Thinking through Manning to the Broncos

Well, this is getting interesting.  With every passing hour, we hear more and more that the Denver Broncos are seriously in the Peyton Manning mix.  Doug had some really good stuff yesterday about this in the Lard, and I decided to share some thoughts about the possibility as well. 

1.  It will cost a lot, but the Broncos are well-positioned to pay.

If you believe Mike Freeman’s report from Thursday, the Broncos are the serious contenders along with Washington and Miami.  Neither team has the salary cap room that the Broncos have, but both have spendthrift owners who are very focused on the marketing impact of making big-splash signings.  Stephen Ross of the Dolphins is a guy who vastly overpaid for his team and has been spurned by both Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher while trying to make big-splash coaching hires.

Ross will pay what it takes, and we all know that Daniel Snyder will as well.  The question is whether Pat Bowlen will.  If he were writing a check from his pocket, I doubt he would, but I think that the Broncos, as a corporate entity, are sitting in a good financial position and could afford to write a check for a $25 million signing bonus.  This is going to be a situation where it probably takes $100 million over four years to get a deal done, due to the market forces of free agency.  With so many teams in on Manning, there’s no risk discount available for his health either.

2.  The coaching fits.

Manning has mostly had defense-focused head coaches (Jim Mora and Tony Dungy), and the one offensive-minded guy (Jim Caldwell) was running the offense that Manning and Tom Moore had jointly put together.  In Washington, the Shanahans are technocratic offense guys, and they want to run offense the way they want to run it.  It’s a function of their deeply held beliefs.  (I despise beliefs, as you know; they get in the way of reason way too often.)  In Miami, Joe Philbin is the new Head Coach, and he’s never even been an offensive play-caller before.  Is his ego really going to allow him to turn over his offense to a new QB?  I can see major clashes between Manning and both coaching staffs.

In Denver, however, there’s a whole different vibe.  It’s no longer a technocratic organization; it’s a philosophy-driven one.  Be physical, be sound in the fundamentals, and execute consistently, and you’ll win a lot of games.  That’s a Manning-friendly environment, because the offense that he’s always played in is far and away the simplest in the NFL.  I bet you they used no more than six different running plays and 10 passing concepts in Indianapolis all these years.  There literally wasn’t any need to even have a written playbook, or a play-sheet wristband for Manning.  (Note the absence thereof - he looks like he's going to play tennis in the one he's wearing.)

The whole idea is that Manning will look at the defense pre-snap, and he’ll then check to a variation on either a running concept or a passing concept that best attacks the weakness of the defense that he sees.   Is your box count light inside?  Fine, that pass play just became an inside run.  Are your corners playing off?  Cool, the hitch game is open for business.  Single-high safety and corners showing press technique?  Let’s see how they do defending outside verticals on both sides.

The key thing is that Manning is counting on being able to execute his throws and put them exactly where they’re supposed to go, even against coverage.  Along with his superior recognition skills, that’s the value proposition that you’re paying $25 million per year for.  The signing team is probably going to have to sign him sight unseen, given the eagerness of the rest of the market to do so.  It’s a risk, but probably a reasonable one, given the upside.

The John Fox coaching staff might be the most ideal one in the NFL for Peyton Manning to align with.  The only other one I think is comparable is San Francisco’s.  Fox is a veteran-friendly coach and by all accounts a cool guy to work for with.  Mike McCoy isn’t some kind of mad scientist play-caller, and he doesn’t seem to be a high ego coach, like a Shanahan.  Manning would basically be allowed to take over the offense and run it his way.  And don't think for a minute that Fox would be so quick to worry about bad outcomes in the passing game with Manning in tow - it would be a whole different mindset for him.

3.  Denver's personnel is better than people think. 

As much as I’ve hit this Denver offensive line for its struggles in protection, the reality is that it’s better than any group Manning ever played with in Indianapolis.  The Colts constantly skimped on the line in a financial sense, because they knew Manning would make it look a lot better than it really was.  The Broncos group is young, cheap, and pretty talented across the board.  Manning taking a sack behind that group would be very, very rare.

At receiver, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are players who have limited experience and who struggle a bit to separate from tight coverage, like many big receivers do.  Manning would make them look a lot better by putting the ball in precise locations, negating the need to get wide separation.  Both players need to catch the ball better than they did in 2011, but that’s independent of who the QB is throwing the ball, and hopefully both are working on their catching skills this offseason.

Manning consistently played with 11 and 12 personnel in Indianapolis, so that means that the Broncos are currently light one competent third receiver and two competent TEs.  There’s a lot of talk that Reggie Wayne is a package deal with Manning, but I personally would skip that part, if possible.  He’s declining, and he’ll cost a lot more than he’s worth.  For the Broncos, the better plan is to re-sign Eddie Royal and use him more effectively than they have.

As for TE, I’m optimistic that the Broncos have the right guys in place right now.  I liked Virgil Green as a blocker, and if anybody is going to help make Julius Thomas a competent receiving threat, wouldn’t it be Manning?  Thomas clearly has the potential to be a threat in the middle of the field.

The present backs are solid, though I’d like to have a speed guy like Florida's Chris Rainey instead of Lance Ball.  I still have high hopes for Knowshon Moreno as a nickel RB, and I think he could do a really good job splitting time evenly with Willis McGahee.

Really, this offensive personnel group sets up pretty well for Manning to work with.  If your primary skill position group is Demaryius Thomas, Decker, McGahee/Moreno, Julius Thomas, and either Royal or Green, that’s not a bad set of options for Manning to work with.

Then, you can put the rest of your free agent dollars to use on defense, and then draft almost all defense too.  Think like the Colts always thought – we have Manning, therefore the offense is set, therefore the annual staffing challenge is rotating in cheap, young defenders who can play in our scheme.  I’d skip the part about being undersized, and keep the part about prioritizing outside pass rush, which the Broncos have covered nicely.  This isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy, but nothing about signing Manning is.  It’s about being an instant Super Bowl contender, right now.

4.  The Denver media is sufficently tame and ineffectual

Manning isn't a guy who likes to get a lot of attention from the football media, other than general recognition that he's a great player.  You almost never hear him saying anything interesting (aside from a soon-to-be-regretted-but-accurate ripping or two of his o-line over the years) and you never, ever hear about his personal life.  He likes his privacy, and he has to know that he'd get little of it in the bigger city pressure cookers.

I know that the Denver media likes to act like they think that they're pretty big-time, but they aren't.  It comes out frequently in their writing, the extent to which the DP bunch knows deep down that they're part of a cow-town operation, and feels insecure about that.  The local TV and radio guys seem like nicer people than most of the DP set, but they're not serious media players either.  (The thing that cracks me up is that the biggest moron of the bunch, Josina Anderson, is the one who went national.)  When I saw Mike Florio picking up a report from Brandon Spano, I thought to myself, how would this guy know what the Chiefs did?

Peyton could live and work in the Denver area and not be bothered too much.  Woody Paige's normal grand poobah game wouldn't work on Manning, because Woody doesn't have the standing to really criticize a future Hall of Famer like that.  It'd be like dissing Dre - you dis yourself when you do it.  Manning would have these guys understanding the rules right away - I'm not going to give you anything useful, so don't waste your time trying to get it.

5.  Finally, there’s the favorable division landscape. 

To put it simply, if Manning were to come to Denver, they’d be the favorite to win the AFC West every year he's there.  If Peyton wants a favorable division landscape as a postseason launching pad, then there’s the AFC West and the NFC West, and then there’s everywhere else.  The Chargers face a lot of personnel uncertainty right now, and their QB just had a pretty lousy year.  The Chiefs are set up to be competitive, but they’d struggle to beat a Manning team until they had that kind of consistency at QB.  The Raiders may eventually get out of “mess” status, but it’s going to take a few years, given their lack of draft picks in the near term.

A Manning-led Broncos team could make the playoffs every year and have a really good chance to win the Super Bowl.  It seems to me that that’s the goal, so I can’t see why the Broncos wouldn’t be kicking the tires on one of the greatest QBs to ever play the game.

Now, as for the Tim Tebow situation, let me start by saying that I’ve been a Tebow guy way longer than it’s been cool to be a Tebow guy.  I just think that if you can sign Peyton Manning, you do it.  I’ve read a lot of talk about how doing so would be scrapping the youth movement, but that’s bunk.  The Broncos led the NFL in snaps played by rookies last season, and they were tied for second in number of starts by them.  It’s a young team no matter who is playing QB, and it’s being built the right way.

I’m sure that Manning would want Tebow to be traded, and that Tim would like to go elsewhere too.  This stuff about having him learn for 3-4 years is untenable.  Tebow’s star is too big, and it would distract the whole organization.  A Manning organization is a quiet, professional, methodical, and process-focused operation.  It’s a lot like a John Fox organization, actually.  It’s not really Tim’s fault, but any organization he’s part of is going to have a circus atmosphere to it.

I think that the Broncos are going to make this deal happen, and that they’ll trade Tebow pretty quickly once the league year starts.  That doesn’t mean they think the kid is terrible, it just means that they think (correctly) that Manning is a much better bet for success right now.  If the Manning chase doesn’t work out, that’s all they have to say – what team wouldn’t look seriously at Manning?

The obvious landing spot for Tebow is Jacksonville, and I think you could get the most for him in return from the Jaguars.  With Manning already in tow, the potential exists for having a leverage problem (screw you – take this third-rounder, or be stuck with the kid) but I think at least a few other teams would be in on Tebow, at some price at least, to where that doesn’t get too bad.

When you’re a manager who’s responsible for a business, it’s easy to focus on long-term strategy, but you don’t want to get fired for missing your numbers in the next quarter.  There are far worse things than letting a young team grow up around a veteran QB.  That’s how the Packers approached the last years of the Favre era, even as he personally bitched to his media pals about being old enough to be a father to some of the guys.  When the reins were passed to Aaron Rodgers, he was a young QB stepping into a team that had grown some good veteran players.  Really, I think that’s the best way to balance a team’s development curve.  The Broncos could easily take a guy like Brock Osweiler in the second round and stash him until Manning is ready to retire.  There’s no pressure to ever play a second-rounder, and if Manning wants to play into his 40s, then fine - you reset the plan in three years, trade Osweiler (or whoever), and draft another developmental guy.

The Broncos have to be in this mix, and they're doing the right thing.  I think they're going to get the deal done, because it just makes too much sense for both Manning and for the Broncos not to happen.  What do you think?

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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Ted's Analysis