Peyton Manning lacks arm strength? Doubt him at your own risk

DENVER -- The impatience began to build after the season's second week.

Chad Pennington, a new addition to the Miami Dolphins' roster in 2008, was averaging less than six yards per pass attempt. His longest of 36 completions went only 24 yards.

Sure, he was a leader. Sure, he was efficient. Sure, he was learning a new system with new teammates. But what about the arm strength? How much was that noodle of an arm -- the one that wasn't going to get any better, mind you -- to blame for an ugly 0-2 start?

"Being in New York for eight years, I learned a lot about patience," Pennington said after a 31-10 loss to Arizona four years ago. "I don't expect it to just one day click and everything start working perfectly. I've been here six weeks. It's going to take time.

"Football is a funny game. You start putting those little things together and start having a little success here and a little success there, it's like a snowball effect and it just becomes an avalanche."

As we continue to closely scrutinize Peyton Manning's future, maybe it'd be wise to take a closer look at the past decade's best example of a quarterback with all of the weapons except the rifle -- a quarterback with a much weaker arm, it should be noted right away, than Manning has displayed through two games with the Denver Broncos.

Do you remember what Pennington did during the next 14 games of that '08 season? He threw just six interceptions. He completed 69 percent of his passes. And he lost only three more games in what was the greatest one-year turnaround by a team in NFL history, from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5.

So let's get one thing straight: Manning's arm strength isn't the same as it once was, even if it was never elite. But that doesn't mean his comeback is doomed. So far from it. It's instead time we accept this deteriorated arm strength so we can turn this conversation into a more productive one about what we should anticipate, not what we already should have embraced before this season even began.

Perhaps the only problem in each of the first two games wasn't as much Manning's lack of strength as it was his lack of understanding about his physical limitations -- what he can and can't do -- during a full-speed NFL game. Manning has been blunt from the beginning of this process that it's going to take time; that he isn't quite there yet.

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Self-awareness, in this situation, is key. And Manning clearly is gaining it.

Look at the first quarters of each of the first two games against the Steelers and against the Falcons. In those first quarters combined, he had a passer rating of 58.8. Yet if you combine only the final three quarters of each game, Manning's passer rating skyrockets to 120.3 with no interceptions.

Searching for explanations to each game's slow start? Here:

» Against the Steelers, it wasn't until Manning abandoned the huddled offense for a faster-paced, no-huddle system that allowed his intelligence and game management to put the Steelers on their heels.

» Against the Falcons, it wasn't until Manning chilled out -- almost as if he realized he wasn't the quarterback of 2006 or even 2009 -- that he allowed his decision making to get the job done, rather than his arm.

Let's not belittle Manning too much, either. He did average 9.7 yards per pass against the Steelers in a sensational debut (seriously, we're talking about 11 days ago) that led most everyone to say Manning is back. Only five quarterbacks on that same Sunday had a higher average per pass (and yes, each of those QBs also had a big play like Manning's 71-yard TD to boost the average).

Is it possible Manning's own confidence after the big debut got a little too high, leading to three very ill-advised decisions to start the Falcons' game? Not a bad theory. But let's be real: The chief fault with each of those throws was poor decision making (over diminished arm strength). He can overcome that.

Back in 2008, it wasn't until Pennington started to realize and embrace what type of quarterback he was that he began to make magic in Miami. And it wasn't until he tried to do too much -- throwing four interceptions in a playoff loss to the Ravens -- that his team's magical season expired shortly into the postseason.

You're not really going to try to argue that Manning can't exceed Pennington's 2008 accomplishments, are you? Pennington, by the way, was named that season's Comeback Player of the Year.

Manning's arm strength -- or lack thereof -- is only worthy of attention if Manning himself doesn't recognize his own limitations. Just look at San Francisco, where Alex Smith seemingly has recognized his own assets and handicaps. He's thriving as a result.

In Denver, we're talking about arguably the smartest game-managing quarterback to ever play football. We're talking about the man who might as well have a trademark on the pre-snap audible.

It's unfortunate Manning doesn't have a rocket arm, and it could even hinder the Broncos' offense if they can't always keep a defense honest in the deep game. Unfortunate? Yes. Unconquerable? No.

The concern in the wake of a disastrous first quarter against the Falcons certainly is merited. But let's all recognize what's really happening here. Manning is figuring it out, one throw at a time.

If you're betting against the possibility that Peyton can solve this puzzle, just remember: You're betting against one of the smartest people to ever play the game. And even if his arm has changed, his head has not.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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