By the end of last season Peyton Manning was hobbled, much more than he admitted, by a thigh injury. His footwork slowed, and he couldn’t launch passes with any sort of power. He was throwing ducks by the flock. He said he wasn’t sure he’d be back for an 18th season.
But now, with NFL training camps opening, he claims to be fully healed at 39, and “stimulated” by the ground-control zone-block system of the Denver Broncos’ new head coach, Gary Kubiak.
A former backup quarterback to John Elway in Denver, Kubiak, 53, learned the zone-block scheme from Mike Shanahan and can replicate it perfectly. It’s effective and economical, thanks to the availability of quick-moving linemen shunned by other teams for not being hefty enough for the conventional NFL offense.
As head coach of the Houston Texans from 2006 to 2013, Kubiak fashioned a respectable running game with forgettable Ron Dayne and others I can’t remember at all. When he had a good runner, like Arian Foster, no team ran the ball better than his.
Last season, he was offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, who ranked 8th among the 32 in rushing, with the often discarded Justin Forsett as lead back.
So there’s not much question the Broncos will run the ball better this season, even though their only lineman another team might covet is right guard Louis Vasquez.
One of the front-liners Kubiak has installed is Gino Gradkowski, who in 2013 was widely hailed as the worst starting center in the league. Apparently he gained Kubiak’s confidence last season, but he still couldn’t beat out the very average Jeremy Zuttah.
Manning thought he could count on the venerable Ryan Clady to guard his blind side this season. But the Broncos lost their left tackle in OTAs. So now the starter, though hardly chiseled in stone, is a rookie, second-round draft pick Ty Sambrailo. He was to be Clady’s replacement, in two or three years. Now he’s on the fast track.
Mark Schlereth, former Broncos lineman who remains well connected to the team, said on ESPN’s Mike & Mike Show that the hand-wringing over Clady is unwarranted. He pointed out that Clady’s performance last season declined — along with the line in general. But that wasn’t terribly significant because Manning, five-time MVP, releases the ball so quickly he doesn’t require lengthy protection.
Schlereth’s concern is not the security Manning gets but the freedom he has to direct the offense: “Peyton is a type-A personality. He wants complete control.”
Which could be a problem with Kubiak. Having seen most of the games he coached in Houston, I can tell you he’s very hands-on with his offense. When Matt Schaub was asked if he could audible out of plays, he said, “I run the plays that are called.”
Of course, that’s not how Manning ran things in Indianapolis and, up to now, in Denver. He orchestrated his offense from (mostly) the shotgun after lots of moving around, back and forths and Omahas.
Recall midseason last year when Manning even tried to control the scoreboard operator, whom he reprimanded for encouraging crowd noise while he was in play-calling mode.
It was only when his health wavered and passes constantly wobbled in the last third of last season that he consented to push the running game with C.J. Anderson.
Unlike his more flexible predecessor, John Fox, Kubiak is adamantly run-first. He says the sort of light, mobile line he wants is better at run-blocking than pass protection. The fact that his quarterbacks are not often sacked is due to the success of the running game.
The concept here is play-action, which no one executes as well as Manning. He should see more 3rd-and-2 than 3rd-and-6, giving him favorable matchups downfield. No receiving duo is more feared than Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
But what if the running game bogs down? Then Manning will be under assault behind a line that’s ill suited to stand back on its heels. This is not a come-from-behind offense.
Kubiak is a brilliant play designer, but there’s no getting around his head-coaching record: 61-64. Not a nicer guy in the NFL, but sadly, some Broncos, just like some Texans did, will take advantage of his fine character.
Kubiak says play-calling is “what I like most about coaching.” But from what I saw, he’s not that good at it. He’s more interested in running an unexpected play he’s invented rather than a common one that has more probability of success.
His bootlegs, while lovely to watch unfold, were hardly suited to the slow feet of Schaub and Joe Flacco. I can’t wait to see him try these boots on Manning.
Kubiak hopes Manning emulates Elway, winning two Super Bowls in his final two seasons quarterbacking the Broncos. And now presiding over them. All because Elway, like Manning destined to be Cantonized, happily handed off to Terrell Davis. It’s not far-fetched to think Kubiak’s plan could work, the Broncs running well to set up the pass and keep pressure off a quarterback who finally looks fragile.
But then there’s the matter of defense. Kubiak reunites with Wade Phillips, who was his defensive coordinator, for better and finally for much worse, in Houston.
Phillips excels at motivating individuals and positioning them to maximize their skills. What he doesn’t do is draw up tricky schemes that fool the opposing quarterback. The Texans’ defense improved hugely last season when he departed and was succeeded by the more imaginative Romeo Crennel.
Phillips does well as long as he doesn’t have to cover up personnel weaknesses with stunts, blitzes and fakery. But there are some weak links in this year’s Bronco defense.
Starting linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall are talented but may not be fully recovered from major surgeries. Right end Derek Wolfe is suspended the first four games for a drug violation. His forceful run-stoppage will be missed.
The free safety, Darian Stewart, is no upgrade from the departed mediocrity, Rahim Moore. Stewart could not beat out the totally lost Raven, Matt Elam, so you have to doubt he’s the answer in Denver. Vulnerability to the deep ball has been a trademark of the Broncos’ defense for several years.
As I see it, the Broncs face a close fight in the AFC West with the equally flawed (no O-line either) Kansas City Chiefs. Manning knows this could be the last chance for his second Super Bowl championship. Which, if he attains it, would put him back in the discussion, with Tom Brady and Joe Montana, as Best-Ever Quarterback. Not just Best-Ever Regular Season Quarterback.
From here, it looks like a reach for the Broncos to make the Super Bowl and provide Manning, one of the true gentlemen of sport, the career capstone he wants. It has no chance at all of happening unless he and Kubiak both give up some of their cherished control.