It sure looked like it on Monday night.
The NFL's No. 1 pitchman looked more like a No. 3 quarterback on Monday night in Atlanta, especially in the first quarter of an interception-riddled performance against the Atlanta Falcons. Manning threw three picks in the first quarter, and it played a huge role in what turned into a 27-21 Broncos loss.
The big question surrounding the future Hall of Famer entering the season centered around whether No. 18 would be physically healthy after missing all of last season with a serious neck injury.
We're now a preseason and two regular season games into Manning's return, and while he still looks like he can be a "good" NFL quarterback, there's still reason for concern. A lot of that concern will be based in what we saw from Manning on Monday night against the Falcons.
The "laser-rocket arm" was nowhere to be found, especially early on. Manning was OK with short passes (more on that in a bit), but he clearly lacked the arm strength to complete passes down the field. When he looked to move the ball downfield, he was met by well-disguised Falcons secondary members, who picked Manning off three times in the game's first period.
On the third play from scrimmage, Manning tried to force a pass into coverage, intended for Jacob Tamme. Manning stepped into what was about a 25-yard attempt down the right seam. The Falcons did a nice job of disguising their coverage, though. However, as was the case all game, better arm strength could have made the difference. Manning was simply unable to fit the ball into a tight window (see below), and ESPN's Mike Tirico even described Manning as "floating it" during his play-by-play call.
The end result was an easy pick for William Moore that directly translated into points for the Falcons with a Michael Turner touchdown just a few plays later.
The tight window is depicted below with the intended receiver, Tamme, spotlighted with a poorly drawn circle.
Give the Falcons some credit for Manning's second pick, with some more intricately disguised defense confusing Manning. Once again, however, Manning couldn't get enough on the throw to make it even close. As Jon Gruden detailed on the ESPN telecast, the Falcons were able to disguise the two-deep zone coverage enough to allow safety Thomas DeCoud to come out of nowhere. Manning probably never saw the safety who came underneath the route for the easy pick. That being said, Manning need to put the ball in a better spot. He needed to throw the ball about 35 yards and ended up throwing a 30-yard duck, a ball that would have probably bounced to its intended receiver Brandon Stokley.
You can see how underthrown the ball was in the low-quality screen grab below. DeCoud caught the ball as it was coming down, and he's making the play about five yards in front of Stokely.
The third interception was just a bad decision and a bad pass. Manning once again tried to force the ball into a tighter window than his arm would allow him to fit into. Maybe this is the type of 30-yard pass down the seam that he used to be able to complete with no problems, but on Monday night, it was just a floater. The pass was again intended for Stokely, and the underthrow resulted in yet another pick, this time one for Robert McClain who was playing a pretty basic zone coverage.
It was obviously a brutal first quarter for Manning. He was 6-for-10 in the opening quarter, for just 40 yards. Lending even more support that the arm strength is simply not there right now is the fact that Manning's six first-quarter completions were all short passes, mostly on crossing patterns, slants and check downs.
In fact, NFL.com's Game Center play-by-play feature has 22 of Manning's 24 completions listed as "short" passes.
Manning finally rebounded and actually threw a pretty important touchdown pass before the first half ended. However, that 17-yard touchdown pass may have been his worst throw of the first half, as he was able to get away with what looked to be an absolute duck on an out route to Demaryius Thomas.
In his postgame comments, Manning blamed poor decision-making for his struggles, and there's no doubt that played a factor. But it's also pretty naive to think that the arm strength — or lack thereof — hurt Manning, especially in the early going.
Maybe this is where he's at right now. Maybe Manning will have to alter his game, like a pitcher who no longer has his good fastball and has to find other ways to get guys out (or in Manning's case, opting to dump it off instead of forcing it into tight windows). Or maybe this is still rust from an entire season lost Manning will eventually shake.
The Broncos better hope that the third scenario is indeed the case, because Manning gave an unsettling reminder Monday night as to how important he really is to any Broncos success moving forward.
Screen shots via NFL.com