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Monday, September 10, 2012

Peyton Manning Solidifies the Denver Broncos as Contenders (9.10.12)

It may have been just one game, but that's more than enough for me to completely buy in on the Peyton Manning era in Denver.

I have been a Broncos fan since I was seven years old. When Mark Brunell and the Jacksonville Jaguars upset my favorite team in the '96 playoffs, I felt my first taste of bitter defeat and failed expectations.

Fortunately, my heartbreak soon turned into massive gloating as the new look Broncos unveiled new uniforms and John Elway and Terrell Davis dominated the league in '97 and '98 for consecutive Super Bowl victories.

However, the party would immediately shut down as if it was 12:00 in Isla Vista and the cops were banging on the door. Elway retired and Davis tore his ACL and MCL while trying to make a tackle following a horrible read that led Brian Griese to throw an interception. Just like that, the glory days vanished.

Following the stellar Hall of Fame career of Elway, the Broncos would feature a carousel at the quarterback position in an attempt to find their next franchise quarterback. Manning marks the sixth quarterback to be "The Guy" for Denver since '99.

Despite finishing 6-10 in his first year as a starter, Griese would turn things around in year two by leading the Broncos to the playoffs with an 11-5 record. Griese's efforts earned him his first and only Pro Bowl selection. The Broncos lost to the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens, but the future looked bright for the Griese era. After a stellar '00 campaign that featured 19 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions, Griese fell off significantly. In '01, Griese tossed 23 touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions, and the Broncos finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. In '02, Griese regressed even further, tossing just 15 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions as the Broncos finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs once again.

Tired of watching Griese regress from such a promising start, the Broncos released him and signed Jake "The Snake" Plummer. Unfortunately, Plummer would miss five games throughout the season, but he was clearly a gamer — the Broncos went 9-2 during his 11 starts. The Broncos finished the '03 season 10-6, but they lost in the Wild Card Playoffs to Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The following season, Plummer led the Broncos to a 10-6 record, but once again Manning and the Colts would knock the Broncos out in the Wild Card Playoffs.

Plummer responded in '05 with his greatest season ever. Plummer tossed 18 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions as he garnered his first and only Pro Bowl selection. The Broncos finished the season 13-3 and they took down the '04 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the Divisional Playoffs. However, in the AFC Conference Championship Game, Plummer struggled, tossing two picks, and the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers won 34-17.

In the '06 season, Plummer struggled mightily and was benched in favor of rookie Jay Cutler. After 11 games, Plummer had thrown 11 touchdowns compared to 13 interceptions. However, the Broncos were 7-4 at this point. After consecutive losses to divisional opponents, the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs, coach Mike Shanahan made the controversial decision to bench Plummer in favor of Cutler. Cutler lost his first two starts, then won two, and then lost a must win game against the San Francisco 49ers in a heartbreaking 26-23 overtime defeat. The Broncos finished the season 9-7 and lost out on a tiebreaker with the Chiefs for the Wild Card spot.

Following the season, Plummer was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Instead of suiting up for the Bucs, Plummer decided to retire. Coach Jon Gruden tried to convince Plummer to come out of retirement and start for the Bucs since he was still under contract, but Plummer declined. Despite Plummer's poor play, I will always blame Shanahan for throwing away that '06 season.

Shanahan may have loved Cutler's arm strength and potential, but '07 would not turn out well. Cutler finished the season with decent numbers as he threw 20 touchdowns compared to 14 interceptions, but the Broncos finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for a consecutive season. The season never offered even a glimpse of the playoffs, and it was disheartening to consider that just two seasons prior the Broncos were a game away from the Super Bowl.

In '08, Cutler turned in a Pro Bowl season with a whopping 4,526 passing yards, and 25 touchdowns compared to 18 interceptions. However, the Broncos lost their final three games of the season to slip to 8-8 and miss the playoffs. The Broncos needed just one win in those three games in order to secure a playoff berth, but they suffered an embarrassing choke job that culminated in a pathetic 52-25 thrashing by the San Diego Chargers during the final game of the season — San Diego won the tie breaker and made the playoffs with an 8-8 record despite sitting at 4-8 after Week 13.

Ten years removed from his Super Bowl XXXIII victory in the '98 season, Shanahan was fired after dismal seasons and questionable decisions. Josh McDaniels, a member of the New England Patriot's coaching staff since '01, was hired as the new head coach. McDaniels immediately made his presence felt as he tried to trade Cutler for his young quarterback from New England, Matt Cassel. The alleged trade blew up in McDaniels' face, and Cutler soon demanded a trade after feeling backstabbed and sense of mistrust. The vast potential of Cutler, the 11th pick in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft, was traded for the middling Kyle Orton, two first round picks, and a third round pick.

With Kyle Orton at the helm in the '09 season, the Broncos started 6-0 and McDaniels looked like a genius. The defense played lights out, allowing just 66 total points in those first six games. However, the team would soon suffer a humiliating fall. The Broncos lost their next four games, then won two in a row, and then closed the season with four consecutive losses. The Broncos finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs again.

However, that may not have been the case if McDaniels hadn't pulled a Shannahan and threw away the season. Facing the Chiefs in the final game of the season, the Broncos were still in the hunt for a potential playoff berth. In an effort to prove a point, McDaniels benched his Pro Bowl receiver, Brandon Marshall, for the entire game after Marhsall failed to show up to a physical therapy session on time. 101 receptions, 1,120 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns were left on the bench as the Chiefs stomped Denver with a 44-24 victory.

Orton finished the season with strong numbers, 3,802 yards, 21 touchdowns, and just 12 interceptions, but the team fell off a cliff as they won just two of their final 10 games.

Following the season, the riff between McDaniels and Marhsall proved too much, and Marshall was traded to the Miami Dolphins for two second round picks. Just like that, the future was given away. The dynamic duo of Cutler and Marshall was destroyed solely by McDaniels.

In '10, the Broncos were atrocious. After starting 3-10 with Orton at the helm, Tim Tebow was handed the starting quarterback position for the final three games. Tebow, the 25th pick in the first round by McDaniels, was considered by many to be a reach — many analysts felt Tebow could have been selected much later, and no earlier than the third round.

Before Tebow could take the field, his head coach was fired. After a 10-6 loss to the Chiefs in Week 13, McDaniels was fired, ending his coaching tenure with an 11-17 record for the Broncos — with a 5-17 record after an impressive 6-0 start. Interim head coach Eric Studesville stepped in for the final four games.

After Orton completed less than 50% of his passes and tossed three interceptions in a humiliating 43-13 beat down by the Arizona Cardinals, Studesville turned to the rookie, Tebow, for the final three games. Although Orton was solid with 3,653 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, he just couldn't lead the team to victory.

Tebow finished with a 1-2 record, but he showed glimpses of his considerable potential as a playmaker, especially after turning a 26-7 deficit against the Chargers in the final game of the season into a one possession game at 33-28. The Broncos recovered an onside kick with 23 seconds remaining in the game, but Tebow couldn't complete a hail mary for the win. With the loss, the Broncos finished the season 4-12 and missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season.

Heading into the '11 season, the Broncos hired John Fox to be their new head coach. Orton didn't do Fox any favors as he led the team to a 1-4 record to start the season. With just eight touchdowns compared to seven interceptions in the first five games of the season, the chants for Tebow became deafening. Fox finally submitted by giving Tebow a chance against the Chargers in the second half of Week 5. Facing a 23-10 deficit at the half, Tebow nearly led a furious comeback, but his final pass fell incomplete in the end zone and the Broncos lost 29-24. Despite the loss, Tebow-mania commenced.

Tebow led Denver to victories in seven of the next eight games, including three overtime victories. Tebow may have looked like garbage for the first three quarters of those seven victories, but in the fourth quarter he turned into an unstoppable playmaker.

In his first start of the season against the Miami Dolphins, Tebow rallied the Broncos from a 15-0 deficit with just three minutes remaining in the game to force overtime and eventually win with a game ending field goal. The outcome marked the first time in NFL history that a team won after trailing by 15 or more points with three minutes or less remaining in a game. With six come from behind fourth quarter or overtime victories in just 11 career starts, Tebow became a national phenomenon.

The phenomenon skidded with three consecutive losses to end the season, but the Broncos squeaked into the playoffs with an 8-8 record by winning a tie breaker with the Oakland Raiders for the AFC West title  — garnering home field advantage in the process due to the division title.

In his first career playoff game, Tebow, turned in one of the most memorable performances in NFL history. Facing the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers defense in the Wild Card Playoffs, Tebow lit up Pittsburgh for 316 passing yards, two passing touchdowns, 50 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, and a memorable walk-off 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime for the victory. Tebow's clutch performance cemented his ties to Christ as he finished with 316 passing yards, 31.6 yards per completion, and the Nielson ratings for the game peaked at 31.6 — "John 3:16" was the top search item on Google the following morning, followed by "Tebow," and "Tim Tebow."

The following week, the Patriots destroyed the Broncos 45-10 in the Divisional Playoffs en route to the Super Bowl, but the Tebow era seemed vast and full of potential.

Although Fox and Elway, the Executive Vice President of Football Operations, seemed to cringe with every win Tebow accumulated, I figured they would be excited about the considerable upside of Tebow. Tebow finished the regular season with a 7-4 record, while amassing 1,729 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, six interceptions, 660 rushing yards, and six rushing touchdowns.

Fox and Elway were mortified by Tebow's 46.5% completion percentage, but honestly, how much worse could he be? Seriously, the only way for Tebow to go was up. Following the playoffs, Elway confirmed that Tebow would be the starting quarterback going into training camp in 2012. The man couldn't even confirm that Tebow would be the starter heading into the season. Seriously Elway? Another chance for Orton? Come on!

From the beginning, I believed that Fox and Elway wanted Tebow to fail. They heard the chants for Tebow, and they finally figured, "Ok, let's give the fans what they want, he'll fail, and we can resume our plan." Then Tebow ran off a miraculous season, and Fox and Elway had to sit there and act like they supported him.

By no means do I believe that Tebow is a great quarterback, but I do believe that he is a winning quarterback. Take a look Michael Vick's numbers early in his career, there is a strong resemblance. Vick had dismal accuracy, but he made up for it with plays on the ground, and he won ball games — notoriously becoming the first opposing quarterback to hand the Green Bay Packers a loss at home in the playoffs in the '02 season. Tebow is not as agile as Vick, but he does the same things — moves the chains with clutch plays either on the ground or through the air. I don't recall anyone bashing Vick like the national media blasted Tebow for his deficiencies.

Then, crazy happened. Peyton Manning was released by the Colts on March 7, 2012. With Manning out of the lineup for the entire year due to an injury to his neck that required multiple surgeries, including a serious cervical fusion procedure, the Colts struggled mightily and finished 2-14. Due to such struggles, the Colts ended up garnering the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. With Andrew Luck considered to be the next Manning, the Colts decided to release Manning due to their intentions to draft Luck.

After workouts for a couple of teams, Manning decided that Denver was the place for him. Elway sold Manning on the idea of winning a Super Bowl as a veteran quarterback with something to prove — a role Elway held in '97 and '98 after going 0-3 in his first cracks at a Super Bowl. Elway rode off into the sunset as a champion, and he served as proof that Manning could do the same thing. Manning signed with the Broncos on March 20, 2012, for $96 million over five years.

The next day, Tebow, along with a seventh round pick, was traded to the New York Jets for a fourth and sixth round pick.

Just like that, my expectations for the Broncos, as well as all of Denver's, went from dreaming about the future and Tebow's development to a Super Bowl or bust mentality. It's pretty jarring when you truly contemplate it. We had a young player that could do things like Mike Vick, someone that carried considerable risk but also carried significant potential. Instead, we jettisoned the future ten years for the present — a three year window at best.

Despite my affinity for Tebow, I cannot argue with the signing of Manning. However, I can point out that Manning would have been a great mentor for Tebow. There was no need to trade him — it's not like he's starting or anything, and he decided to spurn Jacksonville despite a guaranteed role as the starting quarterback. And it's not like anyone is going to chant for Tebow over Manning — Manning isn't god-awful like Orton. Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for years and learned from one of the best, why couldn't Tebow learn from Manning for the next three years? Do we really believe Manning is going to fulfill that five year deal? I don't, and even if he does, by then Tebow would definitely be a developed quarterback both physically and mentally.

Whatever the case, Tebow is gone, and now it's time for Manning. And boy oh boy did Manning look great against the Steelers in his first game as the quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Manning completed 19-26 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, earning an impressive 129.2 quarterback rating. The guy hadn't played an official NFL game in 19 months, yet he stepped in like he never missed a beat.

After stalling on the opening three drives of the game, coach Fox and the offensive coordinator allowed Manning to do what he does best and run the no-huddle offense. Manning led scoring drives on four of the next six series while operating out of the no-huddle — the only times Denver didn't score occurred when Manning took a knee at the end of the first half and a knee at the end of the game. So essentially, Manning led Denver to three straight touchdowns and a field goal.

Manning absolutely torched the Steelers with his mind. On Denver's first touchdown, Manning audibled to a draw play out of the shotgun that allowed Knowshon Moreno to score a seven-yard rushing touchdown. The touchdown capped a 12 play drive that traveled 80 yards and featured the no-huddle the entire way.

In the third quarter, Manning only took two snaps, but his second snap featured an audible to a screen that led to a 71-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. Manning explained after the game that he recognized the coverage from a prior running play that the Broncos ran out of a similar formation, so Manning decided to audible to a play-action bubble screen. With the blitz coming from the right outside linebacker (left of Manning), and the play-action from the shotgun causing Troy Polamalu to also bite on the run from his coverage position, Manning sent the pass out to the left for Thomas. With Polamalu out of position, and three Broncos ahead of Thomas to set blocks, Thomas burned down the sideline for a touchdown to give Denver a 14-13 lead at the 5:29 mark. The touchdown marked Manning's first as a Bronco and the 400th of his career.

After Ben Roethlisberger capped off his own impressive drive early in the fourth quarter, Manning went to work again. Working out of the no-huddle, Manning led Denver on a 10 play drive that spanned 80 yards for another touchdown. Manning's touchdown pass featured another audible at the line. Manning looked over at his tight end, Jacob Tamme, and he moved his thumbs as if he was mimicking movements on an Xbox controller. Once the ball was snapped, Manning rolled out left and tossed a one-yard touchdown pass as Tamme ran a shallow out route. On the two-point conversion attempt, Manning went through his reads and found his fourth option, Willis McGahee, to put Denver ahead by three, 22-19 at the 9:00 mark.

Following a stalled drive by Pittsburgh, Manning led Denver on a 12 play, 51-yard drive that took 4:50 off the clock and led to a field goal, putting Denver ahead 25-19 with 2:18 left in the game.

Although Manning was upset about failing to convert a touchdown, the Denver defense put the game away. Tracy Porter, Denver's big free agent cornerback signing, stepped up to pick off Roethlisberger for a 43-yard pick six, putting Denver ahead for good, 31-19. To close the game, Roethlisberger was sacked on three of his four dropbacks, with two coming from Von Miller and one from Wesley Woodyard. Manning took two knees to close the game.

Overall, Manning was amazing. He led Denver on scoring drives of 12, 2, 10, and 12 plays. When the Steelers tried to blitz him, he burned them. Pittsburgh blitzed Manning on 14 of his 29 drop backs, good for two sacks; however, Manning threw 9-11 for 152 yards and two touchdowns in those blitzing situations. Manning controlled the pace by running the no-huddle. In doing so, the Steelers failed to generate the type of pressure they usually bring. Pittsburgh blitzed, but they weren't successful due to tired legs. Unable to perform substitutions due to Manning's no-huddle, the pressure waned throughout the game.

Manning also relegated Polamalu to deep safety coverage. Anytime Polamalu came up in the box, Manning burned the Steelers with a pass, causing Polamalu to concede and play back. Even further, when Polamalu did play back, Manning would often audible to a draw, allowing McGahee and Moreno to not have to worry about Polamalu in the box. Manning's first touchdown was a direct result of Polamalu being antsy as a safety due to his unwillingness to just sit back and roam. Polamalu likes to make plays, and he thought he would be making one when he left his coverage responsibility and bit on the play action fake in the third quarter. But Manning saw it coming a mile away, and he hit Thomas on the bubble screen for the long touchdown.

To say the least, Manning's fourth quarter comeback felt nothing like a Tebow comeback. Manning was in control the entire game, and he made the right play just about every time. Clearly, Manning is the smartest player on the field at all times, and his work as the field general against a great Steelers defense was impressive.

Although it's just one game, I am fully invested in Manning and the Super Bowl aspirations of the Denver Broncos. Over the offseason, I looked at Denver's schedule, and I worried about Denver being able to even make the playoffs — Denver has the second toughest schedule in the NFL according to last season's win percentage — however; Manning calmed my concerns in one fell swoop. With Manning under center, anything is possible — he looked like the former four time MVP and Super Bowl champion that won over 10 games in 11 out of his 13 years as a member of the Colts. If the Colts were considered contenders every year with Manning at the helm, then the Broncos must be contenders as well.

After years and years of potential at the quarterback position for the Denver Broncos (other than Orton), this time the potential is actually proven. Here's to Manning and the Broncos having a stellar season and hopefully reaching the Super Bowl. Hey, I'm not the only one who thinks it can happen, check out Peter King.

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