Peyton Manning's mental grasp of playing quarterback is head and shoulders above most who have ever played the position. (Getty Images)
Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. There's simply no disputing that -- unless you want to take it further and declare him the best QB to ever suit up in professional football.
His decision to sign with Denver has the potential to make that franchise a Super Bowl contender, assuming he is healthy. There just are not many quarterbacks out there who can do what Manning does or impact opposing defenses in the same ways that Manning can.
That statement is not aimed directly at Tim Tebow, but despite his popularity among the Denver fans, there is no comparison between his ability to direct an offense and Manning's. In all aspects, aside from running the football, Manning has an edge over Tebow.
But since Manning has not actually played a down since the 2010 season, here's a quick reminder of what he's capable of, and specifically how he can help the Broncos:
When you think of Manning taking snaps for the Colts, most of the lasting images are of him in the shotgun. In reality, though, he worked from under center a decent amount with the Colts -- something important to keep in mind as he heads to Denver, where there is a stable of solid running backs in place.
The play we start with in "Break It Down" sees the Colts in a two-WR, two-TE set with a running back in behind Manning.
One of the reasons Manning is able to work from under center or out of the shotgun is the quickness with which he gets into his drops. On this play, Manning took the snap, faked an inside handoff and backpeddled a good nine yards deep before the Jets' pass rush had time to make any headway.
And without getting pressure on Manning, a defense's secondary is fighting an uphill battle. With time to set in the pocket -- and with the quick play-action fake inside freezing the Jets' deep safety for a split-second -- Manning was able to step up and fire one deep to a streaking Pierre Garcon.
The pass, which hit Garcon in stride about 40 yards downfield, split the Jets' two defenders, with the safety scrambling (and failing) to recover after hesitating early.
It's no surprise that Manning can deliver an accurate pass, of course.
Where he excels the most in his game is at reading the defense and making adjustments, both prior to the play and immediately after the snap. Assuming Denver gives Manning the freedom to call audibles and adjust protections at the line -- and there's no reason to think the Broncos wouldn't -- then it will add an entirely new element to the offense.
This play against the Raiders from the 2010 season is a perfect example of how Manning can get one step ahead of the defense.
The Colts faced a 3rd-and-2 from the Oakland 31 and opted to go with another two-tight end formation with Manning under center again.
As the teams got up to the line, Manning began running to each of his lineman to call out an audible -- or, at the very least, to mimic calling out an audible. He went from his left tackle to the right, waving both of his arms in that same direction and pointing to the right side of the field. When his running back, Dominic Rhodes, stepped up to inquire about the play call, Manning pointed to the right side of the field twice.
Long story short, he was going out of his way to indicate a shift in the play.
Why does this matter? Well, take notice of the Raiders' defense here, as Manning goes through his theatrics:
Every single defender not up on the line is completely transfixed on the Colts' QB. Whether or not the original play here was set to go to Manning's right, his pre-snap movements and apparent audible were fresh in the defensive players' minds when the play actually began.
The result was this:
Every Oakland defender collapses down on Rhodes in the exact direction Manning had been signaling. Except Manning essentially called a play-action, naked bootleg here -- he faked the handoff to Rhodes, then rolled out to his left, away from the attacking defense, and took off.
Now, Manning is not often going to take off and run a la Tim Tebow, as evidenced by the fact that he slid down on this play at the Raiders' 4, with no defender between him and the goal line. The fact that he kept it open as an option here, though, shows how he can outthink a defense.
No one was expecting Manning to take off with the ball, let alone head to his blindside.
So much of what Manning does relies on his incredible ability to read the defense and react. Our last play shows Manning in his more customary shotgun spot, with a running back to his left, three wide receivers and a tight end.
Again, Manning faked a handoff inside as the three receivers plus tight Dallas Clark head out on their routes. However, Manning's first glance is not toward any of his receiving options -- it's straight down the middle of the field, which serves two purposes:
1. It allows Manning to scan the deep coverage, specifically the safeties.
2. It helps Manning hold the defense, giving his receivers time to get open.
In the photo below, you'll notice two Dallas linebackers staring directly at Manning as Clark leaks behind them.
After his initial scan of the field, Manning set to throw in the direction of either Blair White or Clark, both of whom had run patterns over the middle.
But instead of releasing the pass, Manning pump-faked, then stepped up and slid to his left, again giving the defense another hesitation move to react to.
With the pass rush slow to get home, Manning now had things exactly where he wanted them -- the line had picked up its blocks, the Dallas linebackers were upfield farther than they ought to be, and the Cowboys' safeties had started breaking down to White and Clark in the middle.
Manning reset and instead went wide to his left, where Reggie Wayne had a step on his coverage. Alan Ball, No. 20, was one of Dallas' safeties on the play -- he had no chance to get back over to Wayne once Manning pulled him in with that pump-fake.
Everything you've seen above displays why the Broncos so badly wanted Manning, and why he can make even the most average receiver a dangerous threat. The edge Manning provides is as much mental as physical -- even when defenses can get into the correct position and seemingly jump Manning's movements, he is able to adjust and regroup.
The jump in pure quarterbacking ability from Tebow to Manning is astronomical. That doesn't necessarily guarantee that Denver will repeat as division champs or win another playoff game in 2012, but the offense's ceiling has just gone up a ton. Especially coming off his neck injury, Manning may not be the greatest physical specimen in the NFL. However, you would be hard-pressed to find another player with the intelligence level Manning possesses.