ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --At this point in 2012, wide receiver Brandon Stokley wondered if he had caught his last pass in the NFL.
Stokley spent the beginning of the 2011 season with the New York Giants before being released in early October. Retirement was something Stokley was strongly considering when quarterback Peyton Manning asked him to catch passes during his rehabilitation from neck surgery in Durham, NC.
During those workouts, Stokley impressed Manning with an effort that led to the veteran receiver's return to Denver, where he had spent the 2007-09 seasons.
"Without him, I wouldn't have played this year," Stokley said of Manning. "There's no doubt I'd be retired, probably about 20 pounds heavier, so, yeah, I owe him a lot for this year and a lot for my career in general. Coming from Baltimore, going to Indy, that kind of sparked my career, playing with him. Yeah, I owe the guy a lot."
His signing worked out for both parties. After spending the offseason wondering if he would play again, Stokley enjoyed a resurgent 14th season in the NFL, catching 45 passes for 544 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season for the 13-3 Broncos. It tied the second-most touchdowns he has ever scored in a season and his numbers also represented the third-best season of his career in terms of catches and receiving yards.
Stokley's campaign was not only one of the best of his career, it was also historic considering his age, as he became one of just 10 players in NFL history to record at least 40 receptions and five touchdowns entering a season aged 36 or older. Perhaps even more impressively, he joined Jerry Rice (2002 with Oakland) and Terrell Owens (2010 with Cincinnati) as the only players to do so with a new team.
All in all, he proved to himself that he still has both the energy and the ability to come back for at least one more year.
"I'd love to be back," Stokley said. "I still love this game and still have the passion to play. So we'll see what happens."
But the year ended in disappointing fashion for Stokley, Manning and the Broncos, as Denver dropped its playoff opener in double-overtime to Baltimore. That loss left a bad taste in Stokley's mouth for a number of reasons. For one, he realizes his playoff chances are numbered as the end of his career draws closer. Falling to the Ravens also both hurt and motivated Stokley because of his relationship with Manning.
"You want to play so good for him and do it for him," Stokley said. "That was kind of disappointing that (we) couldn't move forward for him. I know how much, like I said, he's done for me. So moreso than for myself, I'd like to see it for him."
The playoff defeat notwithstanding, 2012 was a memorable year for the Broncos. Stokley's timely catches throughout the year – he finished the season fourth on the offense in catches – helped the Broncos finish fifth in the NFL in passing yards per game, third in total yards and second in scoring. The offensive success helped Denver finish the regular season on an 11-game winning streak.
A big reason Stokley wants another season with the Broncos is because he believes the unit has a chance to be even better in the years to come.
"The more you're in a system and especially with Peyton and the more work you get on the practice field, the better, offensively, you're going to be," Stokley said. "And I still feel like this offense is going to get a lot better. So I definitely would like to be a part of it."
While unable to say for sure what his future holds, Stokley knows what his best-case scenario would entail.
"Like I said, this is about the only thing I do halfway decent, so for me, why not?" Stokley said. "I feel like I still love it, I still love competing and I still love playing football, so hopefully I'll get another opportunity."