On Nov. 15, 2015, esteemed quarterback Peyton Manning had arguably the worst game of his storied career against the Kansas City Chiefs. In a critical intra-division game, Manning fired four interceptions and completed just 25 percent of his passes for a paltry 35 yards and a quarterback rating of 0.0. Yeesh. Reporters pounced like hungry vultures, pronouncing the five-time league MVP as washed up and clamoring for backup Brock Osweiler to get some playing time.
The vultures got their wish, and Manning was shelved indefinitely with a number of ailments ranging from papercut-quality annoyances to life-threatening wounds. Osweiler, a flamethrowing giant of a man, led his team with moxie, burnishing his credentials with consecutive wins over the Bears, Patriots and Chargers before dropping contests to the Raiders and Steelers in advance of a critical matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, also contenders for the top seed in the AFC.
At his best, Osweiler was the perfect fit for coach Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking, play-action heavy offense. And even at his worst, Osweiler was a significantly better ball protector and thrower than Manning, who (it must be said) still cannot feel the fingers in his throwing arm due to nerve damage and managed to throw 17 interceptions to just 9 touchdowns in 10 games worth of playing time, an average of 1.7 interceptions per game.
And yet, come week 17, with the Broncos needing a win over the division-rival Chargers to cement home field advantage throughout the playoffs, it was Osweiler who got the quick hook from Kubiak, being relegated to the bench in favor of a well rested and healthier Manning, who came onto the field just in time to lead a top-seed-earning victory. In light of recent (mostly unsubstantiated) accusations against Manning for using HGH, it was about as triumphant a comeback as one could hope for.
However, as wiser men than I have posited for millennia, every action has consequences. A quarterback controversy now hangs over the city of Denver, no matter how much Kubiak doth protest. Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game of football; that much is undeniable.
However, it is equally undeniable that he was a detriment for the Broncos each time he stepped on the field. His completion percentage was under 60 percent, which is abysmal considering the average distance his passes traveled was well below the league average, his quarterback rating dipped all the way down to 67.9, and, as mentioned before, he threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns.
The fact that the Broncos clinched the top seed in the AFC despite starting Manning for 9 games is a minor miracle in and of itself. On the flip side, Osweiler, while lacking the pedigree of Manning, did an admirable job taking care of the football (nearly twice as many touchdowns as interceptions), and showed enough killer instinct against the Patriots and Bengals to at least look the part of a playoff-caliber quarterback. Though his big game experience is certainly lacking, he didn’t shy away from the big moments or toss up any Manning-style ducks for defenses to intercept.
By benching Osweiler and sending out Manning for the critical moments of Week 17, Kubiak is making a very bold gamble. After such a move, there is no way for Kubiak to backtrack and name Osweiler the starter for the playoffs, and indeed the Broncos coach confirmed today that Manning will start at quarterback for the forseeable future. Osweiler, for one, did not look at all pleased that he was being replaced, as is his right — he had not played poorly at all, and simple regression to the mean suggested that the Broncos would stop dropping passes and fumbling the ball, factors that are not usually dependent on who is behind center.
It is no reward at all to play well and earn your team a playoff berth and first-round bye, only to be benched right after the New Year. Most problematically for Kubiak, despite Manning’s assurances that he is healthy, he is very clearly not the player he once was. His ability to throw deep is severely impacted, his arm strength is dubious and, most problematically, he keeps firing passes to the wrong team. If Manning struggles, how long is his leash, and how can Kubiak insert Osweiler again after publicly backing Manning? The entire situation is quite messy, to say the least.
As a Patriots fan, I have learned to fear Manning over the years. However, at the risk of being proven very foolish, this year I’d almost prefer Manning to start at QB for the Broncos over Osweiler. And that is a sentence I never expected to have to type in my life.
Send your jokes about Tom Brady getting up there himself to Vignesh Venkataraman to freak him out the aging of his beloved, Uggs-wearing quarterback at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.