The sports media is having a collective fit over how Manning looks this year.
It's hard to blame them; they do have a lot of empty air to fill and he has looked very old. And it's hard for them not to connect how he played at the end of last season (when his legs were injured) with what they see now.
So what happened? Has he fallen off the shelf?
"Falling off the shelf" is an old way that scouts and coaches would describe a sudden decline in play from one season to the next; usually with the inference that age is the culprit, and that the reduced level of play is both untenable and unlikely to improve.
Has Peyton Fallen off the shelf? No. No he hasn't.
Peyton Manning has been the subject of study for me since he came into the league; and I think I know him as well as possible for a non-football insider.
So why is he looking so old compared to how he looked pre-injury last year? I'll tell you: for the same reason an old computer seems slow - it's being asked to do things it is not capable of.
So, what is it that Peyton is being asked to do that he wasn't last year?
Footwork my friend; footwork.
Basically now that Manning has had Kubiak's version of Bill Walsh's offense (referred to by heretics as the "West Coast Offense") foisted upon him, the entire way that Manning takes the snap, sets up in the pocket, and throws on time has been fundamentally altered.
Kubiak's offense (which is very faithful to how Bill Walsh designed it) is heavily dependent on precise and quick footwork. There are other fundamental changes that Manning has had to adjust to: such as pre-determined throws based on coverages, routes that change dynamically based on the coverage, the lesser need for audibles at the line, and short precise throws on time to specific points.
But these are all things that Manning has no problem with.
The footwork though - that is a problem.
Bill Walsh always said he could tell if a college QB would fit his system by watching only his feet. When he drafted Joe Montana in the 3rd round; it was his feet that he coveted.
Simply put, in the Walsh offense, a Qb takes the snap and drops back in either a three or five step drop. At the point where the back foot hits, the QB should be on balance and already in position to immediately throw to his first receiver at a specific point on the field. This puts a premium on quick and precise footwork, along with the balance to be in a stable throwing position immediately upon the end of the drop. This puts a lot of pressure on that back leg; and a lack of spring in that leg will cause poor balance, a inconsistant throwing position, and release point.
This is critical. And it is exceptionally critical when the QB does not have a power arm. Brett Favre and John Elway excelled in this system despite having shoddy footwork (at least compared to a Montana) due to their ability to put a lot of power on the throw from awkward and fundamentally unsound positions.
Watching Manning this year, it is painfully obvious to me that his legs are dead. Dan Marino had the same issue in his final couple of seasons.
Now, there have been times this year that Manning has looked more like himself. Usually when they need to throw every down due to playing catch-up. So, why?
Well, most of those snaps are taken from the shotgun where the footwork is less of an issue. Manning takes the shotgun snap and can settle a bit while the receivers (who are running longer routes) try to get open.
Basically Manning is struggling for the same reasons that many college spread offense QBs struggle when they come to the NFL. Poor footwork.
Will practice improve the situation? Almost certainly it will. But how much?
I predict that either the Broncos will start working a lot more out of the shotgun, or that Manning will continue to struggle in the base offense.