Sure he's feeling more pressure, and yes, he's missing wide receiver Marvin Harrison. But we've all seen Peyton Manning hoist the Indianapolis Colts offense up on his back and carry it to victory over the years, even during tough times.
But he hasn't done that in a very long time as the Colts have been successful relying on more of their highly-talented players to do their part week-in and week-out. And in the process, Manning appears to have lost some of his leadership edge, his fire, and even appears to have become just "one of the gang" who is struggling on the Colts offense right now.
Sunday's 13-10 Colts victory over the Chiefs marked the first regular season game in which Manning failed to throw a touchdown pass since last December in Jacksonville. And you have to go all the way back to September, 2005 for the last time he played a full regular season game at home and failed to throw a touchdown.
None of that would matter if the Colts were lighting up the scoreboard on the ground instead. But it's disconcerting to see the offense — that was missing just two starters against a lesser-talented Chiefs team — misfire so badly and short-circuit their own drives.
Manning's had just two 300-yard passing games this season. One of those came just over a week ago when the Colts tried to play catch-up against San Diego. But perhaps even more alarming is that Manning's had to rely on getting more of his passing yards through what the receivers are doing with the ball after the catch than he was earlier this year.
During the first three weeks of the season, Manning truly had over 200 yards of pure passing (from Manning's hand to the receiver's) while his receivers added on less than 100 yards per game after they caught the ball. But in the three games leading up to Sunday's matchup against the Chiefs, the receivers contributed more than 100 yards per game of Manning's passing yardage with their feet.
Against Carolina, the ratio of pure passing yards versus the yards added after the catch was 146 to 109. Against New England, it dropped to 81 passing yards to 144 after the catch. And a week ago against San Diego, the ratio was 209 through the air versus 119 after the catch.
While many might assume that the shift is being caused by Manning lacking the deep-ball attack that he usually enjoys with Harrison on the field, that doesn't appear to be the case. With Harrison in the lineup earlier this season, the Colts had a three-game winning stretch following the season opener where they only completed a total of four passes of 25-plus yards. Heading into Sunday's matchup against the Chiefs, the Colts had a three-game Marvin-less stretch where they completed a total of seven passes of 25-plus yards while winning just one of the three games.
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What's really killing Manning is that he's lost the quick timing routes that Harrison was so skilled at running — especially in blitz situations. And with Harrison off the field, teams are able to divert more attention to covering Reggie Wayne, leaving Dallas Clark, Ben Utecht and Aaron Moorehead as Manning's primary targets. On Sunday against Kansas City, the receivers added to Manning's problems by dropping passes at an uncharacteristic rate.
From the season opener up through the Jacksonville game on October 22, Manning didn't dip below a 60-percent completion rate and completed over 70 percent of his passes in two games. But since then, he's been as low as 46 percent and has had just one game at 60 percent — ironically, the game against the Chargers when he also threw a career-high six interceptions.
After posting a quarterback rating of 100 or more in four of the first five games this year, Manning has only come close to earning a 100 rating once since then. And in his two most recent contests, he's finished with ratings that rank among the worst ten in his entire career — 49.5 against the Chargers and 52.0 against the Chiefs.
By contrast, the Colts defense lost a huge portion of their pass-rush punch this past week with the season-ending injury to Dwight Freeney. His absence not only reduced the threat from the Colts' right defensive end spot, it also allowed the Chiefs to have the option to double-team the Colts' other most serious pass-rush threat — Robert Mathis on the left side of the Colts line.
While the Colts didn't get much heat on Chiefs quarterback Brodie Croyle, the defense as a unit found ways to stop the Chiefs and hold them to ten points. And Mathis still applied pressure, even forcing a fumble during a pass rush that the Colts recovered.
Manning needs to get on track and do the same with the offense, whether Harrison is out there or not. And offensive coordinator Tom Moore has to help him figure out how. Against a tougher opponent than Kansas City, the Colts could have easily been on the losing end of Sunday's contest.
Manning's lackluster performances over the past few weeks certainly haven't been all his fault by any stretch of the imagination. But let's face it. This is Peyton Manning we're talking about here. And at one point in time, this would have been so unacceptable to him that he would have exerted his will on the rest of that offensive unit, refusing to accept anything from them but near-perfection.
Because that's what he expected from himself.
But somewhere in this more balanced and patient offensive approach that helped them win the Super Bowl last year, Manning has seemingly blended in. He's becoming just a highly-talented, prominent player among a team of strong performers rather than a legendary, standout player.
Well, that works when the entire team is clipping along with everyone doing their part, proving themselves to be more than capable of claiming a victory without any one player constantly standing out. But under their current circumstances, what Indianapolis really needs from Peyton Manning right now is the leader who used to grab the offensive players by the collective scruff of their necks, shake them until he had their attention, and then tell them exactly how they were going to march down the field right over their opponent, methodically and with no mercy.
Manning used to flash his anger and impatience at his teammates when they'd drop a pass or allow a lineman to put pressure on him. Now, he looks like a disappointed, confused, and beaten-down player when it happens.
Manning's conviction and emotion on the field inspired players on his offense in the past to raise their level of play. They felt accountable to perform for him. And since it's become painfully obvious that the offense isn't the well-oiled machine it was last year, perhaps he needs to be a bit less patient with his teammates again, light a fire under them and truly lead them on the field — rather than just calling the plays.
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