by Jim Bearor
The decision has already been made as to who will start for the Broncos in their Divisional Round matchup against the Steelers, but it feels like we haven’t hit the tipping point for the Manning/Osweiler quarterback situation. Osweiler has been the starting quarterback for the second half of the season, and he was better than Manning was in the first half. There are a few angles to this issue that make it more complex than “the young, strong armed quarterback” against “the shell-of-himself Hall of Famer”.
For one, there’s nostalgia clouding a lot of minds. These people are the ones who are already picturing a storybook ending to Peyton Manning’s career, with no regard for analytics or any metric that suggests Osweiler is the better option (most of the numbers support exactly that). There are Peyton Manning loyalists who stick by him until the bitter end, like some did with Derek Jeter or Brett Favre. These types of people aren’t the ones in Denver’s front office, they’re the “hard-working, blue collar guys who call it like they see it” that you can find on any barstool in rural America. Still, this kind of thinking has to have some sort of effect on the actual outcome of things, right? The decision of who to start isn’t solely based on numbers, and it would be foolish to dismiss locker room politics altogether. Being “The Sheriff” matters.
Even from a standpoint that pays no attention to these types of things, it is still not a simple choice, and this weekend’s game could unfold a few different ways under each quarterback. Manning and Osweiler might not handle a bad turnover or a large early deficit the same way, and that could be the deciding factor. Also, who would be better suited to come in and relieve the other guy if it came down to it? To what degree does Brock’s mobility or Peyton’s lack of arm strength change the way Kubiak is going to attack Pittsburgh’s defense? Does either quarterback have any real effect on the zone running game? Does chicken parm really taste so good?
There is a lot to digest before making the call that will decide your playoff fate, but apparently the Broncos have hashed this all out and arrived as Peyton Manning as the man for the job. A lot of smart NFL voices have said that they disagree with the decision, but the general consensus isn’t unanimous. There is a lot at play here, and it has become quite the topic of conversation in the football world.
Gary Kubiak doesn’t care. He hears the sports media talking about and questioning his decision to flip-flop quarterbacks at the most important part of the season, but he doesn’t entertain the drama. His press conferences have been bland and straightforward– almost Belichickian, actually. It’s impressive how well his team has taken the QB changes and media attention in stride, bumbling and stumbling all the way to the top seed in the AFC. It wouldn’t be fair to say they’ve done it all effortlessly, most of their wins have been ugly, with less-than-desirable quarterback play. Still, this team won 12 of its 16 games, and the Broncos’ locker room seems like a healthy one – both good signs for Kubiak in his first year as Denver’s head coach.
Let’s flash back to the John Fox era quickly.
In 2013, Peyton Manning and Company set the world on fire with the greatest offensive regular season to date. They knocked off the Chargers and Patriots en route to the Super Bowl, where they got the piss beaten out of them by the Seattle Seahawks 43-8. The following year, they put together another impressive regular season, finishing 12-4 and securing a first round bye, only to lose to the Colts in typical Peyton Manning “one and done” fashion. John Fox resigned and Peyton was mulling retirement. They had come so close twice, but there was no sense of satisfaction either time. It seemed like the Broncos were about to start over.
Enter Gary Kubiak, John Elway’s man through and through.
Kubiak was Elway’s backup for his entire nine year career, before retiring to take up coaching. He had a brief stint at his alma mater, Texas A&M, before taking a job in 1994 as the quarterback coach with the San Francisco 49ers. Kubiak worked with Steve Young, who put together what was probably his best year, winning MVP honors and the Super Bowl. The next year, Kubiak came back to the Broncos to run the offense under Mike Shanahan, who was the Offensive Coordinator in San Francisco during Kubiak’s time there. Over the next 11 seasons under Kubiak, Denver was arguably the most successful offense in the league.
The real magic happened in 1997 and 1998 however. John Elway’s career was winding down. He was 37 years old and had lost three Super Bowls, mostly because Denver was far too reliant on Elway to carry them (sound similar to someone else?). The Broncos team in 1997 was different though, there was talent aplenty on both sides of the ball. Shannon Sharpe, Ed McCaffery, and Rod Smith were all viable pass catchers, Tom Nalen and Gary Zimmerman (both Pro Bowlers) laid the foundation for a great offensive line, and Terrell Davis emerged as a dominant force at running back. Elway was finally surrounded by talent, and Denver upset Favre’s Packers in the Super Bowl. They won the next year too, and Elway retired on top.
When Gary Kubiak came back to run the offense, Elway was on the tail end of his career, much like Peyton is right now. Elway’s numbers didn’t drop off like Manning’s have, Elway was 37 instead of 40, Elway had a far better arm to begin with and he didn’t have all those surgeries that Manning did. These aren’t identical situations or quarterbacks, but you don’t have to look too hard to see the similarities. Kubiak’s offense in ’97-’98 was based around an aging quarterback, utilized tight ends in the passing game (revolutionary at the time), and ran a zone blocking scheme. It’s like Elway hired Kubiak in hopes that he could recycle that same old blueprint, only this time instead of an old-but-functional John Elway at the helm, he’s working with the corpse of Peyton Manning.
On paper, it sounds like a fun plan that has a chance to work. Then Peyton struggled mightily in the new offense, throwing 17 interceptions in half a season before getting hurt/benched. Osweiler took over and played alright. Here are their numbers:
Manning: 2,249 yards, 9 TDS, 17 INT, 59.8%, 6.8 YPA
Osweiler: 1,967 yards, 10 TDS, 6 INT, 61.8%, 7.2 YPA
17 interceptions in half a season?! Blake Bortles was the only guy to finish with more (18), and he played the whole year. We knew going into this year that Manning’s arm strength was going to be an area of concern, but I’m not sure anyone expected quite the drop-off that we saw.
Sure, he’s a little old to be playing professional football, but really his recent injuries are bigger factors here. He tore his right quad near the end of last year, he “hurt his rib cage” early this season (an injury that sounds worse because it was worded so vaguely), and most importantly he tore his plantar fascia in his left foot. This means the tissue that holds his toes and heel together – that arch at the bottom of everything – was ripped. I’ve never suffered an injury like this, but Google and WebMD are telling me that it hurts a real lot, especially when you put pressure on it like you would if you were throwing a football. This guy is 40 years old to begin with, and with all these recent injuries he hadn’t quite gotten over yet, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise how poorly he was throwing the football at the beginning of the year.
This is where I might lose some of you, but hear me out: What if he’s actually pretty healthy right now? I don’t mean the Ben Roethlisberger standard of healthy enough to play, I mean recovered to the point that he can throw a football like a healthy 40 year old Hall of Famer? Kubiak has stood behind Manning this whole time, dating back to the preseason. Right off the bat, Osweiler was getting some of the first team reps in practice, as Kubiak figured there may come a time where Manning might need some rest prior to the playoffs. Then Manning was forced off the field, and Osweiler played out the rest of the regular season, up until the final game.
Kubiak, Elway, the Broncos organization – everyone remained calm, the team kept squeezing out wins, and now Manning is the starter again, no big deal. Even though the team had been vocal about Manning being their guy, and how he would play once he got healthy, it came as a surprise when Peyton came in to finish the final game against the Chargers.
Why are they putting in this old shit? This is Brock’s team!
The people may still love Peyton Manning, but most of them have lost faith in him by now – and understandably so. I curbed my enthusiasm for him after he failed to deliver in the playoffs again last year and John Fox left. But after taking a closer look, I think I’m back on board. He is what he is at this point, but Kubiak and Elway knew that going in. They’d rather have the best football brain ever on the field than a strong arm with quick legs. I don’t blame them, because if this team is going to win the Super Bowl, it’s going to be because of their defense and their running game. Peyton Manning could end up playing the role of Trent Dilfer, essentially. To be fair, it is just as possible (or maybe more so) that he’ll end up being the goat like Jake Delhomme or Kerry Collins or even a younger Peyton Manning.
According to Vegas, Denver has the fourth best shot to win the Super Bowl at 11/2. Without argument, this defense is the best in the league, there are adequate offensive weapons, and the line has really come together as of late. Peep this sweet zone run blocking:
The Steelers are limping into mile high with their two best players dealing with injuries. The Broncos have a real shot at this, and that is why we’ve been talking so much about who should be the man under center.
Gary Kubiak has chosen to stay the course and ride or die with Manning, because that’s what John Elway expects him to do. There is no quarterback controversy in Denver. This was the plan all along. Brock Osweiler may have won most people over, and he’ll probably have a shot at the gig next year, but this was never going to be his moment.
– Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)