If someone told me Sunday morning that the Broncos would win the AFC West and get the No. 1 seed in the playoffs despite turning the ball over five times, I would have told that someone how crazy that sounded.
Well, here we are, the Broncos with their fifth straight AFC West title and knowing they will be playing at home for every AFC playoff game they have. And, of course, the talk is already focused on who should be starting at quarterback for the playoffs.
Let’s make one thing clear: Peyton Manning taking over as quarterback was not the sole reason the Broncos bounced back to beat the San Diego Chargers after turning the ball over five times, and it really isn’t the number one reason. If I was going to name the number one reason why the Broncos won, it’s because they stopped beating themselves and got back to executing. (There is a player who really made the difference, but I’ll get to him later.)
To be fair to Brock Osweiler, not all the turnovers were his fault. Certainly the two fumbles don’t rest on his shoulders — those fall on Emmanuel Sanders and CJ Anderson. It’s hard to blame him for the interception when he was hit as he threw, thanks to Michael Schofield getting beat again. The first interception he threw is shared responsibility — it was a catchable ball for Jordan Norwood and he let it slip through his hands, but Osweiler didn’t put a good touch on his throw and made it more difficult on Norwood than it probably should have been. The fumble, though, is on Osweiler for failing to recognize the blitz and locking his eyes on the right side of the field. Had he noticed the blitz coming, he could have rolled to his right and still have a chance to throw.
What Peyton Manning really brought to the game when he came under center was forcing the Broncos to settle down and stop beating themselves. It was more about his presence under center, and the Broncos knowing that they needed to quit dwelling on mistakes, than it was anything Manning brought from a physical or game play standpoint. True, when Manning did throw the ball, he had more zip to his throws, and at least one throw was errant because a defender came in unblocked and Manning had to throw sooner than he wanted, but it was certainly not vintage Manning and nobody should pretend otherwise.
What did help, and what’s getting overlooked, was the offensive line’s play. First, not only did Gary Kubiak replace Osweiler with Manning, he replaced Schofield with Tyler Polumbus. I would describe Polumbus’ play as adequate — he didn’t really have to do a lot, but in the times when he needed to pass protect or his run blocking was needed, he got the job done. I believe the Broncos need to go with Polumbus on the line through the postseason unless he’s injured. No, moving Louis Vasquez to right tackle isn’t going to get it done because that’s not Vasquez’s natural position and he hasn’t been at his best in the zone blocking scheme this season. Polumbus might not be that good, but at least he’s experienced in the scheme. If necessary, you can put him on the left side and have Ryan Harris play the right side.
This brings me to another reason why moving Vasquez is not a good idea: Because the best thing Kubiak has done with the line is utilize Vasquez, Max Garcia and Evan Mathis in a rotation at guard. Rotating Vasquez and Mathis out for an offensive series has kept both players fresh and limited the toll taken on their minor injuries they’ve dealt with, while giving Garcia valuable game experience. I think it’s best to keep that rotation going in the playoffs, as it gives the Broncos the best chance at the guard positions, which are vital to helping the Broncos establish the run game.
Most of all, there’s the player who had the biggest role in why the Broncos were able to run the ball effectively Sunday: Matt Paradis. While the arrow has trended down for Schofield, it has trended up for Paradis, who posted his best Pro Football Focus grade of the season at +5.1. The last three games saw Paradis play his best football, a good sign as the Broncos enter the playoffs. As long as Paradis continues to play well, the Broncos run game will benefit, regardless of the opponent.
One must remember that defenses simply aren’t playing nine in the box, like some speculated earlier this year, because why bother doing that when the run game doesn’t average more than three yards per carry? In reality, defenses spent time taking away the throws Peyton Manning liked to go with, and they’ve been doing the same against Osweiler. Osweiler is certainly better at fitting the ball into a tight window, but that alone isn’t going to get it done. The fact is that the Broncos have to run the ball effectively to be successful, and they need to do that consistently well. I’m hoping that Sunday’s play, regardless of the turnovers (and only one came from the run game), will give Kubiak more confidence in what the run game can do for the Broncos.
At any rate, we’ve established that Peyton Manning’s physical tools and plays made aren’t really what turned the tide. Again, I believe his real effect comes more because Peyton brought a presence to the offense that let the players know it was time to put those mistakes behind them and get back to executing.
The one element a good quarterback brings to the table is not just the QB dismissing mistakes from his mind, but getting his teammates to do the same. Peyton didn’t develop that right away, as evidenced by his struggles as a rookie, but over time, teammates learned to respect him, trust him and know that they needed to move past mistakes and get back to playing well. The same was true with John Elway, who struggled as a rookie, even as he did better when he returned to the lineup late that season. Jake Plummer had that to an extent, although he seemed to do his best work with Kubiak as offensive coordinator. Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton have shown it at times, but Cutler, when he was a Bronco and his first couple of seasons with Chicago, worried too much about making up for deficiencies and Orton, in his time as a Bronco, worried too much about distractions.
In Osweiler’s case, I think his issue is that he is still getting a feel for the game and learning to correct the current weaknesses with his game. The biggest one is his pocket awareness (and that’s one area in which Peyton has an advantage, even though he’s aging), and he also needs to put better touch on his throws (Peyton has the edge here, too), but those are things that can be corrected — it will just take time. But with his regards to a commanding presence, Osweiler hasn’t reached that point where his teammates are going to understand that they need to put mistakes behind them. I don’t see Osweiler throwing anyone under the bus or chewing people out, but he’s still learning how to communicate to his teammates the need to move past errors, and that’s only going to come with time spent with his teammates, working alongside them and developing that trust. One might argue that’s what they need in the playoffs, but one must remember the playoffs are not about building for the future, they are about “win or go home.”
It’s why I do believe that Osweiler is the future but, for now, the best bet may be to go with Peyton Manning, but with certain conditions. The first one is the obvious one: He must be healthy, because if the foot injury bothers him again, it will be immediately noticeable in his play. Second, the Broncos need to scrap the pistol (but a good sign was the Broncos called just one pistol play when Peyton entered the San Diego game, which he switched to the shotgun). Third, I do believe Kubiak should run the no huddle, because that will keep defenses on their toes. No, it’s not necessary to run the Peyton offense to run a no huddle — the no huddle is about how quickly you get back to the line of scrimmage and force defenses to hurry with substitutions and adjustments, not about whether you take snaps from under center or in shotgun. Fourth, he needs to understand that he can’t make the throws he used to and only attempt them if he has no other choice — and by that, I mean a situation in which the game is on the line and he’s going to have to connect on such throws if the Broncos are to move the football and have a chance to win.
On the fourth point, I have reason to believe that Peyton understands this. First, now that the run game has become effective, there should be less pressure on Peyton to make such throws. Second, Peyton’s willingness to take snaps under center against San Diego tells me he’s willing to concede that point if he does start in the playoffs. Third, Peyton has to know that, if he starts, it will be his last chance. There won’t be teams lining up to have him as the starter in 2016, because the deficiencies in his game aren’t ones that can be corrected with time. If a team wants a veteran QB who is aging but might have something left in the tank, Drew Brees is a more likely candidate. A team wanting to give a QB a one-year deal will prefer to look at Sam Bradford, or possibly Ryan Fitzpatrick. Of course, there’s Osweiler to consider, but I have reason to believe John Elway will do whatever he can to keep him for the long term. We’ve seen other teams who have been selective with their free agent signings, and those teams (Giants, Seahawks, Panthers) were willing to get their QBs locked up. I believe Elway will do the same with Osweiler.
Getting back to the QB situation for the playoffs, this isn’t about how much money the Broncos will or won’t save (if they start Peyton and do reach the Super Bowl, they owe him at least an additional $2M). This isn’t about the future, either — that will be addressed once the Broncos’ offseason officially begins. It’s more about what’s going to work best for the playoffs and what may give the Broncos the best chance to win.
And at this point, I think the QB with playoff experience and the larger presence under center, regardless of his limitations, is the better bet. His issues are known, but now that the Broncos are doing a better job in the department they need to excel at in order to make that deep playoff run, that the linemen who share a large responsibility for run blocking are doing their jobs better, and that Peyton at this point should know he won’t be getting one more chance in 2016, I would hope it translates to being “good enough” on offense, which is what the Broncos need to complement their No. 1 NFL defense and give them as a good a chance as anyone else of winning the Super Bowl.