It was around this time last year when it began to become abundantly clear that Peyton Manning had played his last game as a Colt, and therefore we’d spend a significant chunk of the offseason speculating about his next NFL destination. You know the rest of the story: eventually he’d land in Denver after John Elway recruited a fellow Hall of Fame quarterback, giving him a five-year contract worth $96 million, $18 million of which is guaranteed. When a free agent quarterback is given that kind of greenery, he should be trusted with the ball in his hands, and a chance to win a playoff game in the final seconds.
But he wasn’t, and until this afternoon we all had a question: why?
After Jacoby Jones’ 70-yard touchdown catch that tied the Ravens-Broncos game Saturday and eventually forced overtime, the Broncos still had the ball with a significant chunk of clock left. Specifically, 31 seconds remained, and Denver had two timeouts with the ball on their own 20-yard line. In Peyton Manning football time, that should have been the equivalent of about two hours. A day later Matt Ryan showed us what an elite quarterback is capable of in a nearly identical situation. In fact, Ryan had six fewer seconds to work with than Manning — critical ticks at that point in the game — and yet he still completed long passes to Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning 49-yard field goal.
So what did Manning do in his moment to shine? Nothing. He wasn’t given a chance.
Despite the timeouts he had buried in his pocket which opened up the entire field for his highly-paid quarterback to work with, Broncos head coach John Fox decided to remain conservative, opting for a kneel down. He felt safer taking his chances in overtime than he did while asking Manning to throw deep balls to fast receivers, and then possibly asking Matt Prater to kick a long field goal in the thin Denver air.
Today during his season-ending press conference Fox was asked about his conservative approach. His answer? His players were scared, basically.
“That was pretty devastating. There is a certain amount of shock value. It’s like a fighter being on the ropes — it didn’t seem like the time to go for a knockout punch. It didn’t seem to be the right time to go for the jugular. I’d do that again 10 times out of 10 if faced with that situation.”
Sure it was, John. Every Broncos fan knows that touchdown and Rahim Moore’s blatant disregard for fundamentals was pretty jarring. But going back to the Falcons example, we’re sure Marshawn Lynch’s touchdown with 34 seconds left was pretty damn devastating too on the Atlanta sideline. Clearly it wasn’t as dramatic as Jones’ improbable score, but a franchise that had been dogged by the playoff win narrative came within half a minute of losing another game in January after a 13-3 season. Yeah, that’s some serious shock factor right there, but those brave little Falcons soldiered on.
Deadspin contributor Brian Burke analyzed Fox’s conservative thinking, and observed that although the chances of scoring in that final-minute scenario were slim, they still significantly dwarfed the probability of a meaningful turnover. Translation: reward >>>>> risk.
Burke also concluded that blaming solely Fox’s conservative approach for Denver’s loss is wrong and foolish. He’s right, as there were many factors at play, a list we’ve detailed thoroughly in several rants.
But Fox’s confusing call which doesn’t look any better after his explanation is on that list. And for many, it’s bolded.