Peyton Manning, Broncos liability? Not so fast, Denver doubters

The Denver Broncos are at a unique place in NFL history. They stand at 6-0. They have a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. And yet, the dominant narrative is: Should they bench Peyton Manning?

The short answer? Of course not. They shouldn't, and it's sort of hysterical to even be asking the question.

Yet, from another perspective, it's understandable. There are legitimate concerns about Manning at age 39. His arm strength is diminished; he's less mobile than he used to be (and he was never Steve Young in the first place); the run-based offense he's leading is not well-suited to his talents. Also, he just doesn't look the same in the pocket.

Peyton was so good for so long that when his skills suffered a noticeable drop-off, people were prone to start overreacting. But Manning and the Broncos are right where they need to be in the title race (and, for Peyton, in the bid for one last shot at a Super Bowl ring).

We know the defense is spectacular. Wade Phillips has once again delivered the goods.

"I was a lousy head coach, but I'm a pretty good defensive coordinator," Phillips said this past offseason. "That's what I do well, so I wanted to get back to doing that."

Phillips certainly hasn't disappointed, taking a talented defense and making it better. The unit is cohesive, unpredictable and relentless -- perhaps the best defense in the NFL. The Broncos rank second in total defense, third against the pass and fifth against the run. They lead the league in sacks and takeaways. This group is just a terror to deal with, giving Denver a vital component in the winning equation.

For the Broncos, the overall formula was there from the preseason: play great defense, run the ball well (as Gary Kubiak-coached teams almost always do) and then let No. 18 pull a win out of the fire when the first two things aren't working. It was a conscious choice to have Manning be a cog in the machine, rather than building an entire offense around him the way the Indianapolis Colts used to do. And there's precedent for this in Denver: When current GM John Elway won his Super Bowl titles as an aging veteran player in the 1997 and '98 seasons, the Broncos followed a very similar script.

The original plan for Manning, at this late stage in his career, was to build up a running game and let him work off its success; to have the QB take a lot more snaps under center and run a lot more play-action. Essentially, Denver wanted to avoid the pass-happy seasons that have characterized Manning's career.

That might work at some point this year, but it's not how the offense is running thus far. Manning is on pace to throw the ball 632 times, which would be the third-highest total of his career. And you can see why. Take the Week 2 Thursday night game at Kansas City. In the first half, the Broncos tried to run and were stifled, leaving Manning as a sitting duck when they got into obvious passing situations. In the second half, they moved to a much more recognizable, Manning-centric template: running no-huddle, usually out of the shotgun, with Peyton finding his receivers on quick slants and, when afforded a little more time and better down-and-distance situations, connecting with his tight ends in the seams. That might have been the best half of the season for this offense. The rest of the time has been a mixed bag, with Denver trying to graft Kubiak's vision onto Manning's well-established skill set. The 6-0 record covers up a lot of numbers that are cause for concern. For the first time since his rookie year, Manning's on pace to throw more interceptions than touchdown passes. His touchdown passing percentage (3.0) is by far the lowest it's been in his pro career; and his interception percentage (4.2) is higher than it's been in nearly a decade and a half.

Manning certainly did not get dumber in the offseason. He has the greatest recall and institutional knowledge of any quarterback in the history of the game. But often, with Kubiak's more structured offense, he is not being put in position to maximize his unparalleled football IQ. And that's gotten him out of his rhythm in some games. Like the aging Tiger Woods, Manning still has most of his strength; what he's lost is his touch, his rhythm and, perhaps, a bit of the old confidence.

One of the reasons for the trouble, of course, is the Broncos' lackluster ground game. Back in '97 and '98, when Elway was snagging Lombardi Trophies, Denver's running game was among the best in the league, with Terrell Davis running behind a line steeped in Alex Gibbs' zone-blocking system. Kubiak learned the system from Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, and brought it with him to Houston, where he assembled a potent rushing attack. Even last year in Baltimore, as the offensive coordinator, Kubiak helped transform journeyman Justin Forsett into the league's fifth-leading rusher, and the Ravens ranked third in rushes of 10-plus yards. This year's Broncosrank 30th in the run and 29th in rushes of 10-plus yards.

To find the source of that, you need to look no further than the offensive line. Ryan Clady's second season-ending injury in three years -- a torn ACL he suffered in May -- robbed the line of its one blue-chip anchor. Consequently, the Broncos have been forced to piece together a group that doesn't include a single first-rounder. The zone-blocking system places a high priority on athleticism. But all too often with these Broncos, the back side of the line fails to get the cut blocks or second-level hits required to spring big plays. And in the passing game, Manning is on pace to be sacked 32 times, which would be the most in his 18-year career.

Another general issue for this offense is the lack of production at the tight end position. You knew losing Julius Thomas to free agency was going to hurt the Broncos. They signed Owen Daniels, who had played for Kubiak in both Houston and Baltimore. He was a two-time Pro Bowler with the Texans, and logged 48 receptions in 13 starts for the Ravens last season. This year? Fourteen receptions in six starts. For a point of reference: Last year, Manning's tight ends caught 85 passes.

One of the hardest things to do in the NFL is separate how a quarterback is playing -- good or bad -- from what is going on around him. For all the speculation about what is wrong with Peyton, many of the issues could stem from the fact that the talent and scheme surrounding him just isn't as good as it's been in the past.

If the running game doesn't turn around soon, Kubiak probably will have to give a little ground and let Peyton run an offense that's more suited to his strengths. If and when that happens, you have to like the Broncos' chances. They are 6-0, they have a dominant defense and a Hall of Fame quarterback who can generate key drives and winning points when he needs to.

Don't give up on Peyton Manning just yet. As the Toby Keith song says, "I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was."

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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