On the surface, it sounds like a good idea. The logic is sound. The motive is pure. And the rationale adds up.
But all of that aside, the idea of giving Peyton Manning time off during the 2015 season is a foolish one. The Broncos are simply asking for trouble if the force their quarterback to shut it down at times during the upcoming campaign.
Keeping the 39-year-old quarterback healthy is the reason why Gary Kubiak is considering the idea. The new head coach said last week that the team will try to do for Manning what they did for John Elway late in his career, giving him mental and physical breaks during training camp, practices and even regular-season games; during those spells, they’ll turn the reins over to No. 2 quarterback Brock Osweiler, just as Elway did to Bubby Brister during Denver’s back-to-back Super Bowl seasons in 1997 and ’98.
But Manning isn’t Elway; they are completely different types of quarterbacks, with totally different styles of play. No. 7 was much more of an improviser, a player who relied on his instincts and athleticism to make plays, even late in his career. On the other hand, No. 18 is a tactician, a signal caller who needs the timing that comes with knowing exactly how and when everything is going to happen in order to be at his best.
Time off didn’t derail Elway’s game; if anything, it helped it, as he had a chance to rest his aging body. But breaks aren’t good for Manning; he’s a player who has always counted on playing every snap – in practice and in games – to keep himself mentally and physically sharp.
Manning is a quarterback who relies on rhythm; he’s a creature of habit, a player who thrives on routine. When that pattern is broken, even for a short time and good reasons, things tend to get a little haywire. That’s what history shows.
During his time in Indianapolis, it was an annual occurrence for Manning’s team to have its playoff positioning wrapped by before the regular season was concluded. As a result, it was annual rite for those covering the Colts to debate what the team should do during a meaningless regular-season game with their star quarterback.
In 2004, ’05, ’07 and ’08, the Colts essentially shut Manning down during the season finale; while he technically played in the games, to keep his streak of starts alive, he didn’t play long. Across all four games, the QB completed 23 of 27 passes for a grand total of 201 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions; it was spot duty, at best. And come playoff time, the results of not being 100 percent focused at the end of the year weren’t good.
After sitting the final game of the regular season, Manning’s teams went a combined 1-4 during the subsequent postseasons. In 2005, ’08 and ’09, they were one-and-done, getting upset at home by Pittsburgh and San Diego, and then losing at the Chargers, respectively. In those three losses, the normally dazzling quarterback never had a QB rating above 100.
Finally in 2009, Tony Dungy decided to flip the script. Despite being 14-0 and not having anything to play for down the stretch, other than the chance at history, the Colts head coach played Manning much more in the team’s meaningless late-season games. While Indianapolis lost both outings, in part because Curtis Painter was dismal in relief at quarterback during the second half, No. 18 was able to stay sharp; he completed 28 of 39 passes, enough work to avoid getting out of his much-needed routine.
Last year, this same pattern was apparent. After the Broncos decided to sit Manning during the fourth quarter of a Week 9 win at Oakland, the game in which Brock Osweiler infamously didn’t get to start his mop-up duty as early as he had hoped, Denver’s quarterback struggled.
The following week, Manning and Company managed only seven points in a disheartening loss at St. Louis. And during the final seven games of the season, No. 18 only eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark twice, both in losing efforts. From that moment on, the Broncos offense, and especially their future Hall of Fame quarterback, simply wasn’t in sync.
Of course, plenty of the blame for those issues can be pinned on Manning getting beat up in the loss to the Rams, Julius Thomas going down with an ankle injury that effectively ended his season during the same game and the head-scratching offensive line shuffle that resulted from the team’s feeble effort at the Edward Jones Dome. Those things, and the revised game plans that they led to, undoubtedly altered the Broncos offense in the second half of the season, as well.
But the connection to Manning getting out of his routine shouldn’t be discounted. He also started missing practices last season, a first during his career, which didn’t help him recover, prepare or stay fresh. If anything, the rest had the opposite effect. After breaking from his way of doing things, the quarterback wasn’t himself.
Even the season-finale jinx reared its ugly head again. After giving way to Osweiler during a Week 17 win, once again over the hapless Raiders, Manning struggled in the playoffs. Another one-and-done, thanks in part to a lackluster effort from the QB, followed an incomplete game to cap the regular season.
That’s why the Broncos would be foolish to coddle Manning during the 2015 season; the quarterback isn’t at his best when he’s resting and recovering. He flourishes when he’s fully engaged, getting every possible rep to feel completely confident that he knows what’s going to unfold on the field.
Now, that’s not to say that Denver can’t be smart with the 39-year-old signal caller; he shouldn’t do much of anything until the team’s opener on Sept. 13. There’s no reason to expose Manning to any more risk than is necessary.
Osweiler should start and play every preseason game, so the Broncos can see what he can do with the No. 1 offense against the opponent’s No. 1 defense. And as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have shown in recent years – the league’s reigning Super Bowl champ and Most Valuable Player – the exhibition season is pretty pointless.
But after that, Manning should play every game, from start to finish. He should also take every rep during practices, following the same pattern and routine that he has for 17 years.
Could this result in No. 18 getting injured? Perhaps. But he has just as much chance of getting hurt in the first three quarters of a game than he does during garbage time in fourth. And as has been evident across almost every sport since the dawn of time – a lesson the Rockies should take note of during spring training – coddling athletes doesn’t help them stay healthy; if anything, it puts them at greater risk when they do return to action.
Breaking from the norm at his point seems like an experiment that is unnecessary. Peyton Manning is the Broncos starting quarterback in 2015; they need to treat him like it. Denver and their QB are all in for one more season.