On the surface, the Denver Broncos have nothing to worry about. They are 6-0 as they head into their bye week, but the echoes vibrating off the sides of the Rocky Mountains could not sound more nervous: Something is, or has to be, wrong with Peyton Manning. The Broncos may be undefeated, but that is largely because of their physical and punishing defense and the right leg of kicker Brandon McManus.
When quarterback Peyton Manning arrived in Denver in 2012, the Broncos made scoreboards spin by averaging nearly 33 points per game in the regular season. Now, three years later, Denver is averaging a mere 23 points per game. This includes four defensive touchdowns, which means the offense generates fewer than 19 points per game.
To blame this all on Manning would be absurd. In his 19th season, he has learned to adjust to a new offense brought on by Head Coach Gary Kubiak that emphasizes two things largely outside of his skill set: operating from under center and moving out of the pocket on play-action passes. The new offense, combined with several key injuries to the offensive line, has made it difficult for the Broncos’ offense to gain consistent traction.
Couple all of this with the fact that Denver is currently 28th in the NFL in yards per attempt on the ground and it seems clear that Manning is trying to take on too much responsibility. The running game was solid last week against Cleveland, with Ronnie Hillman rushing for over 100 yards to lead the Broncos to a season high of 152 yards. But it is still inconsistent. In four of their six games, the Broncos have rushed for fewer than 70 yards, and Kubiak’s offense relies on a strong running game to set up the pass.
To Manning’s credit, there have been times this year when the offense has helped to secure victories. For instance, Manning and company executed a flawless two-minute drill in Week 2 to tie the game in Kansas City, and the offense produced 10 points off two fourth-quarter turnovers by the Lions in Week 3 to cement a 24-12 win. However, despite moments of promise, the offense has been poor overall.
Football Outsiders has Denver ranked last in total offensive efficiency by a significant amount. With a -27.9 percent rating, Football Outsider’s advanced statistics essentially say that Denver’s offense is 27.9 percent worse than an average league offense.
Manning has also thrown at least one interception in each of the first six games for the first time since 1999. Manning is tied for second in the NFL in percentage of passes that are intercepted at 4.2 percent, which is nearly 50 percent higher than his career rate. Because the Broncos also throw the ball at one of the highest rates in the league, the quantity of interceptions has been astronomical by Manning’s standards.
The timeliness of those interceptions has also contributed to the growing frustration among Broncos fans and the media. Three of Manning’s interceptions have been returned for touchdowns and another occurred in the end zone. On some of Manning’s interceptions the defenders have simply made a play — every quarterback runs into that and Manning should not be singled out.
However, increasingly, Manning tries to force throws into small windows, and defenses are having success by feigning blitzes and having linebackers drop into coverage. Arm strength, never one of Manning’s relative fortes, could be playing some role because many of his passes seem to hang in the air and defenders have been able to undercut receivers’ routes to intercept the ball.
All of these issues have led some fans to a somewhat logical conclusion: The Broncos should bench Manning. However, this is rash and unnecessary for a few reasons.
First, Manning still has the unwavering support of the locker room. Even though the defense has largely been responsible for the successful start, there is no sign that it is affecting team chemistry. Benching Manning would cause a divide that currently does not exist and jeopardize players’ faith in the coaching staff.
Second, Manning still gives Denver the best chance to win. With November games against the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts on the schedule, Manning is the only quarterback on the roster with the experience and ability to navigate those games and the complex wrinkles that the Broncos offense is sure to face.
Regardless, Denver has two weeks to prepare for what will be the toughest month of its season. With their strong defense and an emerging running game, the Broncos are surely Super Bowl contenders, and while the road to the playoffs is still months away, the contenders are beginning to separate themselves from the rest of the league. As Denver’s hype train begins to leave the station, there is no doubt that Manning should remain the conductor.
Michael Ippolito is a junior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday.