For those who weren’t in or around Denver at the time, it may be hard to believe that there was a vigorous debate, at least on sports talk radio, about the relative merits of Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning as the Broncos’ quarterback for 2012 and beyond.
One of the arguments advanced by the Tebow backers was there wouldn’t be much “beyond” with Manning. He was not, as they say, a quarterback of the future. At 36, he was a veteran of 13 NFL seasons coming off multiple neck surgeries and a full season of inactivity.
To jettison Tebow, who had just led the Broncos to an improbable postseason berth and first-round playoff victory in 2011, and replace him with what might turn out to be a relic, must be an act of desperation. The final acts of John Unitas, in San Diego, and Joe Namath, in Los Angeles, were referenced. John Elway, now pulling the strings in the Broncos’ front office, must be jealous of Tebow’s celebrity, some said. With many Tebow backers animated by imperatives beyond the world of football, it got pretty silly.
I remember one contending on the radio show that a Manning signing could only be justified by another championship parade in downtown Denver.
It did look that way. Manning was Elway’s attempt to go for greatness right away, just one year into his tenure as owner Pat Bowlen’s chief football executive. If the Broncos didn’t win a championship during whatever time Manning had left on the field, they would have to start over with his understudy, Brock Osweiler, which would make them just another team banking on potential.
Sometime between then and now, Manning changed all that. He recovered his brilliance so quickly, and made such an impact on the Broncos’ culture, and covered so ably for those physical abilities slowest to return, that he presented an opportunity we never imagined. He reached a skill level never before seen in football, a combination of intellectual and athletic rigor that took the game to another level. The quarterback was no longer a gunslinger. He was an engineer.
The Broncos have finished with a won-loss record of 13-3 in each of Manning’s two seasons in Denver. Before his arrival, they won that many games four times in 34 years of 16-game schedules. This year, at 37, Manning put up the best statistical season by a passer in NFL history.
Football fans had the sublime pleasure today of watching him finish the regular season with near perfection. He established league records for passing yards in a season (5,477, exactly one more than Drew Brees in 2011) and passing touchdowns (55, five more than Tom Brady in 2007). His largesse extended broadly, allowing the Broncos to set an NFL record for most players scoring ten touchdowns or more (five: Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, Eric Decker and Wes Welker).
When Manning took back the passing touchdown record from Brady in the Broncos’ fifteenth game last week, he reached 51, one more than the previous mark. He predicted this record, like its predecessors in the category, would prove temporary. Manning began this stair-step escalation by exceeding Dan Marino’s 20-year-old mark of 48 by one in 2004. Brady slipped past, again by one, in 2007. Busting Brady’s six-year-old record by five may mean Manning’s mark stands a bit longer.
He made today’s regular-season finale at Oakland look like a Broncos practice and the Raiders’ defense like the Broncos’ scout team. Actually, that’s probably unfair to the Broncos’ scout team. In former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s second season as a head coach, the Raiders finished as though they deserved their 4-12 record.
As long as Manning was on the field, the matchup seemed unfair. The Broncos had five possessions. Four ended in touchdown passes, the fifth in a Matt Prater field goal. Manning failed to complete only three of 28 passes, spread the 25 completions among nine receivers and passed for those four touchdowns, one of them a gorgeous 63-yard bomb to Demaryius Thomas that made even Manning smile. It did not help the Raiders that their offense, directed by Terrelle Pryor, kept giving the ball back, once at its own 21-yard line on a bad snap. By halftime, it was 31-0.
“Obviously, not our best effort in the first half of the football game,” Allen said. “We got beat by a better team today. Offensively, we weren’t able to really get anything going. Defensively, obviously, that quarterback is really good. I thought there was a couple times where we had some opportunities to potentially get off the field. I thought they put the throw in there when they needed to and they were able to convert and that’s the difference between getting off the field and saving points and giving up points.”
Following the intermission, Broncos coach John Fox chose discretion, replacing Manning with Osweiler. This was, as the ever-competitive Manning pointed out afterward, “a coach’s decision.”
“Our goal was to play as good as we have to date this season,” Fox said. “And the way it worked out, I thought the first half was about as good in all three phases as we’ve been all year. It allowed us to get some guys out of the game and rest them, not to risk injury, and still take care of business on the field.”
By taking care of business, Fox meant winning the game and earning the top postseason seed in the AFC, meaning any and all Broncos playoff games prior to the Super Bowl will be in Denver. Of course, that was the situation last year, too, but we’ll get to that in a minute. As is his custom, Manning explained a memorable regular season by talking about the team’s accomplishments and not his own.
“I think it’s been really good focus on the players’ part,” he said. “We’ve had a number of distractions — injuries, off-field situations, on-field situations — but I think the one constant has been the players’ focus. They have remained focused on the task at hand, on trying to improve everybody’s individual play, which hopefully would result in better team play. But it’s a season unlike any other for me as far as having your head coach ill and missing for a while. We’ve had some injuries. We had the offseason. Those things are well documented. But the players have kind of kept their focus on trying to do players’ jobs. I think that’s been constant, and I think that’s served us well.”
This is the Manning mantra: Do the little things, do your job, take care of every detail. If every individual does that, it can add up to something quite remarkable. Particularly if the signal-caller, the quarterback, is the most maniacal of all about this preparation.
The 34-14 final score against Oakland gave the Broncos a season total of 606 points, another league record. For the benefit of trivia buffs and those already preparing for Mardi Gras, the 2011 New Orleans Saints retained the record for most yards gained in a season with 7,474. This year’s Broncos managed 7,317 for second place.
Manning’s surgical accuracy prompted analyst Solomon Wilcots to extol him on the CBS telecast as the greatest quarterback in the 94-year history of the NFL. Watching him against the Raiders, it was hard to argue. If he doesn’t win his fifth most valuable player trophy — extending another record — there should be an investigation. His relentless drive, combined with the Broncos’ seemingly endless supply of capable receivers, made Denver’s merciless offensive efficiency seem inevitable. Compared to the hope-and-prayer offenses of so many teams, it represented the NFL’s version of fine art.
On the flip side, there was this, from CBS play-by-play man Kevin Harlan: “The Raiders’ performance in the first half was about as bad as we’ve seen.”
Manning has made a lot of teams look that way this year. Three that didn’t, the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers, made the postseason tournament as well, so now we get a week or two of reminiscing about last year, when the Broncos had the same record and the same playoff seed and still lost their first playoff game, to the Baltimore Ravens.
So we’ll see. Tony Dungy, Manning’s coach for seven years in Indianapolis, likes his chances to get through the AFC side of the bracket this year because none of the other playoff teams have great defenses to stop him. Where the 2012 edition was riding an 11-game winning streak and feeling pretty good about itself, this year’s version lost just three weeks ago and remembers it quite clearly.
Another advantage is the still-raw memory of that bitterly cold day last January when the Broncos surrendered a seven-point lead in the final minute of regulation by blowing the coverage on a hope and a prayer by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Elway likens it to 1996, when the Broncos team he quarterbacked to a 13-3 record was upset in its first home playoff game by the Jacksonville Jaguars. That memory helped propel those Broncos to Super Bowl championships after each of the next two seasons.
Are these Broncos ready to do the same? They certainly looked like it in the regular season finale, although allowances must be made for the quality of the opposition. The regular-season losses to Indianapolis, New England and San Diego made it clear they are not invincible. Environmental conditions can turn any outdoor mid-winter game into a crap shoot, including the Super Bowl this year in New Jersey. So can ball control that keeps the football away from Manning, as the Chargers demonstrated.
Whatever happens in the new year, it no longer seems even remotely true that the Broncos need to win a Super Bowl to justify the Manning signing. It has already brought the Broncos two of the best seasons in their history. Manning’s remarkable comeback and relentless work ethic have set a standard we’ve never seen before.
He was asked, of course, whether the Broncos need to confirm the regular season this year in the playoffs.
“Well, sure,” he said. “We’ve had our goals all along. And this is why you work hard in the offseason. This is why you lift weights and have the offseason program, is to give yourself an opportunity to play in the postseason. But I’ll tell you, it’s a fun group of guys to play with. Offensively, it’s been a fun unit to meet with, practice with, watch tape with, work after practice with. And I’ve really enjoyed the coaches and the players on offense. It’s been a fun group.”
This is Manning acknowledging the obvious, but also sharing what he can about how he and his teammates got to this point. He loves the process, from offseason workouts to training camp and every week of practice through the long season. Only someone who loves it that much could so utterly master it. But he won’t entertain any of the big-picture questions — the records, the legacy — at least until the postseason is over.
“It’s not easy to go back-to-back 13-and-3s,” Fox said. “It’s not easy to go back-to-back 1-seeds. Obviously, everybody in our building, in our city, probably in our region, maybe in the country, was disappointed in how we finished a year ago. So hopefully that’s been a fire in the bellies of everyone in our building since that last January.”
The Broncos and many fans will be bitterly disappointed at any outcome other than a Super Bowl this year. Manning will most certainly be among them. That doesn’t change the fact that his 2013 regular season is already immortal, a story we’ll be telling a generation from now, no matter what happens next.