Full disclosure: I am a diehard Bronco fan.
I grew up in Denver and there are two rules to living in Colorado: go to the mountains as much as possible, and place your emotional wellbeing in the hands of the Denver Broncos.
Denver is a great sports town with four professional teams, but the Broncos have been nearest and dearest to our hearts for the longest. If Coloradans had the option to get rid of the Broncos or to ax the Avalanche, Rockies, and Nuggets, I have no doubt that we’d still be showing up at Mile High on Sundays.
Hell, Tim Tebow is more beloved than nearly every Avalanche, Rockies, and Nuggets player ever. Football is the subtext of our state.
Other than the Carolina Panthers’ run at perfection, the biggest story in the NFL right now surrounds the future of Peyton Manning.
NFL.com reporter Ian Rapoport reported last Sunday that Manning would not be happy as the Broncos’ backup quarterback, which was quickly rebuked by Denver’s Executive Vice President and General Manager, and unofficial Governor of Colorado, John Elway.
Peyton has never told Gary or myself that he doesn’t want to be the backup. Any report or rumor that suggests otherwise is incorrect!!
— John Elway (@johnelway) December 20, 2015
Later that day, the Broncos lost a heart-wrenching game in Pittsburgh where Peyton’s backup, Brock Osweiler, carved up the Steeler defense to the tune of 15/19 for 238 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 rushing touchdown in the 1st half. In the 2nd half, the Broncos didn’t cross the 50 yard line until 2:58 left in the 4th, running 32 plays that gained only 71 yards.
After the game, Peyton called Rapoport’s report “bullshit” and “insulting.”
Rapoport isn’t some random guy spouting nonsense on the internet; he’s a seasoned sports journalist, having been a beat reporter for Mississippi State, Alabama, and the New England Patriots.
Rapoport has covered the NFL as a whole since 2009, so it’s safe to say that this report was not plucked out of thin air.
The crux of the issue with the 2015 Broncos is that the offense Peyton has come to embody is fundamentally different from the one that new head coach Gary Kubiak wants to install.
Kubiak is a Bill Walsh disciple, and plugged Terrell Davis into his version of the West Coast offense en route to back to back Super Bowl titles as the Broncos offensive coordinator in the late 90’s. The Tom Moore offense that Manning ran in Indianapolis is primarily rooted in the passing game.
This is why the Osweiler vs Manning debate is less about each particular quarterback, and should be more focused on how their talents fit into the greater offense.
The Broncos are built to run the ball.
In short, Peyton wants to play fast and isolate certain matchups over and over again, while Kubiak wants to keep defenses guessing and chew up the clock with short passes and runs to set up a rolling play action that takes shots down field (If you want a terrific and more detailed breakdown of the difference between these offenses, read this piece from Mile High Report).
With Manning’s litany of injuries right now, he simply doesn’t have the mobility to run the kinds of plays that are integral to a Kubiak offense.
No sport is more dependent upon the system that the players play within than football.
For example, Demarcus Ware played outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense in Dallas and tore offensive linemen to shreds for a decade, reserving himself a spot in the Hall of Fame. He played last season as a 4-3 defensive end in Jack del Rio’s defense in Denver and was still good, but not the monster we had come to expect. He finished with 10 sacks, his lowest career output, save for his rookie season and his last injury plagued campaign in Dallas.
This year, until he hurt his back, Ware was arguably the best defensive player in the league, winning his first career defensive player of the month award in October. A big reason for this improvement? New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips replaced del Rio’s 4-3 with his aggressive 3-4 scheme.
This is why the Osweiler vs Manning debate is less about each particular quarterback, and should be more focused on how their talents fit into the greater offense. The Broncos are built to run the ball.
Both CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman are good running backs with complimentary skillsets, and their underwhelming offensive line is down to both their 2nd string tackles, which has led to some pretty ugly showings against good pass rushes (Khalil Mack single handedly destroying their offense most comes to mind).
Since Peyton likes to play out of the shotgun, the only way to meld Kubiak’s offense to what Manning is most comfortable with is to run the base formation out of the pistol, where the running back lines up around 7 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Basic logic dictates that the closer you are to the line of scrimmage, the easier it is to run the ball, and the Broncos have looked like a much more dangerous offense with Osweiler under center, executing the scheme Kubiak was hired to install instead of the awkward hybrid that Manning ran earlier this season.
That said, each players’ respective talents still matter quite a bit at the game’s most important position, and even though Osweiler is a demonstrably better fit for the Denver offense than Peyton is, he has not done enough to convince this partisan that he is a better QB than Manning at this moment.
Osweiler just doesn’t make enough big plays, as evidenced by his 6.71 yards per attempt, ranking him 30th in the NFL (to prove how weird this year has been, the three guys ahead of him? Joe Flacco, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers).
Osweiler has done more than enough to secure the starting gig next year, but if Peyton has recovered from his injuries (as much as he can, plantar fascia doesn’t go away quickly), and can run Gary Kubiak’s offense (the biggest question mark in all of this), he should be the starting quarterback.
Of course Peyton Manning wouldn’t be happy as a backup, he’s Peyton Freaking Manning!
But the implication in a report like Rapoport’s is his unhappiness will be disruptive, and given Manning’s reputation as the consummate professional, that isn’t likely to happen. Media-generated hysteria is what’s disruptive.
It’s why Tim Tebow can never be a backup QB.
Where this all seems to be headed is an amicable parting of the ways between Manning and the Broncos in the offseason, with Peyton either retiring or signing with a QB needy win-now team like the Texans or the Jets. If he does return, it will probably be at a dramatically reduced salary.
Denver has three of its most important defensive players entering their first free agency this offseason, and Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe, and Von Miller won’t come cheap.
There is virtually no scenario where Peyton’s current contract stays on the books and all three of those guys return.
John Elway brought Peyton to Denver in order to win a Super Bowl and end his career much like Elway did, riding off into the sunset baked in blue and orange, but the closest this team has come to reaching that goal is being on the business end of a historic Super Bowl beatdown against the Legion of Boom (which this writer was present for, the Broncos performance forcing him to get drunk off of $14 beers).
This is Peyton’s last shot in Denver, and just because the quarterback of the future has looked adequate to good in his first few starts does not mean that a healthy and able living legend should be sitting on the bench.
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Cover Photo Credit: Craig Hawkins/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)