John Elway, the Denver Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations, knows a thing or two about being a quarterback and the car business. Elway was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a quarterback in 2004 and owns or has owned several car dealerships throughout Colorado and California.
Peyton Manning, like a classic car, was up for auction in the offseason. Where others saw an old car with a dented bumper and rust, Elway saw a one-of-a-kind classic with an engine that could make a grown man sing.
Manning just needed a little work, like any old car. It was work the Broncos were more than willing to put in because their previous quarterback was a lemon and the one before that was a jalopy.
With four games under his belt, the dents in Manning’s bumper have been pounded out and the rust has been knocked off. Manning has returned to the All-Pro level and Elway is the proud owner of an elite quarterback with an unparalleled football mind.
It took a while for Manning to adjust to his new garage in Denver, but he brought with him all the tools he needed to be successful. Manning’s pocket presence, awareness, vision, anticipation and understanding of the game all came with him. The wrench in Manning’s neck has become a non-issue as the Broncos have learned how to drive their new toy.
Pocket Presence and Awareness
The quarterback has “eyes in the back of his head” is a common cliché for a quarterback with good pocket awareness. Manning’s ability would fit that description.
Each quarterback must have an internal clock of about three seconds from the snap before he knows he has to get rid of the ball.
If the pressure arrives before three seconds elapses, the quarterback is not to blame. If the pressure arrives after three seconds, the quarterback is holding the ball too long and/or the coverage is good. There are also quarterbacks that imagine pressure prior to three seconds from the snap and that’s not good trait either.
Manning feels real pressure prior to three seconds having elapsed from his blind side. He’s that good.
Take this play as an example of Manning’s pocket awareness. Clock 0.0 seconds.
By the time 2.3 second has elapsed, Manning has already taken a step out of the pocket. The pocket looks relatively solid, but two or three defenders are about to disengage with their blockers and put the heat on Manning. Manning can’t see this pressure coming from his blind side, so something else is telling him the pressure is coming.
Manning rolls out to his right, which is something he didn’t do a lot of in Indianapolis, and he keeps his eyes down the field waiting for one of his receivers to work back toward to him or find a hole in the coverage. Manning found Demaryius Thomas on this throw for a gain of 23 yards.
Manning understands the blocking assignments and the players on the field and that allows him to sense the pressure prior to it impacting his ability to complete a throw. This type of pocket awareness enables Manning to help his offensive line and complete passes many quarterbacks struggle to complete.
Although never a real mobile quarterback, Manning’s legs are still capable of moving him around in the pocket or getting him out of the pocket to buy that extra half second to get the ball to an open receiver.
Vision and Understanding
Few quarterbacks are as good about seeing the field and understanding the coverage as Manning. With knowledge of the coverage, Manning gets the Broncos into the right plays and route combinations to take advantage of the defense.
On Eric Decker’s first touchdown of the season, Manning had the right play and his field vision enabled him to get Decker the ball with the maximum potential for yards after catch.
Manning is in the shotgun with three receivers to his left and a blitz coming from his right. Two of the receivers run outs at different levels of the defense 10 yards apart. The other receiver blocks the cornerback that is pressing him at the line of scrimmage and the inside receiver, Decker, runs underneath his block to create natural separation.
Manning rolled to his left and Decker is open. Michael Huff had the coverage on Decker but got stuck behind his own guy, who was blocked into him. Manning’s vision allows him to see this happen and he knows Decker is going to be open, for even more than a few yards if he waits to deliver the ball.
Decker gets an accurate pass from Manning and has room to run down the sideline. Huff didn’t recover and get around the block and only one defender really had a chance to make the tackle.
A great downfield block by Thomas sprung Decker the final seven yards for the touchdown. This play was made possible because Manning had the Broncos in the right play for the coverage, understood where he wanted to go with the ball and used his vision to make the read on the run.
Manning understands the coverage and his vision enables him to turn plays designed to get five yards to get much more.
Anticipation and Ability
Manning sees the future. A receiver could appear totally covered and yet Manning will anticipate him being open and throw to that spot. The important compliment to his anticipation is his ability to put the ball where he wants to put it.
Manning’s deep accuracy and arm strength were the final traits to return, but now that they have he’s completely returned an All-Pro level. The arm might not be what is used to be, but combined with good accuracy, his arm is strong enough to make he throws he needs to make.
Perhaps the most revealing throw was Manning’s first-quarter connection with tight end Joel Dreessen for a touchdown. The play demonstrated all of Manning’s abilities, but most importantly it demonstrated his anticipation, arm strength and accuracy. Manning is still a very gifted thrower.
Manning is going to have four receivers, but he sees a giant gap between the two deep safeties and the body position of the nickel cornerback is telling him that he isn’t playing man coverage. That means one deep safety will have to pick up his slot receiver running a deep post and should further open up the middle of the field.
Linebacker Philip Wheeler has good coverage on Dreessen and the two safeties stayed wide to protect the deep pass to the wide receivers.
Wheeler still had good coverage, but Manning anticipated that Dreessen would have enough separation to catch the ball in the end zone. If Manning doesn’t anticipate Dreessen getting open, the safeties have time to converge and either make a play on the ball or deliver a big hit on Dreessen. Manning has a very small window between the two defenders.
Manning’s throw was perfectly placed between three defenders and Dreessen mad a good leaping catch for Denver’s first touchdown in the first quarter this season. The throw wobbled in the air, but was still on-time and accurate.
With improved deep accuracy and velocity from Manning, he has returned to an All-Pro level. The Broncos now must be considered serious contenders in the AFC and a Week 5 game against the New England Patriots should be the marquee game of the week.