In the first quarter of Super Bowl XLI, the Chicago Bears were up 7-0 and the Indianapolis Colts were driving. Initially, Chicago's defense held firm and had forced Indianapolis into a 3rd and 10 at their own 47-yard line.
Peyton Manning took the snap and dropped back to pass. TE Dallas Clark ran a 15-yard in pattern from the left seam. Safety Danieal Manning, seeing Clark open in the middle of the field, flew up to the receiver. Yet on the outside, CB Charles Tillman was passing off his man, WR Reggie Wayne, to the deep zone. Manning didn't see the deep receiver and flew right past Wayne, who was wide open for 53-yard touchdown that brought Indianapolis right back in the game.
It was an egregious error by Manning, yet had the defense been able to stop the Colts' rushing game – which racked up 191 yards on the ground – the Bears might have been the ones celebrating on that rainy January night in Miami, Fla.
At the time, it was hard to foresee a bright future for Manning, who was only in the big game because of an injury to then-starter Mike Brown. For his first few years in the league, his coverage skills were sub-par, as they were on that blown coverage in the Super Bowl.
Fast forward to last season, when Manning started every game at strong safety. He finished the year with 72 tackles – fourth most on the team – to go along with one interception and seven passes defended. Not eye-popping numbers by any means, but they belie his value to the defense.
S Danieal Manning
Pro Football Focus (PFF) recently evaluated every play by each NFL safety, grading each for their performance. Manning graded out as the fifth-best safety in the league last year. Opposing quarterbacks saw a QB rating of 59.7 when throwing to Manning's coverage, with only 55 percent of their passes being completed for an average of 9.7 yards – a Top 10 number for safeties.
Additionally, he only had three missed tackles all the season, which tied him for the second-lowest rate among all NFL safeties. Yet his ability to thwart points was his biggest asset, as he did not allow a single touchdown all season. There were four other safeties that did the same, but none of them were targeted more than Manning.
In his first full season as a strong safety, Manning was outstanding. When you throw in his contributions as a kick returner, you have a top-tier safety that many teams would love to have on their roster.
The Chicago front office recognized his value last year and offered him a three-year, $6-million contract. Manning, due to become a free agent once the lockout ends, promptly declined the offer. He knows as well as the Bears do that he will be in high demand on the open market.
The Bears' coaching staff has held firm in their staunch support of second-year safety Major Wright as a possible starter at strong safety. He was hurt for part of last season, yet he played well when given the chance. In fact, according to PFF he was one of only three safeties in the league last year to not miss a single tackle. Obviously, he can step into the box and provide solid run support. Yet whether he can cover the deep half of the field against speedy receivers is still to be determined.
The staff may think Wright can be a quality player, but they know what they have in Manning. His all-around game has developed greatly during his five years in the NFL, and at just 28 years old, he could become an even better player.
This is a situation where the Bears will be hard pressed to match what surely will be a large offer from another NFL team. The simplicity of the Cover 2 means safeties don't need to be all-world athletes. In fact, intelligence is more of an indicator of success than athletic ability. For this reason, the organization may choose to let Manning have his big payday elsewhere and allow Wright, and possibly rookie Chris Conte, the chance at extended playing time.
Yet if the price tag isn't too high, the club would be wise to bring Manning back in the fold. His contributions against the run and pass, as well as being an outstanding kick returner, should not be overlooked. He has experience in the system, something teams will place a premium on due to the work stoppage. With Manning, the defense could hit the ground running.
That said, if another squad wants to go all Bernard Berrian and overpay for him, then the Bears would be wise to let him walk.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider