By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
This week we have a quartet of NFL myths that may not all be brand spanking new, but they reared their ugly heads often during 2012 and want us to believe they are going to have an impact on the upcoming 2013 season.
Don’t believe the hype. The truth comes from the facts.
This week’s first myth looked at the numbers behind the trend that is the read-option, specifically looking at how it helped the Carolina Panthers’ offense more than the myth that it hurt them.
The second myth tore down the narrative of the heroic running back grinding through loaded fronts with eight or more defenders in the box because no one respects his passing game.
Now we put last postseason’s most epic game in its proper light.
Myth No. 3: Peyton Manning’s Reduced Arm Strength Shriveled Up the Broncos’ Offense in January
After four neck surgeries, there were questions surrounding how a 36-year-old Peyton Manning would deal with a reduction in arm strength. He also would be playing outdoors with a new team in Denver.
While many of those questions went away during the season, it came up again in the postseason. Denver, entering on an 11-game winning streak, was a heavy favorite in the AFC Divisional Playoffs against Baltimore. It was 13 degrees in Denver, which made it the coldest playoff game ever for the team. Manning, used to playing home playoff games indoors, wore a glove late in the season to prepare for the weather.
After the epic played out, Denver lost 38-35 in double overtime. Manning’s last play was a poor throw over the middle that was intercepted. It was a stunning loss.
Then the questions about Manning’s arm strength returned.
In the game, his longest completion was 32 yards (half of those yards coming after the catch). He didn’t complete a pass over 17 yards in the second half. He didn’t try to throw the ball in the four-minute offense to seal the game. He didn’t try to do anything in the last 0:31 with the game tied. Was he unable to trust his arm and push the ball downfield?
NFL Network’s Steve Wyche wrote “As the possessions increased in importance, it seemed as if Denver was more intent on moving the chains than taking chances.”
Can the Broncos win a Super Bowl if Manning has to play cold-weather playoff games? Why did he sign up for this?
For starters, arm strength is always an overrated quarterback trait. It pales in comparison to being a great decision maker and throwing the ball with accuracy. Manning was never big on arm strength in the first place. He plays the game with intelligence and anticipation of throws. Due to the reduction in arm strength, his anticipation may have never been better than in 2012.
It’s only natural Manning would have to work to regain arm strength after four neck surgeries and a year off. In the preseason, some of his passes lacked zip. In a Monday Night Football game in Atlanta in Week 2, he played his worst quarter in years, throwing three interceptions in the first quarter to roughly the same medium spot on the field.
Yet after that game and when Denver started winning each week, the questions about his arm strength disappeared.
By season’s end, Manning was 25-of-59 (42.4 percent) with eight touchdowns on passes thrown 21+ yards. In 2010 with the Colts, Manning was 19-of-69 (27.5 percent) with five touchdowns on throws of 21+ yards. So he was doing better at stretching the field than he was two years ago.
But in the postseason, things usually gain strange perceptions when Manning’s involved.
There was build-up talk of Manning never winning in the playoffs in cold weather. What he did in games as a lesser quarterback in 2002-04 against the Jets and Patriots would have no bearing on this day or any in the future.
The post-game talk shifted to his arm strength, but why start to question that if it wasn’t a problem in November and December?
The actual turning point for Manning in this game was when running back Knowshon Moreno went down with injury in the third quarter.
This never gets talked about because Moreno is not a great player, but he did have his best game of the season in Baltimore (21 carries for 115 yards). In this game he caught a touchdown, but only had 10 carries for 32 yards. The running game had 18 carries for 62 yards (3.44 YPC) in the first half and fell to 22 carries for 64 yards (2.91 YPC) in the second half.
Manning was never going to win this game on the legs of Moreno, but it’s what happened without his presence in the backfield that turned things sour for the Denver offense.
Manning was not pressured once by the Ravens until that drive in the third quarter when Moreno went down. Rookie Ronnie Hillman played most of the game afterwards. It only took two drop backs after the Moreno injury for the Ravens to register their first pressure of the game. Terrell Suggs sacked Manning on his 24th drop back of the game.
The difference in halves tells the story well:
Peyton Manning vs. Ravens in AFC Divisional Playoffs
Manning was not throwing deep in the second half because he could not trust his protection. The Ravens came away with six pressures, three sacks and a forced fumble in a span of 10 drop backs for Manning in the third and fourth quarters. Of course he would start looking to get rid of the ball as fast as possible.
The return of guard Chris Kuper was supposed to help, yet he played a horrible game with three big holding penalties. Each negated a positive gain and put the Broncos in a poor down-and-distance situation. Denver did not score on any of the three drives Kuper was flagged on.
The running game could not convert a few crucial short runs, including a 3rd-and-1 on the first overtime drive.
In the first half, Manning looked sharp. The interception returned for a touchdown on his first drive was a well-thrown ball to Eric Decker, but the referees missed the defensive pass interference. Manning came back with a touchdown drive that ended with a perfect 15-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley.
Manning’s next touchdown pass, a 14-yard throw after a pump-fake to Moreno, was also a great throw with velocity and accuracy. Manning played a sharp half.
Though some were bad passes, 10 of his first 11 incompletions still hit his receivers’ hands/chest. The only one that didn’t was a deep ball to Demaryius Thomas, who was locked up downfield. The pass technically was overthrown, which was not a throw from someone lacking arm strength.
Manning’s passes were not badly missing the mark in this game at all. Fittingly enough, his worst pass was the last one in overtime, which is all some will want to remember. The only reason he probably even tried it was because of a similar throw to Stokley that resulted in a touchdown in Carolina earlier in the season.
The difference that day is that Stokley was very open. This time he was covered and Baltimore made the interception thrown by a quarterback trying to do too much for an offense that couldn’t do much else in the second half.
Still, let’s not forget that for the 11th consecutive playoff game, Manning had his team ahead in the fourth quarter and in position to win this game.
After the pressure started, Manning was forced to throw a couple passes away. Manning rebounded from that pressure by throwing quick passes on what was an 88-yard go-ahead touchdown drive with 7:11 to play. We know all too well why that score didn’t hold up.
Rahim Moore. If a Denver fan says his name three times in front of a mirror, Jacoby Jones shows up and rips their heart out.
In the regular season meeting, Manning did throw a few more deep balls, but that was actually one of his least successful games of the season. In that Week 15 rout won by the Broncos, he had a season-low 204 passing yards. The Ravens actually forced Denver into a season-high seven three-and-out drives. Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe, Bernard Pollard did not play, but all returned in the playoffs.
It was destined to be a different contest in the playoffs. It was, yet it still looked like a typical 2012 Denver game up until the final minute.
The first meeting really turned on Joe Flacco’s interception returned for a touchdown before halftime. This time, Moore failed to make the game-ending interception, which is the type of play Denver made when it beat teams like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and San Diego in the fourth quarter.
Denver also missed interceptions on two poor passes thrown by Flacco in overtime, including one right before the drive where Manning threw his. Not only did Flacco survive Moore, but he survived Chris Harris.
With Moore’s fatal error, we are not able to talk about Manning’s would-be 50th game-winning drive, his would-be 101.3 passer rating and the audible on the game-winning score (a screen pass to Thomas). Instead we’re talking about arm strength and when is Manning going to win a cold temperature playoff game?
Wyche’s comment about moving the chains makes no sense. Is that not what offenses are supposed to do?
We are told to revere Tom Brady and Joe Montana when they dink-and-dunk down the field to get a drive going in crunch time. Manning threw a few passes like that in overtime, only needing a field goal for the win.
Why should he suddenly start taking chances in a game that he only trailed in for five minutes and 47 seconds (all in the first quarter)?
Maybe it would have been better if Denver was trailing late, then the conservative John Fox couldn’t object to throwing the ball.
Remember, that 9-11 playoff record for Manning is a call for help.
It did not help that Flacco went mad-bomber style in the game in comparison. Though, mighty funny how different this whole conversation is should a second-year safety do the most routine of things in the game’s final minute.
All offseason, every mention of Manning and the Broncos is prefaced with “it ended so badly in the playoffs.” You’d think the Broncos lost by 35 points. You know, like in 2011.
So the Patriots didn’t lose by 15 points at home to the same Ravens? The Packers didn’t give up 579 yards to San Francisco in a 45-31 loss that wasn’t even as close as the score?
Every team but Baltimore was eliminated in some fashion last year. Twenty more did not even qualify for the playoffs.
Out of the 11 playoff games in 2012, the Broncos played in the only one where neither team led by more than seven points.
It was literally the closest, toughest-fought playoff game of the year and it still took a miracle play that you never see in that situation by the Ravens to pull it out.
There are reports Manning’s arm strength looks better this offseason. Whoopty freakin’ do. It was not the problem last year and it won’t be this year.
Tomorrow’s myth: Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys are America’s Chokers.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.