Today's article from Albert Breer may give Broncos fans pause. Breer suggests that the velocity on Peyton Manning's throws was already in decline during 2010--before his neck injury. Breer writes:
"The fall-off was significant on film," said one scout from a rival AFC team. "He showed stiffness and lost athletic traits. What made him special was never his athletic ability or movement skills, but you could see it with his arm strength, too. We break the field into 'short', 'intermediate' and 'deep', and on patterns deep and outside the numbers, you'd notice more air under the ball. There'd be more arc. Some it's by design, placing the ball where it needs to be. But it looked like his velocity was tailing off at the end of 2010. That's probably what he's most worried about. His rotation was fine, his accuracy was fine. But as far as the ball getting from Point A to Point B, and how much time he was giving defensive backs to drive on the football, there was enough there for concern."
The questions about Manning's arm strength go all the way back to the day he was drafted (Ryan Leaf had a stronger arm, after all). However, was it possible that in 2010, Manning had lost too much zip on his passes? The statistics certainly suggest as much. His Y/A, AY/A, NY/A, and ANY/A were all down by a full yard. At the same time, guys like Blair White, Pierre Garcon (which I believe means "dropped pass" in French), and Austin Collie weren't helping Manning's cause. And we saw what happened to the Colts in 2011 without Manning: they went down like they'd been shot by a sniper.
Manning has had other seasons with lower numbers than he had in 2010. So what is one to make of all of this?
I decided to look at the tape myself. I first went back to the tape of Manning's play in Super Bowl 44, in which he went 31 of 45 for 333 yards passing and used that as my baseline for comparison. I would classify Manning's velocity in that game as NFL average. Next, I compared it with Manning's last game of 2010, in which the Colts faced the Tennessee Titans. If Manning had lost velocity, it would have become readily apparent by Week 17.
The Titans tried to play Manning in either a Cover 2/Zone Under or a Cover 2/Man Under scheme most of the day. The strength of the Cover 2 (and why it's so popular) is that it takes away big plays and forces the offense to methodically drive down the field. It is susceptible to the deep outside of the field, however, if the quarterback can fit the ball into the compressed windows between the cornerback and the safety coming over the top. It's also weak against a variety of route combinations, like the high/low against the weakside corner or clear/dig routes against the linebackers.
This is exactly how Manning attacked the Titans that day. He got particular use out of his quick game--slant combinations, speed outs to the running backs after the cornerback had been cleared, and a variety of high/low read combinations where he went to the low read. More importantly, he also stuck four intermediate/deep outs in the range of 13-20 yards, which are the gold standard by which a quarterback's arm strength is judged. He even threw a nice 30-yard touchdown in the game with velocity--in fact, with more velocity than Kerry Collins, his counterpart in the game, had shown (this may or may not be saying much, depending on your view of Collins's arm). He was typically Manning--changing plays at the line of scrimmage, isolating his mismatches, and limiting the Titans' ability to substitute on defense. On one particular play of note, he connected with new Broncos tight end, Jacob Tamme, up the seam after seeing the linebacker out of position (the linebacker had made the mistake of biting on a play fake). His timing, ball placement, and location were never better.
Of Manning's forty-one throws, his velocity was poor on four of them. Interestingly enough, they were all throws of fifteen yards or more; further, all four of the poor throws were to the right. I found this even more peculiar given John Elway's mention of it in today's DP article. Still, I wasn't overly concerned. If Manning had truly lost velocity, one would have expected the number of poor throws to be greater.
Perhaps age and injury will tell a different tale. And with a year off, it's impossible to know how much velocity he'll lose--if any. But the idea that his velocity was slipping noticeably in 2010--before the injury--seems a little far-fetched.