2012 NFL Free Agency: Projecting the Denver Broncos with Peyton Manning

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2012 NFL Free Agency: Projecting the Denver Broncos with Peyton Manning
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On March 7th, a teary-eyed Peyton Manning announced that he and the Indianapolis Colts, the only NFL team he had ever played for, would be parting ways. A mere 13 days later, Manning took to the podium again to announce he had joined the Denver Broncos.

Just as he's been on the field since joining the Colts in 1998, Manning was an efficient and calculated decision-maker in his pursuit of a new home. NFL fans that experienced one too many Brett Favre off-seasons will be forever in his debt for the brevity of the resolution.

However, the move is not without speculation. Manning to the Broncos merges a player and a team with very contrasting styles. In Manning's 13 years behind center in Indianapolis, he never ranked worse than seventh among quarterbacks in total yards passing, finishing in the top three an amazing 10 times. Denver on the other hand finished 31st in passing yards for the 2011 season. The Broncos led the league in rushing yards last year, whereas Manning's Colts have only finished better than 15th in rushing yards on one occasion (seventh in 2001).

It would seem that the hiring of head coach John Fox prior to the 2011 season was an effort by Denver management to return the Broncos to their glory days under Mike Shanahan. Much like Shanahan, whose Broncos teams recorded top-10 finishes in rushing yards 11 times during his 14-year tenure, Fox is known for a run-oriented offense.

In 10 years as a head coach, nine with the Carolina Panthers and one with the Broncos, Fox's teams have been among the NFL's 10-best rushing attacks on five occasions. During that same stretch, his teams have managed only one top-10 finish in passing yards.

To be fair, Fox has never enjoyed a quarterback with the ability that Manning possesses. Though Jake Delhomme was more than serviceable, a coach can only do so much with Rodney Peete, Vinny Testaverde (at age 43), Jimmy Clausen, Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. Perhaps Fox will be more inclined to air it out with Manning at the helm.

The NFL doesn't kick off until September, but it's never too early to hypothesize how much the Broncos will improve under Manning. Using our Dream Team tool, we attempted to create the new-look Broncos of 2012.

Beginning with the Broncos' 2011 roster, we first added Manning from his 2010 campaign and removed Tebow from the team. Since Denver likely isn't done shopping, we also added restricted free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace, using his last season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Finally, we teamed up Manning with his favorite tight end, free agent Dallas Clark. We selected Clark's 2009 season since he played with inadequate quarterbacks in 2011 and was injured in 2010.

Our NFL simulation engine played 2,001 matchups featuring the new-look Broncos against Tebow's 2011 squad. The results bode well for the coming season:

 

New-Look Broncos vs. 2011 Broncos
Matchup Win% Avg Score
Peyton Manning's Broncos 77.1 30.0
vs 2011 Denver Broncos 22.9 20.6

 

What if Manning, Wallace and Clark had suited up for Denver during the 2011 season?

We again turned to our NFL simulation engine to determine how a Manning-led Broncos team would have fared last season. Each game on Denver's 2011 schedule was "played" 101 times, and matchups in which the Broncos won more than 50 percent of the time are in bold.

 

New-Look Broncos Play 2011 Schedule
Week Opponent Broncos Win% Avg PPG Avg PPA
1 vs 2011 Oakland Raiders 77.1 30.0 20.6
2 vs 2011 Cincinnati Bengals 57.4 28.2 25.9
3 @ 2011 Tennessee Titans 49.5 31.2 32.2
4 @ 2011 Green Bay Packers 33.7 31.4 36.0
5 vs 2011 San Diego Chargers 52.5 34.1 33.5
7 @ 2011 Miami Dolphins 56.4 28.7 26.7
8 vs 2011 Detroit Lions 38.6 31.6 34.8
9 @ 2011 Oakland Raiders 47.5 31.6 32.6
10 @ 2011 Kansas City Chiefs 54.5 28.9 26.7
11 vs 2011 New York Jets 62.4 27.8 23.6
12 @ 2011 San Diego Chargers 47.5 33.0 34.2
13 @ 2011 Minnesota Vikings 75.2 32.5 24.8
14 vs 2011 Chicago Bears 46.5 28.4 29.2
15 vs 2011 New England Patriots 38.6 31.3 34.9
16 @ 2011 Buffalo Bills 64.4 35.1 28.3
17 vs 2011 Kansas City Chiefs 74.3 32.3 24.4

 

Manning's Broncos are favored in nine of their 16 games, suggesting his team would record only one more win than the 2011 Broncos managed. The results may seem surprising until you consider the nature of Denver's eight victories this past season. 

The team was 3-0 in overtime games and an additional four wins were decided by seven points or less. The Broncos could have just as easily (and perhaps should have) finished with a record closer to 5-11.

Credit luck, Tebowmania or a healthy dose of both to the 8-8 record. Thus, a nine-win season under Manning may be a more dramatic improvement than it appears.

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