Why Peyton Manning Can Be Just as Elite as Ever

Has Peyton Manning finally turned the corner and returned to elite form this season?

"Should I pick up Brock Osweiler?"

When my friend and leaguemate asked me that question Sunday evening last wek as he looked for a replacement for Tony Romo -- who he had just lost to a broken clavicle in a very deep league -- that's when I knew just how far Peyton Manning had fallen.

Even after Manning had orchestrated a comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs and their aggressive defense, in his mind Osweiler would be the starting quarterback for the Broncos sooner rather than later.

And who could blame him? Despite the numbers he put up against the Chiefs, Manning was off on a number of throws, causing many, including myself, to openly question if Manning would accept his declining physical skills and adjust accordingly, or if he would continue to stubbornly attempt throws only a younger version of himself would have been able to make.

Following a second-straight above-average performance by Manning in a road win against the Detroit Lions, the question now is whether Manning is back to his old form or if we're looking at a mirage from an athlete playing out his swan song.

Skinny Legs Peyton Manning

If you take Manning's performances last season on a game-by-game basis, what you get is an image of a player in rapid decline.

Peyton Manning Production
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In terms of fantasy production, Manning started off the season hot, finishing with a top-10 finish in 10 of his first 11 games. After that, though, Manning not only failed to finish as a QB1 from Week 13 on but also at times finished as the worst quarterback in the league, including finishing 8th out of 8 quarterbacks in last year's Divisional Round of the playoffs and finishing as the 32nd best quarterback in Week 1 of this season. 

What began as a few inexplicably bad games quickly turned into an exercise in excuse-making as supporters pointed to his torn right quad suffered in a Week 15 win against San Diego for his poor play, before devolving into analysts calling for a full-blown moratorium on Manning's once-productive career following his slow start to the year.

Those looking for an explanation to this steep fall pointed to reports by an AFC pro director that Manning had shown "significantly diminished" arm strength during the offseason, which was corroborated by his lack of success this preseason (he averaged 5.0 yards per attempt and threw one interception and no touchdowns in the two games he played in). Others pointed to the lack of snaps in the shotgun for Manning in new head coach Gary Kubiak's offense, saying he lacked the mobility to take snaps under center and that it placed him in a clear disadvantage in terms of not being able to diagnose the coverage while standing back from the line.

On the surface, everything suggested Manning was hitting the twilight of his career. His body was failing him and he was now in a system that was less than ideal for him. But was Manning really done?

According to our metrics, the answer was a surprising no.

Last year Manning averaged 0.27 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back to rank him third in the league behind just Aaron Rodgers and Romo. His 0.27 average was the exact same figure he produced in 2012 when he put up 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns in his first season with the Broncos.

For those unfamiliar, NEP is our signature metric here at numberFire. If you contribute to your team's chances of scoring above expectation you receive a positive NEP, and a negative score when you do the opposite. 

In other words, not only was Manning still efficient on his throws last season, almost no other quarterback in the league was contributing more to his team's scoring on a per-drop back basis than him.

So with signs that perhaps a positive regression was in store for Manning if he could just adapt his timing to compensate for the slower velocity on his throws and if Kubiak could adapt the offense to suit his signal caller's skill set, the question now was whether or not they could make all the necessary adjustments.

2015 Peyton Manning

Following a disastrous Week 1, Manning did something few saw coming. After a slow first three quarters against the Kansas City Chiefs in which Manning started the game with an early pick six to cornerback Marcus Peters, Kubiak shifted Manning and the Broncos to a hurry-up shotgun offense, resulting in 256 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air for his quarterback, including a game-tying touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

Some called it a fluke, once again citing Manning's lack of arm strength on a number of throws that should have been intercepted.

But when Manning followed this up with a vintage performance against the Detroit Lions, those critical of him soon found themselves changing their tune.

It was obvious that Kubiak realized forcing his future Hall of Fame quarterback into his system was a recipe for disaster and instead decided to make concessions to his quarterback's preferences. After admitting that Manning operated better out of the shotgun and shifting his offensive play calling as a result, Manning responded by carving up the Lions secondary for 324 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception.

Manning once again looked comfortable throwing passes to his Pro Bowl receivers, Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, and those citing luck for his stellar Week 2 performance were now making the reverse argument, saying that had it not been for a few unlucky drops and an untimely fumble by Thomas, Manning's night could have been even better.

And just like that, those proclaiming Manning's career was all but over only two weeks ago are now saying Manning is back.

And our numbers agree with this.

Beyond the uptick in all the raw passing stats, Manning has also improved his efficiency as measured by out NEP metric. After an abysmal -0.19 Passing NEP per drop back on 44 attempts in Week 1, the Broncos quarterback managed a neutral 0.004 Passing NEP per drop back on 48 pass attempts in a Week 2 win over the Chiefs, followed by a 0.22 Passing NEP per drop back this week, which nearly rivaled his numbers from his 2012 and 2014 seasons.

He's shown that whatever he's lost in terms of arm strength and mobility in his age-39 season in the NFL, his on-field intelligence and willingness to adapt his game to his physical abilities and limitations can more than make up for it.

Looking Forward

As our own Aaron Watson has found, Manning faces a very favorable schedule the remainder of the season. Over the remaining 13 games of the year, he faces a team that ranked 15th or worse against the pass last season based on our advanced metrics in seven of these contests, including five matchups against bottom-10 ranked secondaries.

And with the type of road performances he's had against the Chiefs and Lions, who ranked 9th and 10th, respectively, against the pass last season, expect Manning to continue his resurgence as he shows the league its elder statesman still has what it takes to beat teams with his arm.