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19 Nov 2015

Scramble for the Ball: Man Oh Manning

by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie

Sterling: Sometimes, Hall of Fame careers end not with a bang, but with a Ron Parker interception. If last Sunday wasn't the end of the line for Peyton Manning, it sure felt like it. Hard not to watch Manning suffer through plantar fasciitis and think back to Brett Favre stumbling around on national TV in his a final career game.

More likely, Peyton will reassume his starting job at some point later in the season, if only on principle. His brother played the majority of the 2009 season with the same injury, and when Antonio Gates battled through it in 2011, he only missed three games. Manning's current -32.2% DVOA is worst among qualifying quarterbacks, but it's more a run-of-the-mill bad mark than a historically terrible one. As Vince noted in this week's Quick Reads, four qualifying quarterbacks in 2014 alone had worse DVOA figures.

So my question is this: Whether it's Manning or Brock Osweiler, what's the baseline level of quarterback play the Broncos need to climb up with the Patriots and Bengals in the AFC? And how long of an audition does Osweiler deserve to prove whether or not he can reach that baseline?

Andrew: To climb up to the Patriots and Bengals, I think they need at least league-average play and maybe better. I know they were winning games with Manning playing far below replacement level, but that was unsustainable even with historically great play on defense. With the defense falling back to Earth a bit in the last couple games, they need the offense to at least be adequate.

Will they get that level of play from Brock Osweiler? Maybe, but not likely. QBASE projects Osweiler as one of the worst early-round quarterbacks of the last twenty years. I think the system could use a tweak to not penalize so harshly guys who started for only one full season -- Ryan Tannehill also qualifies -- and this is just one very noisy indicator, but Osweiler projects poorly no matter how you run the numbers.

It's fair to say that Osweiler's chances are still better than a Manning resurgence at this point, given that the resurgence probability feels headed towards zero. It just drives me crazy to think that we're headed to a point where, in 2035, we will have Peyton Manning playing the wildly underappreciated role of Dan Marino and Tom Brady getting to be Joe Montana. I actually think both of them will be appreciated more than either guy I paired them with -- Manning won a Super Bowl and Brady seems headed for clear GOAT status -- but there's little justice in how Marino gets remembered, and Manning's fate might be even more unfair in terms of the gap between perception and reality.

Sterling: I do think it's really strange that Marino gets remembered in the context of Montana a lot -- that is, a lot of people don't seem to appreciate just how much of a statistical outlier Marino was in the 1980s, just as Manning has been in the 2000s and through 2013. Even if Peyton never plays another snap, I think he still gets a fairer long-term treatment than Marino. Part of that stems from the fact that Manning was even more of a statistical outlier than Marino. And for better or worse, part of that also stems from his popularity as a personality in the media realm. Don't forget who's shaping the narrative, after all. And quite honestly, even though Brady will clearly outlast him, a similarly ugly end to Brady's career might shift the "Tom vs. Peyton" narrative back in Manning's favor.

Moving back to the 2015 Broncos, Denver always looked like a strong regression candidate during its 7-0 start, and that probably doesn't change with Osweiler under center given the baseline Manning set. The Broncos are currently 1.5 wins over their Pythagorean win expectancy of 5.5, a gap which only the Cardinals exceeded last year. Denver (11th) is now actually below Kansas City (ninth) in our DVOA rankings, and the Broncos face a significantly tougher future schedule (eighth) than the Chiefs (26th). Our playoff odds still give Denver an 88.6 percent shot at the division, but that's not far from where the Eagles were at this time last year. Heck, Philly even lost its quarterback at right around this time last year, when Nick Foles went out for the year in Week 9. If there's a 2015 equivalent for the 2014 Eagles, it has to be Denver, right?

Andrew: I'm not sure these Broncos are an equivalent for anybody. They were the No. 6 offense of the DVOA era two years ago. Same quarterback -- in name at least -- and the same great No. 1 receiver, and that offense is now the worst in football. I never really believed in the 2014 Eagles having a chance to contend for a Super Bowl. I did believe in this year's Broncos.

And with the Broncos' bandwagon officially empty, I think there's still a scenario where this has a different ending than the one towards which it seems inevitably headed. Suppose Manning sits out three to six weeks and the injury gets better. The Broncos stay afloat and get the No. 3 seed in his absence. Is it impossible for Manning to wring just enough power out of that 39-year old noodle arm to ride a great defense on a four-game playoff run? I know it feels like the answer is no, but I think there is a small but real chance that they can get that out of Manning. I certainly like the chances of that better than I like the Vikings' chances of going on a playoff run with Teddy Bridgewater, and the odds of that are about the same in online betting markets.

I fully admit that I may be rooting here. This feels like the wrong ending for Manning's story, but that means nothing for how this season will turn out. OK, time for a reality check. Classify this statement from 1 to 10, where 1 is completely insane to 10 being completely reasonable: Peyton Manning has a 10 to 15 percent chance of playing at the level of a top-ten quarterback at some point this season.

Sterling: Maybe we're just conditioned to fear Peyton as Patriots fans, but that's at least an 8 for me. This does depend on how large a sample size we use, though if Manning comes back for, say, the final month with relatively decent health, it's perfectly reasonable to expect him to reach that threshold. From Weeks 14 to 17 last year, Geno Smith and Teddy Bridgewater were top-10 quarterbacks by both passing DYAR and DVOA. The Broncos also play at home three times in the final four weeks, with games against the Chargers (27th in pass defense DVOA) and Raiders (20th).

I don't know how difficult it is to play through varying degrees of plantar fascia, but I do know that Eli posted the best passing DVOA of his career (17.3%) the year he had the injury. And Gates finished third among tight ends in both DVOA and DYAR when he played through the injury. That doesn't necessarily mean anything for Peyton, of course, whose problems extend beyond just his foot. But if this break inadvertently gives him a chance to heal his ribs and rest his surely fatigued arm, I can't see how that ends up being a bad thing for Denver's long-term picture.

Andrew: Great points. Stretches of a few good statistical games can happen even to bad quarterbacks such as Geno. So Manning could get there stats-wise just by chance, but I think there's a real, albeit small, chance that we'll see him start making the throws that he hasn't been able to make. I broke down the film of Manning for Any Given Sunday both for the Packers and Colts games and I thought there were maybe fewer glimpses in the Packers game than most people thought and more glimpses in the Colts game, believe it or not. There was one out to Emmanuel Sanders in the second half against the Colts where I thought to myself, "That's 2013 Manning." This is exactly the kind of anecdote-based reasoning that we try to avoid; we can find throws, even games where any quarterback looks good (well, maybe only throws for Zach Mettenberger). But with Manning's body of work, all we want is evidence that there is a tiny bit of fuel left in the tank, and so looking for glimpses makes more sense.

Of course, I got so excited about those glimpses against the Colts that I tried to trade for Peyton Manning in my fantasy league. The trade only fell through because the other guy was asking for too much in return. Who should feel dumber here? Me, for trying to trade for a guy who went 5-for-20 for 35 yards and four interceptions, and who came out of the game on a pace for one of the ten worst seasons ever for a quarterback according to DYAR? Or the other guy, who thought Manning should be worth more than what I offered?

Sterling: The correct answer is anyone who dropped Devonta Freeman for Matt Jones after Week 2. That may or may not have been perpetrated by the same dummy who picked an Eagles-Colts Super Bowl.

For now, Peyton's return date -- if it happens at all -- is a bigger mystery than Johnny Clayton's ponytail. I hinted above that I think he returns for the final four games, which would give him three weeks off (the same amount of time Gates missed in 2011, though again, that's not the same situation). What if I set the over/under for Manning's games played at 4.5? To make it more interesting, that over/under total includes playoff games, so we're factoring in how far we think the Broncos advance. Personally, I'm taking the over, because I believe Denver will hang on for a playoff berth with Manning returning for the final four, ensuring he'll play at least five games. What say you?

Andrew: That's a bet. I'm going to assume John Elway does what seems like the smart thing to do, which is to give Manning a full six weeks off and hope to stay afloat in the meantime. If Osweiler isn't the answer, as we suspect, the goal should be to maximize whatever small chance there is of Manning being the quarterback they need come playoff time. That would mean we don't see Manning until Week 16 or 17.

Advanced Stat O' The Week

Peyton Manning's Career Low in DVOA Before 2015: 7.7% in 1998 (ranked No. 18)

As a rookie on a 3-13 team, Manning was already posting a positive DVOA. Over his next 15 seasons, he never ranked lower than No. 8 in DVOA and he finished in the top two an amazing ten times. No other quarterback, not even Tom Brady, comes close to that record.

Super-Huge Mega Lock of the Week

One of us picks all the games every week with his family. Brother, father, sister, nephew, and niece. The e-mails are only around from the last four weeks, but the nephew has won the last four weeks and the niece has tied the nephew the last two weeks. The nephew has won at least two other times this year, too. The football writer has won zero times. The nephew turned six this month and always picks the Dolphins. The nephew and niece went with Carolina last week, while we made Tennessee our Mega Lock. In the NFL's second-craziest week in 36 years, we somehow picked one of the two underdogs that did not cover the spread.

Given his far better record picking football games, we consulted the nephew to get his advice. He likes the Packers getting a point in Minnesota. He didn't say it, but he undoubtedly read Aaron Schatz's DVOA ratings article this week and gets that Minnesota's defense has mostly feasted on terrible offenses. He was concerned by Davante Adams' inability to get an inch of space against a backup corner on one of the worst defenses in football, but expects Aaron Rodgers to find a way to a competent offense. Green Bay has still been a far better team than the Vikings over the course of the season by DVOA. The nephew reserves the right to update his prediction if Rodgers' injury keeps him out of Sunday's game.

Cinemax Presents Exotic Propositions

After their win over the Jets, the Bills creeped into the DVOA top ten. We like the Bills at their current online odds of 100/1 to win the Super Bowl. We give the Bills about a 38 percent chance of making the playoffs. If that's right, this is a great bet, and we like the Bills' upside. Their record and DVOA include two losses started by EJ Manuel. And nobody would have guessed before the season that the offense would rank higher (seventh) than the defense (16th). With an efficient offense and the defense still having top-five upside, why not Buffalo as the team that emerges as a scary second-half contender?

G.O.A.T. of the Week

It's unclear whether Charcandrick West is about to become this year's version of C.J. Anderson, but since inheriting the top spot in the Kansas City backfield from the fallen Jamaal Charles in Week 6, West ranks eighth among all running backs in fantasy points. And it's not as though a cumulative stat like that should favor West, who had a horrible first start against Minnesota (1 fantasy point) and a Week 9 bye. In essentially three games, West has accumulated what Mark Ingram, Jonathan Stewart, or Chris Ivory have done in five.

Not many people benefited from West's 27-point outburst last week, as just 44.4 percent of his ESPN owners started him against Denver's top-ranked defense. Moving forward, though, West should be an every-week fixture. The Chiefs won't face a single rushing defense currently ranked higher than 15th in run DVOA the rest of the season, and six of their final seven come against teams ranked 22nd or worse. That includes a pair of matchups over the next month against the 32nd-ranked Chargers, as well as home contests against the 30th-ranked Browns and 29th-ranked Bills. With 21.3 touches per game since Week 6, West's Thanksgiving feast should extend over the course of two months.

Goat of the Week

We usually spotlight a disappointing star in this space, but far more sinister is the fantasy villain who robs a star of his luster. Jay Ajayi may be on the verge of doing just that in Miami, having averaged more than 8.0 yards per carry in small cameos over the past two weeks. After playing seven snaps in his season debut against Buffalo last week, he nearly doubled that with 13 against the Eagles last week.

Ajayi's success in brief appearances would seemingly demand more work in the future. And while Dan Campbell has suggested that Lamar Miller will remain the top dog, even a 25 or 30 percent share for Ajayi could be enough to knock Miller out of RB1 status. That's especially true when Miller's unsustainable scoring rate drops, as no one can expect him to continue scoring an average of 1.8 touchdowns per week. Since being freed from Joe Philbin-imposed shackles, Miller has averaged 124.4 scrimmage yards per game. Miller has had 19 and 22 touches the past two weeks, so Ajayi isn't yet eating into his share of the pie. Still, if the rookie starts taking larger bites, those who waited through the #FreeLamar movement won't be happy to see Miller Time strike midnight.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: Peyton Manning's -6 point disaster was great for his Loser League owners, but given his indefinite absence, those who picked the faded star will probably need to rely on their No. 2 QB for the rest of the second half. Ditto for those who picked Nick Foles (8 points) and, to a lesser extent, the currently concussed Brian Hoyer (5 points). It's doubtful that anyone picked Matt Cassel (7 points) with Tony Romo's return imminent, leaving Marcus Mariota (9 points) as the only quarterback to score single digits this week without delivering some sort of Pyrrhic consequences.

Running Back: Facing the first leg of an impossible string of run defenses down the stretch, Tennessee's Antonio Andrews delivered on his Loser League promise with 0 points via an 11-carry, 8-yard rushing day against the Panthers. Andrews was the only goose egg of the week among running backs, and with Andrews on short rest against the Jaguars (second in run defense DVOA) this Thursday, anyone who picked up the lead horse in the woebegone Titans backfield has to be thrilled.

Wide Receiver: Well that didn't take long. The first week of Part II gave us 10 receivers with 0 points, more than any single week during Part I. Congrats to anyone who picked John Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Marquess Wilson, Emmanuel Sanders, Marqise Lee, Kenny Stills, Jeremy Kerley, Kenbrell Thompkins, Seth Roberts, or Miles Austin. Additionally, there were seven players who only scored one point. The Jets, Bills, and Chiefs each had multiple wide receivers score 1 point or less, which just about sums up the AFC wild card race.

Kicker: Matt Prater kicked multiple field goals for just the second time this season, but more than canceled that out with a pair of extra-point misses at Lambeau last weekend, giving him -4 Loser League points for the week. The mysterious season of Travis Coons also saw the Cleveland placekicker end up with -2 points, the only other kicker to finish in the red during Week 10. The rookie Coons is a perfect 16-for-16 on field goals, but has now missed two extra points.

John Fox Award

With a little over ten minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Rams trailed the Bears 27-13 and faced fourth-and-7 on their own 23-yard line. Jeff Fisher decided to go for a fake punt. Normally, we're all for aggressiveness, including on special teams, but take a look at what punter Johnny Hekker was seeing before the ball was snapped.

That's starting cornerback Tracy Porter going with the receiver in motion and starting cornerback Kyle Fuller playing the other receiver at the top. The Bears were completely prepared for this play and it's obvious before the snap. Thinking of the fake here was fine. Going through with it when it had almost no chance to succeed was not.

Keep Choppin' Wood

For the second time in three weeks, a facemask penalty which never should have technically happened set a team up for a game-winning field goal on the game's final play. Elvis Dumervil's brain fart is a little stinkier than Brad Wing's against the Saints was; Wing is not trained to tackle opposing ballcarriers, and the turbulence of a punt return presents more chaotic circumstances than a last-ditch Hail Mary where most of the linemen were simply standing around.

Dumervil didn't make the game's biggest mistake, however. In the Giants-Saints contest, the officials technically made the correct call, even though Wing's facemask penalty came after Willie Snead attempted to advance a fumbled lateral, a no-go in the final two minutes. In this instance, Pete Morelli's crew must have been too busy spotting the ball in time to give the Jags one final play to notice that Jacksonville itself wasn't ready.

The Jags' penultimate offensive play ended with only seven seconds left on the clock, but that obviously excuses nothing. While the league has since admitted its error, that won't assuage any fans in Indianapolis or Houston if the AFC South race becomes affected by that negligence.

Posted by: Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie on 19 Nov 2015

12 comments, Last at 20 Nov 2015, 6:58pm by Noah Arkadia


by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Thu, 11/19/2015 - 3:01pm

"With the defense falling back to Earth a bit in the last couple games, they need the offense to at least be adequate."

One of the things I've come to believe is that defense and offense are not nearly so independent as DVOA seems to think - terrible offenses tend to drag down defenses by increasing the amount of plays against them, decreasing rest, and increasing the proportion of plays that the opponent can be flexible.

Denver's previous defensive performance may be unsustainable, but we may see some return to form with not-terrible quarterback performance.

by Denverite :: Thu, 11/19/2015 - 3:05pm

And I'm not so sure the last game was much worse than the first seven. They gave up 305 yards after turning the ball over five times and failing on two onside kicks. The difference from the first part of the year was that the 10-15 yard drives were ending in FGs and not punts since the Chiefs were getting the ball at midfield. Hell, the defense was the reason that the Broncos were a bad fourth down decision to go for it and a bad play away from legitimately being in the game with a couple of minutes to go, despite Manning turning in the worst QB half in years.

by deus01 :: Thu, 11/19/2015 - 3:20pm

If you read Word of Muth, Denver's offensive struggles are the product of much more than just bad quarterback performance.

by Denverite :: Thu, 11/19/2015 - 3:01pm

The Broncos stay afloat and get the No. 3 seed in his absence. Is it impossible for Manning to wring just enough power out of that 39-year old noodle arm to ride a great defense on a four-game playoff run?

The issue is that it's hard to see a scenario in which Osweiler plays well enough for the Broncos to stay afloat and the team not sticking with him. I guess you could construct a narrative where they win at Chicago, get hammered by the Pats and lose at San Diego, while only giving up a game to the Chiefs and Raiders, at which point they'd probably go back to a healthy Manning, but that's about it. Even if they lose at Chicago and home against New England and win at San Diego, I think they probably stay with Osweiler. And losing all three isn't "staying afloat."

by bsims :: Thu, 11/19/2015 - 3:52pm

"While the league has since admitted its error, that won't assuage any fans in Indianapolis or Houston if the AFC South race becomes affected by that negligence."

I assume you mean negligence on the part of the officials. The AFC South race is already basically just a big old ball of negligence. Complaining about a ref error in this situation is like complaining that someone tracked mud on your dirt floor.

by Mr Shush :: Thu, 11/19/2015 - 7:40pm

Do Texans or Colts fans actually want their team to win the AFC South? I'm not sure I do.

by Ryan :: Thu, 11/19/2015 - 4:18pm

For what it's worth, a defense (and one spectacular half of football vs NE) carried Peyton to his one Super Bowl...

by Ryan :: Thu, 11/19/2015 - 4:19pm

Of course, there was also a pretty darn good running game going there too...

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 11/19/2015 - 5:56pm

I don't think Marino gets much love because his star shone early and then John Elway and Jim Kelly became the AFC's premier QBs in contesting seven out of eight Super Bowls from 1986 to 1994. Meanwhile over in the NFC Montana was superceded by Young and then Favre began to rise.

While Marino exited the game as the career leader; there's five QBs listed above who were more successful in going deeper in the playoffs while racking up decent stats. You're hard placed to list Marino above any of them.

by Scott C :: Thu, 11/19/2015 - 6:51pm

I disagree.

Marino was clearly better than Kelly and Elway. Montana or Young -- IMO its hard to say whether Marino or either of these two were better, if you consider the talent around them. Montana will be remembered for some amazing post-seasons, but people forget that he was one-and-done three years in a row with some very poor playoff games too. SF was best when they had both offense and defense. Marino almost never had a defense.

Elway? That is laughable. He was lucky to have a great running game + defanse late in his career. For the rest of it, his stats were good but not HOF worthy, IMO. The media loved the guy, and Denver's media hyped up the inflated 'come from behind' victory stats and stretched the truth. Elway is the definition of overrated.

Kelly's time was too brief but he did shine brightly for a few years.

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 11/20/2015 - 6:58pm

I agree about Elway. The first time I heard him compared to Marino I thought it was just another broadcasting filler or a fad. But apparently his Super Bowl rings vastly changed perception. He had tremendous big-play ability and a natural, fluid, likable style, but was never consistent enough to match his reputation.

Who, me?

by nickd46 :: Fri, 11/20/2015 - 4:04am

On "The nephew has won at least two other times this year, too. The football writer has won zero times. The nephew turned six this month and always picks the Dolphins"; would it be worth tracking your well-read nephew's statistics over the course of the entire season next year compared to your own as a semi-serious indication of season "craziness"? Or does Football Outsiders need to bring in its own psychic animal?

And good to read about Charcandrick West, if only from my fantasy team's perspective... I type this as someone who gleefully accepted a trade before Week 1 to receive Peyton Manning... started him, demoted him, cut him, and then picked him up off waivers after the game against the Colts...