ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – For the first time in 196 days, the Denver Broncos returned to football in its truest form.
Players were fully dressed for Saturday morning's training camp practice as the wait ended and they were finally able to hit each other.
Every coach, player and spectator seemed overjoyed to be a part of physical football once again, but Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio might have welcomed the cracking of shoulder pads and helmets more than anybody.
"I was one of the players that benefitted from being in pads," Del Rio said. "In my career a lot of times I was beat out in the spring and then I'd take back my job in the fall when the pads were put back on. This sport is played in pads."
Rookie defensive lineman Derek Wolfe believes he's one of those players as well.
"I'm not the type of guy that's going to run around you," Wolfe said. "I'm going to try to go through you. That's what happens when you put pads on. You try to go through people, you try to be physical. I think it went really well today.
Wide receiver Brandon Stokley, a 14th-year veteran who weighs less than 200 pounds, doesn't share the same strategy as Wolfe but nonetheless enjoyed being a part of tackle football again.
"It's kind of like that first day that you're going back to school," Stokley said. "It's always fun and exciting. It's always good to put the pads back on."
One important benefit of practicing in pads, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein said, is building a brotherhood among the players. Although they're hitting each other, the bond between them is becoming stronger.
"When you're doing those walkthroughs, everyone is buddy-buddy," Unrein said. "But once you actually start hitting, that really builds us as a team. You know that if this guy isn't going hard, you're going to try to make him better. So we just constantly try to push each other. That's what we try to hang our hat on."
DECKER VS BAILEY
Third-year wide receiver Eric Decker and 14th-year cornerback Champ Bailey squared off in one-on-one drills, 7-on-7s and team drills on Saturday.
On several plays, Manning and Decker proved that a great throw and catch will always beat great coverage, as the quarterback and receiver put together a handful of highlights during the three-hour practice.
Their first connection of the day came during one-on-ones, when Decker faked out Bailey just enough to give him a step on the savvy vet. As Manning put a spiral in a place where only Decker could touch it, No. 87 laid out in full extension and bobbled it, but brought it in. This warranted one of the loudest cheers of the day.
Later on, in 7-on-7s, Manning and Decker connected on the first three passes of the drill.
But regardless of the result, when the receiver and corner are manned up with one another, the result is always a positive one.
"I have so much respect for that guy it's unbelievable," Decker said. "He's taught me so much. It's very humbling just to have that respect with a guy who has 10-plus Pro Bowls; he's been there, done that. I want to see him more than anything out there. When we go out there and compete, we're getting each other better."
Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy enjoyed watching the battle, but admitted that the outcome the offense saw today won't happen often against one of the best corners in the league.
"You've got to be careful," McCoy said. "You've got to pick your battles. It's not always going to happen that way, but Eric did a nice job on those routes."
FOLLOWING THE LEADER
For some of the younger Broncos, training camp comes with a steeper learning curve. To expedite the process, those players are closely observing the veterans that have earned a living in the NFL for many years.
"The leadership (Manning) has in the huddle, the calls he's making -- it's fun coming out every day," Decker said. "He definitely (motivates us). The way he handles himself in the building, the film room, the practice field, the weight room, you just try to emulate what he does because he's been so successful for a long period of time."
Unrein is modeling his approach after a pair of vets at his position.
"I ask (defensive tackle Justin Bannan) questions all the time," he said. "He's such a good professional that he's willing to help me out on little technique things, different things that he's learned over his years and everything like that. I just try to take from (defensive tackle) Ty (Warren) and Bannan. They know so much. They've both been in the league for 10 years-plus. I'm just trying to be like them."
Off the field on Saturday, the Broncos made news by signing undrafted rookie safety Anthony Perkins. A former University of Colorado Buffalo, Perkins tried out with the team in rookie minicamp earlier this summer. He made 236 tackles in his college career.
Derek Wolfe pounced on a fumble during Saturday's team drills, but didn't receive the type of reaction from the coaches he was expecting.
"I got yelled at for it because I fell," Wolfe admitted. "You're supposed to stay up. In college we're not allowed to pick it up and run once you hit the ground."
Unrein said that sometimes he watches one of Manning's throws in sheer amazement. That's okay – as long as he watches from a distance.
"I try to stay away from him," Unrein said. "You don't want to get too close. That's Rule No. 1 for the D-line -- don't get too close to (the quarterback).