Colts' Manning in midst of arguably worst slump

As Peyton Manning(notes) wallows in the worst slump of his Hall of Fame career, there is a fair question to be asked about the greatest thrower of this era:

Does this put a chink in the armor of talk leading up to Super Bowl XLIV that he is the greatest quarterback of his time? Is he clearly behind Tom Brady(notes) and about to get passed by the likes of Philip Rivers(notes)?

Manning is in a major slump by his lofty standards. Qualifying this slump is important because even at his worst, most coaches would trade some body parts to have the Indianapolis Colts quarterback under center.

"Yeah, you better point that out," said a head coach from another AFC team, who said he would deal his quarterback and three first-round picks for Manning right now. "And the Colts would still turn me down."

Fair enough, but what's going wrong right now?

"There's no question he's forcing things right now and he's not comfortable. Their running game is so bad – way worse than it has been even the last couple of years – that he can't lean on that and he's just not comfortable throwing to some of the guys they have. He just looks really out of sync. The first two picks he threw against New England were totally out of character."

[Photos: Action shots from Manning's slumping season]

Over his past four games, Manning has thrown nine interceptions. That marks one of five times in his career he has done that (12 is his most in a five-game span). This stretch, with the 6-5 Colts losing all three games in which Manning has been picked, stands out as the worst for a couple of reasons.

Unlike in 2007, which is the last time this happened, Manning has been truly been bad in more than one game. The 2007 stretch happened to be marked by a career-worst six-interception game against San Diego. In the other three games, Manning threw only one interception in each game, making that more of a blip on the radar than a prolonged run of poor play.

The other three times this has happened came in the first five games of his rookie season in 1998 and twice in 2001. In '01, Manning was without running back Edgerrin James(notes) for most of the season and wide receiver Reggie Wayne(notes) was a rookie in the midst of catching just 27 passes as a complement to leading receiver Marvin Harrison(notes). In short, both Manning and the entire Colts offense were still in the development stage.

[Read more: Another Colts star in a serious slump]

This season is different. Manning, who had a four-year stretch from 2003-06 in which he didn't throw more than 10 interceptions in a season, is in his 13th year. He has seen every situation and studied every defense. There is nothing he hasn't seen.

Of course, many would argue that Manning is dealing with a ridiculous injury situation. Not only is tight end Dallas Clark(notes) out for the year, but wide receivers Pierre Garcon(notes), Austin Collie(notes) and Anthony Gonzalez(notes) have been in and out of the lineup all season and Wayne is banged up. At running back, the Colts have gone through Joseph Addai(notes), Donald Brown(notes), Mike Hart(notes) and even Javarris James(notes) (Edgerrin's little cousin). The Colts' running game is so bad that the team is passing nearly two-thirds of the time (256 rushing attempts vs. 486 passes and 13 sacks).

"They got away with that running game last season because everything else was perfect," the aforementioned head coach said. "Now, if a couple things go wrong with the receivers, they can't lean on the running game at all."

Those are fair points. At the same time, both Tom Brady in New England and Philip Rivers in San Diego have endured plenty of changeover at those positions.

Brady, whose 9-2 Patriots are tied for the league's best mark, is working with two rookie tight ends (Aaron Hernandez(notes) and Rob Gronkowski(notes)), a new deep threat after the Patriots sent Randy Moss(notes) packing and traded for Deion Branch(notes) after four games, a second-year receiver who didn't play last season (Brandon Tate(notes)) and another wide receiver (Wes Welker(notes)) who is still coming back from a significant knee injury. In the backfield, the mainstays from last year (Kevin Faulk(notes) and Laurence Maroney(notes)) have been injured and traded, respectively, and replaced by BenJarvus Green-Ellis(notes) and a guy who opened this season on the Jets practice squad (Danny Woodhead(notes)).

In San Diego, Rivers basically has had his best deep threat from 2009 (Vincent Jackson(notes)) unavailable all season. Antonio Gates(notes), Malcom Floyd(notes), Legedu Naanee(notes) and Patrick Crayton(notes) have all missed significant time with injuries and rookie running back Ryan Mathews(notes) has been hobbled almost all season for the 6-5 Chargers.

Despite those revolving doors, both Brady and Rivers are among the top contenders for the MVP award. Rivers is having a stunning season, averaging an incredible 8.9 yards per pass attempt.

That kind of evidence can change the view of Manning.

"All that stuff makes you think twice," the head coach said. "Can Peyton adjust when things aren't perfect? Most years, things have been perfect. This year is different. But, like I said, I'll take him. If he walked in my office door this minute, he'd be starting for me on Sunday.

"[Expletive], who am I kidding, if he walked in five minutes before the game, he'd be starting."


Hillis' historic pace

First of all, a tip of the cap to Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis(notes), who has 905 yards rushing, 414 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns in one of the great breakout seasons in league history. At current pace, Hillis will finish with roughly 1,900 rushing and receiving yards combined and 19 touchdowns, excellent numbers for just about any player.

Hillis is 9th in the NFL in rushing yards.
(Andrew Weber/US Presswire)

For those with an anthropological interest in sports, Hillis' season is downright stunning. He is about to become the first white running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards since Craig James in 1985. It's a stunning fact considering how mundane the milestone has become in the NFL these days. Since 1985, the 1,000-yard mark has been topped 341 times, including three players to do it this season (Arian Foster(notes), Jamaal Charles(notes) and Adrian Peterson). Moreover, Hillis' total statistics, if he maintains his pace, could rank as one of the best single-season performances by a white running back in the past 50 years.

James, for instance, had a combined 1,587 yards and seven touchdowns in 1985. That's just below 100 yards and less than half a touchdown per game. Very good numbers and part of a terrific season in which James, who like Hillis was a seventh-round pick, helped New England reach the Super Bowl. However, that season isn't nearly as good as Hall of Famer Jim Taylor's 1962 performance with Green Bay.

Taylor had a combined 1,580 yards in 14 games and scored 19 touchdowns. Taylor also had 1,482 yards and 16 touchdowns in 1961. Those rank as the only two seasons in the past 50 in which a white running back has averaged more than 100 yards rushing and receiving a game over the course of a full season. Other white Hall of Fame running backs John Riggins, Larry Csonka and Paul Hornung never averaged more 100 combined yards in a game and only Riggins' 24 touchdowns in 1983 looks to hold up against Hillis' performance this season.

Of course, the game is drastically different than when even James and Riggins last played in the 1980s. The game is wide open compared to then and offensive statistics are booming as a result. Still, this is a notable season for Hillis, so congratulations to him. But does his performance mean anything of great note? Does it mean that Hillis is going to have more than one or two productive seasons (James really only had that one good year)? Does it mean that white running backs will be in vogue soon? Does it mean that guys like Riggins, Csonka and Hornung were overrated because of the color of their skin?

Some of those questions may not be answered in any intelligent way. Right now, it's just trivia. Interesting trivia to note and keep track of, but still just trivia.

Top five
1. New England Patriots (9-2):
The Branch-Brady combo is just starting to hum. If the defense just gets a little better …
2. Atlanta Falcons (9-2): Three straight road games (Tampa Bay, Carolina and Seattle) shouldn't get in the way of at least 13 wins.
3. New York Jets (9-2): ESPN gets redemption for 49ers-Cards game by getting Jets-Pats this coming Monday.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3): For whatever reason, Mike Tomlin is not a very good coach when he's an overwhelming favorite. Gotta work on that.
5. San Diego Chargers (6-5): I said it last week and I'll say it again: This is the best team in the NFL. But it will have to win on the road in the playoffs to prove it.

Bottom five
28. San Francisco 49ers (4-7):
Yeah, the 49ers won Monday night and their hope of an NFC West title is still alive. That said, the division should be euthanized.
29. Cincinnati Bengals (2-9): Based purely on observation, QB Carson Palmer's(notes) elbow is really a problem. He has little control on his throws right now.
30. Denver Broncos (3-8): Anyone who listened to Broncos COO Joe Ellis during a Saturday conference call knows Josh McDaniels is in deep trouble.
31. Arizona Cardinals (3-8): For those who thought JaMarcus Russell(notes) was an erratic thrower, get a load of Derek Anderson(notes).
32. Carolina Panthers (1-10): At least QB Jimmy Clausen(notes) hit one big throw to set up a potential game-winning FG. A tiny step of hope.

This and that

Branch scored twice in last week's win over the Lions.
(Carlos Osorio/AP Photo)

Is there something magical about the relationship between Tom Brady and wide receiver Deion Branch? It sure looks that way. Over the past three games, the two are looking more and more like the combo that helped win two championships in a four-year span from 2002 to 2005. They have combined for 17 catches for 254 yards and two touchdowns and just missed on two other potential TD throws. In seven games since the Patriots re-acquired Branch from Seattle, he has 33 catches for 433 yards and three touchdowns. That puts him on pace for 58 catches for 743 and five touchdowns if he plays 12 games with the Pats this season. That may not sound special, but in Branch's best year (2006) during his four injury-marred seasons with Seattle, he had 53 catches for 725 yards and four touchdowns.

While ESPN can't complain too loudly about its Monday night slate of games this season, particularly as it gets set to broadcast the game of the year between the Jets and Patriots next week, the snoozefest that was the San Francisco-Arizona game deserves some discussion. The NFL would be wise to revisit the idea of flexing the Monday night schedule. There are some issues to consider, such as security and other local issues for teams that suddenly have to switch from Sunday to Monday, but the league has to think about it. That game on Monday was expected to be awful and lived down to expectations.

One of the advantages of being under the weather is spending a night scrolling through meaningless TV shows. I happened upon FX's "The League", which was moderately funny when not pushing the envelope to Vaudevillian humor. The episode was almost assuredly a re-run of the Fantasy Football edition, where the group of friends goes to Las Vegas to conduct their draft. Anyway, the best part of the show was the guest appearance by Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco(notes), who was actually pretty smooth and natural. Then again, he was playing himself, so it wasn't a stretch. But he might have a future on screen.

For those of us who have been watching DeSean Jackson(notes) since before the start of his rookie season, the fact that he was chewed out by coach Andy Reid after the Philadelphia Eagles lost at Chicago on Sunday should come as no surprise. The problem the Eagles face is that Jackson isn't particularly good at taking criticism in such a public fashion. The fact that he had to be consoled by teammates after the game is almost more disturbing than the fact that he was such a goofball beforehand. Hey, it's one thing to make a mistake, it's another thing to wallow in it.