The Broncos are riding high at 6-0 and already 3.5 games ahead in 1st place of the AFC West. But while they are in complete control of their undeniable path to the playoffs, Peyton Manning is playing awful – at least by his standards. If you were told the Broncos would start 6-0, you’d think it was due to Manning rediscovering health and peak performance, but the reality is the Broncos are winning despite him. This stretch is reminiscent of the incredible run the Broncos went on with Tim Tebow in 2011. It’s been so poor through six games it begs the question: is it time to bench Peyton Manning?
So how bad is it really?
Pretty bad. Looking at pure stats: Manning is completing 61.6% of his passes for 1,524 yards (on pace for 4,064), 7 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In 6 games played he’s already matched the interception total in his record breaking 2013 campaign which was in 16 games. His quarterback rating is at 72.5. His completion percentage and rating are a career low with the only exception being his rookie season in the NFL. Put more simply, he’s playing like he did when he was a rookie and his Colts finished 3-13. Anyone else that was putting up these kind of numbers without his name and credentials on a team that wasn’t 6-0 would be benched, pure and simple. The Broncos offense is 29th in yards. The Broncos are tied at 13th in the NFL with 23.2 points per game but five touchdowns have been scored by the defense. Take away all the defensive scores and the Broncos’ offense would be producing 17.3 points per game which would be good for 30th in the NFL just behind the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s not even taking into account other variables like short field position which leads to easier scores. The defense, by the way, is giving up 17.0 points per game with is 4th in the NFL. If not for the three pick 6’s thrown by Manning, they’d be yielding 13.5 points per game. Needless to say that would be best in the NFL. The Broncos’ defense are 8th in yards per carry yielded (3.6), 1st in sacks (26) and 2nd in interceptions (9). The Broncos boast the 2nd best defense in the entire league in terms of yards. It’s undeniable they’ve been winning these games with a dominant defense at every level while their offense falls completely flat on their face. The offense has managed to stay out of the way of the defense just enough to win games. At some point, though, one has to ask themselves how long they can sustain this winning if Manning maintains his current form. Beating the Patriots in the playoffs, or anyone for that matter, will be a tall task with turnovers and an inability to score points consistently.
OK, so what is the alternative?
That’s where benching Manning gets a little more questionable. Would the alternative be any better and would it represent a stronger chance to improve over the course of the season? The Broncos carry two backups on their roster and one is longtime backup Brock Osweiler. The 6’8″ 4 year pro has thrown 30 passes in his NFL career and while he’s been an understudy long enough that he’s likely ready to play at any point now, he’s an unknown. It’s worth mentioning that he outplayed Manning in this past preseason. He completed 64.7% if his passes and threw 3 touchdowns to 1 interception, good for a 94.2 rating. Manning’s preseason rating was 63.5. Osweiler wasn’t nearly as impressive a year ago in preseason so this suggests he’s improving, though the sample size is unreliable and small. The other quarterback is Trevor Siemian who is a 7th round draft pick rookie out of Northwestern and not a viable option to start at this point.
So who gives the Broncos their best shot at a Super Bowl title: the quarterback posing as Peyton Manning that’s clearly not the player he once was, or Brock Osweiler? That’s really the question. So far, at 6-0, it seems the Broncos can afford to ride Manning longer and see if his form can improve. If he’s able to turn a corner and at least cut back on turnovers, the team will improve even if he’s not passing as proficiently as he was in his prime. And by “improve” that of course means stepping up to a Super Bowl winning quality level. Currently this offense is not good enough to win Denver a Lombardi trophy even if they are 6-0. Based on experience and intelligence alone, Manning still has a lot of important qualities even if he cannot throw at the level he once could. The important play out in that scenario would be Manning realizing what he can and can’t do anymore. Should Manning sustain this patch of poor play or even regress, though, the Broncos may give themselves a better chance at going all the way with making the switch to Osweiler and at least seeing what he has. It’s clear at this point he can make throws that Manning cannot. For now a move seems premature because given his history Manning deserves every opportunity to rectify his play and right the ship. That said, if the team starts losing games and the offense can’t turn a corner, at some point a hard decision may need to be made.