Garafolo’s Sunday wrap: For now, Manning’s return in 2015 not ‘certain’

The question, let it be clear, is not about Peyton Manning’s ability to play at least one more NFL season. Anyone who thinks arguably the best quarterback of this generation can’t suit up for 16 more games and then some is oversimplifying the situation.

For the better part of the past two seasons, Manning’s arm strength has been better than it was when he first joined the Denver Broncos in the spring of 2012. In Sunday’s 24-13 divisional-round loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Manning’s passes were not as crisp as they’d been on the way to passing records and a Super Bowl appearance just last season. And for the past month and a half, Manning just hasn’t looked right, in large part to the thigh injuries (yes, as Jay Glazer reported on FOX NFL Sunday, Manning has been dealing with issues in both legs) that have bugged him.

But provided there isn’t some kind of significant relapse with his neck that Manning has been keeping under wraps, there’s no reason to believe No. 18 can’t come back for an 18th season. If he’s otherwise healthy, he has enough arm strength to make the throws he needs to make and more than enough smarts to get the ball out in time to make them.

So again, the question doesn’t appear to be about whether Manning can. Rather, it’s about whether he wants to. And Manning is wise to wait before answering that question, even if some believe he’s already going back on his word by refusing on Sunday to declare he’ll return after previously indicating he’d be back.

"That’s kind of what I’ve said all along," Manning said in his postgame interview with KOA-AM, the Broncos’ flagship radio station. "But I can’t answer every what-if circumstance: What if you’re not as healthy? What if certain coaches leave? I can’t answer every what-if situation. I think I’ll have to take some time to see how I feel, see how I feel physically."

Those comments from Manning were slightly more interesting and insightful than his quotes from his postgame news conference with the media. The most intriguing part was the unsolicited point he made about the possible departure of "certain coaches."

It’s no secret Broncos coordinators Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio are hot head-coaching candidates. Del Rio’s candidacy for the Oakland Raiders’ job shouldn’t greatly affect Manning’s future, seeing as how he is the defensive coordinator. It’s likely all about Denver offensive coordinator Gase and head coach John Fox.

Glazer reported on Sunday "there is a thought if [the Broncos] lose [Sunday], could John Fox become available?" Many viewers were likely scratching their heads, wondering how a coach who took a team to at least the divisional round in each of the past three seasons and just signed an extension this offseason could be "available."

Here’s where Manning’s "certain coaches" comment comes into play.

Manning and Gase have outstanding quarterback-coach chemistry. When then-offensive coordinator Mike McCoy left Denver to take the San Diego Chargers job before the start of last season, Manning and the Broncos weren’t terribly worried. Though they were losing an outstanding coach in McCoy, they knew they had another one in waiting in Gase. Now, with Gase on the verge of leaving, there isn’t the same kind of confidence they can replace him. Greg Knapp, the team’s quarterbacks coach, is a veteran of two decades on an NFL sideline but hasn’t had a lot of success as a coordinator. Point being, would Manning want to start over with a new coach running the offense, potentially one from outside the organization?

Of course not. So that’s why Fox’s future is a bit up in the air right now.

The Broncos have to decide whether they want to convince Manning to return. If that’s the case — and given their backup plan of Brock Osweiler, a late first-round pick this coming draft and a dearth of free-agent options, there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t want Manning back — they have to decide whether to make a power move to keep Gase in the fold. That might mean promoting him to head coach and running Fox out of town.

Gase is a bright offensive coach in an offensive league. He’s also 36 to Fox’s 59. Finding a way to keep Gase could be in the best short-term [keeping Manning] and long-term interests of the team. If he’s going to be as good as the Broncos and Gase’s suitors believe, it’s a no-brainer. The Broncos would have to eat the $10 million-plus left on Fox’s deal, but that’s the cost of doing business. And frankly, the fact they extended Fox’s contract only two years after he took the team to the Super Bowl should have been an indication his future was tenuous.

Maybe the Broncos find a way to convince Gase to stay as offensive coordinator for one more year under Fox. And maybe they’ll get the answer they desire from Manning about the 2015 season.

PLAY DAILY FANTASY

Or maybe there will soon be more shuffling of the deck for a team that’s gone 40-13 over the past three seasons (including postseason) than one would expect. Just don’t be surprised if it happens.

FIVE QUICK THOUGHTS FROM THE WEEKEND

1. Aaron Rodgers did an outstanding job of showing patience in the pocket against the Dallas defense. At moments he would usually escape, he just hung in there and tried to buy time via some mini-scrambles. The problem for next weekend is the Seahawks will bring much more pressure off the edges than did the Cowboys on Sunday. That’s what they do. Just ask Manning, who felt it all night long during last year’s Super Bowl (a 43-8 Seattle blowout). As a quarterback with limited mobility, having that pressure to his right and left could be a major issue. That’s when the calf injury that will surely nag Rodgers for as long as the Packers are in the postseason will catch up to him.

2. Speaking of the NFC Championship Game, there will undoubtedly be looks back to the NFL’s season opener back in September when the Seahawks beat the Packers 36-16. But that game won’t look like the one coming on Sunday because Seattle rode Percy Harvin to victory that night. Harvin had 100 yards from scrimmage on 11 touches and was a factor even when he didn’t touch the ball. He ran the speed-sweep look as a decoy to freeze the Packers’ edge defenders on plays that went elsewhere. The Seahawks don’t have that element in their offense anymore after trading Harvin in October. Even the guy they thought could replace Harvin to some degree — rookie Paul Richardson — is out with a torn ACL, as first reported by FOX Sports on Sunday. Expect the Seahawks to try slowing this game down much more than they did in Week 1 when they posted what wound up being their second-highest point total of the season.

3. The unexpected heroes of the weekend were the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive linemen. This is not one of the top groups in the NFL; except they played like it on Sunday. They held an opponent without a sack for only the fourth time in 18 games this season and just the second time in the last 14 games. The running game is a different story and never mind that — that’s not getting fixed anytime soon; that’s an issue for the Colts to work to correct this offseason. (That includes a better option at running back and perhaps saying goodbye to Trent Richardson, who was a healthy scratch on Sunday.) For now, if Indy’s line can protect Andrew Luck the way it did on Sunday, head coach Chuck Pagano and his staff will be plenty pleased with that. And given the lack of pass rush the New England Patriots generated against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday, the Colts have to feel good about their chances of giving Luck time to operate this coming weekend.

4. More on the Colts: Offensive assistant Rob Chudzinski is getting a lot of play among coaching candidates as a potential offensive coordinator, per several sources. The former head coach of the Cleveland Browns could be back under the headset as a play-caller next season. Chudzinski would run the Colts’ offense if Pep Hamilton gets a head-coaching job. If not, look for a few other teams to try poaching him from Pagano’s staff. The only question is whether the Colts would let that happen. Though Hamilton has gotten a lot of credit for what the Colts have accomplished offensively, Chudzinski has been a big addition to the staff.

SUPER BOWL BUSTS

5. Give the Buffalo Bills credit. They recognized the interest the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers had in Rex Ryan was mild. Both teams were absolutely intrigued by Ryan, though neither was willing to get into a bidding war. Enter the Bills, who understood where their vacancy ranked among the others (hint: not very high) and decided to make a power move. Had they waited a day, perhaps Ryan would have recognized Gase’s availability could move things along more quickly and maybe he then would’ve waited to see what Atlanta and San Fran did. But the Bills went in strong for their guy and they got him. That’s good work by new owners Terry and Kim Pegula. The Bills were left at the altar, only to wed a more beautiful bride. Much as there has been fawning over Doug Marrone, let’s not forget Ryan took the New York Jets to consecutive AFC Championship Games and will give the franchise a personality and presence it badly needs in its push for a new stadium.