Tuesday October 7th, 2008

I looked at the NFL stats this morning and found myself scrolling down the list of quarterback ratings in search of Peyton Manning. He's usually Mr. Passer Rating, high in the 90s or somewhere north of that. But as I scanned the list, something weird happened. I rolled past JaMarcus Russell, Kyle Orton, J.T. O'Sullivan and the immortal Matt Cassel. Then I found my target.

20. Peyton Manning, Ind., 79.2

Through four games, Manning has as many picks as touchdowns (five each). I've been watching the mired-in-quicksand Indy offense in the first month of the season. The Colts had scored zero points through 40 minutes at Minnesota and 10 at Houston through 50 minutes before rallying for very improbable wins. Without those two fairy tale comebacks they'd be 0-4.

What I've noticed: Defenses are cramming the line trying to stop Joseph Addai. Meanwhile, Manning is increasingly dependent, week-by-week, on Dallas Clark, is getting almost no help from Marvin Harrison and his protection is incredibly inconsistent. Moreover, defenses don't seem to believe he can nimbly escape the traffic the way he used to at the line.

So I called a coaching acquaintance of mine, from a team that has the Colts on the schedule this year, and asked what he saw in the Indy offense. "They're not running the ball efficiently at all,'' the coach said. "That's because they're coming up against a lot of eight-man boxes [defensive fronts] without the gaps for Addai that he's used to. I think they've got to figure a way to run it better.''

Conversely, another coach told me, they've got to loosen up the defense more by finding Reggie Wayne downfield. "The same way Cassel hit Randy Moss Sunday [in San Francisco] is the way Peyton's got to go,'' the coach said.

It's amazing to see defenses challenge Manning in the passing game by loading the line of scrimmage and daring him to beat them, but that's what they're doing. One reason is the Colts have been mixing and matching on the offensive line for a month. They've started three line combinations in four games, and in Houston, two rookies started at guard, with Tony Ugoh (groin) still on the bench and leaving a hole at left tackle. Defensive coordinators smell blood in the water on the Colts front.

But I don't think the Colts are cooked. Not by any means. I think they've got to get third wideout Anthony Gonzalez healthy -- he should be ready to go against Baltimore this week after suffering a minor concussion in Houston -- and eventually make him as impactful to the offense as Marvin Harrison was two years ago. Tony Dungy says Gonzalez is farther along in the Colts offense in his second year than Reggie Wayne was in year two, and now's the time to take advantage of that. Clearly, Harrison's best days are behind him, he doesn't separate from corners the way he used to, and, at 36, he needs to be more of a third receiver than a go-to guy.

As the second coach says above, Indy must loosen up on first down. Manning tried that in Houston. The Colts had 25 first-down plays against the Texans, and six times Manning threw the ball either intermediate or deep. Three of those were complete, all to Clark, for gains of 23, 23 and 20 yards. Two were incomplete, both to Harrison and one was intercepted. I'm sure, going forward, Manning wants to find Wayne and Gonzalez two or three times a game downfield early in a series.

Against Houston, 10 of the 25 first-down snaps were runs by Addai and Dominic Rhodes. The gains: 4, 1, 3, 0, 2, 2, 3, 6, -4, 15. That's 10 rushes for 32 yards on first down, not good enough. And the first nine went for a total of 17 yards. That is unacceptable, obviously. Addai averaged 4.4 yards per rush in his first two seasons. He's averaging 3.6 yards per carry now. That simply has to change.

But what must change first is Manning's ability to seek and destroy defenses on first and second downs with some of his trademark deep strikes. When that happens -- and when he starts getting better protection -- the Colts will be back to their playoff selves.

Now onto your mail:

SEEMS LIKE THE CLASSIC SECOND-GUESS TO ME. From Benny R., of Los Angeles: "I know this may come off as a total surprise to most people, but, in retrospect, don't you think the Chargers would have been better off trading LaDainian Tomlinson and keeping Michael Turner? The Chargers couldn't win the big games even with L.T. at his best.

Even worse, he always came off as a selfish baby when losing in the playoffs (criticizing Philip Rivers or Bill Belichick). It always seems like he has a horrible loser mentality at the first sign of adversity. As the supposed best player on the team, teammates look to him as the pulse of the team and he never sets the right example during tough times. I think the bold move would have been (or still is) to trade him for draft picks. This team has hit the ceiling. They remind me of those Dolphins teams in the '90s, when they were the popular team to appear in a Super Bowl, but could never quite get there. What are your thoughts?''

I've often thought teams get rid of running backs, or running backs retire, a year or two too late. It happened with the Jets and Curtis Martin, costing them LaMont Jordan (not a death blow, obviously). Happened with Shaun Alexander, who was worthless in Seattle last year. It may be happening with Tomlinson, but I would be careful talking about him in the past tense. He hasn't had a disabling injury yet. If the Chargers had jettisoned L.T. after last season and kept Turner, it would have caused fans to storm the gates -- plus, I'm not sure Turner would be doing any better behind a shaky San Diego line right now.

TOO EARLY FOR THAT. From Chuck Daniels, of Mt. Morris, Mich.: "Peter, do you think there is any chance that the Lions would fire Rod Marinelli now, since the bye week is over? He may be trying to overcome Matt Millen's mistakes, especially on offense, but on defense, which is supposed to be Marinelli's area, we are Tampa North with all the former Bucs players here, but the defense looks worse than ever. I'm concerned that in trying to save his job [which I understand], Marinelli is going to try to do what is best for the short term [continue to play Kitna, keep Roy Williams] and not what is best for this franchise long term [see what they have with Drew Stanton, trade Roy for whatever they can get, etc.]''

Couldn't agree more on the trading Roy Williams part. I think, at the very least, they could get a prospective high second-round pick for him, and you're right, the most important thing for the Lions right now is the 2009 draft, not the 2008 season. But I'm not in favor of getting rid of Marinelli. It looks worse than bleak now, but what do you gain by putting in an interim coach now? Nothing.

In the off chance the players respond to Marinelli and make something good of this season, maybe the new GM (which I'm assuming will happen after the season) will want to keep him. I think he deserves three years. I think any coach does, barring him losing the team or showing incompetence. Neither of those have happened with Marinelli.

I AM MAD, OBVIOUSLY. From Don, of Burbank, Calif.: "Great column, Peter. Look forward to it every week. How is it, though, that Washington beats Dallas last week, then this week beats Philly on the road while Dallas struggles to beat Cincy at home, and Dallas is still ranked above Washington? You mean that if those two teams play each other right now, you still like Dallas? Puzzling.''

You're not the only one to question that ranking, Don. I thought a lot about that Sunday night on my way home from NBC. And I realize the product on the field hasn't shown Dallas to be better than Washington so far. It came down to this: If Washington and Dallas met on a neutral field in Wichita right now, I think Dallas would win. I trust Romo a little more than Campbell right now.

The defenses are a wash, and I might like Washington's a little more, particularly after the goal-line stand at the Eagles. It's very, very close. If Dallas plays generously on defense at Arizona this week, I might change my mind. But here's what it comes down to for me, bottom line: I thought Dallas was the best team in football for much of September, and we've seen them blow out Cleveland on the road, score 41 on a tough defense (Philadelphia), and whack Green Bay pretty well on the road. I still like them a lot, and a smidgen better than Washington.

IN MILES THEY TRUST. From Sal Altrui, of Vernon, Conn.: "Isn't it obvious the Cowboys need another receiver, maybe like Terry Glenn was a few years ago? Their other wideouts are not threats, so T.O. gets a lot of attention by the defensive backfields.''

I think so too, but Jerry Jones told me Sunday they think Miles Austin is the guy, and will emerge as a force in the last three months of the season. We'll see. He made it clear to me they're not going to trade for a receiver. But I wonder what happens a week from today -- the trading deadline is next Tuesday -- if the Lions suddenly hold a fire sale for Roy Williams and agree to take a third-round pick for him. Don't see that happening, but if it does, Jerry would have to think about it.

IN DEFENSE OF ROSENFELS. From Matt Burk, of Pittsburgh: "Peter, as bad as his mistakes were, at least Sage Rosenfels manned-up, stood at the podium after the game, and took responsibility for the loss. Couldn't have been easy.''

Agree totally. I appreciate your point, and Rosenfels, by all accounts, is a totally class guy. That doesn't eliminate the two goatish plays he made.

TRUE THAT. From Brian Twomey, of Simi Valley, Calif.: "First two games of the BoSox-Angels series ended at 1:25 and 1:29 a.m., respectively. There's some East Coast love. You East-Coasters always complain about this. Shouldn't I, as a West Coast baseball fan, get to see the start of night games here on the West Coast? Those games started at 7 and 6:30 p.m., just perfect for me to start watching after getting home from work.''

Good point, Brian. I understand. My rejoinder: Something like 48 percent of the TV sets in the United States are in the Eastern Time Zone. I guess I wonder about the wisdom of playing a playoff game, on a work night, when the vast majority of your potential audience is in bed by the second inning.

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