Early in the fourth quarter against the Patriots, with the Broncos pinned deep in their own territory like a turtle on its shell, I really started to miss him.
Trevor Siemian scrambled from a clean pocket in his own end zone for a minimal gain. Justin Forsett took one of those doomed Gary Kubiak 2nd-and-long handoffs and went nowhere. Third down was the typical Broncos surrender: No one got open, the protection collapsed, Siemian threw an errant pass, and a lineman drew a holding flag to complete the inside straight.
Another three-and-out. Another listless, hopeless-feeling offensive performance. Another loss.
Maybe the Broncos needed Peyton Manning this year.
Sure, we all miss Manning Prime, the All-Pro who sliced, diced and Omaha'd his way out of bad field position a billion times over 17 years. The Broncos wouldn't mind having that Manning back.
But the Broncos offense has been so flat in recent weeks that it might actually miss last year's Manning: the junkball-tossing, turnover-dispensing rusted-out chassis of a Hall of Famer who led the Broncos to a Super Bowl with the help of an outstanding defense, some Jedi mind tricks and carefully rationed glimpses of his former greatness.
As the Broncos enter a two-game stretch against the Chiefs and Raiders that will decide their playoff fate, surely they might miss Manning's audible-calling, decision-making, leadership or intangibles. At the very least, Manning's presence would keep Aqib Talib from running his mouth in the locker room after a loss. That's worth something, right?
Maybe. Or maybe this is just misplaced nostalgia at the end of a frustrating season.
Three-and-Out of Commission
Three-and-outs have become a staple of the meager Broncos offensive diet. According to Football Outsiders, Denver has gone three-and-out on 31.3 percent of drives so far this year, the worst rate in the NFL. Its five three-and-outs on 12 drives against the Patriots last week nudged them below the Rams.
The three-and-out problem starts on first down. The Broncos average just 3.5 yards per rush and 6.5 yards per pass on first down this season. Last season, they averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per rush and 7.1 yards per pass on first down.
Having a healthy C.J. Anderson for much of last season made a difference. But part of the first-down success may have been the Manning factor at work—making audibles and adjustments, getting the Broncos into better plays. With the inexperienced Siemian and a running back committee of castoffs and youngsters, the Broncos are blander than vanilla on first downs. They are Kubiak cottage cheese.
If Manning’s experience and leadership helped the Broncos sustain drives, however, the effect was small. Last year, the Broncos went three-and-out on 27.6 percent of drives: 30th in the NFL. They also suffered interceptions on a whopping 12 percent of drives in 2015, second-worst in the NFL, as opposed to 5.5 percent (10th overall) this year. It’s hard to argue that a 3.7 percentage point bump in stalled drives is worth a greater number of extended drives if it also comes with a 6.5 percentage point increase in interceptions.
|Peyton Manning vs. Trevor Siemian: Leverage Situations|
|Situation||Manning's 2015 QB Rating||Siemian's 2016 QB Rating|
|Fourth Quarter W/In 7||78.8||140.5|
|Last 2 Minutes of Half||66.7||69.5|
|Pro Football Reference and NFL.com|
If Manning's audibles and intangibles helped the 2015 Broncos in ways that the 2016 team needs, it should show up somewhere on the stat sheet: third-down passing, fourth-quarter passing or in some other high-leverage situation. But the table shows that Siemian has been better in all of these situations. Again, a well-chosen audible on first down may be nice, but not averaging over an interception per game is much nicer.
But that raises a question: If the Broncos' quarterback play is as good as or better than it was in 2015, why do the results look worse?
Quarterbacks Don't Tackle
Last year's typical Broncos victory consisted of one or two legitimate scoring drives, at least one defensive touchdown (or a turnover that set the offense up deep in an opponent's territory) and some field-goal drives set up by another turnover or long return.
That's how the Broncos won most of their early-season games last year. It's how both playoff wins and the Super Bowl went down. The Broncos didn't beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game because Manning saw Brady and suddenly felt younger. They won because Von Miller intercepted Brady and gave Manning the ball on the 16-yard line for seven of Denver's 20 points, and great field position before halftime (thanks to the dominating defense) provided three more.
The 2016 Broncos defense has actually provided far more points off turnovers than the 2015 defense, according to Sporting Charts: 103 so far this year, 78 last year. The numbers don't account for other services provided by the defense, like long interception returns or sacks on 3rd-and-10 that tilt field position for the offense. Still, the current Broncos are at least as good at capitalizing on opportunities provided by the defense as last year's Broncos. That makes sense, as the 2015 Broncos coughed up 100 points on giveaways, as opposed to 62 this season. The savvy Manning took advantage of some turnovers, but the clunky Manning gave lots of others straight back.
The Broncos won several games this year using their old takeaway-heavy formula. But recently, the turnovers have stopped coming. The Broncos defense has caused zero turnovers in the team's last four losses (Raiders, Chiefs, Titans, Patriots). Last season, the Broncos defense forced at least one turnover in all but four regular and postseason games. Three of those four games—against the Colts, Chiefs and Raiders—were losses. (The Broncos beat the Packers with zero takeaways and lost to the Steelers with two).
Turnovers have dried up, in part, because the run defense is buckling. Opponents average 127.9 yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush against the Broncos this season after averaging 83.6 and 3.3 last season. The Broncos allowed 154, 180 and 136 rushing yards in the last three weeks, respectively; they gave up 218 in the loss to the Raiders. Opponents face fewer of the 3rd-and-longs that lead to sacks and turnovers than they did last season, and the problem has gotten worse in the last month.
If Manning were still here, he wouldn't be tackling DeMarco Murray or intercepting Brady. Maybe his presence would have some inspirational effect, but the Broncos defense always looks adequately inspired. Maybe too inspired, in Talib's case.
Leadership may be real, but it's also the laziest, most overused justification for a team's success or failure in sports, especially when yoked to its intangible sidekick, chemistry. No one was suggesting that the Broncos lacked leadership when they were 4-0, 6-2 or even 8-4 this season.
The Broncos' real problem is they are no longer good at playing with a bad quarterback.
The Missing Pieces
I miss Peyton Manning. I miss his 15 years of excellence, as well as the sickly, rubbernecking fascination of his decline. I missed Brady-Manning Festivus last week, just as I consider New Year's Eve an annual headache and hassle but would hate to spend it at home alone. The NFL misses Manning whenever national fans tune the Broncos out because Siemian is neither very good nor interesting. This late-season Broncos gauntlet would be much more fun to watch framed as "Peyton's Last Stand" than the current narrative of "We're Probably Screwed."
The Broncos also miss Manning a little. But not just Manning.
The Broncos miss C.J. Anderson in a big way. His replacements haven't cut it or stayed healthy.
They miss defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan in the middle of the defense. Replacements Jared Crick and Todd Davis have not been nearly as good.
They miss veterans on offense like Evan Mathis, Owen Daniels and Ronnie Hillman—not great players but system fits who, once again, were better than their cost-effective replacements.
The Broncos miss lots of players from 2015 who they lost due to injuries and the salary cap. Now they cannot run the ball well or stop the run as dominantly as they need to. A team needs a very good quarterback to win under those circumstances. The Broncos haven't had one of those in two years.
John Elway and the Broncos were forced to make a lot of sacrifices and compromises after the Super Bowl. The toughest decision was the reboot at quarterback. They lost Manning (and, ahem, Brock Osweiler). What they got in return was the cap flexibility to keep their core together for a few years, a respectable playoff run by an unknown quarterback in what has become the NFL's toughest division and a rookie who handled himself well in a pair of starts.
About that rookie. He arrived as a size-arm project who needed a year of development in a good system. The Broncos just gave it to him, plus some scattered on-the-job training. There's a difference between a disappointing year and a wasted year. The 2016 Broncos season isn't about missing Peyton Manning. It's about looking forward to Paxton Lynch.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter@MikeTanier.