Sunday in Denver, the irony was dripping -- and rather cruel.
Gary Kubiak's quarterback was wretched, throwing haphazard ducks and completing just 5 of his 20 passes. Kubiak's QB threw four gruesome interceptions. Kubiak's signal-caller had a passer rating of zero -- a big, fat doughnut.
Peyton Manning's name was purposely omitted from the preceding paragraph. If this were Matt Schaub, there'd be no debate: The starting quarterback gets benched, plain and simple, when he's hurting the ballclub that badly. But this wasn't Matt Schaub, Kubiak's QB during the best of times -- and worst of times -- in Houston. No, this was Peyton Manning, the man with two more MVP trophies than anyone in football history.
I take no joy in writing that. I am anything but jubilant in describing the greatest regular-season quarterback I've ever seen crumble and succumb to the still-undefeated Father Time.
But here's the truth: The Broncos quarterback has been the worst starting quarterback in the NFL this year. This isn't a hot take. I'm not trying to stir the pot. I don't even know which other Week 1 starter you could intelligently argue has been worse at his job than Manning, whose 67.6 passer rating ranks better than just one other qualified QB: Ryan Mallett. (No, Mallett was not the Texans' Week 1 starter. Yes, Mallett is currently unemployed.)
And it goes noted that Gary Kubiak seized the moment on Sunday to bench him.
There's so much at play here.
I think it is worth going back to the final month of last season, when Manning struggled mightily. I think it is worth going back to another Manning playoff loss in a game he was supposed to win. After that January debacle, Manning did not immediately commit to coming back for the 2015 campaign. He seemed spent. The hesitation was noteworthy. Soon after, John Fox was fired, and John Elway brought in his good friend (Kubiak) to coach the team. While Manning eventually decided to give it another whirl, the offseason was hardly smooth. Manning's name was bandied about in trade rumors with teams like the Texans, and the QB who had shown clear signs of aging ended up taking a $4 million pay cut. Meanwhile, Kubiak was installing a new offense, while Denver's offensive line had red flags with talent and health.
Put all of that together, and it's not entirely stunning that Peyton has not played 2015 at the historic clip we've become accustomed to seeing. What is stunning is how far things have fallen.
And Sunday was rock bottom.
You thought the Cleveland game -- where Peyton threw three picks, including a mind-boggling floater right into the hands of Barkevious Mingo in overtime -- would be the low point. Then there was the clunker in Manning's return to Indy -- in "The stadium Peyton built" -- when the quarterback threw two more picks and lost (yet again) to his Colts successor, Andrew Luck.
But Manning saved his worst for Sunday. His career worst.
And while Kubiak's acumen as a head coach is certainly up for debate -- I have my doubts -- he has been around the block. Kubiak knows the weight of benching Peyton Manning. Heck, as I watch Manning's woes unfold, I don't even think about a QB change, because my brain won't allow me to go there. After all ...
But the move had been bubbling up for quite some time now.
This kind of quarterbacking gets you benched.
After the game, Kubiak told the press he shouldn't have played Manning because of injuries. And that wasn't just lip service. On Monday morning, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Manning is battling a case of plantar fasciitis. Can't say this surprises me. On Sunday, Manning couldn't drive the ball downfield. He couldn't plant and let it rip. I think I speak for all football fans when I say it was rather sad and painful to watch. Manning looked injured and dreadful.
Manning, to his credit, refused to use poor health as an excuse in the postgame. He was all class -- all business -- like he's always been. But here's something that Peyton and the Broncos need to admit to themselves: No. 18 just cannot play when he's playing this poorly. Whether injury is to blame for Manning's extreme woes or not, the 39-year-old simply can't take the field in his current state.
I can't sit here and tell you that I know Brock Osweiler is going to light up the scoreboard for Denver. He can't fix Denver's offensive line. But he did give the Broncos somewhat of a spark on Sunday, after Manning failed to start the fire. Still, this is barely about Osweiler. It's about Manning's body of work this year, on the heels of last season's lackluster play down the stretch. Peyton Manning is hurting the team.
Because this story is wrapped in irony, the Broncos' next opponent is Chicago, led by old friend John Fox. And the talent-poor Bears are playing a feisty and fiery brand of overachieving football. In this season's most under-reported storyline, Fox and Adam Gase (Manning's old coordinator) have saved the career of former Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler.
Manning's status for Sunday is up in the air -- but it shouldn't be. Not in Kubiak's eyes. Keep Peyton on the bench -- until he starts to resemble at least a shell of his former self.
Yes, Denver still possesses a solid 7-2 record and healthy division lead. But despite having the best defense in the NFL, bar none (at least, when Aqib Talib isn't suspended and DeMarcus Ware isn't hurt), Denver can't compare to the Patriots and Bengals in the AFC. The Broncos' quarterback play brings them down multiple pegs.
I wouldn't play Manning this week. And I'm not entirely sure when I would re-insert him into the lineup. He's been the worst quarterback in the NFL this year.
It's painful to watch. Nobody wants to see icons come apart like this. Nobody wants to see legends crumble while pushing 40. But it's happening. And it makes you cringe.
Which is why, when considering the Broncos' quarterback situation, it is crucial to take the names out of it.