ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There wasn't an available parking spot Thursday morning within a mile of Denver Broncos headquarters. More than 4,000 fans — a record crowd — showed up for the first day of training camp, their jerseys turning a hillside orange on the north side of the practice fields.
Their cheers were raucous when new quarterback Peyton Manning jogged onto the playing surface, and louder still when — at his audible of "Go! Go!" — he found receiver Andre Caldwell on a deep pass down the left sideline.
"It's very surreal," rookie running back Ronnie Hillman said of sharing the field with the NFL's only four-time most valuable player. "I was probably 6 years old when he first got in the league."
Manning, who spent several minutes after practice signing dozens of jerseys, footballs and miniature footballs that fans handed across the ropes, has devoted roughly every waking moment to reaching the heights he enjoyed before the multiple neck surgeries that turned him into an Indianapolis Colts spectator last season.
"I still have things I need to work on," he said after the shorts-and-helmets practice, standing with a reporter outside the team cafeteria. "I'm not really interested in sharing those things with every defensive opponent out there. I've made progress, but there's a lot of work to do."
He has already left a mark on the franchise. At Manning's request, on every snap of every practice, Denver's quarterbacks are videotaped from behind by a team employee standing on a ladder 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. It's a learning tool Manning used at the University of Tennessee and throughout his career with the Colts.
"That's something as a coach that I've never done," Denver's John Fox said. "It's a little thing, but it's a big thing."
The high-angle view is focused on the quarterback's drop, the position of his shoulders and feet, his throw and follow-through. It allows Manning and his understudies — Caleb Hanie, Brock Osweiler and Adam Weber — to ensure they don't develop telltale body language that might tip a defense whether a run or pass is coming. They also can fine-tune the smallest of details, such as whether their toes are pointed in the ideal direction or, judging by their helmet movements, which receivers they are eyeballing.
"A coach can check to see which way your eyes are," Manning said. "If a quarterback says, 'I looked to the right,' a coach can say, 'Hey, look, you didn't. You're lying to me.'
"I feel like you've got to find some way to get some kind of edge out there. You've got [cornerback] Champ Bailey and [linebacker] Von Miller. These guys are so fast and athletic, you'd better be trying to do the little things right with your mechanics because if you're not, it's hard to out-athlete those guys."
Marveled Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, the team's top football executive: "The amount of time that Peyton spends on those little things, on the preparation side, is amazing. I don't know that there's anyone who's come close to what he does."
Because the league's new rules significantly limit how much time coaches and players can spend together during the off-season, Manning feels especially crunched to make use of every moment. When they're not at practice or in meetings, Manning is getting together with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and/or quarterbacks coach Adam Gase to watch video and work on details.
"With our schedule," Gase said, "if you're two minutes early, you're just about right on time."
Manning set aside some time with Broncos fans after Thursday's practice, getting a roar when, instead of heading to the locker room with most of the team, he pulled off his helmet and walked back to the crowd-covered hillside.
"It's Peyton," explained fan Michael Peele, 24, waiting for an autograph and wearing a No. 18 jersey. "Can anybody actually say anything wrong about him? It's like super-hype mode, everybody's been excited since he got signed. It's hard to tell if there's more excitement about him or Tim Tebow."
Manning and Tebow are NFL rock stars, although Manning has proved for more than a decade that he's among the most talented quarterbacks in league history. The excitement that he brings — along with the questions about whether he can reach the rarefied air he once knew — have nudged the Broncos squarely into the NFL spotlight.
"He's one of the greatest players of all time," McCoy said of Manning. "It's a dream come true for players, coaches, the organization. Guys like this don't come along very often."
The coach running the show on the other side of the ball knows that as well.
"Having that kind of guy definitely gives you a chance," said Jack Del Rio, Denver's new defensive coordinator who faced Manning twice a season as head coach in Jacksonville.
"If you're looking at who's in the Super Bowl each year, who's playing for conference championships each year, they typically have a really good quarterback under center. With him tormenting me the last nine years, I know that he's special."