The relationship between Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and head coach Gary Kubiak will likely determine how much success the team has in 2015. No one knows how the marriage will or won’t work, but the honeymoon period is already over.
Manning had the NFL equivalent of cold feet in February, but everyone knew he wanted another chance at a fairytale ending. General manager John Elway brought the two together hoping for the same result.
The early results are in, and Manning may not love it, but Kubiak is good for him.
It’s not because Kubiak will be running the ball more, because we don’t really know what the offense will look like yet. It’s because Kubiak is taking the load off Manning.
During organized team activities in May, Kubiak made it clear he was going to rest veteran players like Manning on a regular basis. It’s not hard to figure out that Kubiak wants to keep his veterans fresh for the entire season so they have something left in the tank for the playoffs.
Manning is obviously no exception. By nature of being the oldest player on the team, Manning is probably the main reason for doing it, but Kubiak doesn’t want to single out his aging quarterback.
"I sat 10 veterans in practice which I had planned to do and I'm going to continue to do on a regular basis," Kubiak said, via Mike Klis of 9News Denver. "And you're getting a look at the young players on your football team.''
Kubiak is forcing Manning to take days off from practice, which as we know, he doesn’t like to do. When he missed practice with a sore ankle last year, he wore his helmet so he could listen to play calls, watched game film on his iPad and soaked his sore ankle at the same time.
In a way, Kubiak may be trying to save Manning from himself. Put simply, Kubiak doesn’t want Manning to burn himself out, which seems to be happening earlier every year as he ages.
Last November, Elway approached Manning after the Broncos lost to the Rams, per S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated. The conversation shed some light on why the Broncos shifted toward the run down the stretch and why things will be different for Manning in 2015.
“I said, 'Dude, you're so uptight, you don't look like you're enjoying this at all,’ Elway said. “We're good enough now that you don't have to do that. The harder you try, the worse it's going to get.”
Elway was speaking from personal experience. He knows there is a fine line between doing the job and trying and failing to do it all.
"It's a natural reaction for him to do that," Elway said. "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!"
Everyone knows Manning has had a lot of say over the offense in previous years. His changing of plays at the line of scrimmage has become legendary. The Broncos have been using many of the same concepts that Manning ran with the Indianapolis Colts.
Kubiak’s system with the Houston Texans didn’t allow a veteran quarterback like Matt Schaub to audible. Per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, unless the Texans were in their hurry-up offense, Kubiak's system doesn’t allow any quarterback to decide what play to call based on the defense.
John DeFilippo—Schaub’s quarterback coach with the Oakland Raiders last year and now the offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns—told me during training camp last year that they wanted the quarterbacks to audible out of bad plays. He said the difference on whether to let quarterbacks audible was a philosophical one.
Kubiak may be more willing to go to the hurry-up since he has Manning, but he may not change his beliefs. That could be why Manning’s thoughts on Kubiak’s system after six weeks was eye-opening.
"To me if I said I liked it or didn't like it, it would mean that my opinion mattered. Which it doesn't,” Manning said, via Mike Klis of 9News Denver. “It's our job to execute the plays and to make it work. I'm learning. I'm learning about the requirements of me.”
Manning is essentially learning how to do his job and nothing more. He no longer has the input he once had on the offense. It’s not his system, it’s not his offense and the Broncos are now asking him to do a lot less than he’s done in the past.
You might think that’s a bad move considering Manning’s success in the past, but the Broncos could be onto something. Since Manning arrived in Denver in 2012, he’s been significantly better in the first half of the season than the second half and beyond.
|Manning's Splits From 2012-2014|
|Games||No. of Games||Comp.||Att.||Yards/Game||Comp. %||TD Rate||INT Rate||YPA|
|Pro-Football-Reference (TD Rate=TD/ATT, INT Rate=INT/ATT)|
In the first eight games from 2012-2014, Manning threw 73 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 24 games. He also averaged 8.45 yards per attempt and completed 69.4 percent of his passes.
In the second half of those seasons, Manning threw 58 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. He averaged 7.7 yards per attempt and completed 66 percent of his passes. Still very good numbers, but not quite the elite numbers that he has put up in the first half.
In the playoffs, his touchdown rate and yards per attempt numbers drop, but so too does his interception rate. His completion percentage in the playoffs since 2012 is 66.7 percent, which is comparable to his second-half numbers from the regular season.
Even if the Broncos only get second-half numbers going forward, it’s more than good enough for a team that can run the ball and play good defense. However, the Broncos could also get first-half numbers from Manning all season long if lessening the physical and mental toll on him is successful.
It’s going to take some adjustments from Manning, which he says he is actively committed to making, per Klis. He really has no other choice even if he doesn’t like it.
In the end, it’s worth a shot to try to keep him from overworking himself. It's worth a shot if Manning has a little something extra to give in the playoffs. It's worth a shot if Manning can focus on a challenge other than trying to win Super Bowl 50.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com.