During an extremely eventful NFL offseason that featured multiple Bounty Gate suspensions and abundant issues with franchise tagging, one story that consistently floated atop NFL headlines was the decision of Peyton Manning to play for the Denver Broncos after he was released by the Indianapolis Colts.
After 13 remarkable seasons with the Colts, during which Manning solidified himself as a future hall of famer, he was forced to sit out for the entire 2011 season due to neck injuries. Prior to that season, Manning had started at quarterback for the Colts in each of their last 227 regular season and postseason games; every game since he was drafted by Indianapolis in 1998.
Despite Manning’s extensive list of credentials, including breaking all of the franchise quarterback records, 4 NFL MVP awards, 11 Pro Bowl selections, and of course the first and only Super Bowl Championship for the franchise since moving to Indianapolis in 1984, Manning’s troublesome neck injury was enough to convince Colts’ management that it was time to move on. The 36-year-old lifelong Colt officially parted ways with his former team during a tearful press conference, not long after the Colts had confirmed that they would be using their #1 overall draft pick in 2012 on highly-coveted Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
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With the start of the NFL preseason less than two weeks away, many quarterbacks are under some serious pressure to perform. Manning will be out to prove that the Broncos made the right decision by entrusting their team within the hands of the aging star, whereas Luck will be taking the field for the Colts and trying to prove that he is an adequate replacement for one of the best quarterbacks the NFL and Colts’ franchise have ever seen. Furthermore after the Broncos traded away fan favorite Tim Tebow to the New York Jets, quarterback Mark Sanchez inherits a great deal of pressure in New York as the fans and the media will constantly be making their case for why Tebow deserves more time on the field.
Meanwhile Manning is getting old and is past his prime, and will call an outdoor stadium his home field for the first time. Throughout his career, Manning has been significantly better in indoor stadiums with a passer rating of 99.8 as opposed to his outdoor passer rating of 84.9.
In the early stages of training camp he appears to be throwing the ball just fine, however we are still yet to see how his surgically-repaired neck will respond to getting hit. For the first time in his career Manning is surrounded by uncertainty, and his abilities on the football field will be constantly under the microscope. But he is still Peyton Manning, and because of that I expect him to respond to the challenge.
The last game Manning started was Indianapolis’s first round loss to the Jets in the 2010-2011 playoffs. Most football fans are quick to point to this loss when describing Manning’s decline, but they fail to remember that Manning threw for 4700 yards during the 2010-2011 regular season. While the Colts had essentially no running game that season, which resulted in a high volume of throws, Manning still managed a respectable 66.3% for completions while logging 33 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. However those interception numbers should decrease this season since Denver has a notoriously powerful running game, and Manning will not be constantly pressured to accurately make pinpoint passes in frequent situations when all eleven defensive players are expecting the pass.
Furthermore, there is one and only one thing that Tebow and Manning have in common, and that is their ability to turn virtually unknown receivers into household names. Manning did it for 13 years in Indianapolis, while this past season Tebow was occasionally able to make wide receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker look like legitimate stars.
The two quarterbacks obviously have extremely different methods of making that happen, but every receiver loves a true quarterback, so Thomas and Decker will be in for a treat once they get to experience Manning’s intelligence and accuracy firsthand. Tebow often made the game-winning play in Denver, but also would miss countless wide-open receivers down the middle of the field in earlier stages of games. No matter how old he may be, Manning will not fail to notice his open receivers.
While Tebow often scrambled around the backfield until one of his speedy receivers escaped coverage, Manning is known for his pocket presence and ability to stretch out the defense with accurate passes both up the middle and to those streaking down the sidelines.
This more conventional style of offense bodes well for the various tight ends which the Broncos have accumulated over the past two seasons, including Manning’s former teammate Jacob Tamme. Manning and Tamme connected for 67 catches, 631 yards, and 4 touchdowns during the 2010 season when tight end Dallas Clark was out with injury. The Broncos also recently acquired Joel Dreessen from the Houston Texans, who is coming off a season in which he scored a career-high six touchdowns. As of now, Manning’s weapons are not nearly as well-known as guys like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, but one can’t help but wonder if they will become household names with Manning throwing to them.
Mike McCoy, Denver’s offensive coordinator, must be thrilled at having a quarterback with as much experience, leadership, and intelligence as Manning. McCoy can scrap the college style option offense that he had built to accommodate Tebow, and instead revert back to a traditional passing attack led by one of the best quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen. It will not be long before Manning is comfortable enough with the playbook to exert his own play-calling and audibles at the line of scrimmage as he has done throughout his career. Meanwhile Denver’s powerful running game will alleviate much of the third-down pressure on Manning, and he will not be forced to consistently throw into intense pass coverage like he was expected to for the Colts.
Look for the Broncos to once again emerge atop the AFC West, although in completely different fashion from the unconventional Tebow-mania storm of last season. Since Peyton’s little brother just won his second Super Bowl, Eli Manning has finally earned the respect of many of his doubters, and now that he has two rings many analysts now consider Eli the better Manning. But with a new home, a new offense, and new weapons, the older Manning is back and ready to prove to the Colts and to the NFL that dedication and hard work can sometimes outshine the Luck of the draw.