ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Some things just can't be sped up. Building a rhythm and rapport with receivers is one of them, as the Denver Broncos are discovering.
Never had so many of Peyton Manning's passes missed their mark as they did last weekend, when the star quarterback completed just half of his 52 throws in a 31-25 loss to Houston.
Take away his three spikes and that leaves 23 times that Manning's throws ended up somewhere other than in the hands of the man he targeted — and that doesn't count the toss that went off Eric Decker's hands in the end zone only to flop into the waiting arms of tight end Joel Dreessen for the touchdown.
Demaryius Thomas is the Broncos' best receiver, but he caught just three of 11 passes thrown his way Sunday.
"We are new to each other but every week I feel like it's getting better," Thomas said. "It's just the little things now. We get the little things down it'll be a big difference."
Manning also targeted tight end Jacob Tamme — whom he played with in Indianapolis — 10 times and only three were completed.
Here's the funny thing about timing: it takes time.
"That's a pretty good assessment," wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. "You know, being with a new quarterback working with new receivers, like the old saying, 'Rome wasn't built overnight,' it's going to take time for things to get to the point where you want them."
Manning was notorious for spending extra time on the practice field working on routes and building chemistry with receivers Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison in Indianapolis. He's doing the same now with Decker and Thomas and all the others, but there's a difference between the eight to 10 years he spent with the Colts receivers and the six months he's spent in Denver.
"In all the years Peyton was in Indianapolis he had a lot of the same receivers for a lot of the time, especially the main two, Reggie and Marvin. We haven't been together a full year yet, so everything is still a work in progress," Tolbert said.
Fans don't really see the nuances of every play, only that an intended target didn't come down with the ball. But sometimes the disruption in timing has nothing to do with his receivers but Manning's pocket of protection.
"Everybody's involved," Tamme said. "Maybe the average fan doesn't understand that the receivers are involved in the run game and the O-line is involved in whether a route ends up looking good or not. So, if the quarterback has to shift a little bit or move up, step up, everything's interrelated in a play, and that's what's fun about the game. That's what's cool about football.
"The difference between an 8-yard run and a 50-yard run is usually a wide receiver blocking. But people don't think about that. And the difference between a 50-yard pass and a pass getting knocked down may be up front, just a portion of the pocket changing. So, that's little stuff that's fun about the game, and stuff we've got to take a lot of pride in on both ends."
Pressured up the middle, Manning has been sacked eight times already — his highest total after three games in his career. That puts him on pace for a career-high 43 sacks. He never was sacked more than 29 times in Indianapolis, and that total came way back in 2001.
He was sacked an average of just 18 times a season during his 13 years in Indy before sitting out last season with a nerve problem in his neck that weakened his throwing arm and required four operations.
The Broncos see nothing wrong in Manning's game. His arm strength is fine, his decision-making as sharp as ever. It's just that he and the football are ending up on the ground way too often.
And it's everybody's responsibility to get that corrected, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said Thursday.
"Every play in football is an 11-man job. We've got to make sure that all 11 guys are on the same page," he said. "You may see a receiver doing something but all of a sudden the ball can't get there because the protection broke down. Every play, whether it's a run play or a pass play, it's all 11 together. We hold each other accountable and we've got to do our jobs better."
Help is on the way in the form of right guard Chris Kuper, the Broncos' best offensive lineman, who broke his left forearm last month and returned to practice this week, although he might not be ready to play Sunday against the Oakland Raiders (1-2).
If Manning keeps getting knocked down, the Broncos (1-2) have recently signed center Dan Koppen, who spent nine years protecting Tom Brady in New England, as a possible replacement for center J.D. Walton, among other potential shake-ups across the offensive line.
The Broncos have fallen behind by 20 points in each of their last two losses, to Atlanta and Houston, then outscored both of them 14-0 in the fourth quarter to make a game of it. That's led to speculation that the slow starts and fast finishes are the result of Manning needing time to really get his arm loosened up.
"I can't really say I know the answer to that. I'm still learning some things about myself, about our team," Manning said. "I think that's kind of what I've said all along: it's part of the process, as you are learning some things. It'd be nice to win while you're learning, and we haven't won these last two.
"We have made more plays in the fourth quarter, for whatever reason, so there's certainly not a fatigue factor going on. Our challenge is getting out of the box a little bit earlier."
And completing more passes.
As far as finding a rhythm, it'll come.
"It is a process," Tamme said, "but it's also time to start winning some football games."