Peyton Manning can't do it alone
It was really just a formality. There was no drama. There was no suspense.
After Peyton Manning sailed through his postseason physical and three days later felt strong enough to swing a golf club at Pebble Beach, there was no question he would be medically cleared to play for the Denver Broncos in 2014.
Manning's neck is stable. The spinal fusion has held. Another exam on Monday confirmed it.
So Manning will be back under center for the Broncos next season. He will not retire. He will try to win a third consecutive AFC West title. He will try to make another Super Bowl run.
It is great news for the Broncos, who are 26-6 in the regular season since signing Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract two years ago that includes a guaranteed $20 million for 2014.
But for Denver, the only measure of success for 2014 will be if they win the Super Bowl. Nothing else now matters. All 32 teams can say that is the goal for the upcoming season, but not every team has a realistic chance. Not every team will be built to make a run.
Not every team has an elite quarterback, the greatest barometer of success in a quarterback-driven league.
For Denver to reach its goal, it needs to ask its franchise quarterback to do less, not more. Manning was exquisite in 2013 in winning his NFL-record fifth Most Valuable Player award. The Broncos offense was virtually unstoppable, setting league records for passing yards, passing touchdowns and points scored. The entire regular season was one big celebration of Manning's mastery of his craft.
Next season will be different, and different can be good.
The Broncos aren't in danger of becoming a wishbone or read-option team, but they should rely more on the running game in 2014. They will likely part ways with free-agent running back Knowshon Moreno, who earned Manning's trust with his reliable pass protection last season while quietly posting the first 1,000-yard season of his five-year career.
Denver remains optimistic about its two remaining young backs, publicly at least. In his rookie season, Montee Ball averaged 4.7 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns, although he had three fumbles. Ronnie Hillman averaged 4.0 yards per carry in limited work but did not play in the postseason. He has potential, but his production and playing time were limited.
It is likely Denver will add another bigger back either from the wealth of options in the upcoming draft or through free agency.
The idea will be to limit Manning's need to rely on the passing game, particularly in goal-to-go situations.
Last season, Denver scored 37 touchdowns in goal-to-go situations. Manning threw 25 of his 55 touchdown passes in those situations. The Broncos scored seven touchdowns when facing third-and-goal, four of them when Manning passed. Their lone fourth-and-goal touchdown also came on a Manning pass.
Manning has ultimate control over what play Denver runs in those situations, and it is impossible to ignore the fact that Ball and Hillman each lost a fumble near the goal line in the first half of the season. Ball fumbled on first-and-goal from the 6-yard line in Week 2 against the New York Giants. Hillman fumbled on first-and-goal in a loss to Indianapolis in Week 7.
In the final five games of the regular-season, Manning handed the ball off for a touchdown in goal-to-go situations only twice, with Moreno and Ball each scoring a rushing touchdown late against Tennessee in Week 14. Denver scored 10 passing touchdowns in those five games in goal-to-go situations.
Like all teams, the Broncos will spend the next several months retooling their roster. They need to add toughness on defense. They will likely need at least one cornerback. Chris Harris tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a divisional playoff game against San Diego. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be a free agent.
Denver's best pass-rusher, Von Miller, also is coming off an ACL tear.
The Broncos need to address their offensive line. They will likely need to find a replacement for wide receiver Eric Decker, who is a free agent and should command top dollar after his second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season.
But the most important thing Denver can do is alleviate some of the pressure from Manning's capable shoulders by building a team that relies on the running game in the red zone.
In 2014, Denver will try to become just the third team to follow a Super Bowl loss with a Super Bowl victory. Dallas lost Super Bowl V to the Baltimore Colts, and then beat Miami in Super Bowl VI. The next year, the Dolphins beat Washington to win Super Bowl VII.
Manning makes the Broncos a legitimate contender. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He makes everyone on the team better.
It is fantastic news for Denver that, at age 38 (his birthday is March 24) Manning will be back for a 17th run at a title. To maximize Manning, the Broncos need to have a reliable running game so Manning doesn't have to do quite so much.