"When you watch some of these throws, you can't believe it could possibly be the same guy," Baldinger said. "... You just (wonder) is it the arm, is it the new offense, is he thinking too much, is that possible? ... those plays are lay-ups for Peyton Manning."
NFL Media's Albert Breer recently posed the following question to a panel of general managers, vice presidents, directors of player personnel and pro scouting directors: Who will be the top five quarterbacks in football by the end of the 2015 season?
Of the 28 decision-makers, 19 left Manning off their lists entirely. Only two voters placed him higher than fourth.
One AFC pro director who studied Manning last month said the 39-year-old's arm strength was "significantly diminished."
An NFC executive noted that Manning looked "immobile" and "flinches under pocket pressure."
Broncos general manager John Elway knows as well as anyone that an aging quarterback's body breaks down over the course of a grueling five-month season. It's telling that Elway reportedly asked Manning to accept a $10 million pay cut this past offseason, before the quarterback settled on a $4 million reduction.
Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells once surmised that quarterbacks approaching age 40 hesitate to pull the trigger because they want everything to be perfect before they throw the ball.
"They're torn between the turnover -- which they don't want to make because it's a killer -- and throwing the ball when the separation between the receiver and the defender isn't quite enough," Parcells explained. "They're not confident throwers like they were when they were younger."
The best NFL quarterbacks don't turn stale over time. The fall is sudden and steep.
Like a punchdrunk boxer who still sees openings but can no longer exploit the sucker for a left hook, broken-down signal-callers ultimately suffer from that split-second when they stop pulling the trigger on tough throws.
Manning might well be the most prepared, most astute pre-snap quarterback in NFL history. He has compensated for waning arm strength the past three years by translating opposing defenses before the snap, processing information in the pocket quicker than any quarterback and consistently squeezing accurate passes into small windows.