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Peyton Manning is feeling more comfortable — even in Persian Gulf

Peyton Manning shares a laugh with Yankees Manager Joe Girardi during batting practice before a game against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field earlier this month.
(Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning threw passes in the cavernous belly of a military plane flying 30,000 feet above Pakistan, and stood on the observation deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, watching screaming fighter jets land and launch.

Back home in the U.S., the Broncos quarterback made a hole in one at a golf course outside Denver, shot a 77 last weekend at Augusta National, took a group of 30 teammates to a Yankees-Rockies game, and made several surprise visits to Colorado schools.

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Manning is enjoying his first relaxing off-season since 2009, the spring before his Indianapolis Colts played the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl.

“That’s the stuff he loves to do,” said Cooper Manning, his older brother. “Sitting there in a training room or a hospital bed, that stuff is for the birds. He’s appreciating his health, appreciating the position he’s in. He’s excited about the off-season moves, and I would say he’s as hungry as ever.”

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The NFL’s only four-time most valuable player had the first of several procedures on his neck in the aftermath of that Super Bowl loss, then missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing four more neck operations. Last off-season was all about rehabilitating, answering his own doubts about whether he’d be able to continue his NFL career, and finding a new team after the Colts let him go.

From a bench overlooking the team’s practice fields, Manning, 37, sat and talked about his globe-trotting off-season, and his ever-increasing comfort with the Broncos, his teammates, and how he emerged from a cloud of uncertainty to be chosen 2012 comeback player of the year.

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“The biggest issue for me was performance: Can I perform the way that I’ve been performing over 14 years?” Manning said. “You’ve only done it one way — you’ve thrown one way, the ball felt one way in your hand since you were 15 years old playing quarterback. All of a sudden, when things feel a little different, there are some questions and some unknowns: How will it hold up in different types of throws, touch passes? I’ve got to put one in there in some weather, whatever it may be.

“Not that I feel as comfortable as I did in my eighth year in Indianapolis, but it’s a heck of a lot more comfortable than I was last year.”

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Manning, who had his second-best statistical season in 2012, was edged in the MVP race by Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, who ran for 2,097 yards less than a year after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

Broncos Coach John Fox thinks what Manning did was even more impressive.

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“No disrespect to Adrian, because I love him and he’s a great player,” Fox said. “But I think an ACL is a little bit more understood in the National Football League than a surgery on your neck that affects your nerves. I still marvel at what [Manning] was able to accomplish. It was with a different team, and at a position that mentally is just so hard. In history, I don’t think anything’s ever been done like that, and not even counting the fact that he didn’t play the year before.”

John Elway said that, in retrospect, Manning had more doubts than he voiced when Denver signed him in March 2012.

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“I was probably more confident in his arm than maybe he was,” said Elway, the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations. “There were a lot of unanswered questions for him. He was going to a new place. He’d been in one place for 14 years, and it was a brand-new transition for him. The year that we had last year — the year he had — answered a lot of those questions. I think he’ll be that much better this year.”

Manning is always looking for an edge, a way to further perfect his craft. This off-season that meant honing his leadership skills, and that was one of the many reasons he participated in a six-day USO tour in March, visiting troops in Afghanistan and Europe, and aboard the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier positioned near Iran.

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“I’d always wanted to go on a USO tour as a current player,” said Manning, who was joined on the trip by fellow NFL players Austin Collie and Vincent Jackson, and retired major league pitcher Curt Schilling. Manning said his father, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, “went on one as a current player, went to Thailand in 1974, Vietnam was kind of down the homestretch. I remember him talking about it. I always wanted to go, but I never really quite met the right person to tell me how to do it.”

Through Clyde Christensen, a longtime Colts assistant, Manning was introduced to Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who accompanied the players on the tour.

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“I was so impressed with Peyton’s intensity, and his clear and sincere desire to make everything around him better,” Winnefeld wrote in an email to The Times. “We can relate to that as military leaders, and we were both amused and impressed that he tried to make us better . . . and he did.”

Manning was bowled over by what he saw, particularly after landing on the aircraft carrier.

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“After we landed, we watched other planes come in,” he said. “These kids are 18, 19, 20 years old, and seeing the teamwork of what they’re doing to get these planes in and get them off. They’re practicing, knowing that, hey, when something’s going down it’s critical that these planes have to be going.

“I came back and told our offensive line, ‘If we ever jump offsides ever again, after what I just witnessed . . .’”

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At each stop, Manning would toss a handful of passes to selected soldiers in the crowd, and he even played a game of catch with military personnel inside the massive C-17 transport plane while flying across Pakistan and the Arabian Sea. Winnefeld was among those on the other end of those passes.

“I was wearing Austin Collie’s gloves, and both Peyton and Vince Jackson told me I did pretty well,” Winnefeld wrote, joking: “I sat by the phone on draft day, but it never rang.”

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Manning has done his share of relaxing this off-season too, and this month had a hole in one at Castle Pines Golf Club outside Denver. He was with a random threesome he joined for nine holes while waiting to play a round with Elway. He aced hole No. 7 from 166 yards with an eight-iron, one-hopping it directly into the cup.

“I made one in college, but I was with some buddies,” he said. “This was the first one I’d ever seen go in. In college, we looked in the bunker, the woods, everywhere, and somebody said, ‘It’s in the hole!’ It’s a little anticlimactic.

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“But the guys I was playing with this time, they were so excited. I mean, I was excited, but you’ve seen me when I throw a touchdown; I’m kind of ho-hum. These guys went nuts.”

One member of the foursome was Tom Harrington, a rabid Broncos fan who wears an orange tuxedo and top hat to home games.

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“You’d have thought he made it,” Manning said with a laugh. “He was that pumped.”

More low-key were the rounds at Augusta last weekend, when Manning joined Elway and Fox, whose friend hosted the three for 36 holes on Saturday, and 18 more on Sunday. Elway shot 79, 74 and 72, and Manning’s best round was a 77.

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As for Fox, well . . .

“I played horribly,” the coach said. “I started out as a 14-handicap, but after they saw the way I was playing, they moved me to a 20.”

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That Manning took the trip and is increasingly willing to exhale and relax in the off-season could be a good sign for the Broncos, who are facing mile-high expectations this season. They have added the NFL’s best slot receiver in Wes Welker, have a new offensive coordinator in Adam Gase, and for the first time in seven seasons have the same defensive coordinator in consecutive years, Jack Del Rio, who helped them to a No. 2 ranking in yards allowed last season.

“What I’ve known about playing quarterback in a town, it’s a routine,” Manning said. “There’s football, then it’s going to play golf with your buddies, taking guys to a baseball game, speaking to schools, giving out money here in Colorado.

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“Last year, I didn’t do any of that. So that makes me more comfortable doing that. It’s the hat a quarterback has to wear. Does it guarantee you’re going to win games? Not necessarily. But I usually play better when I feel more comfortable.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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twitter.com/LATimesfarmer


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