With the Denver Broncos at 2-2 and Manning set to write another chapter in his rivalry with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots this weekend, just how well has the transition gone through the first quarter of the season?
The team results have been mixed so far, but one thing is clear: Peyton Manning still has it at 36 years old and after missing an entire season due to four neck procedures. It is just a matter of the team getting consistently better as the season progresses.
Same Old Peyton?
Two months ago, I wrote about Manning’s balancing act to what was the most run-heavy offense in the league last year. I ultimately predicted the passing game would be efficient, but not one of the high-volume, elite passing offenses in the league.
Maybe I can already admit I was wrong, as Manning is again on pace for some pretty big numbers through four games. Demaryius Thomas (81.3 yards per game) and Eric Decker (80.5 yards per game) are also on pace for huge seasons.
If you look at every season of Manning’s career and what he did in the first four games, then 2012 fits right in with his usual high level of play.
Why the instant success? The Broncos have allowed Manning to rebuild the offense to look like the Indianapolis Colts. In fact, the similarities are downright eerie at times, and this goes beyond playing with former teammates like Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme and Lance Ball.
It was evident from the very first game of the season against Pittsburgh that Manning’s mind was still sharp as ever, and he ran some of the same plays he has been beating defenses with for years.
Both touchdown passes against the Steelers were classic examples. The first was a bubble screen to Demaryius Thomas. Manning has used this play often this season, but this first one was the most successful.
It is the same play as when he audibled to this screen in a 2009 Week 2 game at Miami on Monday Night Football. The only difference in Denver is he ran it to the left side of the field and used a quick play-fake.
The 2009 play was basically Pierre Garcon’s breakout moment, as he scored a game-winning touchdown. Manning has gone to the bubble screen many times since then, but it was never as successful until opening night, when Thomas went 71 yards for the score.
The plays look like mirror images of one another.
While one receiver goes out to block, the other (circled in red) comes back for the ball and two linemen go down field for additional blocking. The Colts actually did not block the play well, but Garcon still ran through the Miami defense for the score. The Broncos blocked better, and Thomas similarly went the distance versus Pittsburgh.
In the fourth quarter, Manning picked up his record-tying 36th comeback with a go-ahead touchdown on another play he has grown fond of in the red zone in recent years. This time we are looking at the same play run on Week 2 in 2010 against the New York Giants, which was also on Sunday Night Football.
The formation was identical, with the one difference being the positioning of the running back more ahead of Manning in Denver than he was in Indianapolis.
This play is basically the old Bill Walsh “sprint right option,” except Manning rolls out to his left and they are going to get a legal pick with one receiver while the other comes free along the goal line for the score. Same play, same success.
Reggie Wayne (top) and Thomas (bottom) clear it out and it becomes an easy catch and score for Austin Collie (top) and then Tamme (bottom).
When Manning figures out the defense, he knows which plays will work best, and his freedom to audible at any time to these bread-and-butter plays gives him a quick learning curve, even if he is on a new team.
Wins and Losses
So far, Denver’s season has been pretty cut and dry. When they have won in games against Pittsburgh (Week 1) and Oakland (Week 4), Manning has been as deadly efficient as ever, and the no-huddle offense worked very well. No one questions his abilities after these performances.
Against the 4-0 Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, the offense struggled and fell behind by 20 points in the fourth quarter before making a rally that ultimately fell short in the end. Manning’s arm strength was questioned heavily after both losses.
Focusing first on the wins, it is almost ridiculous how good the offense has been in these two games. Against Dick LeBeau’s defense, Manning would only have seven possessions on the night. He still produced 25 points.
Denver only stalled in the first quarter because of sacks on Manning and a fumble by Willis McGahee. Once they went to the no-huddle in the second quarter, Pittsburgh could not stop them.
Against Oakland, the offense finally clicked early with an opening-drive touchdown. The Broncos would have nine possessions, and they scored four touchdowns and three field goals. Oakland never stopped them. Denver just stopped themselves twice with a dumb decision on a fake field goal and a Thomas fumble on a 40-yard gain without contact.
The losses were a different story. In Atlanta, Manning threw an interception on each of Denver’s first three drives, and they are the only turnovers he has had all season. They were all to the same area of the field (deep middle-right), which raised questions about how healthy Manning’s arm is. Knowshon Moreno added a fumble for a fourth Denver turnover in the first quarter.
Manning actually played well in the last three quarters of the game, but the early hole made it hard on the team to cap off the 20-point comeback in the fourth quarter. After making it a 27-21 game, Matt Ryan and the Falcons ended the game with a perfect execution of the four-minute offense, denying Manning any chance at a record-setting comeback win.
Though they would trail by 20 against Houston in Week 3, the path could not have been more different from the Atlanta game. This time the Broncos never turned the ball over until the final play of the game, which was a lateral-filled act of desperation. Houston just shredded that Denver defense up and down the field.
Manning played well in the first half, but the third quarter was poorly executed. He nearly threw an interception early in the fourth quarter. Manning did come back with a nice 38-yard touchdown to Stokley, which showed he could still get velocity on the ball.
Manning led another long touchdown drive to make it a 31-25 game late, but the defense again was unable to make the big stop on third down when they needed it. Manning would get the ball back but had to go 86 yards in 0:20 without a timeout.
Denver has basically won the games they were supposed to and lost to superior teams. If you consider how well Atlanta and Houston have been playing in their other games, a pair of six-point losses do not look so bad for Denver.
The offense has shown extended periods of greatness, but they are still very much a work in progress.
While a big concern heading into the season was whether or not Manning can take a hit, the first quarter of the season should have answered that he can. In fact, Manning has been getting hit a bit more often than we are used to seeing.
Even though he was not sacked once against Oakland, Manning has already been sacked eight times in 2012. He was sacked a total of 16 times in 2010.
Manning was sacked multiple times in each of the first three games. That has not happened to him since a four-game streak in 2007. He was sacked three times in the Broncos' back-to-back losses, which had not happened since December 2005.
Manning’s current sack rate of 4.97 percent would be the second worst of his career (5.03 percent in 2001—the last time Manning missed the postseason as a starter).
Never one to be accused of holding onto the ball too long, the sacks have been a result of bad offensive line play. Only three of the sacks were a result of a blitz. The line has been a shaky unit thus far, but as they get used to playing with each other and Manning more, the sacks should go down.
Former New England center Dan Koppen will be starting this week for the injured J.D. Walton. Assuming he is healthy, Koppen might be a better fit for the Manning offense than Walton.
Rush Offense and Play-Action Game
Peyton Manning is known as one of the best ever at using the play-action pass. It is hard to understand why he is so successful when he does the fake so frantically, but defenses have been fooled for years, even in the absence of a running game.
Looking through the first four games, here is how Manning has fared when using the play-action pass. Spikes and kneel-downs are not counted as drop-backs. Manning also had a scramble for seven yards and a first down versus Pittsburgh (not featured in table).
So far, Manning has liked to use play-action the most on those aforementioned bubble screens and down in the red zone. He has been sacked three times, but overall, it has been a successful part of Denver’s offense.
The running game has been used enough to keep defenses honest, and they have had varying degrees of success with it so far. It is still likely the best running game Manning will have had since 2006.
Willis McGahee always plays well against Oakland, and it's no surprise the Broncos had their best game of the season on the ground on Sunday. Houston defended well, because Houston is the best defense Denver has played, and they were behind big and often in that game.
As long as Manning does not abandon the running game, which he has rarely shown he will do in his career unless it is necessary, then they will continue to get solid, unspectacular production on the ground.
Denver has been transformed into a pass-first offense of course, but they are still not going to be as pass-happy as certain teams in the league. Manning will continue taking what defenses give him.
The Real Expectations
To this point, Peyton Manning should have already met realistic expectations of where he’s at in his career. He can still run an offense with the best of them, and we already see how he is making his Denver teammates better.
Some of the incomplete passes to Demaryius Thomas—he is tied with Decker and others for the AFC lead with four drops—may have been catches if it was Reggie Wayne, but this is part of the learning curve for the young receiver.
Keep in mind Thomas has spent much of his career in offenses like Georgia Tech and with Tim Tebow, so this is a big change for him, and his size is a change for what Manning’s used to as well.
Things are far from perfect, as Peyton will remind you each week regardless of the game’s result, but it is progressing.
Criticisms about wobbly passes or concerns over arm strength are a bit overblown. Just watch some 2010 Manning or even games from his younger days and you can see he never had a cannon. But somehow, the passes keep getting there accurately, and that is still true and what’s really important today.
Food for thought: Manning is 4-of-11 (36.4 percent) on passes thrown over 21 yards this season, but everyone wants to focus on the bizarre three interceptions in Atlanta. In 2010, he was 19-of-69 (27.5 percent) on such throws and had six interceptions.
Like any great player, Manning is learning to adapt his game as he gets older and the physical skills deteriorate. As long as the offense has some more games like they have had in their wins and keep up the way they have played in the fourth quarter of their losses, the Broncos and Manning will be just fine.
The biggest hurdle is likely going to be the schedule. Forget the tough game in New England this week; they have to go to San Diego for a critical AFC West showdown in Week 6. Only then will they have a bye and chance to take a breath.
Manning will be expected to win at least one of these big road games coming up, but so far he has been what the Broncos should have expected.
It may have some former Colts and even look like the Colts, but the Denver Broncos are a different team, and it is going to take a team effort—offense and defense feeding off each other—for this to work at an elite level.
But Peyton Manning is still the same quarterback, and that should make any Denver fan happy about the team's chances this season.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.