ENGLEWOOD, Colo—The Denver Broncos finished the first day of organized team activities today—the first of Phase Three. Although there’s been a lot of teaching and learning going on ever since Gary Kubiak was hired as the new head coach, today, the offense began to actually install the offense.
Anyone lucky enough to have observed today’s activities, would have witnessed a relatively new sight—quarterback Peyton Manning—playing under center. It would be an exercise in hyperbole to say that throughout Manning’s career, he’s never played under center, but there’s no doubt that in his three-year career with the Broncos, it’s been a rarity.
For Kubiak’s zone system, which relies heavily on the running game as the focal point of the offense, the opportunities to pass go hand-in-hand with the rush. Get the opposition thinking run—really pound it in to them—and pick up big chunks of yards through the air via the play-action game. Following practice today, Kubiak expounded upon the philosophy.
“First off, if you run the ball well, you should be able to play-action pass,” he said. “It’s hard to find big chunks in this league. It’s hard to get the ball down field and make big plays. You’ve got to make them to be successful, so we felt like if we run the ball well and we play pass, and it looked the same, we’ll be able to get the ball down the field.”
The quarterback has to be under center to sell that—to operate the full facets of the offense. Manning is as accomplished a quarterback as there is on the planet and although he won’t go so far as to say it’s been difficult being under center, it is an adjustment, at the very least.
“That probably would be making too much of the under-center thing,” Manning said today. “You can say that and then you don’t really mean it. I think now is the time where we’re trying to figure out what things work best for us. I’m sure—I’m not speaking for the coaches—that they’re looking at us and seeing what players can do what. As players, we’re trying to get as comfortable as we can with the plays that we’re running. I think at some point you kind of figure out what works best for you going into the 2015 season.”
In other words, Manning knows that he’s going to be under center a lot more in 2015 than maybe he ever has in his career, but at the same time, Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennsion are going to want to play to their five-time MVP’s strengths, and weave into the offense some of the things he likes best. It’s an ongoing process.
“Certainly right now we’re working on the different plays that we’ve installed that day,” Manning said. “This was kind of Day 1 install. Tomorrow will be a little bit more of Day 1 and Day 2, so you’re working on certain things and certain situations. This is the time to learn and experiment and see what things work best and what things please the coaches the most.”
For a quarterback, there are some subtle and not-so-subtle differences between playing under center and out of the shotgun. For fans, it’s important to understand. Manning talked about that today.
“Obviously under center you can keep your eyes on the defense a little bit longer to tell you the truth,” he said. “When it’s the shotgun, you’ve got to keep your eyes on the ball at some point. It’s always a little bit easier under center because you can be looking to the left and at a weak safety when the ball is being snapped. Whereas in shotgun, you’re eyes have to be on the ball a little bit more. Probably some things that are easier about under center as far as seeing late rotations and seeing certain key players.”
For a brainiac like Manning, those little nuances can be utilized to great effect in the Broncos offense. As I’ve said before, if Matt Schaub can surpass 4,000 yards and 20+ touchdowns playing under center in Kubiak’s system, imagine what Manning can do. As far as Kubiak's concerned, Manning can expect to be under center for the foreseeable future. It’s part of Kubiak’s teaching process.
“That’s kind of the plan,” Kubiak said. “We’re going to do that initially. We know that the other end of the stick is fine (playing out of the shotgun formation). It’s something that he’s been doing forever. We’re going to spend a lot of time under center initially in our process and how we’re going to go about our teaching. We have kind of a nine-day teaching installation, so he’s going to be under there for a good three days before we move back. He’s been very responsive and he’s working extremely hard.”
One of the benefits of establishing the run and keeping Manning under center is that it makes it more difficult for the opposing defense to see what’s coming and tee off him. Manning is the catalyst to the Broncos postseason aspirations and it’s incumbent upon Kubiak to keep him upright.
A key component to doing that is getting the offensive line figured out. Right now, the coaching staff is still evaluating the offensive linemen to see who the best five are. According to Kubiak, they’d like to have that ironed out going into training camp.
“I think so,” he said. “I’d love to, but we’re still in a very competitive situation at eight or nine deep, but that’s probably a good thing. We’re young and we’ve just got to keep going here. Obviously [T] Ryan [Clady] and [G] Louis [Vasquez] are the ones with all of the reps. We’re trying to find a center. We’re trying to see who is going to step forward and run the group. It’s an important month for those guys. I think the deeper we are and the more competitive we are, then the better we should be.”
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With a new coaching regime, everyone is under the microscope, including Manning. The intensity is high, as each guy strives to make a good impression on the coaches. Manning can see that competitive spirit playing out in the offensive line group and it’s not something he’s exempt from.
“I know there is competition there and there are coaches that are making evaluations,” Manning said. “I mean, everybody is being evaluated. Any time you have new coaches here, everybody is being evaluated every single day. I think as players we’re out there competing and trying to earn the respect of our coaches. That’s all positions and not just the O-Line position. I know [Offensive Line] Coach [Clancy] Barone is putting different guys in different places and trying to see what we guys can handle and moving some guys around.”
Manning is confident that by the time Week 1 of the regular season rolls around, the Broncos will have the right guys out on the grass. In the meantime, competition is high and guys are working their tails off.
“I know once that Baltimore game gets here, we’ll have the best five guys out there," he said, "plus the idea is to build some depth there. You’re going to have injuries. You’re going to have things happen where you can have six, possibly seven or even eight guys playing, because usually you need that during the course of a physical season.”
The 16-game NFL season is long and grueling. The Broncos are taking their first steps towards being conditioned for that battle of attrition now. At this point, everyone is still learning, including Manning, but like his brethren on the O-line, you can count on the Sheriff being polished in Kubiak’s system in time for Baltimore.