DETROIT — The arm is weaker but the record remains perfect. Peyton Manning’s Broncos are 3-0 after their Sunday Night Football victory over the desperate Lions, and … well, here we are, two sentences into a story about a quarterback with a shrinking margin for error, and I’ve already made my first mistake.
Let’s not call them “Peyton Manning’s Broncos,” any more than they are Von Miller’s Broncos or Demaryius Thomas’s Broncos. We need to learn what Manning is learning, week by week: The Manning who could destroy defenses by himself is gone. But the new Manning’s team can still win.
After the Broncos beat the Lions, 24-12, I asked Manning’s boss, John Elway: Do you see a different Manning than you saw last year?
“You know, I see him as a 39-year-old quarterback,” Elway said. “That’s the thing: As much as you don’t want to see different things change, they do, the older you get. But more than that is the adaption to the new system, getting comfortable with that.”
It’s not just the new system. It’s the new reality. Yes, Manning is adjusting to a new scheme, but he is a brilliant quarterback. He can do that. And yes, there are new wrinkles, like the Pistol formation he used to great effect Sunday, but Manning can handle that, too. Elway went through a similar transition at the end of his Hall of Fame career, and he says the toughest part was letting go of the steering wheel.
“It was just adapting to relying more on other people than you are used to,” he said. “Because you are used to being The Guy. And that’s the hardest thing, is that adaption. It takes everybody a little bit of time, and we’re seeing that adaption, week by week, with Peyton.”
Manning was not physically impressive against the Lions. But he was efficient, rope-a-doping his way to a 31-for-42, 324-yard night. His backup, Brock Osweiler, said Manning is doing a great job of taking what the defense gives him, but Osweiler acknowledged that phrase is not quite apt. Look at what Colin Kaepernick did against the Cardinals Sunday. Look at what Andrew Luck did for most of his game against Tennessee. Defenses gave them nothing. Manning has to find ways to take little pieces of the field wherever he can.
Manning is a control freak. It’s part of what makes him great. It even explains why he has handled the public nature of his job so well. He is so great in press conferences and interviews because he is determined to be great in them—he doesn’t take any questions off. Sunday night, he explained his thinking on a crucial fourth-and-one play in such detail, even he seemed amused by it. It is not surprising that Manning acts so well in commercials; the only surprise is that he does not insist on directing them.
In the past few years, Manning had to adjust to a new team, a new city, two new head coaches, three new offensive coordinators, and his own diminishing physical skills. And we have to adjust, too.
America rolled its our eyes at Manning’s flutterballs and mistakes in the first two games, because he is Peyton Manning and we can’t let go of that. He was the son of a beloved and famous quarterback. He was the No. 1 recruit in the country as a high school senior. He would have been the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft if he had left Tennessee after his junior year, but he went back to school and so he was the No. 1 pick the next year. He was a Pro Bowl quarterback in his second season in Indianapolis, and even then, people wondered when he would win the Super Bowl.
Almost all of the great sports movies are underdog stories, because we love underdog stories. Peyton Manning has been favored since the day he was born.
So yes: This is hard for him. He can’t make manic hand signals at the line and decide to throw a pass most quarterbacks wouldn’t try. His arm won’t allow it. His team doesn’t want it. Manning finally completed a pass of at least 20 yards Sunday, in his third game of the season—this seemingly obscure bit of trivia had come to define his new limitations, and fuel the Peyton Is Done talk—and even that pass was slightly underthrown.
This is not the same quarterback we watched all those years. But you know what? He can still win.
Elway knows. He joined the Broncos in 1983, as a generational talent, and quickly led undermanned teams to three Super Bowls, though they lost all three. By 1997, Elway had lost some of the qualities that made him special. He was 37. He could no longer evade two pass rushers, change directions, run left and throw a dart to his right. But he had a coach, Mike Shanahan, who knew how to use him; and the roster around him was the strongest of his career. The Broncos won their Super Bowl, then won again the next year, at which point Elway retired.
“That’s kind of the game plan, having been in that situation before … knowing how much a good defense, which we have, and a good strong running game can take the pressure off you,” Elway said. “Because you can’t carry a team any more when you get that old. You can still be a big part of that machine, but instead of [being] the machine, you’re a cog in the machine like everybody else.”
Elway says he doesn’t talk to Manning much about this. Part of the reason their relationship works is that Elway gives Manning space, and neither man has to earn the other’s respect.
So while America wondered if Peyton was done, Elway knew better. He has been here and done this. He had faith Manning could figure it out.
“Everybody is getting used to each other,” Elway said. “Gary [Kubiak] is getting used to him, and he is getting used to what we’re trying to do offensively, and that’s try to mix in the running game there, which I think is important for us. If you get deep in the playoffs, you’re going to need those types of things. Plus, it takes pressure off him.
“So, it’s coming together. We knew we would probably be ahead on defense compared to where we are offensively. It’s going to take us some time. It’s getting better each week.”
The Broncos are 3-0 now, and the next three games are: the Vikings at home, at Oakland and at Cleveland (and after that, a bye week). The Broncos could be 6-0, and should be at least 5-1, heading into a Sunday night game against the Packers in Week 8.
Green Bay will probably have the better quarterback that night. But Denver could have the better team. The man who carried offenses as well as anybody in NFL history does not have to do the heaviest lifting any more. He seems to be accepting that. Can we?