Peyton Manning is making his move to trump Tom Brady as the greatest quarterback of this generation and laying stake to the mantle of greatest quarterback of all time. And he’s doing it using Brady’s favorite tactics.
With one full season behind him after coming back from the neck injury that threatened his football career, Manning is again playing like a man who knows he could lose what he loves any second. The difference this year, of course, is that he’s doing it with a highly polished group of receivers. Add a year of familiarity to the talent and experience that’s come on board, and it’s all but sewn up that Manning will show a scoring and yardage efficiency this year not seen since the height of his reign in Indianapolis — or Brady’s in New England, in the record-setting 2007 season.
Manning has 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions this year, and his 1,470 yards have come on the back of a 75 percent completion percentage. He’s on pace for 64 touchdowns, which would of course break Brady’s single-season record of 50 from 2007 (which in turn broke Manning’s record of 49 from 2004). The hallmark of just how good this season has been for Manning, though, has to be not just his team’s average points per game (44.75) or average margin of victory (22 points) but rather the 4-0 mark the Broncos are enjoying as they’re still tuning up parts of their game. Denver is putting up crazy numbers without the benefit of all the bells and whistles and extra wrinkles the team could add with its personnel options.
But what’s setting Manning apart this season is less him channeling the Brady that led the 2007 record-breaking offense and more him looking like the Brady that has led the Patriots to consistent success over the years. While Manning’s attack certainly rings of the 2007 New England offense that couldn’t be stopped, it’s his flexibility in spreading the ball among his receivers and relying on short, efficient passes that has put Manning and the Broncos in a position to succeed, if not break some records.
While Manning can still be counted on for the kind of passes that get people excited, such as the downfield bombs, over-the-shoulder grabs near the sideline or big slants across the middle, the steamroller quality the Denver offense has gained this season comes mostly from the kind of hyper-efficient, devastating, move-the-chains passes that are less flashy but harder to stop. The Broncos have specialized in shorter passes (with yards after the catch), and Manning’s completion percentage reflects how on-the-money he’s been.
Much of this is attributable to the personnel Manning is leaning on. From Wes Welker, who perfected that type of game in New England, to the assortment of running backs to whom Manning flicks passes, the Broncos are perfecting the brand of short-yardage, scheme-superior, adjustment-fueled offense that Patriots fans have become so used to in watching Brady.
The approach is beneficial to Manning and the Broncos for several reasons. The first is that it fits their personnel and is easy to execute when the players running it can do their jobs well. That means Denver can get gobs of yardage on mismatches, better first steps and superior offensive positioning (which takes a Manning or a Brady to pull off when commanding an offense). The second reason this type of attack is nice to run is its efficiency. Whether implementing the no-huddle or putting together a time-killing drive that thrives on catches that keep the clock running, this approach lets the Broncos dictate the tempo and choose when they capitalize. Finally, the attack is especially helpful to Manning, who has shown reduced arm strength. By letting receivers make it happen on yards after the catch or just cranking first down after first down, Manning can use his superior field vision and short-range accuracy to push his team to gaudy results with fewer of the high-skill passes that are much harder to execute consistently.
Therein lies the irony of what may become Manning’s greatest season yet: A quarterback who was once head and shoulders above his peers in raw skills has been forced in some ways to pare his game down, but he’s getting better results than ever. Plenty goes into success in football, of course, but it can’t be discounted that surrounding Manning with an offense that can rack up touchdowns in bite-sized pieces — rather than Manning being forced to use the extent of his talent to connect with a couple of marquee receivers, as was often the case in Indianapolis — has led to the best results for Manning yet.
Manning should have no trouble toppling Brady’s single-season record, even if the pace slows. The Broncos just have too much talent — coming from some very motivated players — to not continue to produce. The real challenge lies in how Denver will adjust as the season goes on, especially as the team tries to build a varied attack that can capitalize in the playoffs.
For now, though, Manning, who was always in the middle of “best quarterback ever” discussions thanks to his raw skills, has added another page to a hard-to-argue-with resume. By tapping his talent as a game manager and enjoying the options he has around him, he’s found a system that is producing some of the most consistent success yet, with the nice results icing on the cake.
For years, Manning challenged to be the best by looking like the best. Now he’s doing it by being the most effective. And when otherworldly talent finds a way to bring his game down to earth, week after week, the records should fall quickly.