OPINION: A Defense of Peyton Manning

By David Nelson
BU News Service

Leading up to Super Bowl XLVIII, the general consensus was that if Peyton Manning were to lead his Denver Broncos to a victory over the Seattle Seahawks, he would cement himself as the greatest quarterback in NFL history.  Of course, things did not exactly go Peyton’s way on Super Sunday, as he and the Broncos were thoroughly beaten by the Seahawks and the Peyton bashing was, as expected, severe.  It was difficult to find a sports show, or even just an ordinary fan, that wasn’t in agreement that Peyton’s legacy had been tarnished by his performance and that he was no longer eligible to be considered the greatest ever.

Although I realize I am in the minority on this issue, I believe Manning is still the greatest signal caller the game has ever seen.  I don’t expect to convince all of those who believe Peyton “can’t win the big one” and that he is therefore ineligible for this prestigious distinction, but I will give it a shot.

I’ll start by acknowledging the most common anti-Manning arguments I’ve heard over the years, and specifically over the past few days.  His postseason record is 11-12, a far cry from Tom Brady’s 18-8 mark, Joe Montana’s 16-7 mark, and John Elway’s 14-7 mark.  Aside from Manning, these are the three players who are probably most commonly viewed as the greatest of all time, along with possibly Johnny Unitas.  Manning only has one super bowl title, compared to Montana, Brady, and Elway, who have 4, 3, and 2, respectively.

The argument for which quarterback is the greatest seems to always come down to whether you value a player’s statistics or whether you value how much winning they’ve done.  Really, though, we should be evaluating the actual quality of performance, both in regular season and postseason play.  It’s not solely about who has won the most or who has put up the best statistics, but how those numbers describe who has given their team the best chance to win regardless of all other circumstances, be it quality of teammates, quality of opponents, variance and luck that plays a huge part in the outcome of every game, and any other factor that is out of the control of the quarterback.

Now, to be fair, I was not yet watching football during the eras of Elway and Montana.  One of the first football games I can remember watching was Elway’s final game, when he led the Broncos to a rout of my hometown Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, but that hardly counts given that as a seven year-old during that game, I was more invested in playing with Beanie Babies than analyzing quarterback play.  Anyways, to keep this easy, I’m simply going to focus on comparing Manning with Brady, the two consensus greatest quarterbacks of the 21st century.

There seems to be a general sense of agreement that Manning has been the superior regular season quarterback to Brady over their careers, which I would agree with.  Manning has the advantage over Brady in nearly every relevant statistic.  He has a higher completion percentage, more yards per game, a higher touchdown percentage (touchdowns per pass attempt), a higher quarterback rating, a higher QBR in four of the six seasons since the stat was introduced (excluding 2008 when Brady was injured and 2011 when Manning was injured), and a higher adjusted yards per attempt, a stat that adjusts for touchdowns and interceptions thrown.  The only stat that Brady leads in is interception percentage, throwing a pick on 2.0 percent of throws, compared to Manning’s 2.6 percent.

The postseason numbers are fairly similar to the regular season numbers.  Manning has a significant edge in completion percentage, yards per attempt, yards per game, and a slight edge in QB rating.  The only difference is that Brady has a slight edge in touchdown percentage.  Brady maintains a slight edge in interception percentage, although the margin is just under 0.4 percent compared to 0.6 percent in the regular season, and he also has four more postseason fumbles than Manning.

So the question is, how do we interpret Manning’s statistical edge, and Brady’s winning percentage edge (Brady also holds a 77.5 to 69.6 advantage in regular season winning percentage over Manning)?  In my view, the statistics are much more telling than the winning percentage about a quarterbacks ability to improve his team’s chances of winning.  Here’s why:

First, a quarterback’s statistics only describe what happens in plays the quarterback is specifically involved in, namely, passing plays.  They tell you how often he completed passes, how many yards he was able to gain for his team, how many touchdowns he helped his team score, etc.  On the other side, winning percentage is a description of how well an entire organization has fared.  Winning is dependent on many other factors outside of the quarterbacks play.  There’s the performance of the defense and special teams units, which the quarterback has no control over, as well as the performance of the other ten players on the offensive side of the ball.  To be fair, those other ten offensive players also help contribute to a quarterback’s statistics, but overall, the outside influences on a quarterback’s winning percentage far outweigh the outside influences on a quarterback’s statistics.

Another reason why great statistics are more telling of a quarterback’s merit than a great winning percentage is the amount of variance that goes into winning or losing a football game.  A quarterback can play a great game and still lose.  In fact, it’s not that uncommon.  Your defense can fall apart, a bad call by the refs can screw you, or the ball can take a few unfortunate bounces.  However, you don’t often see a guy play a great game and have bad numbers at the end of it.  How often do you watch a game and say, “wow that quarterback played great,” and then look at the box score and see that he went 20/40 for 220 yards and three picks?  The reason for this being that so much more goes into winning and losing than just the quarterback’s play, but the quarterback’s numbers are mostly based on how well or how poorly he plays.

The result of a game is also a binary function, which makes it less adept at describing exactly what happened and more prone to high levels of variance.  It’s either a win or a loss, there’s no in between.  When you look at the records at the end of the day, there’s nothing that tells you if a team played poorly and somehow squeaked out a win or if a team played well and somehow things didn’t bounce their way and they lost.  This is an especially vital point when it comes to postseason record, because even the greats who make the playoffs nearly every year have a very small sample size.  Brady has played in 26 playoff games and Manning 23.  Even if we were to base these two quarterbacks’ merits solely on postseason record, the samples we have are not large enough to determine that Brady is a better playoff winner than Manning.  I won’t go into a detailed statistical analysis, but say, for example, that Manning and Brady were both given fair, 50/50 coins.  It’s conceivable that if Brady flipped his 26 times and Manning 23 times, Brady could get 18 heads and Manning only 11.  Brady’s coin isn’t better or more likely to flip heads than Manning’s, but the high level of variance given such a small sample size, makes this apparently significant win differential possible.

Another flaw in the anti-Manning argument is that there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason as to why Manning has an abnormally poor playoff record.  People will point to a few mistakes he has made at inopportune times in playoff games, i.e. the pick six to Tracy Porter, which sealed the Colts loss to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV or the overtime interception Manning threw a year ago in the divisional round against Baltimore, which led to Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal, but is there really something within Manning’s DNA that makes him worse in pressure situations that are created by NFL postseason games than Brady?  Given that he’s overcome and succeeded in pressure situations throughout his life and football career so many times, it’s hard for me to believe that there’s something specific about NFL playoff pressure that all of a sudden changes the caliber of quarterback he is.  The much more likely explanation is variance.  There are so many factors the go into winning or losing, only one relatively small portion of which is the quarterback’s play.  Manning’s playoff numbers show that he is the same level of quarterback in the postseason as he is in the regular season, despite the fact that he has made a few big mistakes at inopportune times, which are magnified by the general public because of his relatively poor playoff record.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to say definitively, no matter what criteria you use, whether Brady or Manning is the better quarterback.  They’re both sensational and have had incredible careers.  But from the data we have over a long period of time, I believe Manning’s statistical advantage puts him a step ahead.  Winning and losing can be explained by a variety of outside factors, including the strength of the rest of your team, coaching staff, and organization, as well as how well your opponent plays, and the luck that goes into each game.  Brady won three super bowls early in his career, but imagine how easily the Patriots could’ve lost any of those games.  There was the tuck rule game in 2001, that could’ve, and arguable should’ve knocked New England out of the playoffs before they even got to the Super Bowl.  Then there’s the fact that all three Super Bowls were close and decided by three point margins.  Not to say that the Patriots weren’t the best team and didn’t deserve it, but there’s an incredible amount of luck needed to win a Super Bowl even if you are the best team.  While Adam Vinatieri hit two last second Super Bowl winning field goals, Mike Vanderjagt shanked a 42-yarder at the end of the game to lose to Pittsburgh in the 2005 playoffs, the season in which the Colts started the season 13-0 and were the favorites going into the postseason.

Postseason wins and losses can often be determined by single, high variance, unpredictable plays like the ones I just mentioned, whereas Manning’s statistical prowess has been built over a long period of time.  It’s unfortunate for Peyton that he has had a few more notable postseason failures, including his poor performance against Seattle in this year’s Super Bowl, than Brady, who, let’s not forget has had a handful of playoff duds himself.  At the end of the day though, his consistency and the outstanding numbers he’s put up both in the regular season and postseason outweigh the postseason failures and show that over the course of his career, he has improved his team’s chances of winning more than any other quarterback of his era.

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