Reasons for Peyton Manning's decline
I never thought I’d see a team with Peyton Manning at quarterback where he was a relatively minor aspect of their game plan. That’s exactly what we’ve seen in Denver through four weeks—he’s almost become a game-manager.
The Broncos have nearly morphed into the 2014 Seattle Seahawks team that destroyed them so convincingly in Super Bowl XLVIII. The current Broncos roster is 4-0 because their defense, which has been the best in the NFL; their quarterback has been able to do just enough to seal the win.
Right now, Manning is a smaller piece of the puzzle than he has ever been—which is a good thing, because he is playing as poorly as he’s ever played. When I say as poorly as he has ever played, I mean we can probably go all the way back to rookie-Manning to see this kind of performance. He has thrown six touchdowns and five interceptions this season. Last year, after four games, he had thrown eight touchdowns and just one pick. The year before that, 16 touchdowns and no picks.
Since this is a time when even the base stats tell the story, I don’t need to labor the point too much. Manning is PFF’s 28th best-graded quarterback so far this year. He sits one spot below Ryan Fitzpatrick and one above Johnny Manziel. He has been ranked alongside Ryan Mallett for most of the season. None of these are good things.
But why is he playing so poorly?
It’s easy to point to his arm as the big reason. A cursory glance at the tape shows a guy with marginal arm strength, and that might be putting it kindly. There are plays in every game where that lack of arm strength shows up. It seems like the obvious answer, but the problem with that is, it’s nothing new. Manning’s arm has been marginal—at best—since he returned from neck surgery in 2012. His entire tenure in Denver has been riddled with weak arm strength, and yet it hasn’t prevented him from setting career numbers over most of that time.
In one of his first games back from injury in 2012, Manning threw three interceptions in the first quarter against the Falcons. In that game, we saw that there was a type of throw he just didn’t have the velocity to make.
He was able to re-learn how to play quarterback without a particular string to his bow that had been such a big part of his arsenal during his tenure in Indianapolis. Think about all those seam passes to Dallas Clark for so many years. The fact that he was able to essentially come to terms with this reality and still excel should be considered one of the greatest sporting achievements in any field, and really doesn’t get talked about enough. Manning re-taught himself how to be an elite quarterback after seeing he couldn’t do it the way he used to.
In Week 4 of 2015 against the Vikings, there were moments where he passed up a play he knew he didn’t have the arm to make. On this play (above), Manning sees the cornerback actually fall over in coverage, but rather than try and hit the big pass that would take legit arm strength to beat the free safety to the sideline on the corner route, he waits for the crosser he has coming in behind it. It was a big play either way, but most quarterbacks couldn’t put the ball in the air fast enough if they saw a defensive back fall over covering a receiver deep down the field.
On plays like that, it’s neither a good or bad thing, it’s just part of the story of having the 2015, post-surgery Peyton Manning at quarterback. The first throw of the game was a great example of what Manning has been over the past few seasons. He motioned RB C.J. Anderson out of the backfield to line up split wide right. Then Manning gives a little pump fake to cause the corner to bite up on the quick out from the slot receiver before throwing the ball over the top to Anderson. This was great work from Manning pre- and post-snap, but the ball was badly under-thrown, and what could potentially have been a touchdown ended up being simply a nice gain on the play.
He’s definitely leaving plays out on the field because of the lack of arm velocity, but as long as he makes enough positive plays overall, there’s no net loss. If the ball ends up in the end zone, it doesn’t matter whether it took one perfectly placed pass to get it done or seven passes, three of which were slightly under thrown. Either way, the yardage and points are racking up. That has been the story until this season. Now, however, he is making mistakes that weren’t there before, ending drives and eroding both the points and passing stats.
Take the interception he threw to Anthony Barr in the game. It looked horrendous. He just tossed the ball right to the awaiting linebacker. There’s no mistaking it’s a terrible pass, but there was at least logic to the decision, and it lies in simply misreading the coverage that the Vikings were running. Manning read the defense as playing cover-2, when in fact they were playing cover-4. Let’s take a look at the play as it looked to Manning, and then how it looked from the correct coverage.
Manning saw this:
The Broncos are running double-smash concepts on top and bottom. Against cover-2, Manning would see Barr sink to gain depth and squeeze the corner route, while the safety would work over the top and the cornerback would be left choosing between driving on the quick in or sinking to gain depth and close the window on the corner in behind him. With Terrance Newman playing so far off at the snap, the quick in-breaking route should have been wide open against this coverage.
What the Vikings were actually running, though, was cover-4, or quarters. In this coverage, Anthony Barr is the flat defender, not the cornerback, who sinks to cover a deep quarter of the field. Instead of throwing to a wide open underneath route, Manning leads the receiver right into the waiting linebacker.
It’s an easy enough mistake to make pre-snap, but there was no great disguise to this, and post-snap Manning should have been able to read instantly what the Vikings were running and understand he couldn’t throw the pass where he threw it. This is a rookie mistake; it’s a simple error that Manning does not usually make.
I’m not saying Manning is immune to bad decisions. Anybody that remembers the Super Bowl XLIV interception to Tracy Porter of the Saints will readily attest to that, but in his case, they are usually very rare. Now he is making multiple plays like this per game.
The pick to Barr wasn’t even the first of this game. Earlier, he threw the ball right to safety Robert Blanton, only to see it dropped. Again, this was just a terrible decision with the football. He was forced to move off his spot, and was looking for a place to go with the football, but at no point was the pass he attempted a viable option, and he was lucky to escape with just an incomplete pass.
What has made Manning great for so many years was his instinctive knowledge of the offense, and exactly where to go when pressure materializes or he is forced to hurry in his reads. He has had some very poor offensive lines over the years, and while it isn’t that difficult to pressure Manning, it has always been exceptionally difficult to sack him. He still has some of that in the tank, and you can see it on plays like this:
In this play you can see Manning work off his primary read (which was covered like a blanket), then feel pressure develop and start to work the backside of the play. Eventually, he decides neither of those receivers is a viable option, and the instant the pressure arrives, he turns and delivers the ball without thinking to his dump-off option. Manning gets taken down on the play, but not sacked. As it happens, Owen Daniels drops the pass, but these are plays that usually result in gains for the offense, but sacks for other quarterbacks. This is vintage Manning. It’s the player we have come to expect, but one that has been missing all too often this year.
In the earlier games of the season, we saw a Manning that did not seem as comfortable within the offense. The Broncos have made changes schematically over the past couple of weeks. In the first two games of the season, Manning was lined up in the pistol formation just twice, once each week. Since then, he has been in the pistol 65 times, over 30 in each game. Manning has been under center less overall, and is clearly more comfortable in the shotgun at this point in his career. Over the first two games, he was under center a total of 61 times, but only 10 times since.
The problem is that this schematic change hasn’t stopped the poor decisions. The answer to “What’s wrong with Peyton Manning?’ does not appear to have one clear answer. There are many things wrong with his play over the first four weeks of the season. Denver has made strides to fix some of these issues. They have adapted the offense back towards what Manning is more comfortable with. There isn’t much they can do to improve the offensive line in front of him, so they can make him more comfortable with the pressure when it arrives by running what he is used to running.
His arm remains a problem, but not one they can’t overcome.
The biggest issue with Manning is plays like this interception thrown to Harrison Smith:
There is so much wrong with this interception that it’s difficult to know where to start, and unlike the other poor throws we looked at earlier, there is no one simple issue to address. This was a throw that was on, but Manning took to long to make it, and then ended up throwing it right to the safety. Why did he not hit his receiver as soon as he cleared the first linebacker? Why did he try and lead him so far inside? Did he try and put too much power on the pass, only to see it sail on him? Why are his feet facing a completely different direction than the trajectory the pass left at? This is the type of pass that it just doesn’t look like Manning can make anymore, and the issue for Denver is, he is attempting more and more of them.
Right now, Manning is not making good decisions with the football, and if he doesn’t fix that, the Broncos will need to find ways to win in January despite their Hall of Fame quarterback—not because of him. That is a very strange position to be in.