Quarterback Peyton Manning is officially returning for his 18th season in the NFL. Both Manning and the Denver Broncos knew that a long time ago—and so did we. There was a physical Manning had to pass, but both sides knew that was also just a formality.
What we didn’t know is what the dynamic would be like between Manning and the Broncos in 2015. We now know that Manning agreed to take a pay cut of $4 million that he can earn back if the Broncos win the Super Bowl.
General manager John Elway must believe that Manning’s return, $4 million in savings and his offseason plan is enough to get the Broncos another ring. There’s no doubt his return has huge impact on the Broncos’ odds in 2015, but how huge, and what does that $4 million do to get them there?
Providing a Chip
Manning taking a pay cut has several benefits. First, he doesn’t really need the money. Second, the Broncos could save the money they wanted all in one place, so it’s more efficient. Third, doing so may have put a chip on his shoulder.
Manning isn’t a player who needs motivation to prepare, and he’s a relentless worker, so why would he need extra incentive to win the Super Bowl? Why would the Broncos risk upsetting him to the point that it could make things difficult for new head coach Gary Kubiak?
What we learned last year was that Manning might have stopped having fun at some point. You could make a case that he is such a relentless competitor that he burns himself out, and it’s starting to happen earlier in the year now that he’s 38 years old.
I said, 'Dude, you're so uptight, you don't look like you're enjoying this at all’...We're good enough now that you don't have to do that. The harder you try, the worse it's going to get…It's a natural reaction for him to do that…That's what I did. But it was when I finally realized I'm not the one who has to do it all that we started winning championships. Hell, I threw for 120 yards [in Super Bowl XXXII] and we won. I was like, I don't care! I did my job!
Things didn’t really turn around for Manning after the pep talk even though the Broncos won five of their final six games. Manning’s struggles really went back to a Week 9 loss to the New England Patriots when he threw two interceptions. After that, he threw two more interceptions early against the Oakland Raiders in Week 10 and trailed until late in the first half when they finally put it all together. Then the Rams blew out the Broncos.
In total, Manning threw 16 interceptions in the final nine games of the season and another in the playoffs. The Broncos leaned more heavily on running back C.J. Anderson and made some changes on defense after the loss to the Rams, but Manning’s play was spotty by his standards. He was still great in spurts, but he just wasn’t as consistent as he normally is.
He was still capable of doing some amazing things, but Elway made it a point to take the pressure off of him. When the Broncos didn’t run the ball well, the offense didn’t play well offensively. It’s not hard to figure out that the Broncos will lean more heavily on Kubiak’s zone-blocking running game in 2015.
The Broncos will ask Manning to do less for less pay, which is a reasonable request. By doing so, they are subtly sending the message that they don’t think Manning can do what he did two years ago. They’re probably right, but he probably isn’t going to see it that way.
Manning had to assure Denver that he was “physically and mentally prepared” to play in 2015, according to Lindsay H. Jones of the USA Today. He still wants to be the player he was, and the Broncos just gave him a little motivation to prove them wrong.
"It's one thing to play and have a uniform and be on the roster. It's another to truly contribute and help," Manning said, via ESPN. "And that's the only thing I've known in football."
If the Broncos are right, the running game will take the pressure off of him. Kubiak will protect Manning from himself, and it should yield positive results. If Manning returns to form, Denver will have to fight the urge to put too much on his plate, but it could just as easily result in a Super Bowl victory as well.
Considering Manning did have two quad injuries last season, the offensive line had issues, and he was without tight end Julius Thomas, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could recapture what he had early in 2014 and in 2013. Even if that happens, the Broncos will be better off if Manning learns to lean on others to get the job done.
The $4 million
Asking Manning to take a pay cut is more about cash than the salary cap for the Broncos. Contract costs have escalated to the point that Denver wanted to be able to keep the team together and still improve it in free agency. It needs both cap space and cash to do that.
However, $4 million doesn’t buy much in free agency. The cash might help the Broncos to pitch a more favorable contract structure for a free agent they are already considering, but they aren’t going to re-sign Julius Thomas or defensive tackle Terrance Knighton directly with that money.
What it does enable the Broncos to do is spend $4 million more in 2015 rather than push that money into future years. Upfront cash is appealing to free agents, so it could help them lure that one free agent they covet this year.
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It’s likely that free agent will play offensive line. To run the ball, the Broncos will need to replace free agent left guard Orlando Franklin and bolster a unit that was below average for most of last season. Kansas City Chiefs center Rodney Hudson comes to mind as a possible target.
Overall, $4 million just isn’t enough to change what Elway is going to do in free agency. As general manager, he has to think about the long term, and saving $4 million he has either already spent or plans to spend will limit future dead money.
Super Bowl Window
What’s clear no matter how you choose to look at the situation is that the window for the Broncos to win the Super Bowl is closing. Elway and Manning are both feeling the squeeze, which is why there have been wholesale changes.
Like last offseason, the Broncos will aggressively try to fill their needs, but this time with an eye toward a future without Manning under center. The $4 million may make doing so a little easier, but beyond that, they are simply saying they can no longer afford to go all-in on Manning.
That doesn’t mean they can’t win the Super Bowl. Elway is pulling from his own experience of winning two Super Bowls late in his career by leaning on running back Terrell Davis. Manning has plenty left in the tank to be great in spurts, as he was late in the season when the Broncos’ running game was working.
If the Broncos can bolster the offensive line and Manning can acclimate to Kubiak’s offense, Denver should still be one of the favorites in 2015. The offense may not put up the flashy numbers, but as Manning has proven throughout his career, all the numbers in the word can’t override postseason success.