Gut Reaction: Is The Offense’s Struggles Really About Resting Peyton?

The Broncos are 5-0 but based on some of the comments regarding the offense’s play against the Raiders, people are aware that all is not well.

That doesn’t mean the wheels are about to come off or the Broncos are destined to finished 2-8 following the Week 7 bye. It is worth visiting the issues that are plaguing the Broncos, though, and exactly what can be done to get the offense up to speed so it can at least complement what’s arguably the best defense in the NFL.

Of course, we all start the conversation with Peyton Manning and one debate that keeps coming up, regarding whether or not the Broncos should sit him out for certain games early in the season, saving him for divisional matchups and the tougher opponents. While I understand the reasoning that you don’t want to wear out Peyton, the problem is that it’s nearly impossible to sell that idea on his teammates when the Broncos are winning.

Let’s get something out of the way first: By no means is starting Peyton all 16 games mandatory. Obviously, you aren’t going to start him if he’s injured or you suspect he might be. Case in point: The Broncos pulled DeMarcus Ware when he complained of back pain, even carting him back to the locker room. While the good news is that Ware didn’t have a serious injury, it shows this Broncos coaching staff is likely to err on the side of caution in some injury cases.

It’s varied in terms of how the Broncos have reacted, though. Demaryius Thomas and Aqib Talib were both players who left games with injuries but came back a few plays later. On the other hand, the Broncos didn’t let Juwan Thompson play after a hamstring injury and, after Omar Bolden was cleared to practice for Week 4 after a foot injury in Week 1, he was held out Week 4 anyway.

With that said, I don’t think the Broncos would take a suspected injury to Peyton lightly. If he were to complain about back pain or the coaching staff noticed him wincing or limping, he’s certainly going to be yanked from that game.

But this brings us to the point about how the players surrounding the quarterback react when a veteran QB does not play. If a QB is injured, they know there’s nothing that can be done about it. If a team decides to rest a QB when a playoff spot is settled, several other starters usually join the QB. But sit a QB who isn’t appearing on the injury report (or only appears under “veteran day off”), and your team is either winning or in the playoff hunt, and players get that thought in the back of their minds that something isn’t right and don’t want to trust the coaching staff.

In other words, arguing that Peyton should sit out a game at this point of the season isn’t about selling it on me or anybody else who is part of Thin Air. It’s about selling it on the players and getting them to buy into the idea that the only way to ensure themselves a playoff trip and deep run is to rest Peyton, and that means you have to argue a lot of “what ifs” that can easily be countered by other “what ifs” or will be responded to with sentences starting with “so what you are saying.” I don’t think there’s a coach out there that could successfully sell players on this without causing some grumblings.

Could there be a time down the road when the Broncos really should rest Peyton? Sure, that’s possible. One situation would be one Broncos fans would like: The Broncos build a 28-0 lead over a struggling team like Kansas City or Chicago midway through the third quarter, allowing Gary Kubiak to rest Peyton for the remainder of the game. A situation I know Broncos fans would dislike: The Broncos get blown out by a team like the Packers or the Patriots in which Peyton plays terribly and Kubiak yanks him to see if the offense will finally get the message. (With that said, we’ve seen such situations play out and the team does get the message, as arguably happened with the Patriots last year when Bill Belichick yanked Tom Brady when he played poorly in a lopsided loss to the Chiefs.)

I know I said I was going to look at other team’s schedules but, after giving it thought, I decided it wasn’t necessary and this really goes back to how difficult it is to sell teams on the idea of resting your veteran quarterback when you are winning or in a tight race for a playoff spot. Truth be told, if John Elway had not suffered any of those injuries in 1998, he would never have been rested as long as the Broncos kept winning. Go back to 2006 when Jake Plummer was struggling and he was benched for Jay Cutler when the Broncos were in a tight playoff hunt and, in the end, things didn’t work out, likely in part because Broncos players weren’t ready to buy the idea that a QB change was necessary and most of them really liked Plummer.

Having said this, there are times when you can evaluate later in the season where the Broncos are at and what needs to be done to best prepare them for the playoffs. After the Broncos play the Colts (the eighth game on Denver’s schedule), they should have a good idea how the AFC West is taking shape and, if they win the division, the likelihood of getting at least the No. 3 seed. With any luck, the rest of the offense will get things figured out (I’ll get to that later). If they can get large leads early in the second half against the Chiefs and Bears, they have an opportunity to rest Peyton. Then, after they play the Patriots and get divisional games with San Diego and Oakland out of the way, they can reassess when it’s time to play the Steelers, whether or not it makes sense to play Peyton the full game, part of a game or not at all. No, it’s not necessary to chase the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, but I don’t think the Broncos want to go worse than No. 3 if they can help it, lest they find themselves meeting the Patriots before the AFC championship game.

But trying to sell the players on the idea that Peyton shouldn’t play against Cleveland — and ultimately, the players are who you have to sell it on — is easier said than done.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we keep putting the offense entirely on Peyton’s shoulders, and that brings me to the rest of the offense. Let’s review what happened against Oakland.

Briefly on Peyton: His first interception was on him trying to thread the needle to Owen Daniels and his second came on a bad throw, but Charles Woodson had to make a great play to get the ball. Other than those two, though, Peyton didn’t really make bad throws or try to force things, certainly not as much as he did in other games. The Broncos also pass protected reasonably well, even though some of the rotations weren’t particularly ideal. And Peyton would have had at least one touchdown pass if Ronnie Hillman hadn’t dropped a catchable ball, and another if Demaryius Thomas had pulled in a ball he still had a chance at.

The problems go back, once again, to the running game. After doing a respectable job against the Vikings in Week 5, the Broncos managed just 2.4 yards per carry against the Raiders. Some of that is credit to a Raiders defensive line that is playing well, but part of it is because certain offensive linemen weren’t playing that well. Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez had good games, but Matt Paradis wasn’t as good as he was against Minnesota. Michael Schofield was all right, but left tackle was an issue, and I think it goes back to the rotation issues. And none of the tight ends did well with blocking.

While I understand what Kubiak was thinking (the Patriots use different O-line combos in different situations), the Patriots are mainly rotating the guards in and out, while keeping the tackles in for the majority of plays. I don’t think you can rotate Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez out all the time, although getting them out for a series or two while Max Garcia fills in isn’t a bad idea. The problem is with the tackles, in which I think you need more continuity throughout the game.

I would say the best thing to do after the bye is to let Ty Sambrailo return to the left tackle spot while Schofield is the right tackle, and you sub in Ryan Harris only when you have to. You can utilize Harris and Garcia as extra linemen when situations call for it, or if Sambrailo continues struggling, get Harris in the lineup and be done with it. But I would try to keep the line rotations to a minimum and let the quintet of Sambrailo, Mathis, Paradis, Vasquez and Schofield get the bulk of the snaps, allowing one group to settle in.

I will touch briefly upon on the coaching: Kubiak hinted during his post-game presser that much of the blame falls on him. Yes, I do believe Kubes should have gone for it on fourth down near the end in hopes of giving his team a confidence booster. Overall, though, I would suggest Kubiak not think too much about figuring out which line rotation to go with or how to best make Peyton comfortable. Again, I think he needs to stick with one grouping on the line, with the exception of a sixth linemen when warranted. He also needs to be ready to adjust to what becomes available during games and make sure Peyton understands that. Having Peyton line up in the shotgun or pistol more plays is one thing, but he needs Peyton to recognize that Peyton can’t make throws into tight windows like he used to.

For those who are wondering if the Broncos should make a trade, that’s not going to happen. One part of caponomics that I had overlooked before the season was that, once the regular season begins, every player who is on the 53-man roster, practice squad and injured reserve with guaranteed money counts toward the cap. (Suspended players don’t count for the weeks they are suspended.) The signing of Mathis precluded the chance that the Broncos would trade for a big-name player in midseason.

This does not mean the Broncos are in cap trouble. After the season, they can safely cut the likes of Peyton, Ryan Clady and DeMarcus Ware. They have to ride it out with Owen Daniels for the season, but after the season, they can cut him without damaging their cap situation. The same thing can be done with Britton Colquitt. And if they want to cut Tyler Polumbus this season to promote somebody from the practice squad, they can do so safely because Polumbus has no guaranteed money, cutting him leaves no dead money and the player promoted just replaces the cap hit Polumbus would have carried.

Somebody like Vernon Davis would require about $3.5 million in cap space to acquire, though, and that’s just not doable. It would mean trading somebody like Emmanuel Sanders or Vasquez (bad idea) or having to cut a combination of players with smaller cap numbers. Sure, you’d be fine letting Andre Caldwell go, but that by itself is not enough. To get Davis, even by cutting Caldwell, you have no choice but to either keep Polumbus over Harris (not what I would do) or cut or trade somebody like Malik Jackson or Danny Trevathan (everyone can say ABSOLUTELY NOT).

Like it or not, the Broncos are riding out with this roster, for better or for worse, with the exception of minor tweaks (such as the aforementioned cutting of Polumbus to promote a practice squad player). There is, however, the possibility that certain players could see playing time increased. The Broncos seem to like Mitchell Henry and he could be worked into the offense. It’s clear they want to get Thompson more work and we are certain to see more of Bennie Fowler.

And after the season is over — well, you know certain changes are going to happen, even if the Broncos manage to win the Super Bowl.

Regardless, the number one thing the Broncos can do to take a load off Peyton is to run the ball effectively. Also, finish drives when you get into the red zone. Those two things take pressure off your aging quarterback. The Broncos must get both done, though, because if they don’t do that, they are likely to have a short playoff run regardless of when or how they get a chance to rest their aging quarterback.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.