Peyton Manning can throw a football.
A year ago, that was news.
Since then, Manning led the Denver Broncos to a 13-3 record and the AFC's No. 1 seed, was named to his 12th Pro Bowl, earned first-team All-Pro honors for the sixth time and was christened AP Comeback Player of the Year.
Now, as the Broncos enter the season with Bovada's second-best odds to win the Super Bowl, there's no doubt Manning's fully healthy. If, as receiver Eric Decker told Andrew Mason of the Broncos official site, Manning's "come back stronger," he's primed to have an even better season.
If Manning truly improves on 2012, 2013 will be the best season he's ever had.
Manning, by raw numbers, had one of his most effective seasons in 2012.
Manning's Football Outsiders DYAR was exactly 1,800. That's the fifth-best Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement of Manning's career. Put another way, Manning produced more for the Broncos in 2012 than all but four of his seasons in Indianapolis, after accounting for the defenses he played against.
Here's how Manning's Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, sack percentage (lower is better), interception percentage (lower is better) and touchdown percentage stack up across each of his five most valuable DYAR seasons:
Even with totally different coaches, an initially different offensive scheme and totally different receiver corps, Peyton was Peyton in 2012—as much as he ever has been.
Manning's 68.6 percent completion rate led the NFL, and was just short of his 2009 peak, 68.8 percent. Manning's 105.8 NFL passer efficiency rating—which gives completions heavy weight—was the second-highest of his career, and second-highest in the NFL.
Manning led the NFL in ESPN Total QBR in 2012 at 84.1. Since this metric judges a quarterback's complete contribution to his team's winning—including rushing, which Manning rarely does—that's extremely impressive.
When it comes to totals, Manning's 2012 season adds up just as highly. Manning threw for 4,659 yards in 2012, just 41 short of his personal best. Despite this production, Manning's 1.9 percent interception rate was seventh-best in the NFL and third-best of his career.
And despite protecting the ball so well, Manning threw 37 touchdowns, his second-highest total ever. In fact, Manning threw 6.3 percent of his passes for touchdowns, second only to his crazy outlier year of 2004.
In 2004, 9.9 percent of Manning's passes hit paydirt—the best full-season touchdown rate of all time, per Pro Football Reference. It's no wonder Manning threw 49 touchdowns that season—and it's no wonder he hasn't approached that number since!
The one shortcoming of Peyton's game in 2012? That pesky issue of arm strength.
Manning's yards-per-completion rate was just 11.6, eighth-best of his 15-year career and 15th-best in the NFL. This was practically the only stat of Manning's 2012 season I could find that didn't end up in the top half of his career.
The Early Tape
In the beginning of the season, Manning's rust and weakened arm were apparent. Here's a montage of every preseason snap Manning threw:
Though each game got better, there were an un-Manning-like number of high, behind and late passes. Sometimes the receivers adjusted and came down with the catch; sometimes they didn't and the pass went incomplete.
Once, something worse happened.
At the 1:03 mark, the Broncos are facing 3rd-and-8 at the Chicago Bears' 12-yard line:
Slot receiver Brandon Stokley has a simple five-yard in route, which he runs well. When Stokley makes his cut, he gets separation from nickel corner D.J. Moore. Linebacker Nick Roach has been cleared out by the tight end's go route, and the middle of the field is wide open. Manning reads the play immediately and throws:
From that angle, it looks like Manning didn't have a ton of room to lead Stokley. Let's see it from the end-zone camera:
As you can see, Manning had a very wide window in which he could have dropped that ball, where only Stokley—and not Moore or weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs—could have gotten to the ball. Instead, Manning puts it high and a little behind, causing Stokley to jump and square his shoulders:
This gives Moore just enough time to get his hand in there, and (it seems) alter the flight of the ball. Either way, the ball flutters behind Stokley and into the arms of deep safety Major Wright:
These are the kinds of throws Manning typically makes in his sleep, and it was troubling to see him miss on one so badly in the early going.
The New Offense, Same as the Old Offense
Early in the season, then-Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy tried to incorporate some of the concepts Manning used in Indianapolis to the Broncos' existing playbook.
Spicing up the old Tom Moore concepts with multiple sets and pre-snap options, the thinking seemed to be, would maximize Manning's effectiveness while still keeping the Broncos' core offense intact.
Results were mixed. After a three-interception performance against the Falcons, the Broncos began to use more and more of Manning's stripped-down concepts.
As Grantland's Chris Brown thoroughly explained, the Broncos began pivoting the offense around tight end Jacob Tamme. A shootout loss to the Texans in Week 3 and blowout win over the Raiders in Week 4 confirmed that imitating the Manning/Moore offense was the key to success.
McCoy is now head coach of the San Diego Chargers, but going forward it should be clear that Manning's offense is the Broncos' offense.
A handful of formations and a limited set of route concepts make the offense predictable—but it also makes the defense's response predictable. As Brown explained, Manning's pre-snap reads can be quick and decisive, which allows the Broncos to use a hurry-up tempo to keep the defense physically drained in pressure situations.
By all accounts, Manning's taken care of his physical limitations.
In the divisional round of the playoffs, Manning showed off his recovered zip and accuracy on this gorgeous touchdown pass to none other than Brandon Stokley:
The situation is eerily similar to that preseason play: a red-zone 3rd-and-8, this time from the opponent's 20:
At the top of the screen, Stokley is lined up behind receiver Eric Decker. At the snap, Decker runs what looks like a go route: an initial break for the sideline, run straight for the end zone. Stokley runs a half-hearted five-yard curl then waits for Stokley's route to develop.
This is an interesting concept; it's predicated on Manning having the time to make the Stokley's delayed route work.
Once Stokley gets past the sticks he cuts inside, taking the cornerback Chykie Brown, in man coverage, and safety Bernard Pollard, the deep zone safety, with him:
Decker immediately breaks out and up, gunning for the sideline (and the end zone). As soon as he makes his break, Manning fires. The pass has zip, arc, touch and is dropped right in Stokley's breadbasket:
Peyton not only had the arm to make that pass, he had the confidence to know he could make that pass. Going into 2013, this is Manning's starting point.
The Supporting Cast
The most important news of the 2013 offseason for Peyton Manning is that his blindside protector, standout left tackle Ryan Clady, will be back after receiving the franchise tag.
Manning also got a new backfield partner in second-round draft pick Montee Ball; the Broncos are so confident he'll be an upgrade over rehabbing incumbent Willis McGahee that they actually released McGahee, per ESPN.
Oh, and they also let Brandon Stokley walk in favor of some free agent they added. Perhaps you've heard of former New England Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker?
Welker's speed, quickness and route-running make him a perfect fit for Manning's offense; his relentless attitude and high-tempo approach should be infectious.
With Welker taking over Stokley's inside-outside role and Decker, Tamme and Demaryius Thomas still growing in their craft, the Broncos receiver corps should be significantly better this season.
With a stronger arm, full control of the playbook and a dramatically improved supporting cast, there's no reason why 2013 couldn't be Manning's best year yet.