February 05, 2014

Peyton Manning's Place in Football History

I come to bury Peyton, not to praise him.  Peter King said on Charlie Rose yesterday that he was glad to have a five year grace period before a player was eligible for induction.  Gives space, and time to reflect, he noted.  After all, he said, look at Kurt Warner.  We might have rashly inducted him into the Hall of Fame!  Now cooler heads can prevail and we can focus on a couple bad years with the Giants, and not the fact that he was one of the greatest playoff and Super Bowl quarterbacks in NFL history.  That's what perspective gets you.

Well, here at Eisengeiste we are not putting up with any of that perspective bullshit.  We are having this out, here and now.

Let's get this out of the way:  Peyton Manning's a great quarterback, and would go into the Hall of Fame even if he had never won a Super Bowl.  Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Dan Fouts and Warren Moon and a host of other fine players never reached the summit, and none of them have Peyton's five MVP awards.  So Peyton Manning is a Hall of Famer.  But how great was he, really?  How much weight do we place on his indifferent record in the playoffs vs. his astonishing ability to shell the crap out of a mediocre defense?

As I may perhaps have foreshadowed in the preceding sentence, I assign no great value to players who particularly excel against weak opposition.  In most sports there's an understanding that genuine skill is the ability to defeat a superior opponent, not an inferior one.  Manning's lifetime 11-12 playoff record and 1-2 Super Bowl record suggest that when the going gets tough, Peyton Manning gets average.  Let me pick a statistic somewhat at random.  Let's say, Times Intercepted in the Super Bowl:
  • Manning:  4 (3 games)
  • Montana:  0 (4 games)

So that's not great.

But, we can select individual stats all day to prove one side or the other.  Manning, for example, is only the third man to lead two different teams to the Super Bowl, along with the aforementioned Warner and the immortal Craig Morton.  Are you smarter after reading that sentence than you were before?  Probably not.  Am I smarter for having written it?  Alas, an objective observer would likely say no.

What is needed is some objective analysis.  It is time, then, to deploy the Eisengeiste Immortality Screen.  This is a statistical survey of exceptional playoff performances using the Football Reference database.  Players who get to the playoffs, and deliver great games, will appear on this list a lot.  The longtime champion is Joe Montana, who on six occasions had a passer rating above 112 in a playoff game.  No one else has ever done that.  So I will state, with some confidence, that Peyton Manning is not as good as Joe Montana.

That said, he's awfully good.  After his fine performance against the Patriots in the playoffs, he now has five such games, a distinction shared only with Tom Brady and Troy Aikman.

Here is the list of all players with more than two such games:

  • Joe Montana, 6
  • Tom Brady, 5
  • Peyton Manning, 5
  • Troy Aikman, 5
  • Bret Favre, 4
  • Eli Manning, 4
  • Joe Flacco, 4
  • Kurt Warner, 4
  • Aaron Rodgers, 3
  • Drew Brees, 3
  • Jeff Hostetler, 3
  • Jim Kelly, 3
  • Joe Theisman, 3
  • Philip Rivers, 3
  • Terry Bradshaw, 3

This list feels fair and right to me.  Manning is a great quarterback, one of the greatest of all time, and a little better than his little brother.  All is right with the world.

But what about that poor playoff record?  My moment of clarity came on this on Monday, when Greg Cosell was being interviewed on a local radio show.  He said it occurred to him, as the game progressed, that Denver's team wasn't very good.  He had been so fixated on Manning's skill, he hadn't fully taken on board how weak his supporting cast was.  Said another way, could the Seahawks have gotten to the Super Bowl without Russell Wilson?  Probably.  Could the Broncos - with all those injuries on defense - have gotten to the Super Bowl without Peyton Manning?  Never.  Manning carried them there, and there they died.

For all the talk of the NFL as a quarterback's league, there have been very few quarterbacks who could transform a team overnight.  Warner did it with the Cardinals when he went there.  Favre failed with the Jets, but improved the Vikings from 10-6 to 12-4.  Montana did not do it when he went to the Chiefs - under DeBerg they went 11-5 and 10-6, with Krieg they went 10-6, and under Montana they went 11-5.  Manning clearly improved the Broncos - by a lot - despite the chilling impact of his oversized contract.  But that contract ultimately undid him.  He was lonely Hector facing Achilles, Ajax, Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Nestor...intrepid, defiant, but doomed.

So perhaps we can agree that Peyton Manning was one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived,   so good that he often had teams in the playoffs that really did not belong there.  So good that he could not win a lot of Super Bowls.

Put it on his plaque in Canton.


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