Will this be the final season in the Hall of Fame career of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning? Considering he's 39, I think that's probably a fair assessment no matter what the team does. Will Manning take another step back in 2015?
Manning Still Pretty Good In 2014!
It's really not fair in a way to say that Manning regressed in 2014. I mean, the guy completed 66.2 percent of his passes for 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns, good for a rating of 101.5. The completion percentage was sixth in the NFL, the yardage fourth and the touchdowns second by one to Andrew Luck, his replacement in Indianapolis. Those are the types of numbers guys like Joe Montana or Terry Bradshaw or Troy Aikman could only dream of.
Frankly, there was nowhere to go but down for Manning after his record-setting 2013 season when he won a record fifth NFL MVP Award. That season he set league records with 5,477 yards passing and 55 touchdowns as Denver set an NFL record in scoring.
If you do want to nitpick, it did appear that Manning's play slid late last season, but he was playing through injury. For example, in October he completed 70.9 percent of his passes for 1,320 yards, 14 touchdowns and two picks, a rating of 127.4 that would have led the league by far. In November, he completed 64.3 percent for 1,603 yards 14 TDs and six picks, a rating of 95.1. And in December, he completed only 63.6 percent for 990 yards, three touchdowns and six interceptions, a rating of 76.8. Manning followed that up with a lousy postseason performance against the Indianapolis Colts in a loss. He averaged fewer than five yards per attempt and completed 56.5 percent of his passes (including one completion in eight attempts on passes 20 yards or more) for a rating of 75.5.
New Scheme In Denver
Manning will have to learn a new system this season under head coach Gary Kubiak; former Broncos coach John Fox was canned and has landed in Chicago. He brought with him ex-Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, a guy Manning was so high on that he recommended Gase for a few head-coaching openings. He nearly took the San Francisco gig. Kubiak has said that he wants Manning under center more often.
Also, Manning's security blanket, Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas, left for big money to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Manning took a $4 million pay cut for this season in part to hopefully help the team keep Thomas. He had 12 touchdown catches last season and Manning's numbers started to dip when Thomas was injured. Thomas had 13 catches in the red zone in 2014, including nine for touchdowns. Only Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb had more (10). Over the past two seasons, Thomas has 27 catches and 17 touchdowns in the red zone.
But perhaps the bigger loss could be left tackle Ryan Clady, one of the best in the business. He's going to miss the season with a torn ACL. The Broncos still also have to decide on a starter at left guard and center as well. So that likely means four new starters for a group that has to learn Kubiak's zone blocking system. The only returning starter is Louis Vasquez, will be in a different spot as he is expected to move back to right guard after playing last season at right tackle. To be fair, Manning's huge 2013 season was when Clady missed the season with a Lisfranc fracture in his foot. I do believe the Broncos will run the ball more this season, led by C.J. Anderson, who came on strong late last season. Justin Forsett had a career season last year in Baltimore, where Kubiak was offensive coordinator. The Baltimore Ravens' percentage of shotgun plays dropped from 73.1 percent in 2013 to a league-low 24.1 percent last year under Kubiak. The Broncos ran shotgun 73 percent of the time in 2014.
So will Manning regress more this season? I suppose the answer is yes, but he's still likely to throw for 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns or so. He is 2,148 passing yards from breaking that career record held by Brett Favre. It would be fitting, wouldn't it, for Manning to set that record in Week 9 at Indianapolis.