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Recent struggles beg the question: What's wrong with Peyton Manning

As if this season in the NFL hasn't been peculiar enough, we've arrived at Week 14 with seemingly half the league wondering whether the slumping Peyton Manning deserves the milk-carton treatment: Have you seen this quarterback?

For the past three puzzling weeks, we certainly haven't recognized much about the four-time league MVP and the Colts we've come to know over the course of his 13 seasons in Indianapolis. Manning has thrown a whopping 11 interceptions in the past three games -- the worst such stretch of his career -- and four of those picks have been returned for touchdowns as the Colts (6-6) have swooned to .500, dropping three straight and pushing their playoff hopes to the precipice as they prepare to face Tennessee (5-7) in Thursday night's prime-time game.

There are obviously a bevy of mitigating factors that play into Manning's struggles, including the plague of Colts injuries that have changed their cast of offensive playmakers, the team's shoddy offensive line play and its almost total lack of a running game threat. But it is the spectacle of No. 18 repeatedly misfiring on passes we've seen him hit in his sleep that has captured our attention and infused this particular drama with an air of crisis.

If you can't count on Manning and the Colts to move the ball effectively via the passing game, what in the name of Roger Goodell can we count on in this NFL season? Naturally, speculation about the state of Manning's health has surfaced, and the dissection of his faltering game has been attempted far and wide in almost autopsy-like detail.

Behind it all, of course, is the looming question of whether this is one of those unexplainable funks that even the greatest of players sometimes endure, or are we watching the very beginning of Manning's decline in skills at age 34, with the dawning realization that we might have already seen the best he has to offer? As passing slumps go, is Manning's a slump that will pass?

***

No quarterback's failure takes place in a vacuum, and Manning's interception issues seem to have many layers. To help peel some of them back, I called both ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Ron Jaworski and longtime NFL Films guru Greg Cosell, who serves as creator and executive producer of ESPN's NFL Matchup, the smartest and most respected football analysis show on television for many years now. Jaworski is one of the show's co-hosts. Cosell and Jaworski watch as much game tape as anyone in the league, and they both see Manning simply trying to do too much, out of necessity.

"They're throwing the ball way too much,'' Cosell said. "As great as Manning is, and I happen to think he's the greatest quarterback ever, it's too hard when you're throwing as much as they're throwing. When you're a one-dimensional team, it's just too hard to succeed. You're too easy to defend. And you can't ask an offensive line to block 50-60 times a game against defenders who are faster. They're being forced to throw way too many times in every game, and he's overcompensating to try to make up for what they lack.''

Through 12 games, Manning is on pace to throw 712 passes this season, which would be 21 more than Drew Bledsoe's NFL record 691 attempts for New England in 1994. His 44.5 attempts per game (not counting his 13 sacks as pass attempts) are significantly higher than the totals for his most recent three seasons (35.7 in 2009, 34.7 in 2008 and 32.2 in 2007).

In Manning's past three games, losses to New England, San Diego and Dallas, he has attempted 52, 48 and 48 passes (49.3 per game), respectively, completing a sizzling 71 percent of them (109 of 148) for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. But it's those 11 interceptions, with four being returned for touchdowns, that have been so uncharacteristic of Manning.

After starting the season with strong, MVP-worthy statistics through the season's first half, Manning already has 15 interceptions, just one fewer than his entire 2009 season total, and his second highest season total since 2002. His frequency of interceptions hasn't changed much per attempt (one every 35.6 passes this year, compared to 35.7 last year), but he's throwing more passes this season and thus more picks. Since starting the season with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in his first three games, Manning has 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions over the past nine.

"You have to begin with a simple premise that the only way this team moves the ball right now is when Peyton Manning reads the defense properly on every snap, makes the correct decision as to where to throw it, and delivers it with accuracy at the right time,'' Cosell said. "That is the only method of moving the ball that they currently have, with where they are right now with their injury situation and their personnel.

"Given that, it's almost an impossible task. Obviously there have been some poor throws and poor decisions, he's not going to dispute that. He's admitted it. But when you're playing with a poor offensive line and forced to throw more than any quarterback ever has, and you're not an improvisational player, bad things will eventually happen. It's almost impossible for bad things not to happen.''

The Colts offensive line problems have been a theme of sorts in Indianapolis for several years now, but Manning and the passing game's production have always compensated for the shortcomings. But this year, things have only gotten worse with the free-agent departure of guard Ryan Lilja (who's playing at a Pro Bowl level for first-place Kansas City), and Indy's decision to bypass an offensive tackle in the first round of April's draft, opting for TCU pass-rusher Jerry Hughes instead.

Colts president Bill Polian recently said on his radio show that not drafting Indiana tackle Rodger Saffold was a mistake. Saffold projected as a right tackle in the estimation of the Colts, but he has played lights out for the Rams (who took him two spots after Indianapolis) at left tackle, protecting the blind side of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford and allowing just two sacks. Hughes, by comparison, has played sparingly with little or no impact.

***

The Colts' injury situation this season in terms of their skill players has been well-documented. Tight end Dallas Clark (wrist) and receiver Anthony Gonzalez (knee) were lost for the season. Receiver Austin Collie has barely played of late due to concussions, and receiver Pierre Garcon earlier this season missed time due to a hamstring injury. Manning has been passing to the likes of little-known tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Blair White in recent games, and frankly put, they would be players who would be inactive on game days if the Colts were healthier.

And then there's the Indianapolis running game, or lack thereof. The Colts made the Super Bowl last year with a run game that ranked last in the league at 80.9 yards per game. This year they're last again, at 79.1 yards per game, but the loss of starting running back Joseph Addai for the past six games with a neck injury has really robbed Manning of a valuable hot-receiver outlet out of the backfield.

"The running game has been called the quarterback's best friend, and he really doesn't have one to turn to,'' Jaworski said, taking a break from watching game film Wednesday at NFL Films. "He can't rely on his running game to take any of the pressure off. To me it's crystal clear that he's pressing. When a quarterback gets in a little slump like this, there can be a lot of extenuating circumstances. But it all starts with confidence and trust, and in that Colts offense, which is based on exquisite timing and rhythm passing, if you're holding onto that ball for even one or two tenths more than you should, that can ruin the timing of the play.

"I think it also goes back to a lack of confidence with his receiver corps. It's hard to make those throws to all those new guys, not having worked with them all the hours he's worked with guys like Dallas Clark and the others. You're not going to have that same rhythm. And I think he's forced some balls as well. But that's what happens when you press and you're behind in ballgames. You take some chances that you shouldn't.''

Back in mid-October, long before Manning's struggles this season began, Jaworski created something of a firestorm for himself when he went on the ESPN radio show "Mike and Mike in the Morning'' and said he saw some troubling signs in Manning's game. At the time, the Colts were 3-2 (on their way to a 5-2 start), and Manning had 11 touchdown passes, just two interceptions and was completing 68 percent of his passes despite Indy's challenges in regards to injuries, offensive line play and running the ball.

"The last couple weeks, as I've studied Peyton Manning, he has not been real sharp,'' Jaworski said then. "Maybe there does come a time when the skills start to diminish a little bit. I'm not saying it is [that time], but I'm seeing little signs now that the deep sideline throws are not as accurate as they used to be, there's not the zip on the ball that there used to be. Maybe Father Time might be catching up with Peyton Manning a little bit.''

Almost two months later, Jaworski looks a little like the canary in the coal mine, having sensed some trouble for Manning's game before anyone else did.

"I don't think there's a bigger Peyton Manning fan than I am,'' Jaworski said. "I love the guy. But he is struggling, for a number of reasons. Eleven interceptions in three games is a rough stretch he's going through. I knew what I said would cause a firestorm, because if you think back to then, he was playing great football at the time. He was in the MVP discussion.

"But I went on Mike and Mike and said I'm just seeing some things in his game that I didn't see before. Some of the deeper throws, they were short. Some passes were thrown without zip on them. I just kind of threw it out there, and used the phrase 'Father Time,' and man, that really struck a chord with a lot of people. Everybody knows I'm president of the quarterback fraternity. I love quarterbacks. I wish we weren't having this conversation. I would have hoped everything I saw was magnificent and great, like it has always been, but it wasn't.''

***

Inevitably, given the way this season has gone for Manning, questions about his health have surfaced. In early March he had neck surgery in Chicago to relieve constant pain that resulted from a pinched nerve. The Colts haven't disclosed any injury concerns of Manning's this season -- no shock there for one of the league's more secretive franchises -- but as early as mid-September there was an anonymously sourced Internet report on a Colts fan website that Manning was playing hurt and experiencing pain in his throwing arm that was related to his neck issues.

Jaworksi said he has no first-hand knowledge of health issues pertaining to Manning's struggles, but he sees what he sees.

"It's purely speculation on my part, and there probably are people in the Colts organization who know the truth of the situation, whatever it is,'' Jaworski said. "But I can almost use the comparison to Carson Palmer last year. Something happened to Carson Palmer last year. I'm not in that locker room either, so I don't know what it was. But he was clearly not throwing with the same velocity and accuracy last year as he had in the past, and it's the same way again this year. He's a good, serviceable quarterback. But he's not the same franchise quarterback he was earlier in his career. Something changed.

"All I know for a fact is that Peyton did have that surgery in the offseason and I'm sure they wanted to bring him back slowly. There are a lot of things that are outside of the box that could have an effect on his game.''

One league source I talked to this week said the idea of Manning showing a loss of some arm strength this season would be "a fair statement.'' The source said the Colts are not running all of their favorite plays in their passing game these days, perhaps in response to all the new personnel, or perhaps in reaction to which throws Manning is most comfortable making.

"You do not see the outside comeback throws you used to see from him,'' the source said. "They're not even in their game plan. How many times did they run those routes with Reggie Wayne in the past? That leads me to believe something's going on in regards to his arm.

"The Colts are an isolation-route team. They work those routes against corners, and you have to throw the ball outside in those routes. But they're limited to what they bring to the table this year. It used to be an offense that worked from deep to short [patterns]. Now they're working short to immediate. It could be a combination of their personnel issues, their offensive line can't protect him long enough for deep patterns, and his arm could be hurting more than we know.''

Jaworski, a veteran of 17 seasons as a quarterback with four franchises (Rams, Eagles, Dolphins and Chiefs), said he recalls vividly when he first realized that "Father Time'' was catching up to his game.

"It happens,'' he said. "I played the position, and I know. I can remember when I lost it. I really do. I remember when I used to throw that [deep out], and all of a sudden, it was 'Man, I used to make that throw with a blindfold on. Now, suddenly it's not getting there as fast.' It just happens. It's going to happen to everyone. You can't play forever.''

But predicting just when a real downturn in Manning's game is lasting or only temporary is a tricky proposition based on a snapshot as brief as his past three sub-par games. Manning could face the Titans tonight in Nashville and play one of his near flawless games, and much of the furor and angst would die down almost overnight. But at the moment, the question of what's wrong with Peyton Manning is consuming more than its share of oxygen in the never-ending NFL discussion.

"There's nothing going on here that's really rocket science,'' Cosell said. "Has he made some bad throws? Absolutely. But my guess is, without having done the study, he's in more long-yardage situations than he's ever been in. We probably are trying to judge too much here, and taking that quick snapshot. If they had a better offensive line, a full complement of receivers, and a better running game -- and they don't need the Kansas City running game, just a semblance of one -- it might be a completely different story.

"His game might be a little frayed around the edges at this point. But it's probably just the perfect storm of factors that have highlighted his issues. Otherwise, we might not have even noticed anything at all.''

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