Quarterback Peyton Manning made an interesting observation about the Denver Broncos’ offense in the week leading up to Super Bowl 50.
“Somebody asked who are your best players on offense,” Manning said. “I said (kicker) Brandon McManus and (punter Britton) Colquitt are two of our best players on offense. They are weapons for us and we use them.”
As their defense was swarming Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, the Broncos offense marched methodically across the middle of the field at Levi’s Stadium but seemed to stall in the red zone. So Denver deployed McManus three times on field goal attempts – from 34, 33 and 30 yards – and each time the 24-year-old converted as the Broncos defeated the favored Panthers.
Until a late touchdown widened their margin of victory, Sunday’s game mostly followed the Broncos’ offensive modus operandi this season. Denver recorded 11 of its 15 wins – including its two previous postseason wins – by seven points or fewer. With Manning no longer the strong-armed field marshal of his past, those margins were often shaped by field goals from McManus, who finished the season converting 40 of 45 attempts.
“I was hoping for maybe a blowout for once,” McManus said after the game, grinning. “But that’s just the nature of this team and how tight we are. ... I knew it would be a defensive battle; field goals would be needed and I needed to make them.”
It’s the plight of a kicker that his successes are largely expected and failures magnified. As the Broncos’ locker room hummed with the energy of victory and his teammates gave interviews around him, McManus dressed quietly at his locker, just a few spaces down from that of Manning. In what likely was a farewell for the future Hall of Fame quarterback, McManus was an unlikely key.
Recounting last week how he became a kicker, McManus said he tried out for his high school soccer team but was cut. He heard the football team needed a kicker and nailed that tryout, landing a varsity spot as a ninth-grader. He hadn’t grown up with “a huge urge” to play football, but played in middle school and thought kicking a natural segue.
But he hardly waltzed into a Super Bowl spotlight. After going undrafted out of Temple University in 2013, McManus has been waived twice, traded once and signed to Denver’s practice squad once in his two NFL seasons. Last fall he won the Broncos’ job outright. After making 30 of 35 field goal tries in the regular season, he was a perfect 10-for-10 in the playoffs to help Denver capture its third Super Bowl title in franchise history.
“I dreamed of that,” McManus said. “There’s a difference between a dream and a reality. ... I was unhappy with what I did last year and I wanted to prove to myself and the team that I was the right man for the job. Hopefully I did that.”
Joe DeCamillis, Denver’s special teams coordinator, said during the week that McManus worked to adjust his kicking technique by shortening his stride as he approaches the ball, a seemingly minute change that can be a significant one in a craft where inches matter.
He appeared to have few problems Sunday with the footing on a Levi’s Stadium turf that again proved to be a minor issue, with several players appearing to slip and some even reportedly changing their cleats during the game to get better traction.
“When we came out Wednesday, I thought (the turf) was really good,” McManus said. “I knew they wanted to keep it pristine color-wise and water it a lot. The footing, for me, was pretty good. I saw some people slipping, but I think they were just trusting their cleats a little bit and it might have got out from underneath them a little.”
Those practice kicks Wednesday were the first time McManus had kicked at the 49ers’ new stadium. As he rode into Santa Clara on the team bus Sunday morning, he said, he visualized himself kicking in the game – two attempts from each hash mark at varying distances, “just to see myself making kicks.”
He made four, including an extra point after the Broncos’ first touchdown. When running back C.J. Anderson found the end zone again late in the fourth quarter, Denver elected to try a two-point conversion for a 14-point lead. That left McManus on the sideline.
Manning slung a quick pass to receiver Bennie Fowler to convert the attempt, cementing the Broncos’ championship. From the sideline, the kicker watched, his work for the season complete.