CHICAGO – First it was participating in the team's offseason conditioning program, followed by OTAs, minicamps and then came training camp.
Thursday, quarterback Demaryius Thomas checked off another milestone on his road back from the injury that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season.
Though he played only 12 snaps in Denver's preseason-opening 31-3 win at Chicago, Manning said it felt good to get back on the field.
"It's been awhile for me being back out on the field in a real game-like atmosphere for the preseason," he said after the game. "It felt good to get out there, and we can build on this and get ready to go next week against Seattle."
Manning entered the game and immediately drove the Broncos down the field on its opening possession.
Not holding anything back, Manning came out throwing on the opening snap of the game.
While that pass fell incomplete, he completed his next four throws in a row, spreading the ball among three different receivers.
His final completion, a 19-yard strike to Demaryius Thomas, came on third-and-17 and put the Broncos inside the Bears' red zone.
That's where the drive would end, however, as Manning's pass intended for Brandon Stokley was deflected in the air and intercepted by the Bears. That ended the four-time MVP's first game in nearly two years. He finished the game 4-of-7 for 44 yards and the one interception.
"I thought there were some good things in there," Manning said. "We had a couple third downs we overcame and spread the ball around. I threw a pass to Decker there on the left sideline with really good protection. He was like the fifth read in the play – not one you usually get back to – some good protection. And I thought Willis had some good runs in there, so some things to build on and things that were positive."
Head Coach John Fox liked what he saw from Manning in his first appearance on the gridiron as a Bronco.
"It was a very good first outing," Fox said. "For a guy that hasn't played in a season, had some medical issues, I think he's done outstanding, which you can expect from him. I thought it was very good."
Even though he's been away from the game for so long, Manning resisted the urge to lobby for more playing time.
"I think that's always the thing about the preseason," he said. "You only get 10 plays and sure, you always kind of want to go back in – even if you go down and score. It's a little more pressure in some ways, because you only have 10-12 plays where you have to get it done. In a normal game, you get four quarters to try to make something happen."
The Broncos offensive line kept Manning clean during the 12 plays that he was on the field.
Had a defender broken into the backfield, Manning was ready to take his first hit since the injury.
"I think the preseason usually I've found in the four games you play, it just usually works out where you get a bit of everything," he said. "I'm sure that'll happen and it seems to be a hot topic, but it's just not a big deal to me."
With Thursday night's preseason opener the latest milestone to cross off, Manning knows there's still room to improve.
"We'll watch the film tomorrow as an offense and just judge it based on what the coaches say," Manning said. "It doesn't matter what year you are in the NFL, the key is trying to get better through the preseason. That's what we hope to do and that's what I hope to do."
Manning didn't want to reflect too much on the sentimentality of playing in a preseason contest after a year away from the game.
Instead, he took the opportunity to thank those who had helped him along the way.
"I think I always have to take the time just to say that I sure have come a long way in a year," Manning said. "I know how much hard work I put in (and) how much help I've gotten along the way."
With so many changes since the last time he took a snap, Manning said he wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Thursday's brief outing.
"There is always a little bit of unknown," he said. "There's obviously been a lot of change – new team, new players, not the ideal weather conditions, so there were some different elements for me. So, it's hard to exactly know what is going to happen. It's hard to predict. I felt like I had a little rhythm there on offense and (there are) things we can build on. Obviously some things we need to improve on for sure. Overall, I thought it was a decent start."
After months of anticipation, fans got their first look at Manning in action.
But it wasn't just fans that had been waiting to see No. 18 lace them up on gameday.
Tight end Jacob Tamme has played plenty of games with Manning as the two were teammates on the Colts for several seasons. Thursday marked their first game together in Broncos jerseys and Tamme was on the receiving end of Manning's first completion of the night.
"I think everyone was excited to get out there, no one more so than him," Tamme said. "It was fun. He was doing everything he always does."
For Manning, getting under center and facing a live opponent on Thursday was a major step in a long process.
"I've had a lot of trainers and doctors," he said. "Considering where I was a year ago, the fact that I was out there and took a snap and completed some passes today, it has been a long haul for me. That was rewarding, even that first snap, the very first play – that was a big step for me."