This season is just the third time in Peyton Manning's career that his team has lost two games within the first three weeks of the season.
The first occasion came in his rookie year. The second can be instructive now.
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Few quarterbacks in NFL history have been more in control of their situation than Manning was in Indianapolis, which is why 2008 was such a unique year for him. He underwent knee surgeries and played through his rehab; Tony Dungy was in his final season; reliable All-Pro wideout Marvin Harrison was in his final year as a pro; and trusted center Jeff Saturday missed the first month of the season.
Just like this fall with the Denver Broncos, Manning stumbled a bit out of the gate in less-than-comfortable conditions four seasons ago. In both '08 and '12, his team started 1-2. Here are his three-game totals:
2008: 71-for-120 (59.1 percent), 784 yards, 3 TD, 4 INT, 73.1 QB rating.
2012: 69-for-115 (60.0 percent), 824 yards, 5 TD, 3 INT, 85.6 QB rating.
The postscript: After 16 games in 2008, Manning was named NFL MVP.
Passing sweeping judgment on Manning right now might be a fool's game. A couple days ago in my Inside The NFL column, I passed along the word of scouts, who noted Manning clearly is not throwing the ball the way he used to. I trust what those guys said implicitly, but I also think Manning has more than enough brainpower to adjust. That is what Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was alluding to when we spoke by phone Thursday.
"We have no concerns about (his arm)," McCoy said after practice wrapped up. "To me, his arm is fine now. I wasn't around him before, so to compare where he is now to back then, that's really for him to say. But his arm is fine."
When conversation turned to the Broncos' turnover issues, I asked if Manning's arm strength played a role in that. McCoy flatly said, "No." The answers mean one of two things. Either Manning's throwing it like he used to, which it certainly seems like he isn't. Or McCoy simply thinks what Manning has left now, even if it's not vintage No. 18, is plenty to win with.
But just as the knee wasn't Manning's only problem in 2008, the arm isn't his only issue in 2012. In Indianapolis in 2008, a few things were new. In Denver, everything but Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley is new. And the past six months have been a time of major transition.
McCoy has said repeatedly that the scheme was being formed on the fly through the spring and into the summer. The Denver offensive staff pored over Colts film to find elements to incorporate into the Broncos' own flexible scheme to A) make Manning more comfortable; and B) accomplish what McCoy's goal always is with his offense, which is to get the most out of the 11 players on the field at all times.
"That's our job, and we did it last year (with Tim Tebow). You do what your players do best," McCoy said. "So it's a combination of everything now. We've packaged together the Indianapolis stuff, and blended it together with our system. It's what I've done. It's what Peyton's done. There's not a number or percentage of one or the other, because we go into every game with a different plan, new wrinkles based on the opponent. And we have our core foundation in place."
It's not where it needs to be yet, something McCoy isn't shy to admit. The Broncos are 17th in total offense, 12th in scoring and have turned the ball over six times. They are top 10 in accumulating first downs and converting in the red zone, so it's not all bad.
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And progress is expected to continue. As McCoy says, "It's not one way or the other. It's our offense now." Which is to say, it's on everyone, not just Manning.
"At any of these positions -- the offensive line, the receivers, the backs -- the more we're together, the better we can be. There'll be certain things we can do better, and that's a matter of playing together," McCoy said. "And from the first day he was here, Peyton's been open-minded. We wanted to do certain things, and there were certain things from the Colts we wanted to continue with him. Bottom line is, we're all in this together, and that's how we've looked at it from the beginning."
Have we seen some bad early signs? Sure. Denver didn't sign Manning with 1-2 in mind.
But if history is your guide, counting out Manning as he's still getting himself healthy and adapting to changing conditions sure would be dangerous.
Players on the spot
Eagles left tackle Demetress Bell: With the Philadelphia Eagles struggling in protection and the New York Giants' pass rush coming to town on 10 days' rest, it's hard not to look at the Sunday nighter and think back to Osi Umenyiora's six-sack undressing of Philly five years ago. A possible redux? It'll be Bell's responsibility to handle Umenyiora most often, and he'll have to play as big a role as anyone in finding some way to keep Mike Vick clean.
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick: Where the Buffalo quarterback has struggled in the past is when the running game isn't there for him, and he's forced to put the team on his shoulders. The Bills have proven they can run with New England, but this time they'll have to do it with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson both questionable. It'll be incumbent on Fitzpatrick to avoid the big mistake and manage the game.
Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson: The third-year defensive back has been a serious disappointment for a team that thought he had the potential of a top-10 pick when it drafted him near the bottom of Round 1 in 2010. With Darrelle Revis' injury and the team's lack of depth at the position, Rex Ryan's ability to run his scheme the way he wants to rests largely on Wilson finding a way to realize his potential in a hurry. San Francisco will be a tough test.
Chiefs safety Eric Berry: The Kansas City Chiefs' defense was dreadful through two weeks; Derrick Johnson told me they didn't even put together a decent half in that span. Thanks to fortuitous field position and scrappy play, the Chiefs finally got one after the break in New Orleans last week. As a result, they're playing for first place in the AFC West this week. And if anyone figures to be key against the downfield-minded Chargers, it's Berry.
Coaches on the spot
Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter:Matt Ryan looks like a different player in Koetter's spread-influenced system. But the key with any new coach bringing in a new system is sustainability. The Panthers aren't exactly the Monsters of the Midway on defense, but the fact that they're familiar with Atlanta's personnel and had 10 days to prep should give them a chance to counterpunch at the Georgia Dome.
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer: Zimmer's patience has been tested early. As Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and the offense take the next step, the Cincinnati Bengals' defense -- a very good unit the past three years -- ranks 31st in total defense and points allowed. Relying on still-evolving rookies, and with Carlos Dunlap back in the fold, the Bengals took a moderate step forward in D.C. This game against Jacksonville is a chance for a bigger leap.
Spotted on Thursday night
The Ravens' lack of a pass rush: It stuck out against the Patriots and again against the Browns. The Ravens have to do more schematically to manufacture pressure on the quarterback. Yes, Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw will continue to improve, and that'll help. But the defense (ranked 28th against the pass and 21st on third down) really needs one obvious thing to return to its accustomed level: Terrell Suggs back in uniform.
The status of the AFC South: There was some conjecture in the summer that the Tennessee Titans could challenge the Houston Texans in the division. Since then, their offensive line has proven messy and their defense is just a plain mess (113 points allowed). To be sure, I think Tennessee will be better in November and December than it has been in September. But Sunday's game gives us a good chance to see just how wide the gap is between Houston and the rest of the South.