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.|
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
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.|
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|
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|
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.