By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Pro Football Writer
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — His throws are much stronger in his second season in Denver. His passes zip through defenders’ grasps and into his receivers’ waiting hands to the oohs and ahhs of his teammates and coaches.
Not Peyton Manning — Brock Osweiler.
OK, so, as coach John Fox likes to say, guys are only playing in their underwear now, the pads gathering dust for another six weeks. And sure, Manning is healthier and hardier than he was a year ago at this time, and if everything goes as planned, Osweiler will be buried on the bench again in 2013 except for the occasional cameo.
But Osweiler looks so much more comfortable calling plays and barking out audibles heading into his second NFL season and both his decisions and his throws come noticeably faster.
While it was pretty much understood last year that if Manning got hurt or his neck issues resurfaced, all bets were off, there’s not the sense anymore that there would be a huge drop-off if Osweiler has to play significant minutes.
Osweiler looks nothing like the wide-eyed rookie he was a year ago, when his head was spinning, his mechanics needed tweaking and his selection in the second round of the NFL draft by a team with championship aspirations was hotly debated by a fan base eager for immediate help.
Manning’s apprentice capped an outstanding three weeks of OTAs with a head-turning frozen rope of a pass that stuck to Greg Orton like Velcro as the lanky receiver sliced across the back of the end zone on a fourth-and-goal play from the 10-yard line.
“He’s in an ideal situation,” Fox said moments later when asked about his impressions of Osweiler’s growth this spring. “I think he’s a tremendous young player. I like the way he operates, the way he handles himself. He’s got probably one of the better guys to learn under in Peyton Manning. I’ve seen excellent improvement in both Brock’s knowledge of what we’re doing and his execution, the what-tos and the techniques to play quarterback.”
After an underwhelming training camp in which he looked every bit the rookie beginner, Osweiler made steady progress last season, studying Manning’s work habits and emulating everything he could. He appeared in five games and threw four passes, completing two of them.
A measure of the faith the Broncos put in his future came in the fact that the second-round draft pick out of Arizona State was the Broncos’ No. 2 quarterback all season, not veteran Caleb Hanie, who was released over the winter.
Players who stick in the pros tend to make a giant leap from their rookie year to their second season, and that certainly appears to be happening with Osweiler, the 6-foot-8 passing project whom many observers believe would have been the first QB selected in this year’s draft had he stayed in school for his senior season.
Overwhelmed last year by meetings, schedules, playbooks, practices and learning the ins and outs of the pro game, Osweiler said his head is no longer spinning like the incoming freshman who realizes he’s accidentally sitting in on a graduate level calculus class in college.
“This year, the biggest difference, I would say, is that I know how to study now,” Osweiler said. “And when you know how to study, you can translate that to the field and you’re not out there thinking as much, and you are able to just play on instincts.
“Now, I’m not going to say I’ve perfected that, because I haven’t by any means. But it definitely has helped me out a lot of the time, as far as quickening up my reads, understanding where the ball needs to go, understanding the protections. Last year, at times, everything was a million miles per hour. So things have definitely slowed down. Things make a little more sense, which in turn has just allowed me to play like I can.”
Osweiler is winging fastballs the likes of which haven’t been seen around Dove Valley since Mike Shanahan was still the Broncos coach and Jay Cutler his quarterback.
That’s in stark contrast to last summer, when Osweiler showed only occasional flashes of the man John Elway calls the future of the franchise.
“The best way for me to explain this is when you’re a rookie, the amount of information that you’re trying to process, let alone play good, it’s tough,” said offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who was Osweiler’s position coach last season. “So, you’re making so many mistakes, it’s hard to tell how the guy’s developing.
“The good thing with Brock last year is he made some strides during the season, and I’ll tell you what, he did a lot of it on his own because of me working with Peyton, we were trying to get some things straightened out. And this spring this stuff makes sense to him now.”
Osweiler retreated to Phoenix in the offseason and once again spent hours refining his passing game under the tutelage of Noel Mazzone, the “quarterback doctor” who was his offensive coordinator at Arizona State and now is at UCLA.
And he’s still studying Manning’s every move.
“I watch everything he does. From our quarterback meeting room to the team meeting room to the weight room to the practice field, games, in the locker room, pre-game,” Osweiler said. “Shoot, I even watch what he would do as far as signing autographs pre-game at a hotel — would he or would he not?
Then, he picked out what could translate into his own game, realizing he also has to be himself.
“But one thing’s for sure: there’s no greater professional, no greater quarterback out there to learn from,” Osweiler said. “My eyes are open to everything. He’s been great to me, and I’m just going to keep doing that, keep watching him every step of the way.”
His goal, he said, is to be a worthy successor to Manning whenever that day comes.
“People say I’m the future, I’m the heir apparent. Those are only words,” Osweiler said. “I have to go out there, I have to earn that right to be the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos one day, and that’s something I try to take to heart and really try to push myself every single day, so that when 18 is gone, I’ll have the chance.”