A year ago, Peyton Manning’s Broncos lost to the Chargers in a Week 15 game in Denver, 27-20. The rest of the NFL watched, collectively nodded and kept on worrying about the offense that would go on to shatter nearly every record it could.
A day ago, Denver traveled to San Diego and put up a 22-10 victory, cementing its fourth consecutive division title. It was a win, but if anyone showed Sunday’s box score to the Broncos of a year ago, they would have shuddered. The game was gritty and defense-driven, and Manning, who was pumped full of IV fluids thanks to flu-like symptoms, retreated to the locker room at one point with a thigh injury that nagged him throughout the game. He finished with 233 passing yards, a tally that would have been pedestrian for him a year ago. Somehow, though, the Broncos’ 22 hard-earned points represented what we have come to expect from them over the past month, and Week 15's game furthered the narrative that has prevailed around this team:
The Broncos have reinvented themselves! They’re a new offense, so different from the one that lost the Super Bowl a year ago! In fact, it’s almost unrecognizable!
Maybe the exclamation points tipped you off: I don’t buy it.
Of course, credit should be given where credit is due. After an uninspiring offensive performance in a loss to the Rams in November, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase began to prioritize the running game, and the team’s unknown backs rose to the challenge. At 11-3 going into a Week 16 matchup against the Bengals, Denver and its 2014 offense look like the best versions of themselves once again, especially as Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas seem to be returning to full health. But to say that this team has reinvented itself, that it’s the result of some staggering work of tactical genius -- well, that’s an overstatement.
No, the Broncos of 2014 aren’t a new offense. Instead, they’re an offense that’s managed to adjust to a regression -- an expected regression -- after a season that would have been impossible to duplicate.
In order to understand what has transpired this year in Denver, it’s important to consider what the Broncos did a season ago. It was the year of Manning, the year of the pass, and the quarterback finished 2013 with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns. Now, for some context: This season, Andrew Luck, who leads the NFL in passing, is on pace to fall more than 400 yards short of Manning’s mark. Aaron Rodgers, who along with his offense has become the darling of the league en route to a 10-4 record, will, if he continues to pass at his current clip, finish more than 1,000 yards short of 5,477.
Yes. You read that right: more than 1,000 yards short.
It’s true: A year after making history, Manning still has perhaps the NFL’s best group of receiving weapons. He still has one of the greatest minds in football and an offensive coordinator who will likely be able to pick whichever vacant head-coaching job he’d like this offseason. But Manning also turned 38 last March, and his arm has attempted more passes than anyone except Brett Favre, and regressing to the mean is a very real thing.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Denver realized all of that as soon as the Seahawks’ confetti had finished falling last February. It beefed up its defense largely because last year’s unit was sub-par, but I’d also wager that it realized it would have less of a cushion this year. There are reasons records last. They’re a result of circumstances, of timing, of schedules and a million other factors. And so when Manning didn’t start out 2014 with a single-game touchdown record, when he threw a pick in Week 3, it wasn’t time for Denver to panic. It was simply a reminder that this season’s Broncos need to be a more complete team than they were a year ago, that it was Manning’s otherworldly performance that got them to the Super Bowl, that they can’t count on those numbers again.
Sure, Manning is getting older, his passes wobblier, his arm weaker. In Week 14, the list of quarterbacks who passed on a greater percentage of offensive snaps than he includes the illustrious likes of Geno Smith, Shaun Hill, Zach Mettenberger, Colt McCoy and Josh McCown. It’s almost comical, but to suggest that Manning is past his prime, that he’s done, is premature.
"It’s comical to me," Gase said Thursday. "We heard the same thing about [Tom] Brady, and he’s been ripping the league apart since then. You never doubt players of this caliber, I know that. I’m pretty sure every defensive coordinator is not thinking that."
Manning, too, discounts that notion, and he doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy being termed a game manager. Instead, he says that his team’s offense has evolved, and that’s true. Denver’s offense has indeed evolved and diversified. It made the adjustments that merely mortal offenses are forced to make, maybe not immediately, but certainly by midseason, and just like a year ago, it’s playing to its strengths.
Can the Broncos win it all this season? That question rides on so many more factors than it did a year ago, when Manning’s arm seemed to be all that mattered. It rides on the Broncos’ defense, which has come together to look like one of the league’s best units in recent weeks, and it rides on C.J. Anderson’s ability to run, run, run the ball, more than he has in any other season in his life. It rides on luck.
Still, it’s easy for Denver to remain confident. The adjustments have worked for the most part, and the team has tweaked its offensive identity to match its new reality. It still sees no reason why it can’t make it to another Super Bowl, why it can’t win, and really, none of that is too hard to imagine -- if you operate under one assumption. It’s the simplest of thoughts, a presumption so simple it’s easy to forget we all presume.
Denver’s season rides on it. The praise of its just-fine offense rides on it. To believe that the Broncos can win it all it to believe that Peyton Manning the passer is still there, still lurking, just waiting for the moment his team needs him, for the moment it has to evolve back into the high-flying team of 2013, if only for a series, a quarter, a half.
No knock on these new Broncos, but that’s still what matters most.