The NFL postseason kicked off with a vengeance this weekend, with the Saturday games seeing the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints – the two teams who contested last year’s Super Bowl – dumped unceremoniously out of the playoffs. The former defeat again raises questions about where Colts quarterback Peyton Manning should rank in the pantheon of all-time greats.
When the NFL’s all-time top 100 players were unveiled earlier this season, it surprised some fans that Manning ranked as low as eighth overall. Indeed, he was only the third-placed quarterback behind San Francisco‘s Joe Montana (4th overall) and former Colts legend Johnny Unitas (6th). How could the man who is on target to hold every meaningful NFL passing record before he retires not be a serious contender to be the best quarterback – if not the best player – of all time?
A quick look at those ahead of Manning on the list soon debunks the latter claim. In addition to Montana and Unitas, the top seven includes genuine NFL legends – I do not use that term lightly – who not only tore up the record books, but also redefined the way their positions are played: wide receiver Jerry Rice (1st), running backs Jim Brown (2nd) and Walter Payton (5th), outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor (3rd) and defensive end Reggie White (7th).
The best player of all time? No way. But the best quarterback of all time? Let’s take a look.
The greatest regular season QB? Yes
Manning's regular season numbers are hugely impressive (image courtesy of nfl.com)
There is certainly a wealth of both quantitative and qualitative evidence to support this argument.
The first overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft, Manning’s regular season numbers already dwarf anything Montana and Unitas ever achieved. At 34, he is still in his peak years as a quarterback. He already lies third on the all-time rankings for passing yards (54,828) and touchdown passes (399). If he keeps going, he will probably surpass Brett Favre at the top of the all-time list during the 2014 season.
At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, he has the physical stature of the prototype NFL quarterback, and in addition to his obvious arm strength and game intelligence he has also shown impressive durability, starting every one of the 208 games in his 13 seasons.
Most tellingly, Manning’s 141-67 regular season record means he has won 67.8% of his regular season games, among the very best in history. That says a lot about the consistency he has brought to a team who, the year before his arrival, were the worst team in the NFL. In a league which is geared towards ensuring parity, he has led the Colts to eight division titles and at least 10 wins in 11 of the last 12 seasons, including the last nine in a row. Indeed this season’s 10-6 record was a relative low point, breaking a run of seven consecutive years with at least 12 wins.
Personally, he has passed for at least 25 touchdowns in each of his 13 seasons, and for at least 4,000 yards 11 times. Many quarterbacks finish their careers without achieving either of these feats even once; Manning makes it routine. Four times he has been named as the NFL’s MVP (Most Valuable Player), more than any other man in league history.
Of course this is a team sport, and even the greatest of passers can only take a mediocre team so far – witness Dan Marino in Miami – but the quarterback position is generally pivotal for most NFL teams, and the difference between having a great quarterback and a merely good one cannot be underestimated.
When Brady missed the 2008 season through injury, the Patriots went from great to merely very good (image courtesy of nfl.com)
For instance, the New England Patriots went 16-0 in 2007 with Tom Brady at the helm, but after he was injured for the year in the opening game of the following season, they slipped to 11-5 and failed to win their division for the only time in the last eight attempts. Or look at San Francisco 49ers, who posted back-to-back 14-2 records in 1989 and 1990. But when Montana was injured in the playoffs they opened the following season 4-6, despite being led by future Hall of Famer and two-time NFL MVP Steve Young.
Yes, Manning has had an outstanding supporting cast, and their role in the Colts’ success is hardly insignificant. But perhaps the most telling statistic demonstrating his individual value is that he has led 45 fourth quarter or overtime drives resulting in a come-from-behind victory in regular season games – 22% of his 208 starts, or 3.5 per season – more than any quarterback ever. That is hugely impressive.
The case in favour of Peyton Manning being the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history is a compelling one. And, actually, it is an argument I would agree with.
The greatest postseason QB? No
However, there is no point taking the prettiest girl in school to the prom if you trip over and fall flat on your face every time you set foot on the dance floor. Which is what Peyton Manning has had a habit of doing on a regular basis when the weekly grind of the regular season gives way to the win-or-go-home high stakes of the playoffs.
Whereas his regular season statistics are uniformly outstanding, Manning’s postseason numbers are patchy. On the up side, he has had more 300-yard playoff passing days (eight) than any other quarterback and is one of only two passers to have twice reached 400 yards (tied with Marino) and to have completed 80% of his passes in two separate games (tied with Kurt Warner). He also holds the record for the biggest comeback win in a Conference Championship game, retrieving a 21-3 deficit against New England en route to the Colts’ Super Bowl XLI victory. No question, when Manning’s good, he is very, very good.
But when it’s time to do the first tango of the evening – when the chips are down late on in a close game – Manning’s footwork seems to fail him more regularly than one would expect from a prospective greatest quarterback of all time. That thrilling triumph over the Patriots remains his only come-from-behind win in the postseason – that’s just one in 19 starts (5%), a much lower ratio than his regular season record.
And on Saturday night against the Jets, Manning faltered again. On their three second-half possessions, the Colts marched efficiently into scoring range, only to stall on each occasion and kick a field goal – three points instead of seven. Most critically on that final drive, they failed to convert a third down which, if successful, would have allowed them to run down the clock before kicking the go-ahead field goal. But they left 53 precious seconds, during which the Jets were instead able to position themselves to steal the game.
The defeat cannot be blamed on Manning himself. He did nothing wrong on any of those second-half drives. But the very best quarterbacks should do more than avoid errors – more often than not, they grab a game by the scruff of the neck and find a way to win. For whatever reason, Manning could not inspire his team to such heights on Saturday.
Of course, this is just one isolated example, and even the greatest players cannot win all the time. But, including the Jets loss, Manning’s playoff record is a now mediocre 9-10, giving him a win percentage of just 47.4%. Admittedly, playoff games are more difficult to win than regular season ones – there are no ‘easy’ games against lowly opponents. But throughout NFL history, the top quarterbacks in the game tend to have a postseason win percentage comparable to their regular season record.
In the tables below, I have taken the five most experienced active quarterbacks (in terms of playoff starts) and compared their regular season and postseason records, and then done the same analysis for the top five retired signal-callers.
Analysis © Tim Liew (data courtesy of nfl.com/Wikipedia)
As the data shows, Manning is a hugely experienced playoff quarterback – only Favre, Montana and John Elway have more postseason starts. And yet his win percentage of 47.4% compares extremely unfavourably with the nine listed above, with only Dan Marino (44.4%) winning a lower ratio of playoff games. Indeed, of the 26 quarterbacks in NFL history who have started 10 or more postseason games, Manning’s win-loss ratio is the third-lowest (ahead of only Marino and Warren Moon).
Bart Starr won an incredible 9 out of 10 playoff starts, including Super Bowls I and II (image courtesy of nfl.com)
Of the other top quarterbacks, most won at least two-thirds of their playoff starts: Montana, John Elway, Terry Bradshaw and Tom Brady, for instance. Unitas was 6-2 (75.0%) in the playoffs, Green Bay‘s Bart Starr an astonishing 9-1 (90.0%). It’s a fairly damning comparison if you’re arguing Manning’s corner.
That case is further weakened when you compare each quarterback’s individual regular season and postseason records. Manning’s win ratio is 20% lower in the playoffs – 47.4% versus 67.8% – the worst comparison of the ten players listed. By comparison, Montana, Elway, Bradshaw and Brady all have similar or better percentages when it comes to knockout games compared to their performances in the regular season.
And it’s not as if Manning has had to play most of his games on the road either. Under modern NFL rules, division champions receive the benefit of having their first postseason match at home. In Manning’s 11 playoff seasons, the Colts have won their division eight times, conferring a not inconsiderable advantage. As the table below shows, Manning has enjoyed the privilege of playing at home in the postseason 10 times, versus just seven road trips.
Analysis © Tim Liew (data courtesy of nfl.com/Wikipedia)
A 2-5 record on the road is perhaps not overly surprising, but a modest 6-4 at home is unimpressive.
Favre may be the all-time NFL passing leader, but is considered only the 6th best QB, and 20th overall (image courtesy of nfl.com)
My point is this. It is all very well racking up flashy individual numbers, but to be regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time requires more than this. This was certainly recognised in the NFL Top 100 poll where Favre (who currently holds most of the major passing records) and Marino (the man he overtook) ranked only 20th and 25th respectively. Brady (21st) shattered a fistful of single-season individual and team records en route to a 16-0 regular season record in 2007, only to lose the Super Bowl, tarnishing his achievements that year.
And, whether fairly or unfairly, it also helps to have won the biggest prize of all – the Super Bowl – multiple times. The quintet of Montana, Unitas, Bradshaw, Elway and Brady are all multi-Super Bowl/NFL Championship winners and can boast 16 titles between them, compared with Manning’s single victory.
Unitas was the outstanding QB of his generation in an NFL which was still run-dominated (image courtesy of nfl.com)
There is also little point in trumpeting Manning’s physical attributes, just as there is no point in a boxer spending months in the gym if he leaves his chin unguarded in a fight. Being the greatest is not purely about arm strength or even softer measures such as intelligence or leadership. Manning has all these qualities in abundance, but in the big games there is just something missing that you can’t quite put your finger on – something intangible.
It is that intangible quality which ultimately separates the very best from the ‘merely’ great. It is what makes the likes of Montana (a seven-stone weakling in NFL terms) or Brady (who most draft scouts considered too weak and too slow to be a top-level passer) so much more than the sum of their parts.
And it is in that one area in which Manning is patently deficient. He is not a quarterback who consistently takes command of the biggest situations in the biggest games. He may have the statistics, and the strong arm and a whole load of other qualities that cannot be quantified – but he does not have it, that intangible something which allows him to exceed his own (admittedly immense) capabilities and make the seemingly impossible appear routine.
Joe Montana may have worn the number 16, but he is deservedly recognised as the number 1 QB (image courtesy of nfl.com)
For me, the NFL pollsters got their ranking about right. Both Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas deserve to be considered as greater quarterbacks than Peyton Manning. (In fact, I would argue that Brady is at least on a par with Manning too.) Unitas was instrumental in emphasising the forward pass at a time when the NFL was very much a run-based sport – his achievement of throwing at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games remains unsurpassed today. The supposedly weak-armed Montana was a ferocious competitor and the conductor at the heart of coach Bill Walsh‘s revolutionary short-passing ‘West Coast’ offense, the principles of which underpin many teams’ offensive schemes 30 years on. His 4-0 record in Super Bowls, during which he passed for 11 touchdowns without a single interception, says everything about why he is held in the highest regard.
As former 49ers teammate Randy Cross once said:
If every game was a Super Bowl, Joe Montana would be undefeated.
One could not even begin to claim the same would be true of Peyton Manning. And that is why – no matter what records he goes on to set – he can never be considered to be the greatest quarterback of all time. Saturday’s loss to the Jets merely reinforced that view.