Why Peyton Manning’s Forgotten 2004 Season Was the Greatest of All Time

The game of football has certainly changed.

The shift towards the sport becoming even more quarterback-dominated continues. Multiple QBs are putting up numbers we have never seen before. Patrick Mahomes could set the records for single-season passing yards and touchdowns. Drew Brees is on track to finish with the highest completion percentage in a single season. He’s also dangerously close to the single-season record for passer rating. However, how impressive are these numbers when they seem to be more and more commonplace in today’s league?

To truly understand the passing revolution over the past 50 years, this graph shows how the league average for various stats has changed.

Not only are teams passing it far more often (26.9 attempts per game in 1970 vs. 34.9 attempts per game in 2018), but they’re throwing the ball with greater efficiency as well. League-wide interception percentage is at an all-time low and the average adjusted net yards per attempt is at an all-time high.

For an even more drastic change, observe the shift in average passer rating.

Passer rating takes into account many different passing statistics, including completions, attempts, yards per attempt, touchdowns per attempt and interceptions per attempt. The radical change in passer rating over the past 50 years illustrates the overall trend towards a completely passing dominated league.

It is important for us to take this into account when looking at the greatest seasons by a quarterback ever. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the legendary Peyton Manning’s historic 2004 season.

First, we’ll have to see exactly how different average passing stats in 2004 are from today’s numbers.

Completion Percentage59.8%65.1%
Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt5.66.4
Touchdown Percentage4.5%4.9%
Interception Percentage3.2%2.4%
Average TD/INT Ratio1.4002.125
Passer Rating82.893.8

Now that we have an idea of the league averages, let’s compare Manning’s 2004 season with the Patrick Mahomes’ 2018 season. We choose Mahomes because he is the favorite to win Most Valuable Player honors, as Manning did 14 years ago.

 Peyton Manning (2004)Patrick Mahomes (2018)
Completion Percentage67.6%67.1%
Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt9.788.84
Touchdown Percentage9.9%8.7%
Interception Percentage2.0%2.1%
TD/INT Ratio4.904.09
Passer Rating121.1114.8

It already seems fairly clear that Manning’s 2004 season was better than Mahomes’ current season. However, the difference in numbers isn’t that drastic. Until you take the league averages into account.

 Peyton Manning's Stats vs. 2004 AveragesPatrick Mahomes' Stats vs. 2018 Averages
Completion Percentage+7.8+2.0
Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt+4.2+2.4
Touchdown Percentage+5.4+3.8
Interception Percentage-1.2-0.3
TD/INT Ratio+3.5+2.0
Passer Rating+38.3+21.0

The only metric that Mahomes has Manning beat is passing yards per game, which is a statistic that relies on volume. Mahomes’ is attempting 37 passes per game versus Manning’s 31 in 2004, so the discrepancy is not surprising. A look at the adjusted net yards per attempt shows that Manning edges him yardage as well.

Although we’ve established that Manning’s 2004 season is superior to Mahomes’ 2018 season, Mahomes’ current season isn’t considered to be the greatest year by a quarterback of all-time. To prove the greatness of Peyton Manning, we must compare his numbers to the quarterback performances that are considered the best ever.

 Peyton Manning (2004)Tom Brady (2007)Aaron Rodgers (2011)Drew Brees (2018)
Completion Percentage67.6%68.9%68.3%75.7%
Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt9.788.889.398.89
Touchdown Percentage9.9%8.7%9.0%7.5%
Interception Percentage2.0%1.4%1.2%1.0%
TD/INT Ratio4.906.257.507.75
Passer Rating121.1117.2122.5120.8

Some (myself included) would argue that these four individuals are the four greatest quarterbacks to ever play football. Their numbers are extremely similar, but differences emerge when you take note of the league averages at the time, as we previously did with Mahomes.

 Peyton Manning (2004)Dan Marino (1984)Tom Brady (2007)Aaron Rodgers (2011)Drew Brees (2018)
Completion Percentage+7.8+7.9+7.7+8.2+10.6
Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt+4.2+3.0+3.4+3.5+2.5
Touchdown Percentage+5.4+4.2+4.5+4.7+2.6
Interception Percentage-1.2-1.1-1.7-1.7-1.4
TD/INT Ratio+3.5 +1.7+4.9+6.0+5.6
Passer Rating+38.3+32.8+34.6+38.2+27.0

Manning leads the pack in 3 of the 6 metrics. Each other QB dominated in a particular metric. For instance, Drew Brees is the all-time leader in completion percentage, so him having the greatest season in that metric is hardly a surprise. However, Manning’s superiority across the board is what makes his season the greatest in NFL history.

Peyton Manning is constantly overlooked in the conversation for the greatest quarterback of all-time. NFL fans and the media used to constantly argue between Brady and Montana. Recently, the debate shifted to Brady vs. Rodgers. Brees’ legendary 2018 season is giving him traction in the discussion as well. But what about Peyton? The overreliance on Super Bowl wins in the quarterback debate is silly. This is not basketball — a single player cannot carry a team.

Do we honestly believe that Drew Brees wasn’t a playoff-caliber quarterback while the Saints were stuck in 7-9 hell? Of course not. Would Tom Brady somehow be a better quarterback if Malcolm Butler didn’t intercept Russell Wilson in Super Bowl 48? Or would he be a worse quarterback if Vic Beasley didn’t drop what could have been a game-winning interception in overtime of Super Bowl 51? I do not believe so. Even in Manning’s case, there’s plenty of quarterbacks that could have played for the Broncos and won Super Bowl 50 against the Carolina Panthers. Somehow, that game bolsters his legacy more than his incredible 2009 MVP season which ended in a Super Bowl loss.

It’s ridiculous. People foolishly differentiate between the “greatest” and “best” quarterbacks of all time. “Greatest” just seems like a way to crown quarterbacks based on team accomplishments — so obviously Brady. What fans call the “best” quarterback discussion seems more practical — everyone is quick to give that crown to Aaron Rodgers. There is a narrow-mindedness that exists in sports which overlooks many legends. If you don’t think LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the GOAT, your opinion is automatically invalidated by the majority of fans. Why? Because it goes against the narrative. It’s not as if most of those fans watched Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain play at their peak. In the same sense, Peyton Manning’s 2004 season is widely overlooked by fans who weren’t old enough to witness it. Soon, this will be the story of Manning’s entire career.

Image Source: Andy Lyons / Getty Images