Up until this past September, praise had been showered on Peyton Manning’s career so often analysts were running out of adjectives to describe him.
What a difference three months makes.
Nobody knows what to make of Peyton Manning’s status at this point, and rather than swoon over his historic onslaught on the NFL record books like we usually do this time of year, these days the All-Pro quarterback’s name only comes up if it’s asked in the form of question.
Will he return next year?
Is it time for the Colts to draft his replacement?
And even—as thoroughly incomprehensible as the notion may have seemed just a few short months ago—should the Colts actually consider trading the beloved face of their franchise?
All are valid questions and all will be answered in due time, but there’s another crucial question also lingering right now that, if it could be answered, would decide all the others by default—if Manning does come back, will he still be the same old Peyton?
The future of the Indianapolis Colts depends on it and, like so many other issues surrounding the future Hall of Famer right now, how it will all play out is still anybody’s guess.
Here’s a small sample of just those very guesses—the six most likely changes to expect when (if?) Peyton Manning returns next season:
We’ve seen Peyton deal with rust before, when knee surgery kept the superstar from participating in the 2008 preseason and most of training camp too, and the results were far from pretty; Manning had one of the worst starts of his career that year, losing four of his first seven games while throwing nine interceptions to 10 touchdown passes and posting a combined quarterback rating of just 78.8 (his career average is 94.9).
A similar performance should be expected when Manning comes back next season because even though he’ll have a full year to prepare for game-day action, when the time finally comes it’ll have been roughly 18 months since he’d last experienced it.
Even though it shouldn’t take much for Manning to get back in his groove, chances are there will be some bumps in the road before he does, and considering how terrible his supporting cast has played without him this season, we may even find there’s a whole lot more of them than anyone is currently anticipating.
Manning’s production probably won’t be flowing at the same record-setting pace it usually does next season, and it’s easy to understand why.
As we already discussed, Peyton will have to undergo some sort of learning curve or, in this case, relearning curve, after not playing in a meaningful game of football for a year-and-a-half. A hangover phase seems unavoidable, even for a player of Manning’s stature, and how it translates to the four-time MVP’s performance next season will likely be just as evident on the stat sheet as it is in his win-loss ratio.
Returning to Manning’s aforementioned rough start in 2008 (the only time we’ve seen Manning perform under similar conditions), Peyton’s sluggish autumn slump left him on pace for just 22 touchdown passes that year heading into Week 9, which would’ve represented the lowest season total of his entire career if he hadn’t returned to form in the second half of the season (he finished with 27 that year, still his lowest since 2002).
This time around, Manning will be four years older, he’ll have three more surgeries under his belt and he’ll have been inactive for a much longer period.
Clearly the circumstances surrounding next year suggest we’re in store for a similar drop in touchdowns. While no one should be questioning the ability of Manning to lead his team back to relevance next year at this point, it does seem fitting to taper our expectations accordingly, at least in regard to the gaudy numbers we’re accustomed to seeing from him.
We’ll expect to see Peyton Manning sacked more often next year for a variety of reasons, but that notion is a bit misleading as it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be playing any worse than before.
Most importantly, his sack total will probably increase simply because the guy has been so good at avoiding him his entire career that this particular stat has nowhere to go but up at this point.
Manning is one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the league every single season. He’s on a pace right now that would’ve been difficult to maintain even if he hadn’t suffered this lousy neck injury and missed an entire season, and now that he has, the challenge to do so is even greater.
The other key driver of Manning’s sack spike will be the extreme caution with which we expect him to play next year, as health is now a chief priority in every move the man makes from this moment on and, as a result, he’s now more likely to give up sacks in situations he normally wouldn’t.
Until this neck injury, it was totally worth the risk to absorb a potential hit if Peyton thought he could make something productive out of doing so.
Since that’s no longer the case, expect Manning to simply lay down whenever seriously threatened next season, and expect thousands of nervous, onlooking Colts fans to breathe a collective sigh of relief whenever he does, too.
Peyton Manning is a student of the game (kind of like calling Albert Einstein a “student “of science) and with all the free time he’s had lately that would normally be spent playing football, you better believe the brightest player in the league has been busy doing his homework.
Manning strives to get better every week and, based on the way his career has progressed so far, all the evidence suggests he’s done just that.
Accordingly, despite the rust we’ve identified that will probably be evident in Manning’s performance right away, the Peyton Manning we see in 2012 should still be smarter, sharper and wiser than the one we remember.
We owe it to Manning to expect that, and until we find out this neck injury somehow also hampered the superstar’s ability to read defenses and respond to them with sophisticated, intelligent decisions on the fly, there’s no reason to doubt he’ll be even better at doing so next season.
Even though to what extent Peyton’s aging body will cooperate with his presumably expanded field vision next year remains to be seen, Colts fans should be able to rest easy knowing that vision will indeed still be present. They should also have the confidence that it will be just as clear, if not clearer, than they ever remember.
The most noticeable difference in Manning’s performance next season may well be the passion with which we expect him to play the game.
This neck injury has soberly reminded everyone that Manning’s career is officially coming to a close, and the reality is his body simply cannot handle the grind of professional football for too much longer.
That thought has to be foremost in the quarterback’s mind today and every day moving forward for as long as he’s still playing, and when we see him take the field again next season, the difference may be staggering.
We know he’ll never admit it, but Peyton will be playing for his legacy next season. Another stellar regular season would help him surpass even more of the all-time greats in several key categories (he’s on pace to easily pass Dan Marino for second place in both completions and touchdown passes next year), and another Super Bowl title would fully cement his place among the best players in NFL history.
It’s now or never for Manning at this point, and the stakes could not be higher. Expect Peyton to be dialed in from day one. Expect the wins to be cherished more fully, and the losses despised more bitterly, than we’ve ever seen before.
In his career so far, Manning has distinguished himself in NFL lore by beating the competition with his mind.
Next year, he just might do it with his heart.
All these unanswered questions about Peyton Manning have underscored a depressing, scary assessment of the five-time All-Pro’s future: What happens next, we just don’t know.
It’s an especially uncomfortable thought for a talent like Manning, because before this lost 2011 season, he was arguably the most consistent player the game has ever seen.
Peyton started 208 consecutive games prior to this season, the second-longest streak in NFL history. He’s had over 25 touchdown passes in all 13 seasons he’s played, the longest such streak ever produced (no one has maintained a streak that long with even 20 touchdown passes per year, for that matter). His 11 seasons with over 4,000 passing yards are the most all-time, and his 263 passing yards per game constitutes the highest career average ever (to be fair, Drew Brees is right behind him this category and may close the gap very soon with the way he’s been playing this year).
We could go on and on with the surplus of accolades on the quarterback’s lengthy resume, but the point is simply this: For an entire decade you knew exactly what you were getting every time Peyton Manning took the field.
The aura of reliability ends next season, however, and when the day finally comes and the former MVP does return to the field at the age of 36, over a year removed from action and with the toll of five disclosed surgeries presumably present, what we’ll be getting is, in most regards, completely unpredictable.
Does Manning himself even know?