“Peyton Manning” and “disaster” don’t often get placed in the same sentence – at least, not for the last hundred or so seasons he’s been on the field. However, 2015 has proven to be a different tale for Manning and the Broncos.
With the Broncos coming in at 6-0, one can hardly make the case for Manning to be benched. One can, however, wonder whether performances in which Manning hurls up a trio of picks like he did last week against Cleveland will result in wins when the Broncos meet the best of the best.
The Broncos have thus far met Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Matt Stafford, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr and Josh McCown. Not exactly stellar competition, and their 23.2 PPG average has been enough to eek out victories, but is only good enough for 15th in the league. The latter half of the season holds Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton. These high octane offenses will surely dictate that the Broncos, who have been trying to sell themselves as an elite team, prove it.
Some will argue that Manning’s wobbly passes have always been a part of his game. That his fingers, which are losing sensation after his multiple neck surgeries, have nothing to do with it. Fair enough; dating back to his days at the University of Tennessee, his deep balls have had a bit of shake to them. But until recently, they’d been perfect. They’d smacked receivers in the chest.
Now, nobody in the league has scored touchdowns at a worse rate than Denver. They’ve found the end zone on a measly 12 percent of their drives, which ranks 287th out of 320 teams over the past decade. Now, the front office is asking Manning to take a $10 million pay cut to bolster the tools around him and to learn a new offense in which he’s hit less and hands off more. Now, after wins, a hearty slap on the back is enough to make Manning grimace. And now, he looks like a journeyman; on pace to finish with 18 touchdowns and 25 interceptions, something has changed.
The first and perhaps most obvious place to look to with a struggling quarterback is the offensive line. This seems supported in part given that Manning’s running back, CJ Anderson, coming off a thousand-yard season, has been limited to a paltry 2.7 yards per carry. Moreover, Anderson has yet to run for a touchdown and his longest run clocks in at 14 yards. A far cry from what Manning, and the rest of the Denver front office, expected from Anderson.
Since Manning’s arm strength has begun to wane, teams have ramped up the pressure. Teams are blitzing the Broncos offensive line at the highest clip Manning has seen in the last decade at 38.3 percent, and moreover Manning is seeing the highest QB pressure rate he’s seen in his career at 22.2 percent.
Manning’s career was supposed to go the way Elway’s did. He was supposed to rest more, he was supposed to have more handoffs and he was supposed to win another Super Bowl. Elway wanted Manning to merely be a part of a bigger system, not functioning as the system itself. Now he’s part of a broken system and we expect the man to come back and run it all again. Good luck with that.
The bright spot for the Broncos is that their defense has been impeccable. Through their first five contests, Denver held opponents to the lowest net yards per pass and the seventh lowest net yardage per carry, at 4.7 and 3.7, respectively. This combination has allowed for the Broncos to allow the fewest yards per play in the league at 4.3, which is well below the league average of 5.5. Of course, Denver has only met the weakest part of their schedule, but positive momentum is a powerful force in the NFL.
So, too, is negative momentum. Manning’s team may have his back, but the statistics do not. We’ve seen plenty of great quarterbacks push their time in the league pretty much as far as they can go. Brett Favre, for instance, still holds the fourth-most multi-interception games since 2004, despite having been retired since 2010. Manning is just a single season on a seemingly random team away from replicating such a career path.
Manning, however, is a more cerebral player than Favre ever was. He understands and accepts his limitations. Manning and head coach Gary Kubiak worked to put him more at ease after a pair of disastrous games to open the season, allowing him more offensive control and a larger number of plays in the shotgun formation. The offense is learning, developing. Manning is learning how to not do it all himself. While Manning may have fallen from grace, he may still have a Super Bowl in him.