The Misconstrued Legacy of Peyton Manning

Brian Spurlock / USA TODAY Sports

In the most recent NFL season, Peyton Manning’s legacy has been diminished. Drew Brees dethroned Manning as the league’s all-time passing yardage leader and will likely take the all-time passing touchdown record next season. Tom Brady won his sixth Super Bowl to further cement the idea that he’s the greatest quarterback to ever live, not Manning.

The most commonly cited criticism of Manning’s career is his inability to maintain a high level of play into the postseason. The only evidence to back this claim up is the discrepancy in wins between Manning and Brady — a shoddy method of measuring quarterback ability. However, the narrative has grown to the point where it’s a common belief ingrained into the mind of most football fans. Peyton Manning is pretty good in the regular season, but he sucks in the playoffs. Therefore, Tom Brady must be better. Right?

Instead of acknowledging that both players are legends who can’t be reasonably compared due to the many external factors which impact a quarterback’s success, fans on both sides attempt to defame the other quarterback to boost the status of their own favorite player. While the debate was previously balanced, Brady’s three Super Bowl wins in the past five years have silenced any slander of Brady’s abilities. Instead, this criticism has been redirected onto Manning.

I think both players are about as good as it gets at the quarterback position. That’s why it’s disappointing that the perceived gap between the two has become immense in the past few years. It has apparently been “set in stone” that Brady is the greatest quarterback of all-time. Many legendary quarterbacks of NFL history have been brought down a notch because of the need to praise Brady. In my mind, there is a tier of quarterbacks who are at the same incredibly high level of play. Of course, discussion is always healthy. That’s why it’s preposterous to act as if the debate is finalized in any way and one player is clearly far ahead of the rest. The point of this article isn’t to argue that Peyton Manning is better than Tom Brady. It’s a reminder that Peyton Manning is just as good as any other quarterback to play in the NFL.

Regular Season Greatness

The general argument against Manning is that he was “only good in the regular season.” Before we refute the implication that he wasn’t a good player in the playoffs, let’s refresh our memories on just how good Manning was in the regular season.

The year before Manning was drafted with the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts finished with a win-loss record of 3-13. The 22-year-old was thrust into the starting quarterback job for the worst team in the league. He attempted 575 passes in his first year as a pro, the most in the league at the time — not exactly a recipe for success. Naturally, Manning tossed 28 picks and the Colts once again finished with just three wins.

Then Peyton Manning became Peyton Manning.

In his next 12 years as a Colt (before he signed with the Broncos), Manning led the team to 11.5 wins per season. The Colts only missed the playoffs once in this span; in 2001, the team finished with a 6-10 record despite boasting the league’s 2nd best scoring offense. Overall, Manning and the Colts finished with a top-5 scoring offense in 9 of his 13 seasons on the team. For reference, Brady has led the Patriots offense to be a top-5 scoring unit in 11 of his 17 seasons as the starter. In addition, Manning was voted into the Pro Bowl eleven times and was named a First-Team All-Pro on five occasions. Manning also brought home four Most Valuable Player awards during his tenure in Indianapolis. His shining moment as a Colt may have been in 2004, which is arguably the greatest season by a quarterback in NFL history. Manning boasted a staggering touchdown percentage of 9.86% while also passing for 9.78 adjusted net yards per attempt — good for a passer rating of 121.1. All of these statistics are single-season records once adjusted for era.

When you think of the greatest single-season performances in NFL history, most people think of Tom Brady in 2007, Aaron Rodgers in 2011, Dan Marino in 1984, and maybe Peyton Manning in 2013. None of these are “bad” choices — they were all magnificent displays of passing aptitude. However, Manning’s aforementioned showing in 2004 may just be a step ahead of the pack.

Alright, we’ve established that Peyton Manning orchestrated what may have been the greatest single-season passing performance of all-time. But wait — there’s more. Despite these undeniably legendary numbers, one could argue that Manning’s most impressive achievement may have been his excellence in the late 2000s.

In 2008, the Indianapolis Colts rushed for 3.4 yards per carry — the worst mark in the league at the time. On average, the offense’s average starting field position was at approximately the 28-yard-line, better than only six teams. That’s not good for an offense. The teams behind the Colts averaged 1.67 points per drive, which would have ranked 23rd in the NFL at the time. Despite these setbacks, led the Colts to a 12-4 win-loss record as he orchestrated four fourth-quarter comebacks and six game-winning drives. The Colts offense scored 2.41 points per drive (4th most in the league) and Manning ended up winning MVP honors.

In 2009, it was more of the same for Manning and the Colts. The rushing offense was the 3rd worst in the league while their average starting field position was the 5th worst. Nevertheless, Manning guided the team to a 14-0 record to start the season before the team decided to sit their starters. Once again, Manning brought home the Most Valuable Player award.

Manning ended up missing the entire 2011 season due to a surgical procedure on his neck. After being released by the Colts, Manning signed with the Denver Broncos. His arm strength had diminished and it was unclear if he would be able to make a full recovery in the NFL. As a result, he was forced to adjust his playstyle.

In his first two seasons as a Bronco, Manning’s average pass length decreased as a result of his injury. He became aware of his physical limitations and adapted to them. One might expect that his numbers would take a hit — changing your playstyle at the age of 36 is no small task. However, Manning simply resumed his dominance.

In both of his first two seasons on the team, Manning was voted a First-Team All-Pro at quarterback. In 2013, Manning won his fifth MVP award after setting single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55). That’s pure perseverance. The 2013 Denver Broncos averaged 37.9 points per game, making them the highest scoring offense in the NFL history (a record they still hold to this day).

Unfortunately, the Broncos’ season came to a disappointing end in Super Bowl XLVII, when they were subject to a 43-8 thrashing by the hands of the Seattle Seahawks. Manning threw two interceptions and just 280 yards on 49 passing attempts, good for a disappointing passer rating of 73.5. Performances like this contributed to the prevailing narrative that Peyton Manning was not a good performer in the playoffs.

Postseason Misconceptions

It doesn’t matter how well you play in the regular season — the ultimate goal is to win games in the postseason. Tom Brady has always won more games in January. Through his first three postseasons, Brady went 9-0 for three Super Bowl rings. On the other hand, Manning didn’t win a playoff game until his sixth season in the league. It’s easy to see why the belief that Manning wasn’t a clutch performer came to be. However, it’s fundamentally short-sighted to support this narrative by looking at how many wins a quarterback has.

I checked the postseason ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt) rates for Manning and Brady and adjusted them for league average at the time because Brady is still playing today, where passing is more efficient than ever before, while Manning played his first playoff game in the 1999 season.

Without any cutoffs and when only adjusting for league average ANY/A, the difference between Manning and Brady is minuscule. Brady’s lead is small enough to be erased by a single spike of the ball. However, Brady’s postseason win percentage is by far greater. It seems that the most important metric used to define the notion of a clutch performer is wins — a team accomplishment, not an individual achievement.

Is this reasonable? I don’t think so.

Peyton Manning’s 2006 and 2015 playoff runs were statistically some of the worst of his career. However, these runs also ended with Manning lifting the Lombardi Trophy. Tom Brady’s Super Bowl LII performance against the Rams was not particularly impressive at all, yet the Patriots nevertheless scraped away with another title. Matt Ryan’s performance in Super Bowl LI was one of the greatest of all-time, yet he has nothing to show for it. There are so many factors outside of a quarterback’s control which they are given credit or punished for. If Malcolm Butler didn’t pick off Russell Wilson to secure the Patriots’ Super Bowl win, would Tom Brady somehow be a worse quarterback? If Eli Manning wasn’t able to defy all odds and escape the pocket to find David Tyree down the field in Super Bowl 42, would Brady be a better quarterback? That’s essentially the logic behind how much emphasis is placed onto using team accomplishments to evaluate quarterback ability.

Conclusion

There’s no real evidence to suggest that Manning isn’t clutch. In fact, the opposite is likely true. Manning is the NFL’s all-time leader in fourth-quarter comebacks — he didn’t falter under pressure. Manning had a few horrible playoff performances early in his career which began this fallacious narrative. Since then, this claim has been falsely perpetuated while Manning proceeded to perform at a high level.

When you take a look at Manning’s accolades, you have to wonder why he isn’t given more respect. He has been voted as a First-Team All-Pro seven times in his career (Brady: 3) and won Most Valuable Player honors five times (Brady: 3). There’s also no controversy on whether Manning’s success can be attributed to his team’s coaching — all four of Manning’s Super Bowl appearances were with four different coaches. Manning’s offenses strongly utilized the no-huddle offense since they introduced it in 2001. He was essentially his own offensive coordinator — there’s a reason he earned the nickname “The Sheriff” for his pre-snap audibles. His teammates have said that he was like a coach and Manning himself said that offensive coordinator Tom Moore offered him the reigns to the offense.

In many people’s minds, Tom Brady is undeniably the best quarterback of all-time. The very notion that this is in any way “set in stone” is ridiculous and is disrespectful to the other legends of the game. Future fans will grow up forgetting about all of the elite quarterbacks who collectively represented this era because of Brady’s overshadowing legacy. This isn’t always a bad thing — Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky deserve to overshadow the all-time greats of their respective eras. They were that good. Tom Brady is not that good. There is no Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky at the quarterback position.

Most people nowadays just stick with the following narrative: “Peyton Manning is the greatest regular season quarterback of all-time, but he was a playoff choker.” Easy enough, right? No need to actually question the validity of the claim. It’s perfect; you can give Manning some undeniable credit without giving him too much praise.

Well, as Mike Ehrmantraut once said: no more half measures. Peyton Manning was not “unclutch”. He wasn’t a “choker” in the playoffs. He is quite possibly the greatest quarterback to ever play the game of football. He’s my GOAT.

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Bruce Q.

very interesting… changes my outlook on the topic