Next Sunday the Green Bay Packers will see first-hand the NFL’s strange new sight: Peyton Manning, game manager.
Manning is one of the league’s all-time greats and has a record five MVP awards as proof. But his rapidly diminishing arm talent, due in part to neck-fusion surgery in 2011, has rendered him an ordinary NFL quarterback this season.
His decline dates at least to last season, and though Manning’s Denver Broncos are 6-0, it now is beyond questioning. His passer rating of 72.5 is No. 33 in the league among quarterbacks who qualify for the rankings, and he has thrown more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (seven). That tells you most of what you need to know about the player he has become.
The main problem is that he has lost not only arm strength, but the ability to play fast — to get the ball out quickly after making his reads — and put the ball on the money pass after pass.
“He used to have nice (quick) twitch and an explosive, quick release, and obviously was very accurate,” a scout for an AFC West team said this week. “That was probably the main thing, his accuracy. Now with the surgery and with time, being (39) years old, it takes a toll on the arm. He still can make some pretty good throws, but if you want him to make 40 throws a game you lose the accuracy and velocity.”
Manning’s neck injury no doubt has hastened his decline. The loss of arm strength is obvious. He has said that since surgery in 2011 he hasn’t had full feeling in the fingertips of his throwing hand. The nerve damage probably has slowed his throwing reaction time, as well.
But history shows he’s also at an age when even the longest-playing NFL quarterbacks usually experience major decline.
Going back to the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, only six quarterbacks other than Manning have started at least six games in a season in which they turned 39 or older: Brett Favre, Warren Moon, Vinny Testaverde, Jim Plunkett, Doug Flutie and Len Dawson.
Only one of them, Favre, played at a high level at 39 or older. At age 40 in 2009, his 107.2 rating ranked No. 2 in the NFL that season, and he led the Minnesota Vikings to a 12-4 regular-season record and the NFC Championship Game.
The highest rating of the rest was Moon’s 91.5 at age 39 with the Vikings in 1995. But he went only 8-8. None of the others had better than .500 records, either.
In fact, age 38 seems to be an actuarial demarcation line for quarterbacks. More than a handful have played well at that age, but so few thereafter.
At 38, Manning had a 101.5 rating and 12-4 record, though he clearly was fading by the Broncos’ home playoff loss to Indianapolis last January.
And there are plenty of others. Favre at age 38 in 2007 took the Packers to the NFC Championship Game. Kurt Warner at 38 in 2009 had a 10-5 record as a starter and led Arizona to a playoff shootout win over the Packers. John Elway at 38 in 1998 won the Super Bowl with Denver. Earl Morrell at 38 went 9-0 filling in for injured Bob Griese during Miami’s unbeaten season in 1972.
Craig Morton (10-5 in 1981), Phil Simms (11-5 in '93), Joe Montana (9-5 in ’94 ), Moon (9-6 in '94) and Testaverde (10-6 in '01) all had winning seasons and went to the playoffs in the season they turned 38.
That makes Tom Brady’s next few seasons a great case study. He turned 38 in August and is having one of his best years (118.4 rating, 5-0 record). His talk of playing another 10 years is pie in the sky — it has to be, right? — but based on his play this year, he might surpass Favre as the best quarterback ever at age 40 or older.
Regardless, if the Broncos are to get to the Super Bowl this season, they'll have to do it with defense, and with Manning playing a decidedly subordinate role. They might have the defense to do it — they rank No. 2 in the league in fewest yards allowed and No. 4 in fewest points.
Now, this isn't to say Manning can’t play. Because of his anticipation and ability to read defenses, he’s still capable of making exquisite throws, such as his 32-yard strike to Emmanuel Sanders that turned into a 75-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Cleveland last week.
But Manning can in no way carry this team or make plays like that with any consistency.
He has what the scout described as Pro Bowl-caliber receivers in Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, yet the Broncos’ offense ranks a remarkable No. 29 in total yards. Before that pass to Sanders, the Broncos had gone 26 drives without a touchdown.
It’s also not clear Manning and coach Gary Kubiak have fully accepted the new reality. Manning has attempted at least 35 passes in five of six games. His 237 attempts ties for fourth-most in the league. With the rate he’s throwing interceptions, the emphasis on throwing will have to change or somebody’s going to knock the Broncos out of the playoffs no matter how good Denver’s defense is.
The Packers go to Denver for the Sunday night game on Nov. 1 in a matchup of unbeatens — the Broncos are on their bye this weekend also — and will see a much different Manning than the one who won five MVPs. It will be a Manning they want to throw more, not less, as incredible as that sounds.
“There used to be times when you just asked him to make the throw and you could count on it happening,” the scout said. “Now (defenses) are jumping those things and making him hold onto the ball more.”
firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.