When you think of Peyton Manning, what do you picture? Well, I visualize the legendary QB back in shotgun, walking up to the line and shouting out routes for every receiver and the protection scheme for each offensive lineman. With only about two seconds left on the play clock, the image of Manning taking the snap, standing straight up in the pocket and firing a twelve yard curl route to the outside burns in my head. The 39-year-old quarterback has been orchestrating some of the most potent passing attacks in league history, yet the end of Manning’s 2014 season definitely stuck out to me.
Manning seemed different. He seemed . . . older. Through the last five games of the Broncos season in 2014, Manning tallied up a 5-6 TD-INT ratio and only averaged 233.8 yards per game during this span. Now the 233.8 yards per game certainly isn’t awful, but it’s not what we expect when talking about Peyton Manning. As for the TD-INT ratio through the last five games, that isn’t even starting QB quality work if strung out over an entire season. It was pretty clear that as the 2014 season was winding down, Peyton Manning was starting to show something he couldn’t control, his age.
The Broncos finished out their 2014 campaign with a 24-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Denver, where Manning posted an uninspiring 211 yards and a single touchdown. Shortly after the early exit from the playoffs, the Broncos decided to part ways with head coach John Fox (who eventually took the Chicago Bears job), and name Gary Kubiak as the new head coach.
Kubiak’s claim to fame is the zone run scheme, where he highlighted players like Arian Foster for the Houston Texans, as well as pumped up career backup Justin Forsett to an unpredictable 1,266 yards rushing and 8 TDs in a single year for the Baltimore Ravens. So, Kubiak’s system revolves around a bell-cow running back and a quarterback that has the mindset to manage the game. The main problem I see with this partnership, is that Peyton Manning has never had the mentality of the stereotypical “game manager” quarterback. But, if Manning is truly sliding and isn’t able to win games on his own, shouldn’t Manning embrace this change of philosophy to make him more effective and help his team win in any way possible? Well, the situation isn’t that clear-cut.
Manning simply can’t rely on his field general ways for an entire season. As shown during the first week of the 2015 season, the Broncos beat the Ravens 19-13, but Manning only threw 24-40 with 175 yards and one interception. Peyton showed no ability to throw the deep ball and had to release the ball much, much earlier on stretch plays, which makes the receivers have almost no time to separate against the defensive backs.
During that first game, not only did Manning struggle, but he struggled within Kubiak’s system. The friction within the offense was apparent even through the first two games, but this friction was more equally balanced between Manning and Kubiak during the Thursday Night Football game against the Kansas City Chiefs. During the first half of the game, it was clear that Manning was running Kubiak’s system, with a lot of snaps under the center and even boot plays where Manning was forced to make plays designed for the quarterback running out of the pocket. Personally, I don’t think I would want my 39-year-old quarterback trying to make throws on the run, and it was clear that Manning wasn’t comfortable doing so either.
At the end of the first half, the game was tied 14-14 but the Broncos seemed to be stalling on offense consistently and couldn’t get a rhythm going. Coming out of the second half, however, the Broncos’ offensive scheme looked like the Manning-run system of old, with Manning calling his own plays and focusing on pre-snap reads in order to gain the best matchup. The Broncos played with much more energy and fluidity during the second half, and Denver ended up winning 31-24, where Manning threw 26-45 for 256 yards, three touchdowns and a single interception.
Now the Broncos are 2-0, winning against two of the better teams in the AFC, so they technically shouldn’t be worried about their play. But, one of the most dangerous problems to have is for your decision makers to have two different mindsets on how to win games. It’s clear that the Broncos are one of the more talented teams in the NFL, even with a 39-year-old quarterback in Manning, but they need to be on the same page to run their offense effectively.
Kubiak could be good for Manning, because his system would alleviate some of the pressure off his quarterback and create a more balanced offense, but the question is if Manning is willing to play in a different system. Theoretically, Kubiak’s zone running offense would allow Manning to throw less passes, but make easier decisions because the defense would have to respect the run game. The Broncos are without a doubt one of the favorites to win the AFC, but until Peyton Manning and Gary Kubiak get on the same page, the Broncos will, without a doubt, have their struggles on the offensive side of the ball.