Peyton Manning’s fourth-quarter mastery is underappreciated

Oct 4, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) throws a pass that is intercepted by Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) during the second half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Some people are never satisfied. No matter how good things are, no matter how many things are breaking in their direction at the moment, they grumble, complain and bellyache.

In the real world, these types of people are called malcontents; they’re constantly dissatisfied, making trouble as they bemoan the current state of affairs. In Denver, those who act this way are otherwise known as Broncos fans.

Despite having a team that is off to a 4-0 start, the football world in the Mile High City is not a happy, peaceful or contented place. Instead, it’s one filled with angst; it’s an environment wrought with anxiety, as those who back the orange and blue spend more time worrying about what’s going wrong than enjoying what’s going right.

And there’s no place where this shows up more than the analysis of the Broncos’ quarterback. With every game, every drive and every throw, Peyton Manning is evaluated like some sort of lab rat; his play is dissected in fine detail, as those who watch the team closely try to detect the slightest decrease in his level of play.

Of course, this is nothing new; similar analysis has occurred in every season since No. 18 returned after missing the entire 2011 season following neck surgery. But this time around, the microscope under which his play is evaluated is especially strong; and as a result, Manning’s reviews have been increasingly harsh.

Last week, the future Hall of Fame quarterback tried to laugh off the unforgiving judgments, comparing his play to that of the ragtag team of baseball misfits in “The Bad News Bears.” But there was definitely a deeper message to Manning’s weekly press conference than a few good punch lines; he clearly finds the constant analysis maddening.

And Manning should be annoyed by the fact that every move he makes is picked apart in great detail. One of the NFL’s all-time great passers has a right to be peeved that he’s not being graded on wins and losses anymore, but rather on the aesthetic value of each play.

It doesn’t matter that the Broncos are undefeated and atop their division. Everybody in Denver is too busy breaking down details like arm strength, wobbly passes and seven-step drops to enjoy the beauty of the big picture.

As a result, they’re about to miss what promises to be a great ride. This year’s Broncos team has the makings of something special, but a lot of people aren’t going to enjoy the journey because they’re too busy complaining that Manning isn’t perfect along the way.

They bemoan every bad throw, as though it’s some sort of sign that the gridiron version of the Grim Reaper is knocking on the locker room door. And they scoff at every wobbly pass, citing Father Time’s undefeated record with each incompletion.

But those negatives have been greatly outnumbered by the positives during the first quarter of the season, a fact that few in Denver or around the country want to realize. Instead, they prefer to portray Manning as some feeble old quarterback who bumbles his way through four quarters every week, only to get bailed out by the Broncos great defense with the game on the line.

So they focus on the bad passes, near interceptions and underthrown balls, acting as though those exact same things didn’t happen in 2012, ’13 and ’14, seasons in which Manning’s ability to still perform was also questioned at some point along the schedule. And they ignore the way in which No. 18 has led his team to four straight victories to start 2015.

Don’t think that’s the case? Take a look at the team’s final drives against Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit and Minnesota; in each instance, Manning engineered a masterpiece with the game on the line. He milked the clock against the Ravens, drove 80 yards for a game-tying score at Arrowhead in the game’s waning moments, put the dagger in the Lions and set up the winning field goal against Minnesota.

How many other quarterbacks in the league would be 4-for-4 in those situations? Who would look better behind center in each of those scenarios?

This is the underappreciated mastery of Manning; it’s the skillset that gets taken for granted the most. And it was on display once again on Sunday.

With 5:05 to play in the game, the Broncos and Vikings were tied 20-20, but the momentum was in Minnesota’s favor. Denver took possession at their own 24-yard line, needing to mount a drive to prevent a fourth-quarter collapse. No. 18 marched them 55 yards on nine plays, burning 3:20 off the clock and setting up the go-ahead field goal. And really, there was never really any doubt that he would get the job done.

But Manning won’t get much praise for it today. Instead, the credit will go to the defense, Brandon McManus, Ronnie Hillman and many of the other heroes from Sunday’s win. Meanwhile, the quarterback will be criticized for two costly interceptions that helped keep the Vikings hopes alive.

That’s because right now, nothing short of perfect is acceptable from Manning. Unless he hits every throw, posts big numbers and torches opposing defenses on every drive, a certain percentage of the viewing audience is going to complain, find fault in his play and contend that he’s over the hill.

But only one measure of flawlessness should matter – the Broncos unblemished record. And without their quarterback, a player who has shown nerves of steel in huge fourth-quarter drives in each victory, that 4-0 mark wouldn’t exist.

That’s worthy of some appreciation. Instead of criticizing Peyton Manning, football fans in Denver should be enjoying his virtuoso performances; they just have to go beyond the numbers and the aesthetics in order to see the beauty.

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