Will Peyton Manning Reclaim the NFL Spotlight This Season?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 11, 2015

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) walks off the field against the San Francisco 49ers during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

On one coast, all the talk has been about a certain quarterback and deflated footballs.

On the other, there is Derek Carr and how, with him, the Raiders have one of the best chances in some time to make a jump into the postseason.

In the middle, there is Aaron Rodgers. There is always Aaron Rodgers.

In the South, some think Drew Brees is primed for a comeback after what was, for him, a modest season.

In the Northwest, there is Russell Wilson, with his fresh contract.

As the season begins, the talk, as always, is about quarterbacks. All across the football-lovin' U.S. of A., it's about quarterbacks. There is Andrew Luck, Sam Bradford and the interceptionado Jay Cutler.

Yet there is a name, one of the biggest of all time, that is somewhat under the QB radar. It's been a quiet summer for him. He's done his DirecTV commercials, sure. Overall, though, Peyton Manning has been in the background.

Read that sentence again: Peyton Manning has been in the background. Overshadowed. There is more interest in Rodgers, Luck and Wilson, sure, but also in guys such as Bradford, Brees, Carr, Cutler and even Eli Manning than there is in Peyton Manning.

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This is easily the most low-key entrance into the regular season Manning has ever made. He's been in the league since 1998, and no season thereafter has ever seen him this overlooked. None of the big outlets are picking Manning to reach the Super Bowl, let alone win it. 

There's been more attention on Eli's contract than Peyton's health and more focus on the Broncos' coaching staff than their quarterback. Sure, the idea of that focus is largely how the new staff's philosophy will affect Manning, but still, in so many ways, Manning has become the NFL's afterthought.

On Showtime's Inside the NFL, former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason spoke about what he expected to see from Manning in Week 1. Esiason believes Manning won't look like the Manning we're used to seeing.

"Wait," Brandon Marshall said to Esiason on the show. "So Peyton Manning is going to struggle?"

"I think he will," Esiason replied. "That offense is not going to be the same as it used to be. This is not Peyton's offense. This is Gary Kubiak's offense, John Elway's offense...more run-oriented. More play action-oriented and I think less shotgun."

Esiason was talking more about Sunday's Baltimore game, but in speaking to coaches and team executives across the sport, the feeling is that what Esiason described will be a season-long thing. They wonder if age and a new offense will lead to a less productive Manning.

I spoke to five team officials and coaches, and each thought Manning would take a step back this season. The biggest reason they gave was his age: 39 years, an age at which no starting QB has reached the Super Bowl. Father Time never loses, except to zombies and Dracula.

What's interesting about Manning now is that despite coming off what may have been the least statistically great season of his career, he is still on the verge of a remarkable statistical feat. Manning ranks second all-time with 69,691 career passing yards. If Manning throws for 309 yards against the Ravens, he'll join Brett Favre (71,838) as one of the only players in league history with 70,000 career passing yards.

Don't ever forget this guy has put up some of the biggest numbers ever.

Maybe he does step back from that this year, and maybe that's even for the better. It's possible the Broncos could advance deep into the postseason as the offense becomes more balanced and less Manning-fueled.

But few people I speak to around football believe that will happen. They think Manning will struggle and that his body will break down. We saw signs of that late last season.

I'm not so sure. I wonder if we will see one last great run from Manning. I wonder if the Broncos will enter the season with plans for a ball-control offense, it will get annihilated—best-laid plans and all—and Manning will revert to the old Manning and save them as he breaks more passing records.

When Manning was recently asked by a reporter if he could play next season, he focused only on the Ravens. According to a transcript provided by the team, Manning said:

I think everybody, including me, feels good right now going into the season. We want to keep feeling good. The best way to do that is to win. You want to win. I think the key for us is just to keep improving throughout the season whether it's me or all of our players, just to keep getting better. We want to be playing well to start the season, but we want to improve and hopefully be playing even our best football late in the season. I think that is kind of our ultimate goal.

Certainly, with our schedule, we have two tough games coming up here—two games in four days. We need to get off to a good start because we're playing two really good teams to start the season.

Manning will never discuss next season until he's ready to discuss next season. Totally get that.

There was another quote from Manning, made this past summer, that says a great deal about why he stayed in the game instead of retiring. And why the gloom some front-office people and coaches on other teams feel is coming Manning's way may not be warranted. The quote is long (it comes from a team transcript) but instructive:

Certain players have told me that they thought that they may have stopped playing just because they got bored with the monotony, whether it was the offense or the same meetings or whatnot. Physically, they felt pretty good. They just got bored and they got frustrated, and they said, "I want to go do something else." I think everybody likes continuity and some consistency in what you're doing, but I will say at age 36 when I got here and now 39, that I have been stimulated by the changes, which I do think keeps you engaged and energetic and focused in meetings.

I can tell you one thing: I am not bored in the least bit. I'm stimulated. I'm studying and I feel like I'm engaged and trying to learn something new from Gary Kubiak. I'm learning something new from Rick Dennison. I'm learning a little something from Owen Daniels. Any time someone has a question of me, I'm glad to answer that about a route with Owen or James Casey. That has been the truth. I think change—instead of being stymied by any type of change, you can be stimulated by them. That's been true for me and I think that's been a real positive, to tell you the truth.

I don't know if Manning embraces the new philosophy of the offense. I tend to doubt it. But he may be refocusing his uber-competitive desires, not on breaking records, but on watching his running game break big runs.

Peyton Manning, for the first time in his career, might be cool with lying low. Maybe. Possibly.

During the Deflategate fiasco, it was revealed that Brady said in an email (via Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports) that he could play another seven or eight years and that Manning only had two left.

Manning said at the time, according to a team transcript:

Yeah, everybody's been speculating on that for a long time. I guess maybe he's joining the list of everybody trying to predict. Tom sent me an apology text that was unnecessary. The fact that his emails got revealed, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me, so no harm, no foul. I didn't think a lot of it.

Somebody said I was roasted. I've been roasted before. That is not a roast. I won't be on that Comedy Central roast, but I've been at a couple of private dinners and banquets where I didn't know it was going to turn into a roast of me, but it did. I can promise you that email was amateur night compared to some of the things people really said about me.

So what Manning will we see? Will we see we've been used to—a Manning scoring and scoring and scoring some more?

Or will Manning take a spot in the back seat, something he's never done before?

A couple years ago, these questions would have seemed foolish. Now it seems like it's only a matter of time.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.