pass was quick and accurate, delivered before Brock or anyone else could accurately react.
In the final minute before halftime, Hanie drove the offense to San Francisco’s 5-yard-line. It took him three tries to get the touchdown, but on all three of the passes, Hanie threw to a spot where no defender could reach the football. He missed long to Decker on a first-down fade, away to the left side on a second-down out pattern when Hanie targeted Decker again, and finally connected on third down on an outside shoulder pass to Dreessen.
“I don’t think I had any choice but to catch it! That thing was humming,” said Dreessen. “He threw a great ball.”
It’s doubtful that many fans will remember Hanie’s 8-of-12, 92-yard day. By the time he hit Dreessen, many had already scurried back to the concourse for a second round of beverages to combat the 90-degree heat that baked Sports Authority Field.
But Hanie answered a crucial question when he moved the first-team offense downfield. It didn’t work as efficiently as it did with Manning, but it showed that Hanie might — just might — be able to keep Denver’s hopes from capsizing if Manning is lost for a game or two.
Sunday will be remembered as the day that Manning looked like a four-time MVP, showing onlooker that he could throw effectively in all directions, flawlessly move an offense and upgrade a collection of teammates simply by the weight of his own massive skill set.
But Hanie did something that was more important for the team — and his career, which was at a precipice when Sunday began: he consolidated his hold on the backup job, bolstered his confidence and earned the trust of his teammates on the No. 1 offense, who have now seen that he can move the offense in case the unthinkable happens to Manning.