The worst season is obviously 1998, Manning's rookie season. Although he set a rookie record with 26 touchdown passes, he also threw 28 interceptions that season and registered, by far, the worst passer rating of his career (71.2). The good news is that 1998 is, by far, his worst four-game start to a season he's had. The bad news is that his second worst start is 2008.
Manning has not been connecting deep as often as in the past
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The best statistical start up there is also his best statistical season of the group — that we have final numbers for, since there are still 12 games left to be played in 2008. That was 2000, when Manning finished with over 4,400 yards passing, and 33 touchdowns versus only 15 interceptions.
In 1999, the middle season, he amassed over 4,100 yards passing, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, as the Colts went from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in 1999.
Edgerrin James obviously helped balance the offense and made Manning's play-action fake a lot more effective, but Manning also cut way back on the turnovers. The fourth season is 2001, where the Colts finished 6-10, and Manning finished with 4,100 yards and 26 touchdowns (once again), but also threw 23 interceptions.
Once the two outliers are removed from consideration, we're left with what is still a very disappointing start to the 2008 season. Although his completion percentage is up and his turnovers are down, the true story of the numbers is told in two statistics: Total Attempts and Yards Per Attempt.
The yardage total for this season is the lowest of the three, but the number of attempts is the highest.
That obviously affects yards per attempt, which were basically identical in 1999 (7.47) and 2001 (7.45), but have dropped off significantly this season to 6.69. Manning is completing safer passes for shorter gains and not pushing the ball down the field.
Whether that is a result of lingering side effects from his knee injury — both mental and physical — or the issues with pass protection due to injuries along the the offensive line, or both, remains to be seen.
The overall trend in these numbers, though, points to the fact that the Colts need to re-discover their vertical passing game. Although throwing the ball deep and stretching the field leads to incompletions and turnovers — the numbers for Manning's career, and in general, show that more turnovers equals more losses — it also leads to an increase in yards per attempt and touchdowns.
In the two games that the Colts have won, they have done so by overcoming a late deficit — a situation in which they need to attempt more high risk passes in order to gain yards in chunks. As the offense stands, they are not currently gaining yards in chunks and it is showing up in the stat line, on the scoreboard, and is a direct reflection of the Colts record.
It is highly unlikely that another team will squander away a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter like the Texans did last Sunday, or fail to take advantage of repeated scoring chances and allow the Colts to stay in the game like the Vikings did in Week 2. In order to score more points and win more games, the Colts need to seize control of their destiny.
The last time Manning averaged under seven yards per pass attempt was that dreadful rookie season of 1998. He has considerably more talent at his disposal and is more experienced, so he should be better suited to taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves as he starts to stretch the field.
At this point, they could continue to play conservative and hope their opponent keeps them in the game, or they could go on the offensive and take the game to the other team. That strategy has paid off so far in Manning's career and it will pay off again.