There have been a lot of rumors and a lot of drama over Peyton Manning, his injury and his future, but it overlooks one crucial fact — it all happened at the best possible time for the Denver Broncos and gives them their best shot of making a deep run in the playoffs.
Manning is out indefinitely with a tear of his plantar fascia on his left foot that will leave him in a walking cast for at least a week. His last game was a disaster — four interceptions and a 0.0 quarterback rating against the Chiefs in Week 10, a game where he never should have played. He looked like a man in a walker trying to play quarterback, not a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Coach Gary Kubiak said he will not play again until he is healthy, which now looks like it's at least a few weeks away.
Manning's meltdown against the Chiefs can now be easily explained by his foot injury, along with an injured shoulder and ribs. Many forget that two weeks earlier, he had his best game of the season against the Packers, and followed it up with a solid effort against the Colts. Nothing but major injuries would cause him to go from a QB rating of 97 in Week 8 to 0 in Week 10.
A torn plantar fascia can take from four to six weeks to heal for a pro athlete with top medical care and a high pain tolerance. I had the same injury years ago and it is a killer; I played adult flag football and my passes looked about as bad as Manning's did against the Chiefs. I wasn't trying to avoid Justin Houston on the pass rush, though. The Bronocs would be wise to let Manning heal effectively and not rush him back too quickly because there's no need to. If Manning is not ready to go until Week 15 or later, that's a good thing for Denver. Here's why:
—Brock Osweiler can hold down the fort. Osweiler is 1-0, having beaten the Bears on Sunday. He played very well (a 127 QB rating) and did not turn the ball over, something Manning did way too much of. A much tougher test awaits Sunday, when the 10-0 Patriots visit Denver. ESPN's Jeff Legwold had this nugget about what Osweiler faces: "According to ESPN Stats & Information research, since the start of the 2001 season — the start of the Belichick-Tom Brady era, quarterbacks are a combined 23-79 (.225) in their first career starts against the Patriots."
This stat is daunting, but four first-timers have won against the Patriots since 2012. In addition, the Patriots are missing several key starters, Brady-Belichick are 2-5 all-time in Denver, and Osweiler has good skill players and a great defense. Add it all up and Osweiler and the Broncos have a solid chance of winning. Even if Osweiler comes up short against the Patriots, that's not a terrible thing for the Broncos. Their next two games are against the Chargers (2-8) and Raiders (4-6) and the Broncos will be heavy favorites in both. Osweiler should be at least 3-1 as a starter before Manning might possibly be ready. It likely won't be enough to pass the Patriots for the top seed, but still leaves Denver with a chance at a bye.
—Is Osweiler the future? Playing him now lets the Broncos see if the 6-8 Osweiler is their quarterback of the future. Osweiler is a free agent, so a multigame audition will be enough to tell the Broncos if they should sign him long term. It also will make their decision on Manning's future easier. I have a hard time seeing him playing in 2016, and if Osweiler is a budding star, this would make it easier for the Broncos to politely decline should Manning insist on coming back. If Denver doesn't want him, I can't see Manning desiring to learn a whole new system and team culture at 40. Better to retire gracefully than be giving the ax.
—Manning needs the rest. He is 39 years old, Methuselah by NFL quarterback standards. Given how effective he was against Green Bay with two weeks off due to the bye, it stands to reason that he can be equally as effective if off a month or so. There is precedence in Denver for this: In 1998, John Elway missed four games due to injuries and he was a fresh quarterback come playoff time. The result was a Super Bowl win.
Last season, Manning had leg injuries and played through them. The result was a gimpy playoff quarterback who was totally ineffective in a divisional-round loss to the Colts. Assuming he can healed sufficiently from the foot injury, the Broncos would have a fresh QB determined to erase the memories of his debacle against the Chiefs.
I guarantee that every coach of a playoff-bound team would rest his quarterback for part of December if he knew the team would continue to play well. With only 16 games, though, teams need to play all their stars until their seeding is secure. This means guys are banged up come January; this season, the Broncos can avoid that fate with Manning.
--When will he play? This is the most vexing part of my theory — when do the Broncos put Manning back in? Given what Kubiak has been saying, I find it hard to see them rushing Manning back until he gets full medical clearance. This assumes Osweiler performs like he did against Chicago. If he stinks against the Patriots and then loses to either the Chargers or Raiders, it might make Kubiak's decision on a starter easier, though he also risks rushing Manning back too soon.
A solid Osweiler and a healthy Manning is a nice dilemma to have. If Osweiler keeps performing well, Kubiak might stick with the hot hand. That can cause a problem with Manning's ego, but that can be managed with the help of Elway, who can tell him the goal is winning, not stats. And Kubiak won't hesitate for a second to yank an ineffective Osweiler and go with Manning. If Osweiler plays OK but is clearly not ready to be a playoff QB, then Manning gets his job back with the Broncos knowing they have a battle-tested backup.
Everything I have written assumes Manning will be healthy enough at some point late in the season. Far from being a crisis, some down time for Manning might be the ticket for the Broncos in January, and help them avoid another one-and-done in the playoffs.