Are the Broncos sending Manning a message?

Denver Broncos history

When the media gathered on Christmas Eve for a post-practice Q&A with Peyton Manning, nobody thought they were going to get any insightful answers from the future Hall of Fame quarterback. The short session figured to be the standard clichés one would expect four days before the season finale against the Raiders, a lot of “one game at a time” type of stuff.

But then, somebody asked Manning if he planned on returning to the Broncos in 2015. Two days removed from a poor performance in Cincinnati, a game in which the quarterback threw four interceptions in a loss to the Bengals, the rumblings about next year had already begun. So the media was quick to jump on the will-he-or-won’t-he watch.

“I certainly plan on being back,” Manning said, offering more of a definitive response than expected. “If the Broncos will have me.”

That last line brought down the house, a real knee-slapper to the enthralled crowd that hangs on every word the quarterback utters and cackles at the slightest quip he makes. It was interpreted as down-home, easygoing, self-deprecating humor, the kind of line a politician would use to seem down to earth and good-natured.

Less that four weeks later, however, those six words seem to carry a different weight. Hindsight suggests that perhaps Manning wasn’t joking after all.

As ludicrous as that sounds, there are certainly plenty of indications that the Broncos are ready to move on from the quarterback who has guided them to three AFC West titles, a 38-10 regular season record and a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII. And Manning saw them, too.

“I guess I can’t give that simple answer,” he said after his team was knocked from the playoffs by the Colts, just 18 days after seemingly committing to return next season. “I’m processing it.”

Part of what Manning has to “process,” as he does after every season, is his health. And this year, when he had a quad injury that will keep him out of the Pro Bowl and was rumored to have other ailments that perhaps limited his effectiveness in the final month-and-a-half of the season, that’s even more the case.

But those things were there on Dec. 24, when Manning indicated that he indeed wants to keep playing. Thus, there’s more to the equation. This time around, the quarterback’s decision on his future is also going to be based on the situation he’ll be walking into when the 2015 NFL calendar commences in mid-March. Namely, the makeup of the Broncos coaching staff for next season will go a long way toward determining if Manning wants to sign up for another season or two in Denver.

On that front, the Broncos certainly aren’t tailoring their decisions to what fits their 38-year-old quarterback. In fact, they’re making moves that seem to indicate that they’re preparing for life after Manning.

Tomorrow, Gary Kubiak is expected to be introduced as the 15th head coach in franchise history. He’s a strong choice, having gained valuable experience during a nearly eight-year run as the top man in Houston. And he has ties to the organization, having played in Denver for nine seasons and served as assistant coach under Mike Shanahan for another 11.

But Kubiak’s system isn’t a good match for Manning’s skills. The coach favors a much more balanced attack, one highlighted by the zone-blocking, one-cut-and-go running game that the Broncos rode to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in the late 1990s; that’s not what the pass-happy quarterback likes to do. In addition, the new offense figures to feature plenty of play-action bootlegs and rollouts; that’s not Manning’s game, given his lack of mobility.

This mismatch is perhaps why Kubiak passed on Manning when the quarterback was a free agent in 2012. The upstart Texans, fresh off of a division title the season before, seemed like a great fit for the once-in-a-generation free agent; it was a good team that only needed a top-flight quarterback to get them over the hump. But Houston decided to stick with Matt Schaub instead.

Hiring Kubiak doesn’t necessarily shove Manning out the door, however. There’s a notion that the new head coach could shelve his system until the star quarterback decides to hang up his cleats. Then, he could roll it out for Brock Osweiler or whoever is tagged as the heir apparent in Denver.

But if that was the plan, keeping Adam Gase on board as the Broncos offensive coordinator would have made perfect sense, providing a bridge of sorts between the two eras. That move would have provided continuity, preventing an again veteran from having to spend precious moments of his dwindling career adapting to a new system. And it would have made sense for Gase, as another year guiding a Manning-led offense certainly would have kept him among the hot coaching prospects a year from now.

By all accounts, however, that’s not going to happen. Instead, Kubiak is expected to name Rick Dennison as his offensive coordinator, a coach very much schooled in the same methodology as his boss. He’s spent 16 of his 20 years in coaching working under Kubiak; in other words, they share the same offensive philosophy.

Obviously, Manning couldn’t have seen these coaching changes coming. But he very much could have forecasted the team’s desire to morph their offense; it happened right before his eyes.

Heading into Denver’s game at St. Louis this season, the Broncos were cruising along; they sat atop the AFC West with a 7-2 record and were a prime candidate to capture home-field advantage in the conference, even with a loss at New England on their résumé. And their quarterback was playing great, having thrown 29 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, while leading his team to an average of 31.8 points per game.

Following a loss to the Rams, however, the mindset shifted. An offensive performance that was eerily reminiscent of last year’s Super Bowl debacle, as the Broncos scored just seven points despite 389 yards passing from Manning, caused general manager John Elway to rethink his team’s approach. He decided it was time for the quarterback to be less of the Broncos offense.

“It was when I finally realized I’m not the one who has to do it all that we started winning championships,” Elway said to Sports Illustrated last month when explaining the decision. “Hell, I threw for 120 yards (in Super Bowl XXXII) and we won.”

That may be true, but it still probably didn’t sit well with Manning. After all, the quarterback had thrown 121 touchdowns and just 32 interceptions during his Broncos career prior to the Rams game. He had also led the Broncos to 33 wins in 41 games, as well as a trip to the Super Bowl. And he had guided the greatest offense in NFL history just the season before. It’s hard to imagine that he saw his role was the team’s biggest problem at the time.

Most would cite health as the reason for the change, but that theory doesn’t hold a lot of water. When the Broncos needed Manning to be Manning, such as in the third quarter at Cincinnati when they stormed back to take the lead, the quarterback was running the hurry-up offense as well as he did in 2012 or ’13. His numbers dipped because the game plan changed; period.

And finally, there was the line Elway dropped during his end-of-the-year press conference last week, when he was lamenting his team’s effort in season-ending losses.

“Two years in a row, I didn’t feel like we went out kicking and screaming,” the general manager said, a sentiment that few who watched Super Bowl XLVIII or the Divisional Playoff Game would argue.

Most took the line as a jab at John Fox, since most of the Q&A session revolved around the head coach’s departure. But perhaps it was also aimed at the team’s highest-paid player.

When Elway was in the twilight of his career, he was putting his body on the line in the pursuit of a championship, famously diving through the air for a first down in Super Bowl XXXII. That same fire and passion wasn’t visible from Manning against the Seahawks or Colts; instead, the quarterback was his usual robotic self on the field and sideline.

Maybe it all means nothing. Perhaps the mid-season change in philosophy, hiring a new head coach who is a mismatch, not keeping around an offensive coordinator who is familiar with the quarterback and taking a shot at the intestinal fortitude of the team has nothing to do with Manning.

Or maybe the Broncos think they could put the $21.5 million dollars in cap space set aside for a quarterback who will turn 39 in March to better use. Perhaps those dollars are earmarked for Demaryius Thomas, Terrance Knighton, Orlando Franklin and other free agents, maybe even a guy like Ndamukong Suh.

If that’s the case, Peyton Manning wasn’t being witty on Christmas Eve; he was telling everyone the truth. We just all failed to pick up on the message.

The quarterback wants to play in 2015. But it’s unclear if the Broncos want him in Denver.