The NFL has never been more of a quarterback’s game than it is today. Scoring is on a record pace, quarterbacks are throwing more touchdown passes than ever before, and as a result, television ratings are booming.
The NFL has Denver’s Peyton Manning to thank.
There was a time quarterbacks — from “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh in the 1940s, to Johnny Unitas in the 1950s to Joe Namath in the 1960s — called their own plays and controlled the flow of the game. Then coaches took the game from the field generals by sending in plays and leaving it to defenses to win championships.
Not anymore. Not since Manning joined the Indianapolis Colts as the first pick of the 1998 NFL Draft. He has taken the game back to the future.
Manning’s ability to size up defenses in seconds and change and call plays at the line of scrimmage resembles the style of those old-school quarterbacks.
He has revolutionized the way offenses operate by spawning a new generation of quarterbacks, including Super Bowl winners Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, who run hurry-up, spread-’em-out, no-huddle offenses that keep defenses on their heels.
“What Peyton has done is take the quarterback position really back in time,” said his former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, now an analyst for NBC.
Manning, in his second season in Denver, will bring the NFL’s most-prolific offense into tonight’s showdown against the unbeaten Chiefs. Denver leads the NFL in scoring and in total yardage, and Manning has thrown a league-most 33 touchdowns.
Dungy attributes Manning’s take-charge attitude, even as a young player, to growing up around the game as a son of former NFL quarterback Archie Manning.
“Because of his dad, he felt like as the quarterback, you’re in charge out there, and the big thing he never wanted to do was run bad plays,” Dungy said. “And so if we had a play call that he knew wasn’t going to work, he didn’t want to run it.
“And the more time he could have at the line of scrimmage, the more time he had to figure out whether the play was going to be good or bad. That was really the genesis of the whole no-huddle situation and the whole no-huddle offense and all the audibling. Not every quarterback coming up through the college ranks is trained that way, thought that way, but that’s what he wanted to do, and he has inspired a generation of quarterbacks who want to study and want to know and want to put their team in the right play.
“That has kind of spawned this whole no-huddle thing that’s gone all the way down to college football now.”
Manning said Tom Moore, his offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, gave him free rein to operate the offense as he saw fit.
“We were together every year, and he just gained trust in me, gave me more freedom and flexibility to get out of bad plays,” said Manning, a four-time league MVP and MVP of Super Bowl XLI. “He always said nobody is going to have as good of a view as you are out there on the field playing quarterback. It’s a better view than the sideline or in the press box, so if you see something that you like, go for it.
“I had to earn that trust from Tom, and I never felt like I abused it. I felt like I called plays that Tom knew I was going to call based on what he and I had talked about during the week. If the quarterback has that kind of responsibility, there is a lot more on his shoulders. And you work hard during the week in your preparation and your film study because you don’t want to let the offensive coordinator down if he gives you the green light to call some of your own plays.”
Need some evidence of how Manning’s influence is affecting today’s game?
“In today’s game, it’s remarkable what these quarterbacks are doing, and Peyton is the trendsetter,” said former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski. “Everything he’s done in the presnap phase is just amazing. The preparation, the recall, all those things happen so quick and they just run optimum plays against the defense.”
Jaworski has a staff of eight who break down plays for his NFL studio shows on ESPN, and they have a hard time picking up what Manning is seeing when he calls or changes plays at the line of scrimmage. So imagine the dilemmas Manning causes defenses.
“We pull up those bubble-screen touchdowns he’s thrown this year,” Jaworski said, “and I ask my staff, ‘What’s his tip, what’s his hint, what’s his indicator?’ He’s like a crime-scene investigator. He sees things no one else can see.
“It’s unique in two ways. It helps the offense and creates doubt in the defense. It affects their preparation. ‘What’s he reading? Is he reading my feet? Is he reading how deep I am or wide I am in the alignment?’ Players can get overwhelmed by that. So you change your defensive play-calling because you know he’s going to drill down and find something to beat you.”
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith played in a hurry-up, no-huddle offense out of the shotgun formation at Utah, and the Chiefs have deployed some of those principles this season, including zone reads for Smith.
“When I came in and even growing up watching pro football, Peyton certainly was a guy who was doing it at the line of scrimmage, changing plays, calling a lot of his own plays,” Smith said. “He epitomizes being the coordinator on the field.
“For a long time, coaches were calling a play. You got up there and ran a play. Not to say he was the first (to call plays at the line), but he took this to another level.”
That was apparent in the Broncos’ season-opening, 49-27 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, the team that eliminated top-seeded Denver in last season’s playoffs after Manning was intercepted in overtime.
Manning came back and threw for an NFL record-tying seven touchdowns, taking some of the knowledge he gained from the playoff loss.
“The line I hear the most from the (defensive) players when talking about Peyton Manning is he’s playing chess while most of us are playing checkers,” said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth. “In the opener, there were some players and coaches with Baltimore who had worked with Peyton. So Peyton knew they knew some of his calls, some of the key words he used to get into certain audibles.
“So he used those words to set up the defense so they would think something was coming, and he would fake it to what they thought was coming and then threw a touchdown pass. That sort of advanced chess is really what makes it so much fun.
“Despite the interception everybody talked about against the Ravens, his numbers say he’s on an uptick right now. We’re going back to the days when the quarterback gets the last look … though that used to be in the huddle; now it’s at the line of scrimmage.”