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Week 8 Notebook: Peyton Manning, NFL's biggest question mark

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his exclusive Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» The long history of erratic behavior from Greg Hardy.
» Two must-see college prospects on the national stage this Saturday.
» Fifteen NFL names that could pop up in a wild college coaching carousel.
And much more, beginning with the hazy status of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever ...

The coaches and front-office people who've worked with Peyton Manning aren't in much of a talking mood right now when it comes to No. 18.

One said "it wouldn't be fair" to comment on the quarterback's play. Another said it's "hard to evaluate" him, based on the system change he's still going through.

It's not easy to find answers to the NFL's biggest question heading into the 2015 regular season's final two months ...

What will Peyton Manning have left in December?

"I thought it was pretty clear he's not the same guy, and he'll probably never be the same guy," said one experienced AFC pro scout who's studied Manning this year. "Now, it's a matter of whether they can function the offense well enough with him. And with that defense, they can. The question is what happens later, when the conditions get even worse, does this all affect him even more? That's why they've spent so much time getting the run game going. So it's not just on Peyton."

There are five unbeatens left in the NFL, and the Denver Broncos come off their bye as one of them. At 6-0, they'll host the equally perfect Green Bay Packers at Mile High on Sunday night, with a prime chance to erase any more doubt on how real their defense is or how complete the roster has become.

But no team has a bigger variable hanging over its head entering November than Denver does -- and we won't have answers on Manning so quickly. Only time will tell where that one goes.

"(The concern) is very valid," an AFC pro scouting director said. "Teams are saying, 'Let's hit him, let's make him make throws. And later in the year, he'll have trouble. And you get him outdoors in the right spot, and he'll be done.' You can throw in the qualifier where you might get a game where he figures it out and throws for a lot of yards. But over the long haul, if you're trying to make a run, you have to do that consecutively. You can't have those bumps.

"So you might see a glimpse of the old Peyton. I don't think you'll see it on a consecutive-games basis."

It's not hard to back all that up statistically. Just consider this six-game start vs. the first half-dozen games of his first three Bronco seasons:

2015: 146-237 (61.6 percent), 1,524 yards, 7 TDs, 10 INTs, 72.5 QB rating.
2014: 149-217 (68.7 percent), 1,848 yards, 19 TDs, 3 INTs, 118.2 QB rating.
2013: 178-240 (74.2 percent), 2,179 yards, 22 TDs, 2 INTs, 128.8 QB rating.
2012: 154-227 (67.8 percent), 1,808 yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs, 105.0 QB rating.

In 2012, Manning played well in December, but the Baltimore Ravens took advantage of a player who struggled with frigid Colorado elements in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. In 2013, the Broncos made it to the Super Bowl, and Manning was bludgeoned by a Seattle Seahawks defense that suffocated pretty much everyone. In 2014, he didn't hold up as well -- posting a 76.8 passer rating in December before crumbling in a home playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

This year has felt, at least on the surface, like a continuation of that. And it's happened in pristine conditions for quarterbacking: 88 degrees and sunny in Week 1; 87 and cloudy in Week 2; indoors for Week 3; 60 and cloudy for Week 4; 72 and sunny for Week 5; and 47 and sunny for Week 6. To be fair, Manning hasn't necessarily been destroyed by the elements as a Bronco: He's 5-4 in games with a kickoff temp at 40 or below, and has posted a 19:5 TD-to-INT ratio on those nine days.

But the optics of what happened on a rainy night last December in Cincinnati, or that drizzly, windy afternoon last January in Denver validates asking where the end point of this season might be, since the starting point has been so far off Manning's pace of the last three years. And this, again, comes back to consistency.

"He just doesn't consistently make the deep throws," said an NFC pro scouting director who's studied Manning. "He still has a masterful command and presence and knows where to go with the ball. He has not totally declined. In the past, he could cover up for a poor offensive line or mistakes with his arm talent. Now, he doesn't do it as consistently."

There are, of course, some mitigating circumstances here. This season marks the biggest schematic shift that Manning has gone through in his 18 years as a pro, and part of working out the kinks -- for the coaches and the quarterback -- has been merging the system to what Manning's comfortable with and capable of. (For example, it's tough for him to get to the edge on stretch runs from center.)

The veteran AFC pro scout said he thinks, based on preseason tape, Brock Osweiler "could run [Gary Kubiak's] offense better than Peyton. But I can't say he's better for that team." Which paints a picture of why the changes were needed.

Also, in the name of preserving his QB, Kubiak paced Manning through spring work and training camp -- something the coach is also doing now in game weeks.

That leaves room for improvement, to be sure. And, as the AFC pro scouting director points out, "The one thing that hasn't left him is his brain -- it's still gonna take a good defense to hurt him." But if you have that, it's clear getting over on Manning isn't the Herculean task it once was. Per these evaluators, it goes like this: Cloud the middle with coverage, push the pocket up the middle and force throws outside the numbers.

"The whole thing, even when he was younger, was you had to close him in and come up the middle to take his throwing lanes away, and take away the instant shot," the AFC pro scouting director continued. "But once you'd do that, he reloaded, went to his next progression, and that's when you had to hit him -- and it'd hurt him if you did. The problem for him now is that the intermediate isn't as efficient, and the deep isn't there at all, unless he really has great protection and can step into his throws.

"I don't know if that can be fixed."

And it doesn't seem like those who've worked with him know either. They'll call him a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest of all time. All of that is without question.

But the present is a lot murkier.

Four downs

1) Hardy's file. The story goes that, a few years ago in Carolina, Greg Hardy had come down with the flu. It was a weekday. It wasn't certain if he'd be in that day. And then, there he was -- popping into an offensive meeting room, dressed in a full suit. And he announced to the room, "Look good, feel good." And he went to work. That's a good way to explain the presence Hardy has always had around coaches and teammates: Few have any idea what to expect on a day-to-day basis. That ranges from little stunts like that one to much, much more serious matters, and it's something the Cowboys are experiencing now. In Carolina, when Hardy was still under the radar, he fluctuated from the most consistent and passionate player on the practice field to not showing up at all. One source who was there explained, "You'd just never know what you were gonna get." This isn't as rare as it might seem, but the Panthers, at times, had guys making sure Hardy would get himself to the facility. That's the way it was in his time at Ole Miss, too. In fact, after he fractured his wrist in early November of his final season there, he simply vanished from the program. Before that, he'd often arrive at the trainer's room to get taped as practice was starting. "No one wanted to deal with him," one AFC personnel director said. "And he had a coach (Houston Nutt) who got along with everyone." To this day, there are still people at Ole Miss who won't discuss him with NFL folks who come through. And that's why he fell to the sixth round in 2010, where Marty Hurney and John Fox snapped him up for the Panthers. One thing that Dallas will have to monitor going forward is an element that ties together his reputation in Oxford and Charlotte: Once Hardy established himself as a dominant, indispensable player, he would push boundaries to see how far he could go. That makes Hardy quite the wild card for the Cowboys, especially if they follow through on Jerry Jones' stated desire to sign him long-term.

2) Lions changes afoot. The staff changes in Detroit this week could well be a precursor to bigger changes in the Motor City after the season -- and those whispers were out there before Jim Caldwell took a blowtorch to his offensive staff. Adding to the unpredictability of the situation is the presence of Martha Ford, the 90-year-old owner of the team. When her husband, William Clay Ford, passed away in March 2014, many inside the building and elsewhere in the NFL assumed his son, Bill Jr., would take command. Instead, Bill Jr. has taken a step back and his mother has taken a step forward. That's left a boss who's less invested in the current regime than others in her family were -- Bill Jr. played an integral role in the search that led to Caldwell's hiring, Martha did not. Remember, GM Martin Mayhew was an internal promotion in 2009, and the Lions have gone 41-62 in his six-plus years in charge, so if the coach were to go, it's likely the overhaul would be total. As for the changes made this week, two elements played into coordinator Joe Lombardi's ouster. First, the offense needed more creativity. One example came in the Seattle game, when the coach left Calvin Johnson on Richard Sherman's side the whole night. In contrast, Cincinnati moved A.J. Green around the next week against the Seahawks, forcing Seattle to adjust in the second quarter. Second, there was a feeling internally that the offense wasn't adjusting in-game well enough, something highlighted in the San Diego and Minnesota games, where the Lions blew big leads. So now, Jim Bob Cooter -- an old favorite of Peyton Manning's, and a well-regarded if young offensive mind -- gets a nine-game audition. What comes after that is anyone's guess.

Pro Bowl ballot

3) Rivers' run for the record book. This week's slate features a showdown of proud teams in seasons on life support. One thing that can buoy the Chargers' confidence as they head to Baltimore: The way Philip Rivers has played in 2015. Rivers is on pace to break Manning's single-season passing-yardage record, set two years ago, partially because San Diego has needed him to carry the team. For the most part, he has. As one Chargers source puts it, "There's just so much he can do now, we can get away with certain things knowing that he'll make a bad play into a good play, more often than not, just taking what the defense gives him." The coaches see it in practice: Rivers will pass along protection adjustments to his backs as he's pulling away from center and dropping. And it's obvious in games, with his command of adjustments in progressions, the run game and protections. What's interesting about how the offense is set up is that, if systems were dogs, then San Diego's current one would be a true mutt. There are elements of New England's offense, the Tom Moore/Peyton Manning attack and the old Pittsburgh offense that Ken Whisenhunt passed on to his replacement as Chargers offensive coordinator, Frank Reich. And it's evolved into a spectacular fit for Rivers -- a coach's son who fully embodies the stereotype -- as the offense leans on the quarterback to win the game with his understanding of everything around him. "It's perfect for him," the Bolts source said. "You only do as much as the quarterback can handle -- volume doesn't matter, it's what the player can handle. And the rest of the offense has to keep up. ... He gives us so much flexibility."

4) Brady court schedule. The NFL filed a 59-page brief to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, as part of its appeal of Judge Richard Berman's decision to vacate Tom Brady's four-game suspension. And with Brady in the midst of another vintage season, the court promptly informed the union that the hearing would be scheduled for Feb. 1. That's the Monday of Super Bowl week. As you might imagine, even though the union agreed to a semi-expedited schedule as a compromise (the NFL's lawyers wanted it earlier), that prompted some raised eyebrows. "I find that part to be alarming, that the league office would allow their attorneys to willfully expedite the schedule, so it can be heard during Super Bowl week," union spokesman George Atallah said on Thursday. "I don't think there's the appropriate level of concern there." Atallah added, "I think the league continues to defend an untenable position, by increasing the outrageous claims that have no basis in fact." And he called the comparison made in the briefs to the 1919 Black Sox scandal "utterly insane." Reached for comment via email on the possibility that the hearing lands during Super Bowl week, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello responded, "We will comply with the schedule that the court determines." So things are pretty much as they have been between the NFL and NFLPA.

Three checkdowns

1) Teddy Bridgewater's numbers aren't gonna tell you that he's breaking through as an NFL quarterback: His completion percentage (65.7), yards per attempt (7.4) and quarterback rating (87.7) are only a smidge better than last year's marks (64.4, 7.3 and 85.2). But the coaches in Minnesota see his consistent growth as a reason for the team's 4-2 start. Having Adrian Peterson has helped, to be sure, but it's also provided challenges in the different looks the Vikings see -- week to week -- that are geared to stop No. 28. His handling of the according adjustments has been one sign of how much better he is now than he was at this time last year.

2) Josh Norman (once again) announced himself to America last Sunday as a truly elite cover man, playing a big role in the Carolina defense's smothering of Philly. The story of how he caught the Panthers' eye in the first place is an example of how the details matter in scouting. Three months before the team took him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, Norman played in the East-West Shrine Game. At one point that week, Norman recovered a fumble. It was how he did it that counted. Panthers evaluators saw the way he deftly sought the ball out, leaned over and picked it up with one hand as an example of his natural athleticism, bend and length. As they saw it, there was a lot to work with there. And there sure was.

3) No one wants to blow a 24-point lead, but it's hard to blame the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for coming out of their collapse in Landover with plenty of hope for the future. Forget that Jameis Winston is a rookie. "For a quarterback -- period -- he played great," one team source said. It was Winston's second straight game with a passer rating north of 120. And as he's ascended on the game field, he's grown off it, flashing natural leadership ability in the meeting rooms and at practice. "He's the leader," the Bucs source said. October 2015 games against the Jags and Redskins won't make the guy's career, but for now, things are headed in the right direction.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves III (vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): The NFL has had its eyes set on Hargreaves since he stepped on to campus, and the junior didn't disappoint in his first two years -- he was a third-team AP All-American as a true freshman and a consensus first-team All-American last year. And it'd now appear he's in the stretch run of his chase for a spot high in the draft's first round. "He's a little short, but he's very competitive, quick, good ball skills, tough and scrappy," said an AFC college scouting director. "He's just a football player. The only concern is the lack of size, but he can cover. And his dad was a coach, so he was brought up the right way. There's no question on his talent. The only issue is his size." Another college scouting director had less concern about Hargreaves' size -- comparing him in that respect to former Gator Joe Haden -- and said he's got a great shot at going inside the top 10. And this will be a good week to watch him, with Georgia bringing a pro-style offense and crafty fifth-year senior Malcolm Mitchell (35 receptions for 505 yards and four TDs in 2015) to challenge Hargreaves.

College Football 24/7 Hot Topics:

2) Houston CB William Jackson III (vs. Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2): The undefeated Cougars get a rare visit from an SEC school on Saturday night, and that provides a big stage for a corner that might not be the prospect Hargreaves is, but fits what the NFL is looking for at the position now in a very specific way. "The reason why he's so intriguing? He's 6-foot-1, tall and thin, with long arms, like a Seattle corner," said an AFC area scout assigned to Houston. "He's tall and rangy, and capable of playing press man, and with the success Houston's having, there are a lot of extra eyes on the program. And I can tell you, he's totally different than [Houston alum and 2013 first-rounder] DJ Hayden was coming out. You'll hear that comparison, but he's a very different athlete -- he's tall and long and can run. ... He could be a young (Richard) Sherman -- he's just really skinny right now, like Sherman was coming out. And he's a guy who's been through it, he's from a [rough part of] Houston. He's a good kid who persevered." Watching Jackson cover Vandy's Trent Sherfield should be of particular interest to scouts in attendance.

Extra point

The calendar flips from October to November over the weekend, and we already have eight FBS job openings: Miami, USC, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, South Carolina, Central Florida and North Texas.

Yes, this is an NFL column, but that kind of seismic job turnover (and there's sure to be a lot more between now and Christmas) figures to have a big effect on the pros. And even more so now, since the two bluebloods on that list, Miami and USC, had their most recent big runs come through rebuilds conducted by NFL guys (Butch Davis and Pete Carroll, respectively).

Plus, there are advantages at the college level.

"It used to be that everyone in college was trying to get to the pros," one AFC executive said. "That's no longer the case. They still have a quick trigger in college, but you probably get a year or two more than you would in the NFL. You don't have a GM to worry about, you pick the players and, in most places, the administration stays out of the way. You're not dealing with pro athletes who are making more than you are. You can make mistakes in recruiting and be OK -- you're not stuck with draft or free-agent mistakes."

So with that mind, it seemed like the right time to put together a list of coaches who could catch the eyes of college programs. We're doing this with the knowledge that Chip Kelly and Bill O'Brien will get calls, and could land college jobs if they wanted to leave the pros. Now, on to 15 less obvious candidates (in alphabetical order):

Want more than stats and scores? Head to Sidelines, where NFL Media reporters dig deep to find the compelling, thoughtful stories that are the heartbeat of this game.

Darrell Bevell, Seahawks offensive coordinator: Bevell's been an NFL coordinator for a decade now, and so he certainly could explore a return to the college level. He played at Wisconsin, and was passed over there last December. Another Big Ten job, like Illinois or Minnesota, could draw his interest.

Rich Bisaccia, Cowboys special teams coordinator: A well-respected assistant who has extensive experience at both the college and pro levels -- and cut his teeth at South Carolina. He's 55, but the Gamecocks' last two hires (Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier) were both older.

Gus Bradley, Jaguars head coach: Bradley's safe in Jacksonville for now, but that won't stop colleges from at least testing the waters. And considering his upper-Midwestern roots, both Minnesota and Illinois might pick up the phone and call.

Rob Chudzinski, Colts associate head coach: The former Browns head coach won two national titles as a Miami player and coached there for a decade. He may not leave the pros for just any job, but it seems like that particular opening could entice him.

Ryan Day, Eagles quarterbacks coach: Day could be of interest to a major conference school looking for a jolt. At 36, Day played for Chip Kelly at the University of New Hampshire, and coached under him there, as well. He also worked under Urban Meyer and was Boston College's offensive coordinator before landing in Philly.

Pep Hamilton, Colts offensive coordinator: Hamilton spent three years at Stanford, bridging the transition there from Jim Harbaugh to David Shaw, and has extensive experience working with quarterbacks at both the big-time college and NFL levels, which is always attractive.

Hue Jackson, Bengals offensive coordinator: Jackson will be in the running for NFL openings, but the former Raiders coach's best fit may be at USC. He coached there from 1997 through 2000, was responsible for recruiting Carson Palmer, and is an L.A. native. Miami could also have a shot at luring him from the pros.

Dirk Koetter, Buccaneers offensive coordinator: Koetter coached at the college level for 22 years, had stints as a head man at Boise State and Arizona State, and has since worked closely with Matt Ryan and Winston.

Bill Lazor, Dolphins offensive coordinator: There's been some question about Lazor's ability to connect with players in the NFL, but the Ivy League alum is sharp and might be a fit at an academics-driven place like Virginia, where he was the offensive coordinator for three years (2010 through '12).

Doug Marrone, Jaguars offensive line coach: Marrone's star sunk at the beginning of this year, after he opted out in Buffalo, but he has extensive experience as a college assistant, and revived the dead Syracuse program in his four years back at his alma mater. An East Coast school, like Maryland, could take a look at him.

Chuck Pagano, Colts head coach: If he's out in Indy, his connections at Miami are deep, and he'd be a powerful tie to the past for the school.

Every game, all season

Frank Reich, Chargers offensive coordinator: Reich hasn't coached at the college level, but the job at his alma mater -- Maryland -- is open. And that pull can be strong (see: Harbaugh, Jim).

Darren Rizzi, Dolphins special teams coordinator: Former Rhode Island head coach who was a consideration for the interim job in Miami that went to Dan Campbell after Joe Philbin was fired. A New Jersey native and former coach in Piscataway, Rizzi could be a possibility if the Rutgers job comes open.

Greg Roman, Bills offensive coordinator: Roman's connection to Harbaugh, experience in the Pac-12 and expertise in building physical groups makes him worth a look for West Coast schools.

Pat Shurmur, Eagles offensive coordinator: He's been in the NFL for the last 17 seasons, so spending the three working under Chip Kelly would probably enhance his standing among colleges. And he knows the Big Ten well, having played at Michigan State and coached there for a decade.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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