Peyton Manning is a shell of his former self.
If you’ve watched the Broncos even a little bit this year, you can see that. This is not a matter of opinion, it’s a statement of fact. I would call him Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards, except that wouldn’t be fair to Jordan, who averaged more than 20 points a game in his two seasons with the Wizards. Peyton Manning in 2015 is more like 42-year-old Willie Mays batting .211 with the 1973 New York Mets.
Willie Mays with the ’73 Mets is the standard shorthand we sportswriters use when we want to discuss a Hall of Famer who’s hanging on way past his prime, but when we make those comparisons we’re often talking about players on terrible teams, sometimes overlooking that the Mets actually went to the World Series in 1973. And that makes Manning and Mays an even better comparison, because Manning is a Hall of Famer hanging on while playing for a very good team.
Manning threw three interceptions yesterday to give him an NFL-high 10 picks this season. That’s the same number of interceptions he threw in the entire 2013 season, when he threw 55 touchdown passes. This season he has thrown just seven touchdown passes.
“We’re certainly not playing as well as we would like, but we’re playing well enough to win,” Manning said after the game.
Yes, the Broncos improved to 6-0 with yesterday’s win over the Browns, and that raises the big question: Can the Broncos keep winning with a shot Peyton Manning as their quarterback?
If by “keep winning,” we mean win the AFC West, I believe they absolutely can. Denver’s defense is outstanding — easily the best in the NFL. The Broncos already have a huge lead over the Raiders, Chargers and Chiefs in the AFC West, and there’s almost no chance of them getting caught. They’re going to be hosting a playoff game in Denver in January.
But if by “keep winning,” we mean win the Super Bowl, I don’t think so. This offense just isn’t good enough to win in January. Manning’s arm is so weak that he frequently throws short of the chains on third down, or floats deep passes where the Peyton of a couple years ago would sling them with velocity. And it doesn’t help that the Broncos’ offensive line is struggling to protect Manning, the running game is one of the worst in the NFL, and even the highly paid receiver Demaryius Thomas had two big drops on Sunday.
So while it’s great that the Broncos are finding ways to win with a shot Peyton Manning, let’s be honest: It’s going to stop. After their bye this week, the Broncos get the Packers next Sunday night and have games coming up against the Patriots and Bengals, and Denver won’t be able to beat good teams the way they beat the Browns yesterday. To beat a good team, the Broncos will need a good game from the offense, and this offense just isn’t ready to deliver.
Manning is among the greatest players in NFL history, and it would be wonderful to see him end his career with another title in a few months. But it’s far more likely that he’ll end his career with another playoff loss. He’s just not good enough anymore.
Here are my other observations from Sunday:
Lions, Bears and officials were ugly. If you see the score, “Lions 37, Bears 34 in overtime” and think that sounds like a good game, you didn’t see yesterday’s Lions-Bears game. In reality, it was an ugly game, filled with mistakes by both teams and even more mistakes by the officials, who were just brutally bad. At one point the officials gave Golden Tate a touchdown that defied everything we thought we knew about the NFL’s catch rules. At another point the officials negated a Tate touchdown with a ridiculous offensive pass interference penalty on Calvin Johnson. The officials also took way too long to make calls, including huddling for what seemed like forever before calling an intentional grounding penalty on Matthew Stafford late in the fourth quarter. The bad officiating in this game won’t get as much attention as the high-profile mistakes the officials have made on the last two Monday nights, but the league simply must get its officiating problems fixed.
Was Brandon Marshall right about Chris Ivory? Marshall, the Jets’ veteran wide receiver, called Ivory the best running back in the NFL last week. I thought that sounded like hyperbole, but Ivory was amazing yesterday: He had 20 carries for 146 yards and a touchdown, and he also caught all three of the passes thrown to him and added 50 receiving yards. Ivory is averaging 115 rushing yards a game, best in the NFL.
Dan Quinn was a huge loss in Seattle. Quinn, who was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014, left this offseason to become head coach of the Falcons. The Seahawks, who fell to 2-4 with yesterday’s loss to the Panthers, miss him. The Seahawks aren’t out of it, but they’re in a lot of trouble. This looks nothing like the great Seahawks defense of the last couple years.
Michael Vick, take a seat. It appears that Vick’s days of playing quarterback in the NFL are done. He’s been mediocre at best filling in for an injured Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh this year, and yesterday the Steelers’ offense was immediately energized when Vick left the game and was replaced by third-stringer Landry Jones. Jones went 8-for-12 for 168 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and he showed that he deserves to be the Steelers’ starter until Roethlisberger’s knee heals.
Andy Dalton remains outstanding. Last week, I made the case that Dalton is an MVP candidate. Yesterday, Dalton kept it up with a brilliant game against the Bills. Dalton completed 22 of 33 passes for 243 yards, with three touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. The Bengals are 6-0, and Dalton is playing the best football he’s ever played.
How long can Jay Gruden stick with Kirk Cousins? Cousins was awful in Washington’s loss to the Jets yesterday, throwing two interceptions and averaging just 4.6 yards per pass. The Jets’ defense deserves some credit, but Cousins deserves a lot of blame: He makes way, way too many mistakes. Gruden tried to shield Cousins from criticism after the game, blaming the wind and the pass rush for Cousins’s bad throws. But at some point, Cousins is going to need to get better, or he’s going to need to be benched. The problem is Gruden has already flip-flopped on his quarterbacks once, declaring Robert Griffin III the starter only to change his mind and go to Cousins, and I think Gruden is afraid of looking wishy-washy if he changes back. But the reality is, if Cousins can’t get a lot better in a hurry, Washington would be better off benching him for Colt McCoy. He’s that bad — maybe even worse than Peyton Manning.