Are Peyton Manning's struggles on deep throws a warning sign for the playoffs and NFL bettors on Denver? Time is running out for him to win a second Super Bowl ring. Will this be the season he joins brother Eli with two of them?
Arm Strength Overrated
One of the first things that NFL scouts look for in a quarterback is arm strength. It's not something you can teach or learn. You either have it or you don't. But hasn't it been proven enough that arm strength is vastly overrated if you don't have other tools as well? Joe Montana was a third-round pick in large part because NFL types didn't think his arm would translate to the faster NFL from Notre Dame, but we all know how that turned out. Tom Brady certainly doesn't have a cannon and he's been to five Super Bowls.
Jeff George might have had the best arm in NFL history -- even better than John Elway some said. George was lousy in the pros. JaMarcus Russell had a cannon at LSU and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft. Russell probably was the biggest bust in league history and the Raiders still haven't recovered from that mistake. Jay Cutler could have the best arm of current quarterbacks. He has one career playoff win and the Bears would love to get rid of him this offseason.
Remember Ryan Leaf? Some teams preferred Leaf to Tennessee's Peyton Manning atop the 1998 draft board. Thankfully for Colts fans, team president Bill Polian wasn't one of those guys lured by the fact Leaf could throw a frozen rope. He went with Manning, and all No. 18 has done is become the greatest regular season quarterback the NFL has ever seen.
Manning Wearing Down?
Manning thrives because he's such a bright quarterback. If you have watched him over the years, he throws perhaps more "ducks" than any other quarterback. He also has happy feet, normally a warning sign. The offenses built around Manning are generally based on quick throws, which helps Manning avoid sacks because he's not mobile at all.
While the 38 year old Manning had another MVP-caliber season, throwing for 4,727 yards (fourth in NFL) and 39 touchdowns (second in league), he is likely on his way out of the league. That said, you could see Manning struggling more in the second half of the season, especially on deeper throws. The average quarterback this season completed about 37.6 percent of his passes thrown outside the numbers at least 15 yards downfield. It's on those throws where arm strength is paramount, not so much those long bombs (which aren't thrown very often). In Weeks 1-10, Manning completed 42.2 percent of his throws outside the numbers at least 15 yards downfield with six touchdowns and two interceptions. In Weeks 11-17, Manning's completion percentage on those throws was barely above 34 percent with two touchdowns and four interceptions.
Also in Weeks 1-10, Manning had a quarterback rating of at least 85.7 in all but one game. In the final seven games, Manning topped that number just twice. He also had three games with at least two interceptions in that stretch. In last season's record-setting MVP campaign, Manning had only two games overall with multiple picks. He also had just one game with a rating under 92.4.
Manning swears he's not hurt and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase says Manning hasn't lost any arm strength. Manning's yards per attempts this season was 7.92, which was down from 8.31 in 2013 but still good for fifth in the NFL. Mr. Cannon Arm himself, Cutler, averaged only 6.80 yards per attempt. Obviously that can be a subjective statistic as it depends on the offensive game plan -- Cutler threw a lot of dump-off passes to running back Matt Forte -- and whether your receivers can break tackles.
It also didn't help Manning's deep numbers that star tight end Julius Thomas missed three late season games with an injury and was hampered in a few others. He helps open up the field for outside targets like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos also became more run-heavy. Top two backs Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman were injury-prone all season, and C.J. Anderson became a rising star. In the final six games of the season, Anderson averaged more than 23 carries and 108 yards per game. Remember that Elway never could win a Super Bowl before Terrell Davis emerged as Denver's workhorse running back. A good running game opens up the field for deeper throws as well.
The Broncos are 7-point favorites on NFL odds for Sunday's divisional round game against visiting Indianapolis. The total is 53 at sportsbooks, highest of the four games.