The regular season accomplishments continued to pile up for Peyton Manning in 2013. But so, too, did the postseason disappointments. So where does that leave Manning as he and the retooled Denver Broncos prepare to open a new season? Winding down or starting anew? A little bit of each, actually.
Manning’s 2013 season was, in many ways, the greatest season ever by an NFL quarterback. He set single-season league records with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdown passes. He won an unprecedented fifth NFL most valuable player award. He reached his third career Super Bowl.
But just when Manning seemed poised to add a second Super Bowl triumph to his resume and bolster the case that he is the best quarterback ever, he and the Broncos gave a dud of a performance on the sport’s biggest stage and were overrun by the Seattle Seahawks last February. Manning’s career postseason record dropped to 11-12, including 1-2 in Super Bowls.
So even as Manning, at age 38, races against time and tries to add to the exploits of the career rebirth in Denver that has followed the neck injury which brought his 14-year stay in Indianapolis to a close, the 2014 NFL season dawns with him and the Broncos attempting to prove they can take the final step that eluded them last season.
“To have the year that he had last year and come up short of winning the Super Bowl, I think that has to be certainly a motivating factor for another year,” former NFL coach Dan Reeves said. “I think that’s what he does. He goes year to year and he asks himself, ‘Can I continue to play at the level that I find acceptable?’ That’s a very high level, as we’ve seen. I hope he plays for a long time. I certainly want to watch it.”
The Broncos did not stand pat following their 43-8 defeat to the Seahawks in the first New York-area Super Bowl. They fortified their defense in free agency by signing defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward.
They lost a productive wide receiver, Eric Decker, in free agency but signed speedster Emmanuel Sanders, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to replace him. Decker, now with the New York Jets, totaled 172 catches for 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns in his two seasons with Manning in Denver. Sanders never had even an 800-yard receiving season in Pittsburgh but averaged more than 13 yards per catch three times in four seasons.
“Emmanuel Sanders gives them the speed element that they really didn’t have so much last year,” former NFL quarterback Warren Moon said. “I think that helps them and it helps Peyton. They didn’t really have that dimension last year. If Peyton doesn’t have another major injury and they can take some of that wear and tear off of him, there’s no telling how long he can go. He’s not slowing down yet.”
Manning, like other top quarterbacks, could benefit this season from the NFL emphasizing enforcement of defensive holding in the secondary and illegal contact by pass defenders.
“There’s no question the rules are slanted that way,” in favor of quarterbacks and receivers, Moon said in a telephone interview last week. “It’s because fans like scoring. They like fantasy football, and the NFL wants to keep all that going. But when you look at last year and some of the teams that had the most success like San Francisco, like Seattle, like Carolina, it was teams that can run the football. Even though so many teams around the league are throwing the ball so much, I think it’s a copy-cat league and you’ll see more teams focus on trying to run the football well, too.”
Moon, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said he thinks the Broncos would be well served to stress their running game more this season.
“I think if they’re smart, they’ll try to run the ball a little more to keep up with the teams they’ll face in the playoffs,” Moon said. “They addressed the defensive part of it with the guys they brought in. I don’t think they’ll necessarily be a balanced team on offense. But I think they’ll be a little bit more balanced than they were, and that will help Peyton by slowing down the pass rush. Maybe he won’t take as many hits and that’ll prolong his career a little bit.”
Manning has thrown for 10,136 yards and 92 touchdowns, with only 21 interceptions, in two seasons with the Broncos. That came after he underwent a series of neck surgeries and sat out the 2011 season, then was released by the Colts as they readied to draft Andrew Luck to replace him. Even those closest to him wondered while he worked his way back whether he’d regain the strength he’d lost in his throwing arm; they weren’t certain that he’d ever be able to play at the same level again. That worry clearly has been put to rest.
“I could never sit here and tell you I knew this would happen,” Manning’s father, Archie, said shortly before last season’s Super Bowl. “We prayed for his health. I wanted him to play at a good level. I didn’t want him to have to quit because he said, ‘I’m 50 percent of what I was.’ I didn’t want him to have to quit under those conditions. It’s been a real blessing.”
Does Manning have superb seasons left in him? All indications point toward yes. He certainly remains an intense competitor, as he demonstrated during the preseason by running downfield to pick up a taunting penalty on D.J. Swearinger. A hit by the Houston Texans safety earlier in that exhibition game on Wes Welker had resulted in the Broncos wideout suffering a concussion. Manning was fined $8,268 by the NFL for the incident, later calling it money well spent.
“I think his health is good,” Reeves said last week by phone. “To me, now it’s more a matter of: How long is it gonna be where he has that passion? That’s usually when you see quarterbacks retire. They want to be great, and they know they can only be great as long as their preparation is great. He can play as long as he has that burning desire to be great and win another Super Bowl.”