Owen Daniels

Vernon Davis hopes to play a role in Super Bowl with Broncos

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Vernon Davis got to sleep at home for a night in the Bay Area, stay in the same hotel where he lived during 49ers training camp last summer, and the equipment staff even promised him his old locker at Levi’s Stadium this weekend.

No matter that he might play a bit part in this Super Bowl for the Denver Broncos, Davis is back where he has made a home for more than a decade and ready to win a championship ring after coming up just short three years ago with San Francisco.

It just so happened he arrived Sunday for Super Bowl week on his 32nd birthday, too.

“It hasn’t been that long since I left here, so it kind of seems like I was just here,” said Davis, who was traded from the 49ers to the Broncos on Nov. 2. “I’ll look around a little bit and get a gauge on things and I’ll come to the realization that I’m actually playing in the Super Bowl at Levi’s Stadium.”

The veteran tight end has had discussions with many a teammate already on the importance that they “just stay together, just stay in this moment, and don’t get caught up on the outside because the moment you do there’s a lot of risk.”

Davis didn’t even have plans to stop by the Jamba Juice store he owns.

He would love nothing more than to leave his mark on this Super Bowl, somehow. Even if he has played all of 11 snaps this postseason with one target and no catches.

“You haven’t seen me but there’s a chance that you could see me,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m all about faith, anything could happen just like that. The moment it does, I have to take advantage of my opportunities. They will come. … I’m a patient guy and I’m ready whenever the opportunity presents itself.”

Davis’ short time in the offense – and playing with two different quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and backup Brock Osweiler – made for a challenging transition to his new team.

According to Football Perspective, Davis is one of just four players to have competed in home games on the Super Bowl field during the regular season then return for the championship game with a different team.

For Davis, that three-point loss to Baltimore in the Super Bowl following the 2012 season has stuck with him – just as it has for many of his former 49ers teammates.

“It just weighs heavy on you when you make it to the Super Bowl and you can’t pull off the victory,” Davis said. “It’s not a good feeling at all. I stressed that to some of my teammates, I wanted to make them aware of what it can feel like if things didn’t go our way – just give them that fire and that motivation.”

He has watched Manning so intently the past couple of months to learn whatever he can from the five-time NFL MVP, noting, “I even picked the seat beside him in the team meeting room just to get his energy.”

Davis matched his career high with 13 touchdown receptions in 2013, and believes he can still be that dominant again. He has had tough stretches before when he didn’t get as many chances as he’d like.

When someone suggested that Sunday might be his final game, Davis chuckled, “Oh, come on, man, no way, no way.”

“As long as I can run a 4.3 or a 4.4 I’m going to continue to play the game. When that leaves, then I’ll stop playing,” said Davis, who is still running a 4.3-second 40-yard dash. “I’m leaving on my own terms, most definitely.”

Davis’ experience in big games and athleticism is a big reason Denver acquired him.

“He’s brought that,” general manager John Elway said. “Obviously, the play time’s been up and down, but he’s made some big catches for us. He came in in a short window, too, so trying to get him comfortable with the offense, what we’re doing, and also it was right around the time that Brock started and came in. He’s always there, he’s always a threat and the defense always has to worry about him.”

Davis has been providing his share of insight already about how it felt to come so close and lose on the NFL’s biggest stage. His versatility also has allowed the Broncos to run more two- and three-tight end sets.

“Vernon’s a heck of a player. We came in together `06 class, so 10 years in the game for him,” Broncos tight end Owen Daniels said. “A ton of playoff experience, Super Bowl experience, that can’t be overlooked in terms of being able to relay that to guys and kind of alert us to what might be going on during the week. He lives around the corner from here. He’s great for this week specifically. He’s been a great addition to our team.”

Owen Daniels has monster first-half for Broncos (Video)

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In the lead-up to the AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, tight end Owen Daniels wasn’t on the tip of many people’s tongues as one of the players to make the biggest difference in the game.

Nevertheless, Daniels was one of the biggest success stories of the first half for the Broncos.

In the first quarter, Peyton Manning found Owen Daniels down the seam for a 21-yard touchdown to give the Broncos an early 7-0 lead.

In the second quarter, Manning again found Daniels, this time in the corner of the endzone for a 12-yard touchdown to give Denver a 14-6 advantage.

The Broncos would eventually take a 17-9 lead into the locker room at half.

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.