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Overblown? Peyton, Broncos Can Still Win It All

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Peyton Manning has struggled mightily in 2015 and is off to his worst start since his rookie year. Watching him play, it is evident he is no longer the laser rocket-armed passer he was in Indianapolis. Even when he was more successful in Denver, though, he did not have that same great arm strength. How much, then, do arm strength woes explain his 2015 struggles? Is he throwing the ball downfield less than he did back in 2012 and 2013, when he was still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL? Is he throwing the ball downfield less efficiently? Or is the explanation more complicated?

Peyton’s Deep Pass Frequency

The simple explanation would be that Manning is throwing fewer deep passes, those thrown 16 or more yards downfield. Table 1 shows this is not the case.

Table 1. Peyton’s Deep Pass Frequency in Denver

Season Deep Pass Pct.
2012 18.9%
2013 18.7%
2014 19.9%
2015 19.7%

Thus far in 2015, 18.5 percent of passes league-wide have been thrown deep, so Peyton has ranged from around average to a bit above it in terms of deep-pass frequency while in Denver.

The story is similar if you look just at particularly deep passes, those thrown more than 25 yards downfield. Leauge-wide average so far this season is 6.6 percent. Numbers here are more variable than the overall deep pass numbers, but the same trend is present.

Table 2. Peyton’s Bomb (PYD >25) Frequency in Denver

Season Bomb Pct.
2012 6.9%
2013 6.1%
2014 7.6%
2015 6.7%

In the modest sample of six games, he is throwing the ball far downfield less than he did last year, but still at a rate slightly above the league average. Whatever declining arm strength has done to affect Manning’s performance is not apparent in these numbers.

Peyton’s Short Pass Distribution Numbers

Instead, what stands out in 2015 is the percentage of passes he is throwing particularly short distances, those not even past the line of scrimmage. Table 3 shows this picture.

Table 3. Peyton’s Thrown At or Behind Line of Scrimmage Frequency in Denver

Season Very Short Pass Pct.
2012 13.9%
2013 13.6%
2014 12.7%
2015 17.2%

The league average percentage of very short passes is just 18.9 percent, so Peyton has still not thrown as many as the average quarterback has. But for a passer who has spent his entire career attacking defenses aggressively, the difference is striking.

Peyton’s Newly Inefficient Passing Areas

So, Peyton Manning is throwing just as many deep passes, including bombs, and more very short passes this year. We still have not explained his performance decline. To do that, we have to look at his efficiency in throwing particular distances, and how those have changed for this season. Two stand out.

The first is bombs, those passes thrown more than 25 yards downfield. Manning may not be throwing fewer of them, but he is throwing them much less successfully. A simple comparison using success rate, which evaluates offenses based on progression toward gaining a first down, makes the difference clear.

Table 4. Peyton’s Success Rate on Bombs in Denver

Season Bomb Success Rate
2012 49%
2013 49%
2014 52%
2015 19%

Even in 2014, when his problems with arm strength seemed to start, Manning had the second-best success rate in the league on bombs, behind only Aaron Rodgers. This year, he has plummeted to third-worst, ahead of only Joe Flacco and Ryan Fitzpatrick among passers with at least 10 bomb attempts.

The other area where Peyton’s efficiency has fallen is on another form of short passes, those thrown between one and five yards downfield. Table 5 shows this difference, and adds an important piece of information.

Table 5. Peyton’s Success Rate on Passes 1-5 Yards Downfield in Denver

Season Success Rate Yards After Catch
2012 58% 4.6
2013 56% 5.1
2014 53% 4.7
2015 40% 3.5

One to five yards downfield has been the most popular distance for Peyton’s passes the entirety of his time in Denver. This year, 40.3 percent of his passes have gone that far, up a bit from 36.4% over the previous three years.

That has generally been an efficient area for Peyton Manning. One Broncos staple has been the shallow crossing route, often with a natural rub element designed to create yards after the catch. This year, players have not gotten nearly the same yards after catch on short passes. It would be tempting to ascribe the difference to personnel changes, like replacing athletic tight end Julius Thomas with Gary Kubiak veteran mainstay Owen Daniels. Looking just at wide receivers, though, the difference is even bigger, from 4.7 yards after catch in 2014 to just 3.0 despite Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas remaining the primary receivers.

What It Means, Now and Going Forward

Peyton Manning is not throwing fewer deep passes. He is throwing more passes at or behind the line of scrimmage than he has in the past, but still less than an average quarterback. His biggest problems come from the passes he is throwing less efficiently. Deep downfield throws are not being completed nearly as often. Short downfield throws are not nearly as successful, largely because they have included fewer yards after the catch.

It seems likely diminished arm strength is a major contributor to the deep ball problems, and it is probably doubtful Peyton again becomes a great bomb thrower. Reduced ball velocity may be limiting yards after catch opportunities for receivers on short passes, or that may be a result of offensive line issues, defenses crowding the line of scrimmage because of the lack of deep threat, and/or the awkward forced marriage between Peyton Manning’s offense and Gary Kubiak’s offense.

Manning is still just as efficient as he has been in past seasons on intermediate throws, those between 11 and 20 yards downfield. That gives reason for optimism that the problems with short throws might yet get fixed. If they are, combined with the great defense, the Broncos will have the offense to be one of the Super Bowl favorites in a top-heavy 2015 NFL.

The NFL’s final 4 all overcame injuries to star players

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The list of players sitting out this weekend’s conference championships is almost as impressive as the starting lineups: Julian Edelman. Carson Wentz. Dalvin Cook. Dont'a Hightower. Allen Robinson. Sam Bradford.

Following the NFL’s season of carnage that claimed the likes of, among others, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Thomas, this year’s final four all overcame not only the odds – “Minneapolis Miracle , anyone?” – but devastating injuries to key starters.

“We have a tough and resilient team,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said of the NFC’s top seed , which is missing its second-year QB in Wentz, an MVP hopeful when he blew out a knee in December.

Even before Wentz’s injury thrust backup Nick Foles into the starting job for the playoffs, the Eagles lost nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, versatile return specialist Darren Sproles, and special teams captain Chris Maragos.

Yet, here they are, 60 minutes from Minneapolis and Super Bowl 52.

“I think that starts at the top with Doug, because he sets the tone for being resilient and even keeled,” Long said of his coach, Doug Pederson. “At the end of the day, we have a tough group of guys.”

So do the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in more than four decades and fulfill mantra to “Bring it Home” and become the first NFL team to play the title game in its own stadium.

And they’re doing so behind Case Keenum, who crashed Tom Brady‘s playoff party along with fellow perennial backup Foles and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.

Together, the four quarterbacks left standing have a combined five Super Bowl rings, two NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP trophies. Brady, of course, owns all of that hardware himself.

Such is the panorama of these playoffs following a season of pain in which so many superstars were rendered sideline spectators with broken bones, snapped ligaments, torn muscles.

Keenum replaced an injured Bradford, who had replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford, now back in uniform as Keenum’s backup, blew out a knee in the first month of the season, as did rookie running back in Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Behind resilient coach Mike Zimmer , who resisted the urge to quit just before he got the Vikings’ head coaching gig in 2014, Minnesota rolled right along. Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”

The Patriots are also a bunch of fighters; they reached their seventh straight AFC title game despite losing Edelman, Brady’s top target, to a torn ACL in the preseason, and Hightower to a torn chest muscle in November.

Play caller Josh McDaniels and Brady, who led New England to a fifth Super Bowl title last year despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski, adjusted accordingly to Edelman’s absence with another terrific year.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy stepped in for Hightower and ranked third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5+ sacks despite missing three of the final five games with a calf injury.

Van Noy’s sack total was just a half-sack shy of Hightower’s career high set in 2014.

“The thing about K.V. is he’s very versatile,” said Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. “So we’ve used him a bunch of different ways. … He’s been a big asset to our team.”

The Jaguars are the healthiest of the remaining playoff teams. They have only one opening-day starter on injured reserve: former Pro Bowl receiver Robinson, who tore his left ACL on Jacksonville’s opener.

Four months removed from reconstructive surgery, Robinson is now traveling with the team, so he’ll be on the sideline Sunday at New England, serving as a mentor to a raw receiving corps.

“Every person in this locker room put in a lot of work to get to this point, with me being one of them,” said Robinson, who was poised for another big year after dominating the league’s best secondary in training camp.

His injury on Jacksonville’s third offensive snap created a huge void for the offense. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns tried to pick up the slack, but they ended up on the sideline at one point with injuries, too, leaving rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook to assume bigger roles.

Cole, an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan, had 42 catches for 748 yards and three scores in the regular season. He added a clutch 45-yard catch that set up a late TD in Jacksonville’s 45-42 stunner at Pittsburgh last week.

“I wish I could just wake up tomorrow and feel like I did Sept. 9,” Robinson said, “but I understand it’s going to be a process. I know I’ll be back to that point and better.”

Like so many other stars, Robinson will be in street clothes Sunday, cheering on his teammates in hopes of getting a sideline pass to the Super Bowl.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower.

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Steratore will lead 7-person officiating crew for Super Bowl

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NEW YORK (AP) Referee Gene Steratore will lead the seven-person crew of on-field game officials working the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The other members of the officiating crew for the Feb. 4 game are Roy Ellison (umpire), Jerry Bergman (down judge), Byron Boston (line judge), Tom Hill (field judge), Scott Edwards (side judge) and Perry Paganelli (back judge).

The crew has 127 years of NFL officiating experience and 101 combined playoff game assignments.

Steratore entered the league in 2003 as a field judge and was promoted to referee in 2006. He has officiated 11 playoff games, including two conference championships. He was the alternate referee for the 2010 Super Bowl.

Under the NFL officiating program’s evaluation system, officials must be rated in the top tier at their position to be eligible for the Super Bowl. They must have at least five years of NFL experience and previous playoff assignments.

Paul Weidner is the replay official.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL