Peyton Manning’s return to the NFL couldn’t be anymore exciting, before Manning went missing for the whole of last season, because of multiple neck surgeries, I wrote this piece about his importance to the NFL and to me personally.
Now that Manning is set to return to the NFL, but not the Colts, the excitement has been more than palpable throughout the summer.
The off-season is always a time when the importance of players, coaches and any other transaction is always seen in either one extreme or the other. With Manning, the only detractors from those who are falling in love with the star quarterback’s talents all over again, are the people who point to his injuries and the potential for one hit to end his career.
It is true that nobody knows whether Manning will play one pre-season game or all 16 regular season games of his five year contract. What is clear however, is that Manning is going to have to perform to a very high level if the Denver Broncos are to be competitive this season.
When Manning moved to Denver, it was largely because of how the franchise was pitched to him by hall-of-fame quarterback John Elway. It may seem like a presumption to point that out, but when you break things down there is very little the Broncos could offer to Manning over his other suitors on the field.
The three final teams in the Manning sweepstakes were the San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans and Broncos.
Manning likely passed on the 49ers because of Jim Harbaugh’s heavy involvement in the offense. It was very unlikely that Harbaugh was going to hand over the whole offense to Manning.
The Titans had no real reason to go for Manning, because they have a good veteran and a future star on their roster. Manning likely only entertained Bud Adams’ interest because of his connections with Tennessee. If he had chosen the Titans however, he would have a strong running game, one of the best pass protecting offensive lines in the NFL, a game-breaking tight end and some very dynamic receivers.
Even if you consider a team that Manning never considered, the Kansas City Chiefs, then Manning would be set up for success this season. While Eric Winston may not have been there at the time, the Chiefs offensive line was still notably better than the Broncos’ current group. Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis will be an excellent threat from the backfield. Steve Breaston and Dexter McCluster are the types of receivers Manning thrives working with. Tony Moeaki is like a young Dallas Clark while Jonathan Baldwin and Dwayne Bowe will be matchup problems all year for opposing defenses.
In Denver, my greatest worry for Manning is that he has joined a team that is very similar to his old Colts’ teams. While that may sound like a formula for success, the Colts were perennial playoff contenders, that kind of situation puts a huge amount of pressure on Manning to carry the offense.
Last year the Broncos’ offense was difficult to evaluate because of the Tim Tebow offense which was being run.
However, despite the fact that they ran the ball more than every other team in the league(except for the Texans who they matched in attempts), the Broncos’ offensive line reflected it’s lack of talent on the field with its performances last year. Asking this group to suddenly become a unit that can consistently protect the passer is simply foolish.
Ryan Clady has talent, but has rarely lived up to it on the field. Zane Beadles, Chris Kuper, JD Walton and Orlando Franklin are, at best, average offensive linemen. Compared to most of Manning’s lines in Indianapolis, they’re of a pretty similar make-up. Playing with a new center opposed to Jeff Saturday, probably gives the edge to his lines in Indy.
A quality center can improve the whole line with their leadership and intelligence. Saturday would have helped Manning in Indianapolis because he could have trusted him with calling out blocking assignments at times. Manning won’t trust JD Walton to do the same, rightfully.
The running game will be important for Manning as he adjusts back to the professional game after what is essentially two (calendar) years absence. Willis McGahee fended off retirement talk last season to put up big numbers, but that was in a system that really took the pressure off of him as the primary runner. Teams didn’t go into games worried about McGahee beating them, they worried about Tebow or the deep pass. McGahee was primarily an after-thought.
At 30 years of age, with 1’790 career carries, McGahee is very unlikely to be a formidable runner in Manning’s type of offense. What the Broncos did do was get Manning a Darren Sproles type of back to catch passes out of the backfield in Ronnie Hillman. Hillman and Knowshon Moreno, if healthy, should be good fits with the veteran signal-caller.
The two biggest off-season acquisitions the Broncos made for Manning were Joel Dressen and Jacob Tamme. Tamme was signed after playing with Manning previously as Dallas Clark’s backup. He is not a game-changing tight end in a league of game-changing tight ends. Dressen is the greater worry because people have bloated expectations for him. Dressen was the second tight end in Houston who benefited largely from the system that the Texans ran. Many of his receptions were on hard play-action plays when he was wide open in the flat. He did show the athleticism to make big plays with the ball in space, but he is far from a polished tight end.
During his time in Indianapolis, Manning was infamous for working with young wide receivers and improving them with better timing and rhythm. That is something you will expect him to do with Eric Decker and DeMaryius Thomas this year. Decker has a lot of potential and could thrive with Manning, but Thomas is the greater worry. As much as he was happy to see the offense go, Thomas was actually a better fit with Tebow than Manning.
Thomas is a deep ball specialist. Coming out of college he came from an option offense where he didn’t run any routes. With Peyton Manning, he will be expected to not only run the full route tree, but also run it with precision.
Adding Andre Caldwell to the group gives them another talented, but inconsistent, receiver while Brandon Stokley, who has previously played with Manning, is a perfect fit with the team’s new quarterback but not a game changer anymore. In fact, he never really was.
When you compare the receivers to the Titans, Kendall Wright, Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Lavelle Hawkins and Jared Cook, or the 49ers: Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, LaMichael James, Vernon Davis, AJ Jenkins, there is a massive gulf in talent.
The Broncos do have a better defense than the Titans, but not massively, while obviously the unit is nowhere near the level of the 49ers. In fact, the defense is built in a similar way to the old Colts’ defense. Two phenomenal pass rushers, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, coming off the edges. Question marks through the spine from defensive tackle to safety. The one major difference will be the quality at cornerback.
Playing with a passing offense will see this unit on the field more often next year. It is most likely that they will resemble the New Orleans Saints of 2009 as a unit that lives off turnovers to complement the offense.
For Manning, that is probably not ideal at this stage in his career. Nor does it give him the best chance to win this season.
Cian Fahey writes for the Guardian, Irishcentral, Steelersdepot and FFBLife. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf