In 2013, Peyton Manning and the Broncos made the Super Bowl, and it was because of Peyton Manning. The 37-year-old played one of the greatest seasons a quarterback has ever had, setting records for passing touchdowns and yardage. The Broncos' offense was unstoppable, scoring a whopping 142 points more than any other team in the league. Manning torched the Patriots for 400 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC Championship game. Manning was the Broncos' best player and best hope for a championship.
I understand why a lot of the coverage and discussion of Super Bowl 50 acts as if their return to the championship game is a repeat of that situation. On the occasions Manning's teams have made it to Super Bowls in the past, he's been the reason why. Based on very recent history, it's easy to assume Manning got the Broncos here.
It's strange to say, but one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time is a legitimate weak point for the team playing for the NFL's championship. Manning had the worst season of his career while the Broncos' defense turned out to be arguably the best in the league.
By any statistical measurement, Peyton Manning was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL in 2015. He finished tied for dead last in QB Rating with Ryan Mallett, who was cut midway through the season by the Texans. QB Rating is a famously flawed stat, but I argue that finishing last in it is still a sign you are playing poorly. ESPN's QBR is a little kinder, placing Manning 30th. Pro Football Focus' comprehensive grades placed Manning amongst "the worst of the league."
Manning finished second in the league in interceptions despite only playing in seven full games. His 5.0 yards per attempt was the second-worst in the league, ahead of only Mallett. Manning had only thrown more interceptions than touchdowns once in his career, as a rookie in 1998. That year, he threw 28 picks and 26 touchdowns. This year, he threw 17 interceptions and nine touchdowns. This was the worst season Manning has ever played, and only that rookie campaign is even close.
So much of Manning's career success has been based on his ability to connect on deep passes. That ability is gone. During the season, Manning hit on just 10 of 45 attempts where the ball traveled 20 yards in the air. Unable to stretch the field, the Broncos' offensive options are limited, and it shows.
The nadir of Manning's horrible season came Nov. 15 against the Chiefs, a game that stands among the worst any NFL quarterback has ever played. Manning went 5 for 20 with four interceptions, becoming the first QB to post a 0.0 rating since Chris Redman in 2007. (Again, QB Rating is a flawed stat, but if you score 0.0 in it and are comparable to Chris Redman, that is bad.) Pro Football Focus marked the game the worst they'd ever graded.
Manning was benched in that game and would miss the next six games with a partially torn plantar fascia. He was ready to play Week 17, but was listed as the backup behind Brock Osweiler. It's pretty weird that the guy starting the Super Bowl isn't the guy his team trusted to win the last game of the regular season! So far as I can tell, the only time this has happened in the past was with Doug Williams in Super Bowl XXII.
In the seven games he started, Osweiler was better than Manning was. He completed over 60 percent of his passes, threw more touchdowns than interceptions, and averaged over seven yards per attempt. Osweiler didn't play any games where his yards per attempt was shorter than Manning's season average, and only had one game where his completion percentage was lower than Manning's season average.
Since his return from injury, Manning has been better. It seems like the partially torn plantar fascia that caused him to miss six games was responsible for some of his poor play in the first nine games of the year. Manning said it was "irrelevant" when his foot was actually injured, but Adam Schefter said the injury bothered him "weeks" before it finally forced him out of games, and his father Archie said the injury had been a factor since August. So it's possible Manning's initial poor play could be excused by the injury.
But even Manning's post-return numbers aren't that great. In Week 17 and the playoffs, Manning has gone 43 for 78 for 467 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His 55.1 percent completion rating and 5.98 yards per attempt are still worse than Osweiler's season averages.
Manning got a lot of credit for returning in Week 17 and guiding the Broncos to a 27-20 comeback victory over the Chargers. Sure, Manning played a nice game, throwing for 69 yards on nine passes, but his running backs ran for 141 combined yards on the drives after he came in.
Am I arguing Osweiler should be starting the Super Bowl instead of Manning? I wouldn't go that far. Even though Osweiler has been a tad better, Manning is still the 18-year veteran who acts as the leader of Denver's offense and played in the majority of the team's wins this year. Plus, I wouldn't want to be remembered as the coach who benched a Hall of Famer for a guy who just played his first meaningful action in November.
Nor am I arguing the Broncos are doomed with Manning. I mean, they won the seven regular season games and the AFC Championship with him. Their defense is that good, leading the league in opposing yards per play. If they play the way they've played all year, the Broncos won't need a ton of points. They'll just need Manning to avoid throwing picks and be modestly accurate.
But after a brilliant career, it's inherently weird that Peyton Manning's team is in the Super Bowl in spite of Peyton Manning, rather than because of him.
There's talk that Manning is likely to retire after this game, regardless of the outcome of Super Bowl 50. That makes sense. Manning probably knows as well as anybody that he wasn't the same quarterback this season. It would be pretty nice for him to go out with a Super Bowl title even though he played worse than in many of the seasons where he came up short.