Here is my Friday column.
Peyton Manning has a tragic flaw. Out of respect for greatness, let’s not deal with that now, not until we discuss what makes him great.
Jim Harbaugh, you’re first. How is Manning different from other great quarterbacks? What is his best quality?
“All qualities,” Harbaugh said with a smile Wednesday afternoon in the 49ers’ auditorium. “Great competitor, great player. He’s done it and done it and done it and keeps doing it at the highest level. Tremendous player.”
Notice Harbaugh was not specific or expansive. Is there a subtext?
Absolutely. Manning could have signed with the 49ers in 2012 but chose to join the Broncos instead. Manning rejected Harbaugh and his offense.
Harbaugh is married to his offense. He is what you call a system coach. His personality and reputation and success are tied into his system – a run-first offense. He installed his offense at the University of San Diego. He installed it at Stanford. He installed it at the 49ers.
Manning has his own offense and it’s pass-first. Manning’s and Harbaugh’s offenses are night and day. Harbaugh wanted Manning to make the accommodations, to learn to play Harbaugh’s way.
The Broncos accommodated Manning. Head coach John Fox happily gave him control of Denver’s offense. Fox has a defensive background and is not married to an offensive system or playbook, so he was less threatened, less intimidated by Manning than Harbaugh was. That’s why Harbaugh was vague about Manning this week.
Let’s leave Harbaugh in the auditorium to talk to Kaepernick in the locker room.
Colin, what is Manning’s best quality?
“The mental side of the game,” Kaepernick said during his group interview. “He puts his offense in position to be successful.”
Notice Kaepernick was specific – Manning’s best quality is his smarts. Credit where credit is due. But Kaepernick also was brief. It is not Kaepernick’s job to extol Manning. It’s his job to beat Manning.
Now, look around the locker room. Notice Blaine Gabbert sitting by himself getting dressed. Backup quarterbacks are removed from the competition and tend have a wide perspective.
Blaine, what is Manning’s best quality?
“So much of their offense is driven by him at the line of scrimmage,” said Gabbert. “He trusts what he sees and makes the correct calls and gets those guys on the offensive side of the ball in the right position to make plays. I think every great quarterback has a unique characteristic that sets them apart. Definitely that is one of his strongest assets, knowing the coverage that the defense is in or the blitz that they’re trying to bring. He’s going to not only try to beat that, but exploit the weakness of that defense.”
Finally, a tribute to Manning. Thank you, Blaine. I’ll take it from here.
Manning is a rolodex of visual recognition. He has seen more looks and disguises from defenses than any other quarterback. He recognizes what the opponent is going to do before they do it.
Manning is a throwback. He calls his own plays, controls his own offense, is in charge of the snap count, the audibles, the formations, the personnel groupings, the protections, everything. A quarterback hasn’t had that power since the early ’90s. Jim Kelly comes to mind.
A player has to be a coach on the field to get that power. Manning studies and prepares more than coaches do. According to a well-placed source with knowledge of the Broncos, Manning has his own study staff within the Broncos’ coaching staff. Manning tells the study staff what videos to cut up and what statistics to assemble. Manning studies that stuff as well as the stuff the coaches give the rest of the team.
“I got him when he first came here, coming off a pretty serious neck injury,” said Fox on a conference call. “That took a lot of rehab, and he’s a veteran player, so there’s the conditioning element as well as the game prep. He might be as good of a time-management-skill guy – not even just as a player. Coaches, anybody. He probably does it as well as anybody I’ve ever been around.”
Manning relies on time management and experience because he has to. His physical ability is diminishing. He is 38 years old, can hardly move and cannot throw hard. Force him to run or throw long and you can beat him.
But that is not Manning’s tragic flaw. Every quarterback’s physical ability diminishes when he gets old.
What’s tragic for Manning is simply this. He tightens up on the big stage. His record in the playoffs is 11-12 and his passer rating in the Super Bowl is 81. He’s like a super computer that crashes on deadline. Manning thinks too much in crucial games, and his best quality becomes his worst.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.