INDIANAPOLIS - Peyton Manning is getting closer to being his old self.
He's cracking jokes, having fun at the expense of reporters and he even got the OK from his doctors to be on the sideline Sunday to watch the Colts host the Chiefs. He shrugged off talk about a losing season or whether Indianapolis will be in the running to draft Andrew Luck.
Too early for that, he says.
And too early to know whether he has any shot at playing for Indy again this season.
Still, Manning was full of smiles Thursday as he said his recovery from his latest neck surgery is going well. He is clearly eager to be back down among his teammates on game day instead of up in the press box.
"I had two hot dogs up there in Tampa and Indianapolis," Manning cracked, referring to the past two weeks. "But the press box gave me a bad vibe."
Perhaps that's because Manning had grown weary of the Colts' four-game losing streak to open the season and the second-guessing that has come with it. Many have wondered how healthy Manning will be when he returns or whether he'll ever resemble the four-time league MVP again.
There are indications he just might.
Manning has taken on a larger role with his team since the surgery Sept. 8, the third time in 19 months he went under the knife for a neck injury. He has been involved in team meetings, strolling briskly around the practice fields and even advising coaches and players, including the two guys trying to replace him as best they can.
Until this week, doctors had barred him from going anywhere near the sideline during games.
Manning said the decision to ease that restriction demonstrates the recovery is going well, well enough to keep him optimistic that he could even make it back, at least to practice, later this season.
"I think you have to have hope until the doctors rule you out," he said. "We're having a lot of injuries so if they (the Colts) come to me and say they have to make a move, I won't fight them on that.
"The good Lord is calling my plays and I'm not allowed to audible at this point, so I have to listen to the doctors," he added.
Bill Polian, the vice-chairman, and Chris Polian, the general manager, want to keep Manning on the active roster as long as possible so he can at least return to practice this season. Team owner Jim Irsay believes Manning could be back to practice in December.
The Colts have desperately missed their leader. The offence has struggled to score touchdowns or dictate the tempo, and it's left the Colts in an 0-4 hole for the first time since 1998. They need a win Sunday against Kansas City (1-3) to avoid their first 0-5 start since 1997.
"You know I'm the only guy to be 0-4 on this team, and what a thrilling win that one over the Chargers was, right?" Manning recalled, referring to his first NFL victory. "Was that the fifth game? Yeah I thought so, so I'll be like all true Colts' fans, hoping for a win Sunday."
Manning said the current plan is to take X-rays every four weeks so doctors can monitor how he is healing. He confirmed that he was doing more in terms of activities this week, though he declined to get into specifics.
"He's getting better," coach Jim Caldwell said. "He's working hard on his rehab and is doing everything the doctors are asking him to do."
Still, Indy's sour start has prompted talk about the Colts possibly joining the sweepstakes to draft Luck, the Stanford quarterback, next year. If that happened, Luck, who has attended and helped at Manning's annual summer quarterback camp, would become the eventual successor to the Colts' career passing leader.
Manning downplayed such talk, saying it's too early to talk about how the Colts will ultimately fare this season.
In the meantime, Kerry Collins, Manning's original replacement, is still trying to recover from a concussion he sustained when he was hit by Steelers' linebacker James Farrior.
"When I look back over my (NFL) career, I can probably remember having a half-dozen or more small ones," Collins said. "I've never had a lot of big ones and this one has hung around longer than any of them."
Collins did individual work at Wednesday's practice and was expected to do the same Thursday but still has not been cleared to play. Curtis Painter, who threw two TD passes against Tampa Bay on Monday night, is preparing to make his second straight start this weekend.
Manning is still trying to get used to being out after making 227 consecutive starts, including post-season games — the second-longest streak by an NFL quarterback behind only Brett Favre.
He's just excited to be getting close to the action again this weekend.
"It's a new experience for me," Manning said. "People ask, how are you handling it? I'm learning."
Notes: Colts safety Melvin Bullitt was scheduled to have surgery Friday on his right shoulder. Bullitt has already been placed on injured reserve, ending his season. ... Defensive tackle Eric Foster, who dislocated his right ankle in a gruesome scene during Monday night's loss at Tampa, was scheduled to return to Indianapolis on Thursday afternoon, two days after undergoing season-ending surgery in Tampa.