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Sam Dudley

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Patience With Peyton, Please

Posted: 11/15/2012 5:29 pm

On November 9, 1997, the Denver Broncos scored 34 points and beat the Carolina Panthers. Nearly 15 years to the day, the Broncos scored 36 points and beat the Carolina Panthers.

In each game, an aging future hall of fame quarterback engineered a Denver victory. Furthermore, in each game, Denver's aging future hall of fame quarterback won by only throwing for one touchdown.

Though 15 years, two days, and two points separate these dominant Denver victories over Carolina, many facets of these victories are identical. Each victory was a team win, in which Denver passed for one touchdown, its defense scored off an interception, and the Broncos special teams kicked two field goals and returned at least one punt for a touchdown.

These victories are not just remarkably similar. They are eerily similar. This eeriness percolates when it comes to comparing the 1997 and 2012 Broncos rosters.

Matt Prater is a version of Jason Elam that could definitely beat up Jason Elam and probably kick a 73-yard field goal. Trindon Holliday is Darien Gordon... with a rocket up his ass. The triumvirate of Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and (shocker) Kevin Vickerson creates an inside-out pass rush that the team has not consistently enjoyed since Alfred Williams, Neil Smith, and (shocker) Ma'a Tanuvasa each recorded 8.5 sacks in 1997. Derek Wolfe is exactly what Trevor Pryce was in 1997: a 6'5", 295-pound versatile rookie defensive lineman.

And Peyton Manning is John Elway, but Manning is 2 inches taller... and he is a better quarterback.

There, I said it.

I already had goosebumps from examining the creepy parallels that show up when examining the 1997 and 2012 seasons -- the stats, the victories, and even the common opponents. My goose bumps hardened and I admit I choked when I typed that Manning is currently playing better than Elway did during those fateful and beautiful final seasons.

Until now, it would have been difficult to torture such a confession from me. It is simple. No human entity has ever captured my heart like #7 did.

Few tougher men have ever stridden the land. A quarterback never owned the fourth quarter until #7 claimed it in Cleveland in 1987 and never, ever gave it back. No one ever flipped failure the bird, embraced adversity, and then went out like #7 did. Nobody.

Well, #18 is working his way through #7's resume right now, and he has captured Denver's heart while playing the position of quarterback better than #7 ever did during a regular season.

Manning deserves patience and respect bordering on sheer awe, not doubts and criticism bordering on baseless nitpicking. Of course, no athlete or public figure ever fully escapes criticism , but it is difficult to criticize an iconic quarterback who at 36 still plays his position better than anyone else in franchise history.

We hold Elway so high in our hearts and minds, and rightfully so. This is not to say that Manning's Denver legacy is currently approaching Elway's... or that it ever will. Rather, this is a call for "fans" to cease with the insane, inane, and even stupid criticism of the 2012 Broncos offense, especially when it comes to anything Manning does.

This is the best passing attack and most efficient offense we have ever witnessed in Denver.

When Broncos fans envision football bliss, we snap back to the 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl campaigns. So, let's hearken back to those years of offensive grandeur in hopes of acquiring some much-needed perspective on the 2012 offense.

Manning's supremacy becomes evident at first glance. His '12 numbers and pace only grow more impressive with deeper analysis. Elway's '97 and '98 regular season statistics pale in comparison to the numbers that Manning presently produces each week.

In order to understand just how good Manning is every time he drops back to pass this season, let's first compare '12 Manning to '97 and '98 Elway on a pass play-by-pass play basis.

Elway bests Manning in one relevant category: yards per completion. Even so, Elway only bests Manning by 1.2 yards per completion in 1997 and 1.6 yards in 1998. However, yards per completion ultimately becomes somewhat moot when you consider Manning will attempt almost 100 more passes this season than Elway did in 1997. Through 9 games, Manning has thrown 330 passes, putting him on pace to toss 587 on the year. Elway threw 502 passes in 16 games in 1997 and 356 in 13 games in 1998.

So, Manning throws for about 1 yard less per completion while throwing the ball roughly 6 more times per game than '97 Elway and about 9 more times per game than '98 Elway. Manning throws the ball more often while sacrificing marginal yards per attempt.

One of the problems with relying on yards per completion as a telling metric is that it does not account for sacks. Net yards per attempt fills this void and better gauges exactly how many yards on average a quarterback gains each time he attempts a pass play.

Elway's ability to extend plays made him a very special quarterback. Mile High Magic was a combination of some crowd noise and a man wearing a barrel, but its existence was predicated on John Elway's right arm and his wily legs. Yet, Elway's propensity to scramble caused him to take some bad sacks. Manning ability to avoid sacks is special, to say the least.

Comparing net yards per attempt shows that '12 Manning actually moves the chains 7.73 yards every time he drops back to pass. Elway gained 6.4 net yards per attempt in 1997, and he managed 7.1 yards in 1998, tying the career-high he set in 1987.

Manning is a more efficient passer than '97 and '98 Elway because he accumulates more "true" yardage every time he attempts a pass. Furthermore, Manning's 7.73 net yards per attempt is all the more impressive since he throws the ball markedly more times per game than Elway did during the '97 and '98 super bowl campaigns. A mortal quarterback's net yards per attempt figure typically dips as he throw more passes; this is not the case with modern legends like Manning, Brees, and Brady.

Today's Broncos throw more often than the Mike Shanahan offenses of the late-1990s. However, this does not diminish Manning's present brilliance mainly because he still averages more net yards per attempt despite throwing at a higher clip than Elway ever did.

Manning is playing remarkably efficient football, so naturally the 2012 Broncos offense leans heavily on his ability to throw. It is safe to say that the present Broncos offense depends more on Manning's arm than the '97 and '98 offenses ever depended on Elway ability to pass.

This not surprising considering Elway had Terrell Davis to ease the load.

Through 9 games, the 2012 Broncos have run the ball 244 times, meaning they will attempt about 430 rushes this season; they average a standard to underwhelming 3.8 yards per carry. With Elway at the helm, Mike Shanahan called 520 run plays in 1997 and 525 in 1998, respectively averaging 4.7 yards and 4.6 yards per carry.

To put the greatness of the '12 passing offense in new light, metrics indicate that the '97 and '98 Broncos historic rushing attack is as superior to the '12 banal running game as Manning's current passing attack is to the '97 and '98 Broncos passing offenses.

Furthermore, the '12 Denver offense is on pace to surpass the '97 and '98 Broncos offense in several meaningful totals.

Manning's offense should accrue just over 6,300 yards and score around 480 points. Elway's '97 offense totaled 472 points and 5,872 yards. A year later, the Broncos amassed 501 points on 6,092 yards; it is worth remembering that Elway only played 13 games during the 1998 season. So, Manning's '12 offense will likely produce more yards than the '97 and '98 offenses. With potential blowouts looming against remaining lackluster opponents, it is also completely possible Manning's offense outscores Elway's '97 and '98 units.

Additionally, it is crucial to examine a quarterback's total passing first downs. This figure demonstrates how responsible a quarterback is for his offense's collective success.

Elway passed for 172 first downs in 1997, and the Broncos threw for 186 first downs in 1998. Manning has already thrown for 128 first downs in 9 weeks, pacing him to pass for approximately 230 first downs by the end of the regular season.

In this case, the statistics do not lie. Clearly, the '12 offense is built on the brilliance of Manning's mind and arm. Moreover, the effectiveness of the '97 and '98 offenses did not hinge on quarterback play to the degree that the '12 offense does.

NFL offenses have changed a great deal since the Broncos won super bowls a decade and a half ago. Manning was a catalyst to this change. His mastery of quarterbacking led the entire league to rely more heavily than ever before on the forward pass, as well as the hurry-up offense.

This master quarterback is now flourishing in Denver.

Denver fans have never seen 21 touchdowns in 9 games. Jake Plummer came close in 2004, throwing for 19 touchdowns in 9 games. Plummer's offensive metrics were surprisingly solid in 2004, but, like the '04 Broncos roster, Plummer was not built for long-term success; he finished 2004 with 27 touchdowns against 20 interceptions and only threw for 184 first downs.

Elway threw for a career best 27 touchdowns in 1997, and tossed for 22 in 1998.

It is not out of the realm of rationality to imagine Manning throwing for 5 touchdowns this Sunday, reaching 27 touchdowns only 10 weeks into this season.

A 69.7 completion percentage? Our city has never seen a Broncos quarterback consistently complete passes at this rate... or anything close to it.

As far as Elway is concerned, he completed 55.8 percent of his passes in 1997 and 59 percent in 1998. Plummer completed 58.2 percent in 2004, which was arguably his most statistically impressive season as it was the only time he ever surpassed 4,000 yards. In 2005, a more "polished" Plummer (literally) managed to complete 60.7 percent of his passes and he led the Broncos to the AFC Championship game. Jay "No Chin" Cutler completed 62.3 percent of his passes at the peak of his Denver prowess while throwing for 223 first downs and over 4,500 yards in 2008.

Still, only bits and pieces of these former Broncos quarterbacks' most impressive seasons approach the numbers Manning is piling up. Manning is assembling a total package of passing efficiency, and his total package exceeds and might ultimately dominate the packages previously assembled by past Denver "franchise" quarterbacks, Elway included.

To put elements of Manning's present success in proper perspective we must look beyond the Broncos. We must compare Manning's '12 pace to recent historic metrics set forth by other franchises' elite quarterbacks. Tom Brady completed 68.9 percent of his passes and threw for 243 first downs during his epic 50-touchdown '07 season. Drew Brees completed 71 percent of his passes 280 first downs and threw for an incredible 280 first downs during his record-setting 5,476-yard season last year.

The '07 Patriots and '11 Saints featured offenses that depended more heavily on quarterback play than most offenses in NFL history. The totality of Manning's '12 statistics likely will not surpass those of Brady and Brees during their historic seasons, but Manning is gunning to wind up in their ballpark while approaching and breaking many of his own personal bests.

Considering the weakness of the Broncos remaining schedule, Manning could feasibly rack up 4,800-5,000 yards while completing 68+ percent of his passes. Throw in (pun intended) about 40 touchdowns and less than 15 interceptions, and these figures only bolster the idea that Manning is figuratively and literally throwing in rarified air at 5,280 feet.

Manning's Denver legacy will never touch Elway's. It won't because it just can't. However, this simple fact of life detracts nothing from the amazing numbers Manning is producing, as well as the confident and sturdy path he has set the Broncos franchise on.

We in Denver overlook and even selectively forget many of Elway's blemishes and inefficiencies as a passer. For instance, do you recall Weeks 15 and 16 of the 1998 season? You probably do not.

During these weeks, the Broncos recorded back-to-back losses to the Giants and Dolphins. Elway threw 3 interceptions against 0 touchdowns while never surpassing 180 yards. For 2 weeks in a row, Elway was beyond putrid.

Until yesterday, I had forgotten about this patch of terrible quarterbacking by Elway because the he was Super Bowl XXXIII MVP and the Broncos were back-to-back world champions less than 2 months after his back-to-back duds.

Elway's horrendous 2-week stretch at the tail end of 1998 became particularly relevant again this week.

Many Denver fans have complained about a vital team win that came on the road game against the Panthers last Sunday. Manning was more than solid and the defense played excellent football, especially when it came to maintaining coverage while blitzing more than 3-4 defenders. So what if Manning only threw for 1 touchdown? So what if the special teams and defense racked up points?

This exact set of circumstances unfolded in a strikingly similar November thrashing of the Panthers 15 years ago, and the Broncos went on to win Super Bowl XXXII... and that Super Bowl-winning Broncos team did not feature as good a quarterback or as dangerously efficient an offense as Denver has right now.

So, kindly stop the bullshit, people!

Public outcry about the Broncos offense is as ridiculous as it is reductionist, especially when it comes to Manning. There is little rational criticism anyone can lob at Manning or this '12 offense as it stands. Nothing is perfect.

Can you imagine the outpouring of lunacy if Manning pulls a '98 Elway by going two straight weeks without a touchdown pass or a 200-yard game while only throwing interceptions? After hearing the foolish reactions of countless uninformed "fans" this week, I do not want to imagine a time and place where this ever happens.

However, if it does, Denver must be patient with Peyton.

We were patient with '97 and '98 Elway because we unconditionally loved him. The Broncos sit on the precipice of what could be a deep playoff run. This success started and will end with Manning.

Peyton Manning has always held our respect, even when he was throttling the Broncos years ago in the playoffs. He has earned our devotion since the moment he showed up at Dove Valley for training camp in July. It should now go without saying that Manning deserves Denver's patience, especially if he only completes 27 of 38 for 301 yards, 1 touchdown, and no interceptions 2 weeks in a row.

P.S. Footnotes...

1. The 'Toughest Son-of-a-Bitch Ever' starts out as follows: Nelson Mandela, General Patton, John Elway, Clint Eastwood (maybe). Carry on...

2. "no athlete or public figure ever fully escapes criticism"... Bill Clinton might actually have accomplished this feat.

3. Net Yards Passing Per Attempt=(Passing Yards-Sack Yards)/(Passing Attempts+Times Sacked)

4. Manning has been sacked 11 times in 9 games (3.2 percent of pass plays). Elway was sacked 34 times in 16 games (6.3 percent) in 1997 and 18 times in 13 games (4.8 percent) in 1998.

5. Manning's "remarkably" efficient '12 football: completing 69.7 percent of 330 passes for 2,705 yards and 21 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions and 11 sacks for a league-leading QBR of 84.83.

6. Regarding "standard to underwhelming" 3.8 yards per carry: Those of you jumping all over Willis McGahee really need to stop. Those of you clamoring for Knowshon Moreno really, really need to shut up. McGahee's fumbles have been inopportune, but they are an aberration. It's not like fumbling over the age of 30 means a back is washed up. McGahee is a smart running back, who runs hard, knows this offense, and has gained Manning's trust; the fact that he is having a career year (by leaps and bounds) catching passes out of the backfield speaks to his mastery of the offense, as well as his current effectiveness. Moreno never mastered this offense, gained Manning's trust, or proved to be an inspired one-cut runner. McGahee is no star, but he is a solid, above average back. Plus, the 2013 Broncos live and die by the forward pass.

7. Regarding the 2012 Manning-led offensive unit being Denver's most efficient ever: It is worth noting that the '97 offense, which boasted a 2,000-yard rusher in Davis, totaled 310 first downs. The '98 offense accumulated 321 first downs. The '12 offense is on pace to accrue 326 first downs. This further downplays the current necessity of a prominent running game, and demonstrates how effectively Manning replaces a "traditional" rushing attack by moving the chains through backfield checkdowns and WR screens.

8. Regarding Denver forgetting Elway's terrible 1997 two-week stretch in addition to his 1998 late season, two-week swoon: Elway was also putrid in Weeks 14 and 15 in '97. The Broncos lost back-to-back road games to Pittsburgh and San Francisco with the AFC West title on the line. In Week 14, Elway went 17-42 (40.5 percent) for 248 YDs, 2 TDs, and 1 INT against Pittsburgh. In Week 15, he was 16-41 (39 percent) for 150 YDs, 0 TDs, and 2 INTs.

9. "Nothing is perfect" ... Except Mila Kunis, pizza, and the American collegiate experience.

 

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