Peyton Manning Is a Sly So-and-So
And he is also the best quarterback in the game. How many quarterbacks have the savvy to do this?
Here’s the book on Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning this season: The guy has no zip on the ball. After multiple neck surgeries caused him to miss all of last season, he’s heroically making do with his smarts and grit rather than his rusty arm. His team’s 11-3 record is a minor miracle.
If you’re not sure whether to believe this gloomy assessment of Peyton Manning, just ask the guy who is most responsible for perpetuating it: Peyton Manning. “I still have rehab that I have to do and I have strength that I have to recover,” the future Hall-of-Famer told reporters Sunday after picking apart the Baltimore Ravens, 34-17. When asked about the state of his right arm, Manning fumbled for words and said he didn’t even know how to answer the question.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m all the way back, no,” he said.
Objectively, Manning is having a pretty incredible season. He’s thrown for 31 touchdowns and 4,016 yards—which is high even by his lofty standards. That he’s doing it with an entirely new team is pretty remarkable, too. If it holds up, his 103.5 passer rating would be his third-highest in 15 seasons.
Perhaps Manning is just being modest. He does have a habit of understating his own role. But an analysis of a month’s worth of game tapes and statistics suggests Manning may have an ulterior motive in saying he’s not 100% fit. In the NFL, when a defense believes it’s dealing with a weakened quarterback, there’s usually one Pavlovian response: They send as many blitzes as they can in an attempt to knock the tuna fish out of him.
And so far, that’s exactly what’s happening: Defenses are blitzing Manning 26% more often that they did in the season before his surgeries. This season, teams are sending five or more defenders after him on 31.6% of all occasions when he drops back to pass. That makes poor gimpy Peyton the No. 8 most-blitzed quarterback in the league. In 2010, he was third to last.
But here’s the thing about Manning: one of the reasons he’s an elite quarterback is that he’s always found ways to punish teams that blitz him. Even with a tribe of giants coming at him, he’s been able to think—and work—quickly enough to find the receivers who have been left uncovered in the onslaught.
If the pressure is getting to Manning this year, he’s doing a nice job of faking it. His quarterback rating when being blitzed is an impressive 99.9, 12% higher than his mark in 2010 and the sixth best among qualifying NFL quarterbacks this season.
It’s not often that a quarterback is able to bluff defenses into blitzing him, week after week. And yet, Manning is doing just that. That takes some guile and with that guile—and physical skills that are not diminished, no matter what Manning says—he is having yet another banner season.