And so the 2015–16 NFL season draws to a close with the Denver Broncos 24–10 victory against the more-fancied Carolina Panthers. And with it, the curtain also falls on the career of one Peyton Williams Manning, bowing out after 18 seasons in the NFL.
It is not uncommon for a sportsman’s final year to be his worst — otherwise, why would he retire — but in Manning’s case it feels like an oddity, perhaps doubly so given that he had just quarterbacked his team to a Super Bowl victory over supposedly superior opponents.
Much of the credit for the Broncos Super Bowl win will rightly go to their extraordinary defence, led by MVP Von Miller, who managed to stifle the Panthers explosive offense, restricting them to a single touchdown from running back Jonathan Stewart to go along with Graham Gano’s late field goal.
And yet, despite the Broncos convincing victory and marked defensive superiority, one is left with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction that revolves around Manning. Can it be right that one of the games great gunslingers is denied the storybook ending, the chance to walk off into the sunset having turned on the old magic one last time? That, unfortunately, is the way of things: the thing about storybook endings is they tend to be confined to storybooks.
Sadly, very few professional athletes get the chance to go out on their own terms, let alone a high and in that one regard Manning is sadly no exception.
When faced with the enormous weight of statistics that for so long have made the case for Manning as the greatest quarterback of all time, there can be no denying that 2015 was by some measure the worst season of his career.
Nearly double the number of interceptions (17) to touchdowns (9), the only time since his rookie year he threw more interceptions than touchdowns; fewest passing attempts (331), completions (198), passing yards (2,249) and touchdowns, with the lowest passer rating (67.9); lowest completion percentage (59.8) and yards-per-attempt (6.8) since his rookie season. Maybe his mere presence over his capable backup, Brock Osweiler, was enough to see the Broncos through Manning’s ‘last rodeo’, but his contribution to the team was much diminished from previous years.
It is, of course, those same statistics that have set Manning apart throughout his career.
Despite fears that the 2011 neck surgery that so restricted his throwing would also end his career, Manning went on to set the single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdown passes (55) for the Broncos in 2013, two seasons after being waived by the team that drafted him 14 years previously, the Indianapolis Colts. And until some other statistical freak comes along to challenge Manning’s supremacy, those same statistics will form part of the discussion about his legacy.
‘Legacy’ is of course an odd thing to distill without the benefit of several years’ perspective. But it is interesting to speculate on what Manning’s greatest contribution to the game will have been when viewed many years hence. It is said that the greatest players change the way the game is played, forcing opponents to adapt the game to their singular skills.
Think of Lawrence Taylor’s demolition of NFL offenses in the 1980’s and Joe Gibbs’ development of the one-back offense to compensate. Or Mel Blount’s ferocious man-to-man pass coverage that led the NFL to introduce a five-yard limit on contact with pass receivers.
Not all great players, however, have led directly to rule or tactical changes. Perhaps the most direct comparison with Manning is another statistical freak — and competitor for those “best ever” tags — wide receiver Jerry Rice. Despite holding more receiving records than is reasonable to list here — it would probably be easier to list the receiving records he doesn’t hold — it is difficult to pinpoint a particular tactical innovation that Rice helped to usher in. More important, perhaps, was his prodigious work ethic.
By training relentlessly both during the season and in the off season, Rice demonstrated a new standard of dedication for others to aspire to. Every route on the field, every cut, was precision personified. Rice did what others had done before, just much better: perhaps no-one since has shown quite the same dedication to their craft. When he finally retired in 2004, he had enough records and silverware to back up that assertion.
So into which category does Manning fall: the innovator or the craftsman? Perhaps a little of both. His dedication to his craft is also well-reported: the hours of study, the perfectionism both on the practice field and during the game. The results are clear to see, even if one limits the scope to the statistics. Much like Rice, some of his records may last for decades.
But Manning may also have changed the way the game is played, particularly with his use of audibles. In the old days, audibles were used exclusively if a defense had lined up in such a way that the quarterback knew the chosen play was dead in the water. As a last resort, he could audible out a change at the line of scrimmage, substituting a run for a pass or switching the direction of the play. With the introduction of no huddle and hurry-up offenses, teams began to use audibles more regularly, calling plays directly at the line of scrimmage.
Nowadays, however, there is a new wrinkle to this system: calling the play depending on the weakness of the defense, not just in personnel but in formation, coverage, the works. This involves assessing the defense once the offense is already lined up at the line of scrimmage, usually with a pre-snap cadence from the quarterback and men in motion to stimulate the defense into revealing their alignment, blitz strategy and coverage.
Only once the quarterback has worked out where the defense is weakest does he adjust the play and snap the ball. This in turn means that offenses need to get to the line more quickly so as not to run out the play clock before all that pre-snap interrogation has taken place, which means that the play calling is largely in the hands of the quarterback: operating in this hurry-up mode leaves no time to receive the play from the sideline and call it from a huddle.
This of course, places two extra responsibilities on the quarterback’s shoulders. Firstly, there is the delegation of the offensive coordinator’s role of calling the right play for the specific down, distance and defense. On top of this is the suitably rapid assimilation of the defensive setup in order to make the necessary changes before the snap.
Probably the best current exponent of this is Green Bay’s Aaron Rogers, but for most of his career the master was Manning. Beyond the lengthy and somewhat comical dissections of his famous “Omaha” call, Manning was renowned for the variety and sophistication of his pre-snap audibles. All of these audibles are a result of being able to make read of a defense’s intent in a matter of seconds at the line of scrimmage. And that in turn is a result of many hours studying game film to identify a particular defense’s idiosyncrasies and preferences, coupled to practice, practice and more practice.
So perhaps in years to come we will look back on his contribution to the game by referring to this kind of read-and-adjust hurry-up offense as a ‘Manning offense’.
Or maybe he will be the last great pocket passer, before every quarterback became an athlete, required to play some part in a pistol offense-style running game.
Only time will tell.