This story appears in the Sept. 28, 2015 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
What's up with Peyton Manning?
Because, it seems, we can't wait to bury our sports icons, that question was still being asked of the NFL's No. 2 all-time passer even after his Broncos improved to 2-0 with a stunning 31-24 victory over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium last Thursday night.
Yeah, but he tossed a pick-six for the second week in a row.
He's still throwing ducks all over the place.
He should have been intercepted five more times.
Denver's winning in spite of him.
Those concerns may indeed be proved valid. Eventually. But to jump to any conclusions at this point of the season is fundamentally unfair because it doesn't consider the circumstances, and they are significant.
Cynics like to suggest that Manning's current early-season struggles—his 58.8 completion percentage, his mere three passing TDs and two interceptions, his 5.1 yards per attempt and 74.2 passer rating—are a continuation of his rough end to last season. Manning finished the final six games of 2014, including his terrible performance in a home playoff loss to the Colts, with a 59.7 completion percentage, six TDs, six INTs and a 78.0 passer rating. It's easy to make that connection, but it ignores the fact that Manning partially tore his right quadriceps late last season. I would argue, in fact, that his perceived decline started even earlier, with a lower-body injury in Week 7 against the Chargers. Manning never openly acknowledged the injury, but it's clear to me on film that late in the third quarter of that game he was bothered by an ailment that changed his mechanics. Before that game Manning was a leading MVP candidate. Unless he aged extraordinarily overnight, something else would have to explain his struggles. And two leg injuries might be a good place to start.
Manning's issues so far this season are more likely attributable to a combination of factors, unrelated to health, which have gone overlooked or ignored. For context, think back to what critics were saying about Tom Brady around this time last year, when his Patriots went into Kansas City in Week 4 and walked out victims of a 41-14 beatdown by the Chiefs. In that game Brady threw for a paltry 159 yards and tossed two interceptions, including a pick-six of his own. People believed Brady was washed up then too. And we all remember how that ended.
While Brady's and Manning's situations have their differences (Brady is 16 months younger, for starters, and may be a better athlete now than he was a decade ago), the similarities are worth noting: Critics of Manning, as they did with Brady, are overlooking several clear factors. It's not yet time to read Manning his last rites.
When Gary Kubiak replaced John Fox as the Broncos' coach last January, you didn't have to be fluent in the silent snap count to realize that he and Manning might not mesh easily. Both men are fixed in their ways.
Since becoming Denver's offensive coordinator in 1995, through his tenure as the Texans' head coach (2006-13) and his single season as the Ravens' offensive coordinator ('14), Kubiak has found the most success with nimble, strong-armed passers: John Elway, Jake Plummer, Matt Schaub and Joe Flacco. Those players were tailored to his system, a zone-running scheme that puts the quarterback under center so that play-action can get his receivers and tight ends open. One of Kubiak's key plays is the boot-action pass: The O-line and running back flow to one side, getting the defense to go with them, while the QB rolls out to the opposite side, choosing between multilevel targets who are sprinting past the crossed-up defenders. In general, he also prefers that his QBs not audible.
Manning is basically the anti-Kubiak quarterback. He prefers to operate from the shotgun, he loves to change plays on the fly, and at 39 he lacks the arm strength to throw on the move. (To be fair, he's not alone among QBs on this last point. I count Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in that group as well.) Peyton has worked from a three-by-nine-foot telephone booth, directly behind center, for most of his career, but Kubiak prefers that he now operate in a looser 15-by-9-foot area behind the line of scrimmage. In short, the coach is trying to reprogram 17 years of Manning mechanics.
After Manning's pick-six last Thursday the Broncos had the ball at the Chiefs' 19-yard line with 3:28 left in the first half. Denver ran play-action to the right and Manning rolled back to the left as two tight ends followed him from the opposite side of the formation. Virgil Green was wide open, perhaps for a touchdown, when Manning awkwardly shuffled his feet on the run and from the 28-yard line threw into the grass at the 13, right at Green's feet. Before Week 1 (when he had similar results), Manning had barely ever run that play. Should he have completed the pass? Yes—even with a rusher coming at him. But his misthrow shouldn't come as a surprise. Under Kubiak, Manning is like an award-winning ballroom dancer who's suddenly being asked to win a break-dancing competition with just five months of prep. He may succeed—such are his skills and his competitiveness—but there will be slips and falls along the way.
For this arrangement to succeed, Kubiak and Manning will each have to tailor his mind-set to the other's. That can still work—and it doesn't necessarily entail shifting strictly to Manning's preferred shotgun. Earlier against the Chiefs, with two minutes left in the first quarter, Kubiak called play-action to the left. Manning curled back against the grain, some seven yards deep and to the right of center, crawled up the pocket and fired a perfect pass 48 yards in the air and in stride to Emmanuel Sanders. Chiefs safety Ron Parker knocked the ball away just as Sanders was controlling it.
It's that kind of throw—just like his pinpoint 22-yarder to Demaryius Thomas along the left hash mark late in the fourth quarter and, several plays later, his 19-yarder to Sanders for the game-tying score—that makes all of this talk about Manning's arm strength a bit ridiculous. Maybe his pass catchers (which no longer include Wes Welker or Julius Thomas) have to wait a split second longer for the ball, but, really, Manning hasn't had a great arm in years. His mind and his scheme are what set him apart.
Some pundits want to make a big deal out of the fact that Manning threw “deep” (15 yards or farther, by the NFL's measure) just 15 times in Denver's first two games. But consider: Last year the Broncos averaged 7.25 of those throws per game. In Manning's historic 2013 season it was 7.4. In 2012, 6.6. With Brady, whose arm no one has questioned, the Patriots averaged 6.3, 7.2 and 7.4 deep balls the past three seasons. In reality, NFL offenses years ago moved beyond passing attacks that rely on the deep ball. Today's game is about melding time, space and routes to get receivers open and putting them in position for big yards after the catch.
More concerning than Manning, his arm or his offensive system is a subpar offensive line. If the Broncos' pass protection and running game don't improve in a hurry (and they very well may; Denver's schedule gets much easier in the near future), Manning could get an arm transplant and be named his own offensive coordinator—and none of that would matter.
Arguably the most important factor in a passing game is the pressure a quarterback feels in the pocket. Under duress, any QB is going to be negatively impacted, but this is even more crucial for pocket passers—Manning, Brady, Brees. This is something I studied last year, when I believed Brady's critics were discounting the role that pressure (yielded by an ineffective line) had on him early in the season. When Brady was perceived to be struggling, his pressure percentages, according to Pro Football Focus, were 41.7 in a loss to the Dolphins, 30.4 in a win over the Vikings, 33.3 in a narrow win over the Raiders and 28.0 in that loss to the Chiefs. (In my own study, including penalized plays, I had that last number closer to 42.) But he faced pressure more than 30% of the time just once (a two-point win over the Jets) in the next seven games, and the Patriots won all seven. The winning streak ended in Green Bay when the Packers pressured Brady 33.3% of the time. Similarly, as Brees's Saints started 2-4 last year, New Orleans allowed more than 30% pressure in three of the losses. In both wins they kept that number under 30%.
When the Broncos started 6-1 last season, with Manning tearing through defenses, he was pressured on 22.0% of his drop-backs. Through two games this season, though, that number is up to 30.4%, and he's on pace to be sacked 56 times, which would destroy his career high of 29, from 2001. That's untenable for an aging pocket quarterback, especially one used to (and perhaps spoiled by) superior protection. Since '08 he has been the league's best-protected starting QB.
When a passer feels pressure, he gets sped up in the pocket and he's more prone to mistakes. Both of Manning's interceptions this season have come with blitzers bearing down on him, but this isn't a new phenomenon for him. When the Broncos' record-setting 2013 offense went up against Seattle's formidable D in Super Bowl XLVIII, Manning was pressured on 38% of his snaps. Seattle came out 43-8 winners, buoyed by a Manning pick-six.
The great quarterbacks are measured by how they fare when things don't go perfectly. Perhaps Manning just isn't a great QB anymore. And that's O.K.; it doesn't mean he's done. You can win a Super Bowl without being an all-time great (see: Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Eli) as long as you play for a well-rounded team. And the Broncos look like they'll have the defense to contend for a championship. Under new coordinator Wade Phillips, that unit has forced a combined seven turnovers while making Flacco (with his 38.2 Week 1 passer rating) and Alex Smith (53.9) look like backups.
Still, unless the running game improves—which also has to do with the offensive line's struggles—Denver could have a tough go of it. And here the prospects are less hopeful. After losing franchise left tackle Ryan Clady to a left ACL tear in May, every member of this blocking unit has had issues, and the Broncos have averaged just 2.77 yards per carry and 65.0 per game. Last season those numbers were 4.03 and 111.6.
None of which is to say that early-season struggles foretell troubles down the line. Give credit to the two defenses Denver has faced. Both the Ravens (who had Terrell Suggs through 3 1/2 quarters against the Broncos) and the Chiefs were expected to be near the top of the NFL defensively this season, and they'll make life difficult for even the league's best quarterbacks and running games.
This much is true: Manning is no longer capable of putting up mind-boggling numbers like his record 55 touchdown passes of two seasons ago. Physically, he isn't quite at that level anymore. Manning has always been an anticipation thrower, meaning that in a split second he can compute his receiver's route, the defense's scheme and how the defense will react—then he throws early to a spot. That's one of the toughest things to do in this game, and he has long been the best at it. Now, with his physical tools waning—slightly, not hugely—Manning's decisions have to be even faster, more precise.
It remains to be seen whether he can sustain that for an entire season. I have my doubts that Manning can stay healthy at this age and with this line. I've also never been high on Manning's ability to shine in challenging weather or when the stakes are highest, in the postseason. So it wouldn't come as a surprise if he ended this year—perhaps his last—with a whimper. In fact, if I had to wager on that, I would. But that's a separate discussion.
Right now? Like Brady last season, circumstances suggest he deserves our patience. And with a little injury luck, some improved line play and support on defense, he just could follow in his friend's footsteps and pick up another ring.