Peyton Manning: All-Time MVP?

The Colts' abject failure this season without him proves that Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in the NFL. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

As I watched the New England Patriots easily handle the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, a question occurred: is Peyton Manning the most valuable player in the NFL? I’m not saying he should win the 2011 MVP Award – that will in all likelihood go to Aaron Rodgers. But after watching the Colts, it became clear to me that no player in the NFL is as crucial to his team’s overall success as Manning is to Indianapolis.

Consider this contrast: when the Patriots lost Tom Brady in the opening quarter of their 2008 season, Matt Cassel still managed to win 11 games, barely missing the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Colts have started three different quarterbacks this season and have gone 0-12.

With upcoming games against the playoff-bound Texans and Ravens, plus two against Titans and Jaguars teams that have already beaten them, there’s every possibility the Colts will go 0-16.

Cassel might have been a better backup than Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky, but with a receiving corps as good as the Colts’, shouldn’t they have still found a way to win a game?

Evidently, Manning means so much to everything else the Colts do that losing him for the season sunk the team right at the starting line.

Former Pro Bowler Joseph Addai‘s limited success due to injury has certainly played a part. Donald Brown has never been even a 500-yard running back, let alone a 1,000-yard RB, and without Addai, the running game has been so atrocious (99.0 yards per game, 26th in the NFL) that teams are just keying on the pass.

But again, that doesn’t really explain it, because a team’s rushing success doesn’t matter much in the regular season. The 4-8 Eagles lead the league in rushing yards, while the 12-0 Packers rank 28th.

To not win a single game, beyond the offense failing to run or pass, the defense must be truly horrific. Which it is: 19th against the pass, 31st against the rush, worst at preventing points. But how can Manning’s absence destabilized the defense?.

Manning’s benefit is that usually when the defense takes the field, they will be a) defending a lead, and b) rested. Manning is a terrific scoring quarterback – he puts points on the board most times he gets near the end zone. And he makes very few poor decisions, which has led to a career 64.9 completion percentage, a 2-1 touchdown-interception ratio, and a 94.9 QB rating.

By rarely giving away drives with turnovers, Manning keeps his offense on the field for 4, 5, 6 minutes at a time, then scores a touchdown. The defense takes the field rested and fired-up: The leads mean they can get after the quarterback and play for turnovers.

This season, the Colts have the worst turnover differential in the AFC at -11. They give away far more balls than they take away.

Without Manning putting up long scoring drives over and over again, the defense has to play more conservatively. The pass-rushers can’t go all out because allowing a big play or two is suddenly way more catastrophic. But without a heavy blitz, opposing quarterbacks can pick apart the Colts’ lackluster secondary. Case in point: Sunday’s Patriots victory.

With Manning at the helm, Indianapolis’ defense knew that as long as they started strong, Manning would quickly give them a lead. But without the fast starts in 2011 that were so characteristic of previous seasons, the defense is now just tiring itself out early on. Case in point: again, Sunday’s Patriots victory.

Normally, holding the Patriots to a field goal on their opening drive is a big victory, because Manning would probably get the ball deep enough to tie it or go up on the next drive. But because Orlovsky’s offense couldn’t do anything in the second and third quarter, the defense’s early exertion left them lagging behind the Patriots later on.

Everything is going wrong for the Colts right now: they can’t score, they can’t pass, they can’t run, they can’t get stops. And while Manning takes up just one roster spot on the Colts’ roster, it’s become clear that he is a keystone in his team’s structure unlike any other player in the NFL.

Through their absolute failure without him, the 2011 Colts have proven that Manning is without a doubt the most valuable player in the NFL.

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