Let's face it: Watching Peyton Manning on any given play these days won't exactly wow you. He's one of the least athletic quarterbacks in the league, and he can't zing the ball into tight windows or throw towering deep balls.
Manning came into the season with the reputation of an all-time great, but if you didn't have that context, you wouldn't put him in the top five quarterbacks in the league.
Manning's truly exceptional qualities don't jump off of the screen, but that just makes him even more singular among NFL quarterbacks. How does he do it?
Adjustments at the Line
No quarterback does more to defeat a defense before the ball is snapped than Peyton Manning.
He identifies blitzes and changes protection schemes. He audibles to specific run or pass plays depending on the defensive front and personnel. Manning will move his teammates with a hand gesture as if they are under hypnosis.
Simply put, Manning is an offensive coordinator and quarterback in one. That instills confidence in his teammates to buy into the scheme and trust his judgment completely.
A byproduct of this rare quality is that Manning can induce a defense into losing its edge by acting like he is making an adjustment or otherwise extending the pre-snap sequence when a defense is anxious to strike but careful to not tip its hand.
Manning's arm isn't what it used to be. Not that his game was predicated on being able to throw the ball through a brick wall, but he certainly could get the ball to a spot downfield in a hurry.
Manning can still put the ball exactly where he wants to now, but it takes longer to get there. That's not a problem because his ability to anticipate exactly where to place a ball to throw to an open teammate is uncanny.
Movement Within the Pocket
Manning has a reputation for having "happy feet," and he certainly has had trouble with 3-4 defenses that have good edge-rushers in the past.
Still, I can't help but think that what some mistake for "happy feet" is really just Manning's use of short, quick steps to move in the pocket and constantly create throwing lanes as the shape of the pocket changes around him.
He is not known as a mobile quarterback, and Manning is obviously not a threat to scramble, but his feet still buy him a lot of time.
Sense of Calm
Few quarterbacks radiate a sense of "been there, done that" like Peyton Manning. For the longest time during his tenure with the Colts, it seemed like Bill Belichick was always going to have his number.
After Asante Samuel pick-sixed him to put the Pats up 21-3 in the second quarter of the 2007 AFC Championship Game, it looked like the latest chapter in a sad story for Manning. Instead, he came back to tie the game three times before finally leading the team to the win and an eventual Super Bowl championship.
A track record with wins like that one begets more seemingly impossible comebacks. Earlier this year, the Broncos went to the locker room down 24-0 to the San Diego Chargers on the road. This is what ensued:
Trust in His Players
Peyton Manning has never relied on just one or two of his receivers to make his offense go. This is the quarterback who had three 1,000-yard receivers in his record-setting season of 2004. No matter who he lost in Indianapolis, the offense never missed a beat.
Entering this year, his first season with the Broncos, there was a question of whether he could succeed without any of the receivers that he had established such an incredible rapport with during his years with the Colts.
He had to meld with Eric Decker, who doesn't create consistent separation, and Demaryius Thomas, who is far from a polished route-runner.
Both have had their share of issues this year. Thomas has had numerous drops and fumbles, and Decker had trouble getting open downfield in the first two games of the season. Not only has Manning found ways to unlock Decker and Thomas' talents, he has gotten veterans like Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme involved, too.
In fact, Manning's favorite receiver has never been any particular player on any of his teams. It is whomever is open.
With his superior field vision, patient processing of progressions, quick setup, release and rare accuracy, Manning puts the whole field in play at all times. He keeps all of his receivers involved.
Like a pitcher who keeps his defense on its toes by working fast and throwing strikes, Manning encourages better focus and execution in his teammates by rewarding them with a target when they do their job.
And maybe that is why Manning's greatness is not so easily apparent. It is as present in what he inspires from his teammates as it is in himself.
In his first half of a season in Denver, Manning has taken a team that backed in the playoffs and got blown out by his old nemesis and turned it into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
What will he do for an encore?
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