Trouble on the Line
Denver Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady, the esteemed guardian of Peyton Manning’s blind side, is out for the season with a torn ACL. And so the immobile Manning and the Broncos are screwed. Or so goes the narrative.
But some in the Broncos organization last season felt that a recent history of injuries had already caught up to the 28-year-old Clady. Sure, he’s still better than penciled-in replacement Ryan Harris, but the gap between the two isn’t as gargantuan as it would have been three years ago. More concerning are the downgrades on the inside of Denver’s offensive line: In place of departed left guard Orlando Franklin is journeyman Shelley Smith; at center is Gino Gradkowski, who started 16 games for the Ravens in 2013 and zero in his other two pro seasons; and Louis Vasquez is the right guard. Vasquez was a Pro Bowl guard before being moved to right tackle midway through last season, where he performed decently, but his shift back inside likely means the reinsertion of Chris Clark at right tackle. Clark, a stiff mover and unsteady decision-maker, will be a liability, just as he was in previous years.
The depth along Denver’s front five hinges on the development of a pair of rookies, tackle Ty Sambrailo (a second-round pick from Colorado State) and guard/center Max Garcia (a fifth-rounder from Florida), as well as tackle Michael Schofield, who didn’t even sniff the field as a third-round rookie last season. All three should get a fair crack at starting. Manning, however, has not usually played behind youthful linemen, and new head coach Gary Kubiak’s zone-based scheme requires a measure of unison up front that young players can’t be expected to develop in just one offseason. (Even mobile veteran offensive linemen struggle to get the unison down quickly.)
Clady’s injury might be the first domino of trouble along this front five, but it was a row of wobbly dominoes to begin with. The rigor of an NFL regular season would have gotten to this group anyway. This was an O-line destined for mediocrity.
Please, let’s not overreact to a mediocre offensive line losing its left tackle (the “second most valuable position in pro football,” we’ve been told). The proliferation of shotgun formations and three-step timing passes has reduced the value of the blind-side protector. Those quick throws and shotgun snaps allow the quarterback to see almost everything.
And anyway, a left tackle is only marginally more valuable than a right tackle. (Slowly but surely, we’re seeing this reflected in the way teams draft. Five years ago pretty much only left tackles went in the first 20 picks. Over the last three years we’ve seen six different future right tackles get drafted there: San Diego’s D.J. Fluker, Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson, Justin Pugh of the New York Giants, Miami’s Ja’Wuan James, Washington’s Brandon Scherff—who might wind up at guard—and the Giants’ Ereck Flowers, who is playing left tackle this offseason but only because of Will Beatty’s pec injury. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Flowers’ long-term home is on the right side.)
For most of Manning’s career, it hasn’t entirely mattered who was pass-blocking for him. Manning’s protection came from his own pre-snap diagnostics acumen, pocket movement skills and quick release. These traits are still prevalent in Manning’s game, and they’re only mildly affected by his declining arm strength (which, by the way, is overstated and something Manning had already started compensating for when he was still a Colt). But these traits also stem from Manning’s immense comfort with the system he has operated in throughout his career.
Will that system stay in place? Kubiak runs a very different scheme—one built largely on under-center zone concepts, including play-action. Kubiak recently said they’d have Manning get back under center this offseason (granted, in part because the veteran QB has so thoroughly established his shotgun game that there’s no need to work on it). But there’s a reason Manning has become a shotgun QB. In his late 30s, he doesn’t possess the quickness that he did in his 20s or even early 30s. It’s not easy for him to drop back and play at an angle. That’s why Indianapolis abandoned its dominant stretch zone handoffs and play-action late in Manning’s tenure.
Stretch zone action is the backbone of Kubiak’s approach. It’s imperative that the new head coach have the humility to put most of his system on hold while the Broncos spend the immediate future making a run at another Super Bowl appearance. They won’t make that run if Manning regularly has to take snaps from under a young center and lumber outside to hand off or throw (especially not if he’s doing so behind what will almost certainly be a choppy front five). Denver’s offense needs to be built around the strengths of its future Hall of Fame quarterback.
This isn’t to say Kubiak shouldn’t employ the bulk of his zone running game, including the outside zone game. You can still get the ball on the perimeter without having to stretch the quarterback—mainly by running out of shotgun. (A toss sweep simply becomes a little pitch, for example.)
Just like last year, a viable rushing attack is critical for Denver’s offense, which is no longer overflowing with receiving talent. Emmanuel Sanders will be an upgrade in the slot over the 2014 version of Wes Welker, but Sanders is probably not better than what the Broncos got from Welker in ’13. And if Sanders is inside, that means last year’s second-round pick, Cody Latimer, is outside. Considering Latimer played all of 37 snaps as a rookie, we’ll call him a “mystery” for now. He could flounder, or he could erupt. We’ll see. We know that new tight end Owen Daniels won’t erupt—at least not in the way in which matchup nightmare Julius Thomas was capable. Daniels, being less athletic and less versatile as a receiver, won’t stress defenses pre- and post-snap like Thomas. He will, however, fit the short-passing elements of Kubiak’s system to a tee, just as he once did in Houston and, last year, in Baltimore.
Which brings us back to the most critical issue: How much of Denver’s system will be Kubiak’s and how much will be Manning’s? And, also to consider, how will the system operate logistically? The previous staff handled Manning brilliantly. They recognized that, in his late 30s and having had four neck operations, Manning needed increased time in the training room just to be in playing condition. The coaches shoveled a lot of the game-planning responsibilities off his plate and onto their own. Coordinator Adam Gase handled most of the play-calling and, for the first time since early in his career, Manning was most often in a position to just go out and play. Though one of the most cerebral players in the game's history, a Manning who can “just play” is a looser, more dangerous quarterback than a Manning who must dissect the defense and worry about myriad tactical aspects. Manning was less frenetic under Gase, and it showed: 94 touchdowns against 25 interceptions over the last two years, and an average of 319 passing yards per game.
Gase got the play calls into Manning in about the same amount of time as it takes to step in and out of an airport body-scan machine. That left Manning ample time at the line of scrimmage, where he invests most of his efforts not in changing the play (as many believe) but in analyzing the defense and, occasionally, adjusting the play. Figuring out the defense pre-snap is what allows Manning to get rid of the ball before his pass protection has a chance to fail.
There have been whispers that Kubiak will call plays (as he always has), but instead of speaking directly into Manning’s helmet as Gase did, he’ll relay them through quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. That’s not how Kubiak has historically operated, so mind you, these are just rumors. But if true, they’d represent an enormous mistake. Why add a step for Manning in the play-calling process? All it does is force him to play slower (which he hates) and spend less time eying the defense before the snap. Manning is obviously more than capable of communicating with the play-caller directly; it’s impossible to imagine him not doing so in his 18th year. But these are the types of factors that must be sorted out when a new coaching staff arrives.
It feels unwise to bet against Manning, arguably one of the five greatest quarterbacks ever. Though banged up and unable to finish strong last season, he has otherwise played like an ageless wonder since coming to Denver in 2012. But with all the changes in the thin Mile High air, it wouldn’t be an utter shock if Manning’s 2015 campaign turns out like Brett Favre’s 2010 campaign did, when onlookers came away saying—fairly or unfairly—that the old vet hung around a year too long.
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