It’s almost as if autopsies are being performed on Peyton Manning while he’s still alive. We see a stream of video with ex-jocks pointing out how he can’t throw to his right anymore. Can’t heave the ball 50 yards downfield. Has to swing his back foot around when he completes the throw, much like a baseball pitcher’s follow-through.
It’s true that if you were watching a Hollywood movie — Semi-Tough 4 or whatever — and an actor had the same exaggerated throwing motion as Peyton Manning, you probably would laugh at such an unconvincing impersonation of a quarterback.
For the first six weeks of the Denver Broncos’ season, Manning was one of the statistically worst passers in the NFL, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, seemingly as likely to toss a pick six as Josh McCown or Brian Hoyer.
But give Manning a bye week, and he rejuvenates himself, makes mechanical adjustments. He corrects the timing with his receivers.
He finds common ground with his head coach. Which is not easy, given Gary Kubiak’s propensity for bootlegs that could not be less suited to the skill set of Manning, who’s 39 and was not a fast runner even when he was young. He looked ridiculous trotting toward the sidelines in Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers. But he did complete the rollout pass, as he did most of the others.
Thing is, Manning has the one skill Kubiak most cherishes. He may be the best the sport has seen at play-action. So smooth and deceptive are his fake handoffs that the defense freezes for a second, setting up the long pass downfield.
Unfortunately, Denver has not given Manning a running back dangerous enough to discourage the pass rush. So as much as Kubiak wants to create running lanes for Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson, everything depends on Manning’s passing.
He doesn’t have feeling in his fingertips because of a neck injury he suffered four years ago, and he’s not the impeccable throwing machine he once was. But his brain is sharp as ever. No quarterback, not even Tom Brady or Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, will outthink him.
It was perhaps the biggest shock of this football season when Manning passed for 260 more yards than Rodgers, and the Broncos thumped the Packers 29-10.
It wasn’t just Dr. Manning dissecting the Pack, it was a Denver defense that smothers, strangles and mangles. The Broncos, 7-0 despite Manning’s earlier stumbles, limited Rodgers to 77 yards from his 22 passes.
Then, as Tuesday’s trade deadline approached, Broncos president John Elway, twice a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, brought in a new weapon for Manning that’s likely to be a game changer.
Vernon Davis is a tight end who’s faster, even at 31, than most wide receivers. He’s already had a 43-yard reception this season, from one of the league’s more erratic throwers, the since-demoted Colin Kaepernick.
Elway had to give the rebuilding San Francisco 49ers nothing more than a couple of conditional sixth-round draft picks to land Davis, who in 2013 caught 52 passes and scored on 13 of them. Elway was stating the obvious when he said: “To be able to add him to our roster was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”
With all the scrutinizing of Manning, it’s been thoroughly reported that his offensive line is assembled from a scrap heap and waiver wires. But generally overlooked is that Manning had only two receivers who could seriously threaten a defense.
Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are superb, but Manning is that rare quarterback who can easily track three or four receivers at a time.
He was at his best, heading to the Super Bowl two seasons back with a fast tight end, Julius Thomas, who provided a middle threat to go with his talented wide receivers.
Count on Manning to fully assimilate Davis into his offense by the time the New England Patriots play in Denver on Nov. 29.
The Patriots remain the dominant story in the NFL, being that they’re the Super Bowl champions, have an ongoing feud with the commissioner, have Darth Vader as their head coach and Tommy Touchdown as their quarterback.
They remain on track for what many expect to be a 16-0 run like they had in 2007. They successfully defended their fort last week against the attackers from South Florida. The Miami Dolphins couldn’t run the ball or catch it. And to make a 36-7 blowout even worse, adding injury to insult, they lost their best pass rusher, Cameron Wake, to a ruptured Achilles.
So scratch Miami from the list of Super Bowl contenders.
With Green Bay slipping to 6-1, four NFL teams remain undefeated: New England, Denver, Cincinnati and Carolina — the Panthers just barely so, after winning in overtime against squabbling, dysfunctional Indianapolis. The Colts, to add insult to injury, are being investigated for not disclosing a rib injury to quarterback Andrew Luck, who’s playing hurt or at least playing like he’s hurt.
The Panthers have a relentless defense and a quarterback, Cam Newton, who’s one of the fastest. most powerful runners in the league. And no team more than Carolina shows the value of a tight end when Newton throws to Greg Olsen barreling toward the end zone.
As for the Cincinnati Bengals, they’re known as teasers, usually playing well in the regular season but always failing early in the playoffs. Their most daunting regular-season challenge will come December 28, a Monday night in Denver.
One of the popular theories about the Regressing Manning is that he loses arm strength as the season wears on. We’ll see. Manning keeps surprising us. We can hardly be shocked any more by what he accomplishes on the football field.