Chip Kelly wanted to revolutionize the National Football League by picking up the pace, wearing opponents down and blowing them out, the way he did in the Pac-12. In his fourth game as an NFL head coach, he got to see a team do it.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t his team.
Somebody told Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning that 52 points was a franchise record and Manning expressed concern for the team’s Arabian gelding mascot.
“I did not know that,” he said. “May have to give ol’ Thunder an IV after this one.”
George Will once complained that football combined America’s worst characteristics: violence and committee meetings. The Broncos and Eagles mostly eliminated the committee meetings Sunday at Mile High, leaving defenders on both sides gasping for thin air.
“I’ll tell you, I don’t know if I’ve ever been that tired, as I was in the first and second quarter,” Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said.
The Broncos don’t huddle up much either, but they take their time snapping the ball as Manning surveys the defense and checks off to another play, or pretends to check off to another play, or pretends to pretend to check off to another play. The result is almost always the right call to counter the defense presented and a frighteningly high level of execution. Manning completed more than 80 percent of his passes Sunday. This has a longer-term effect, which Kelly’s team displayed in the second half, when it became Manning’s chew toy.
“He’s just another offensive coordinator on the field,” Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox said. “If he doesn’t like it, he just checks to what he wants.”
Through the first quarter of the NFL season, the Broncos’ offense has operated like a sports car. It’s a little temperamental, occasionally sputtering or stalling, but when it starts to roar, it blows everybody away.
On the other hand, it’s early, the weather’s been great and they haven’t played a top-10 defense yet, at least by the rankings going into Week 4.
After a competitive first half, the Broncos led the Eagles — one of the worst defenses in the league so far — by a 21-13 score. Both offenses looked potent, but the Eagles made a lot of mistakes — penalties and dropped passes, what Kelly calls SIWs (self-inflicted wounds) — and the Broncos didn’t.
When Manning & Co. came out of the locker room after intermission, they drove 80, 80 and 65 yards for touchdowns, never requiring so much as a third-down snap. By the time the period was over, the score was 42-13 and the Broncos had their fourth blowout in four games. Manning put up another double-take stat line — 28 of 34 (82 percent) for 327 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 146.0.
“We felt really motivated to score points against these guys,” he explained. “You saw their offense. They are capable of scoring points. Our defense did a heck of a job answering their challenge. We were motivated to be on top of our game offensively, to score points — touchdowns, not field goals.”
Records tremble and fall:
— Manning broke the NFL mark for most touchdown passes in a season’s first four games with his third TD pass of the day — his second to Demaryius Thomas — and extended the fresh record to 16 with his fourth, the second of the day to Wes Welker.
— Manning’s streak of touchdown passes without an interception to open a season reached 16, a feat last accomplished by Milt Plum in 1960. The difference is it took Plum 10 games. I asked Manning if the name rang a bell. He acknowledged a quick briefing from Patrick Smyth, the Broncos’ media relations director.
“Patrick gave me a little bio,” Manning said. “I did know he played for the Browns. He gave me his college — Penn State. I’m throwing 16 out as a number — is that right?”
“OK,” Manning said. “My brother Cooper and I used to play a lot of trivia when we used to take road trips with my dad, so Cooper would be proud that I knew Milt Plum.”
— The Broncos won their 15th straight regular-season game, breaking the franchise record of 14, established in the championship seasons of 1997 and ’98.
— Their 52 points was a franchise best, eclipsing the 50 they piled on the Chargers 50 years ago.
— Their 179 points through four games is second only to the 1966 Dallas Cowboys, who scored 183. Watch out: Those Cowboys scored only 10 in Week 5.
— Welker became the only receiver in the league with at least one touchdown catch in each of his first four games. Tight end Jimmy Graham of New Orleans has a chance to join him Monday night. Welker now has six touchdown catches, the same number he had all last season with the Patriots.
People are running out of superlatives. This is the best stretch of offensive football — the most explosive, the most methodical, the least error-prone — many of us have ever seen.
“You get worn down a little bit,” Kelly admitted, experiencing the feeling he gave other teams so often while he was at the University of Oregon.
Somebody asked him if his defense playing pancake to the Broncos’ steamroller was disconcerting.
“I think it is disconcerting, but you’re also playing against an offense that four teams have tried to stop them and they haven’t yet,” he said. “I don’t have an answer. Is it disconcerting? Yeah, it is disconcerting to not be able to get teams to third down.”
Somebody else asked if he noticed how good Manning was.
“I think you have an appreciation, but I wasn’t sitting there saying, ‘Hey, that was a really cool play by Peyton.’ He frustrates you. Maybe at the end of the season we’ll go back and break down the Broncos tape and kind of look at what he does. But when you talk about the great quarterbacks in the history of the game — there’s been a lot of them — but I think he’s right up there with the best that have ever played, and he’s proving that right now. I know he’s setting records for the start of a season. He’s a great football player.”
Sunday’s steamroller was especially impressive because Manning & Co. barely saw the ball in the early going. They drove to a touchdown the first time they had it, then sat and watched for the rest of the first quarter. That wasn’t all bad. After the Eagles countered that first touchdown with a field goal, Trindon Holliday took the ensuing kickoff 105 yards, tying a franchise record he set last year, for another Broncos special teams touchdown.
The Eagles responded with another long drive, again settling for a field goal. By the time the Broncos offense snapped the ball again, it was the second quarter. It went three-and-out in what Manning called their worst series.
“Holliday’s return was great, but it does keep us off the field, and for whatever reason, we weren’t as sharp on that series after that lull, when we needed to be,” he said.
So, on their next possession, following an Eagles touchdown that closed the gap to 14-13, Manning drove the Broncos 80 yards in 11 plays, foreshadowing the third quarter by never requiring a third down. The variety of the offense was on display. Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman ran the ball. Manning completed passes to Hillman, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Virgil Green. Moreno scored the touchdown on the ground.
Up 21-13 with a little more than 2 minutes remaining in the first half, Manning found himself in a second-and-12 on his own 8-yard line. After multiple neck surgeries, at age 37, he isn’t given much credit for throwing the deep ball anymore. So he launched a 52-yard strike over the top to Decker.
“The one at the end of the first half, luckily it didn’t come back to hurt us, but we’re in a three-deep coverage,” Kelly said. “You hope you don’t get a post route thrown on you in three-deep coverage.”
Manning placed the ball perfectly after overthrowing Decker on another deep route earlier by maybe six inches (Manning estimated the overthrow at “an inch long”).
For one of the few times all day, the Eagles prevented the Broncos from scoring on that final drive of the first half. But that just made Manning more determined, setting the stage for a Vulcan-like third quarter in which he deconstructed the Eagles defense like a pathologist.
Somebody asked Kelly if teams can lose their spirit at the NFL level.
“I think it can happen at any level,” he said.
That’s what the Broncos are doing so far — not just beating opponents but demoralizing them. Special teams specialist Steven Johnson’s blocked punt and return was the Broncos’ third special teams touchdown of the season, and that’s not counting David Bruton’s blocked punt against the Ravens to set up another.
“They were well-prepared, they were well-coached, they went out and executed and made more plays than we were able to make, and that’s the bottom line,” said Eagles defensive back Cary Williams.
Williams, who played for the Ravens when they upset the Broncos in the playoffs last year, was asked how best to thwart Manning.
“You have to have great communication in the secondary and you need to be able to make plays,” he said. “We just didn’t make plays today.”
Manning played down the growing chorus of hosannahs and stuck to his one-game-at-a-time mantra. While it’s a joy to watch and celebrate his early-season virtuosity, it is worth remembering that the first quarter of the season provides the most pristine environmental conditions and is therefore most accommodating to a precision passing game.
As the weather changes, assuming it does, the offense is likely to get less pretty. Still, one wonders how the oddsmakers will come up with a line for the Jaguars-Broncos game here in two weeks. The Jags are not only 0-4, they’ve been outscored 129-31. The NFL might need a mercy rule.
But first, the Broncos have a trip to Dallas. Manning was already worrying about what Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator, might have in store. By the time the snow flies, the Broncos will have plenty of time to demonstrate whether they have an offense for the ages, or just for the late summer.
The 4-0 start is auspicious for more than its gaudy offensive numbers. The franchise has won the first four games in five previous seasons and went to the Super Bowl after four of them. The only time they didn’t was when they started 6-0 under Josh McDaniels four years ago and finished 8-8, missing the playoffs.
For now, it’s quite a show, this NFL offense with a multitude of talented weapons and a quarterback who always knows the right thing to do and almost always does it. Nobody’s perfect, of course. But tell you what. So far, he’s close.