It was there for the taking.
Sixty minutes stood between Peyton Manning and NFL immortality. All year we watched Manning pick apart opposing defenses and set records for passing yards, team points, and passing touchdowns. With a win on Sunday, Manning would complete the best single season performance in the history of the quarterback position and become the greatest passer of his generation, if not all time.
Yet, after a 43-8 shellacking from the Seattle Seahawks and their Legion of Boom defense, we’re left wondering-what’s Peyton Manning’s legacy?
For 18 games this season, Manning brilliantly dissected defenses with the help of a stellar offensive line and the best collection of offensive talent the NFL has ever seen. With so many weapons, Manning almost always found the one man the defense left open, and he delivered the ball on point play after play. Peyton rolled through San Diego and New England in the playoffs, and as the Broncos were favored by 2.5 points over Seattle on Sunday, many believed it was only a matter of time before Manning would cap off his historic season with a Super Bowl win.
From the game’s opening snap, however, it was evident the Broncos were outmatched. Manning completed five of his first six passes, but only for a combined 19 yards. The Seahawks refused to give the Broncos’ receivers any cushion and instead smashed into them immediately after they caught the ball. While Manning was barely touched against the Chargers and Pats, the Seahawks’ constant pressure forced him to throw two interceptions on third and longs. And as Seattle’s secondary dared Peyton to beat them with the long ball, he couldn’t make them pay. Manning totaled just 280 yards on 49 attempts, and the longest play of the game for Denver was a mere 23 yards.
Following Sunday’s game, Manning is now 11-12 in the postseason-the 12 losses an NFL record. Of the 19 QBs to start 12 or more playoff games, only Dan Marino (8-10) and Manning have losing records. Manning is just 7-6 at home in the playoffs and has lost nine games when his team’s been favored-in contrast, Joe Montana was 10-2 at home and 16-7 overall. Tom Brady is 12-3 at home and 18-8 overall.
Alongside Montana and Brady, John Elway, Roger Staubach, and Johnny Unitas are consistently mentioned in the discussion of the all-time great quarterbacks. Yet, there’s one thing that separates Peyton from that group-he doesn’t have multiple championships. A win on Sunday would’ve vaulted him at or near the top of the group, given his career stats-he ranks second only to Brett Favre in career passing yards and touchdowns.
As columnists Bill Simmons and Joe Posnanski have recently opined, though, comparing QBs between eras is hard-the game’s changed, statistics aren’t consistent, and expansion and the salary cap have each impacted the league in different ways. Instead, they argue that QBs are competing for the title of best of their generation-there’s Unitas in the ’60s, Staubach in the ’70s, Montana in the ’80s, and Elway in the ’90s. There’s one debate that’s still undecided-this generation-and that’s where Brady and Manning’s fates once again intersect.
Supporters of Peyton over Tom argue that Brady’s had better defenses behind him. A look at the numbers confirms that’s simply not true. Using the year-end ranks from Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average statistic-an all-inclusive stat that tracks every play and adjusts for strength of opponent-Manning’s teams from 2001 to 2013 have finished with an average year-end ranking of 14.8. Brady’s Patriots are actually worse, achieving an average ranking of 15 over the same timeframe.
Another often-used argument in favor of Manning is his advantage in regular season statistics. Peyton was blessed to work with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne-two of the best receivers in NFL history-in their absolute primes. Meanwhile, Brady’s leading receivers for the first six years of his career were Troy Brown, David Givens, Deion Branch, and Reche Caldwell. Manning does have a higher career passer rating than Brady, 97.2 to 95.7, but from 2007 on-when the Patriots finally upgraded their receiving corps-Brady has a 102.2 to 101.1 edge.
So the decision comes down to postseason success, which clearly favors Brady and his three Super Bowl wins. In Manning’s sole Super Bowl season, he threw for seven interceptions against three TDs in four playoff games, good for a 70.5 rating. In Brady’s three Super Bowl seasons, he had an 11:3 TD to Interception ratio and an 88.9 rating over nine games. And overall, Manning’s thrown 37 TDs and 24 Interceptions in the playoffs-in three more games, Brady’s ratio stands at 43:22.
So how will Peyton ultimately be remembered? He was a great regular season quarterback who consistently guided his team into the playoffs. Yet in the biggest of moments of his career, he often failed, including Sunday’s recent 35-point Super Bowl blowout. A memorable career? Yes. The best of his generation? No.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.