Whether or not Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning any more isn’t really the point.
Because the questions of whether he can move the ball down the field the way he used to shouldn’t even be up for debate any longer, since he can still move a team.
Manning’s doing his football differently, but it still works, as he showed in Sunday’s 24-12 win over the Lions.
The 39-year-old Broncos quarterback threw for 324 yards and two touchdowns, and there were moments when he looked like his old self. But he’s also clearly older, and doesn’t throw the ball with the same authority. That’s not based on sources. That’s based on having two working eyes. The ball flutters more. Doesn’t arrive as quickly. But it’s arriving often enough.
His 45-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas was more than double his previous long completion of the year (a 22-yarder to Thomas). But it doesn’t stand as evidence of a miracle cure, as the ball traveled 30 yards or so in the air. Thomas made a great play on an under-thrown ball.
But Manning has also figured out other ways around it. He can still evade rushes, and fit balls into windows other quarterbacks don’t see, as he did dumping it off to Jordan Norwood coming across the middle as he was being chased the other way, and as he did by adjusting at the line of scrimmage and finding Owen Daniels for a only-where-he-can-catch-it pass for the game-clinching touchdown.
And by shifting to the pistol formation as the foundation for the Broncos offense, he’s shown he can compromise. Head coach Gary Kubiak still gets to talk about caring about the run, and Manning gets a chance to stand back and survey. The running part of the equation hasn’t come through yet, and Kubiak may eventually realize he’s hammering something with corners into a hole that is round.
The play-calling disparity makes it clear who’s driving, as the Broncos threw 42 passes and ran it just 19 times (counting the knee Manning took to close it out).
So it’s not a full-blown mid-life crisis, as I don’t think Buick even makes a convertible. But Manning is changing in front of our eyes. It’s less arm, but more mind.
It doesn’t look like what we’re accustomed to from one of the best passers the game has ever known. But with every passing day, we’re all getting older, and Manning isn’t immune to that. He’s just figuring out a way to diminish the effects of aging, or at least to hold it off for one more day.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. Lions quarterback Matt Stafford is taking a beating, and it’s not because he’s playing a bunch of meanies every week.
The Lions have some pretty glaring protection breakdowns, and they were made more obvious by a Broncos defensive full of pass-rush threats.
DeMarcus Ware dropped Stafford on the second play of the game, primarily because he was unblocked. Von Miller was able to blow up a run play later in the game on a laughable block attempt by tight end Eric Ebron.
The cumulative effect is that Stafford doesn’t often have time to move the ball downfield, which is the thing he’s best at. And without that, the Lions offense as a whole looks out of sync.
He can make the rare throws, but partly because of what’s happening around him, he’s making them too rarely.
2. Of course, the Broncos had a little something to do with that.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has an impressive array of playmakers at his disposal, guys who can change a game at each level of the defense. Their secondary depth is impressive, as the interception made by third corner Bradley Roby underscores.
And they spent a first-round pick on pass-rusher Shane Ray, who doesn’t get all that many snaps because he’s playing behind two guys named Ware and Von Miller.
3. It’s an overstatement to say the Lions’ defensive issues stem from the loss of any one player.
But the loss of so many has left their defense a shell of itself.
While there’s little they could have done to kept defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh considering the pile of money Miami was willing to throw at him, he’s not the only impact player they’re missing.
The hip injury that’s keeping linebacker DeAndre Levy off the field has left the Lions without much presence on defense. For the last few years, they had a degree of edge, and now, they have a collection of players, some better than others. That’s it.
4. The Lions should probably draw up a new two-point conversion play.
The draw to Joique Bell has now not worked in back-to-back weeks, after it failed against the Vikings last Sunday. For a team with multiple weapons on the outside (including backs), it’s a stodgy choice to run it up the middle, and it’s hardly an accident it didn’t work.
5. They should also work on being more responsible. Giving the Broncos a chance at another field goal after a late miss is the kind of sloppy penalty that separates good teams from bad ones.
At 0-3, it’s clear which kind the Lions are at the moment.