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2015 Really Was The Bizarro Peyton Manning Season

From a lot of angles, Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time. His second Super Bowl win, however, came in decidedly un-Peyton-like fashion, with Manning riding in the wake of an all-time defense while doddering well below replacement level for most of the season. Perhaps this is karma, a just reward after a career of — with a few exceptions — being shackled to some of the worst defenses ever to run deep into the playoffs. It’s the popular line of thinking, at least, and popular enough to dig a little deeper. So: Just how bad were Peyton’s defenses in his best years?

Here’s a look at the statistical profiles of Hall of Fame and near-Hall of Fame QBs from the modern era — this includes the defensive and rushing support each received throughout his career, but especially his prime. To find this, I took each passer’s performance in a few categories — completion percentage, yards per completion, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, sack percentage — and sorted them by their percentile relative to the league in any given season. I then weighted each season to give more weight to a player’s best years according to value over replacement (like I did with Ken Griffey Jr. here). Then, I did the same for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average for both rushing offense and defense.

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PERCENTILE VS. LEAGUE DVOA FROM…
QUARTERBACK CMP% YD/CMP TD% INT% SK% RUSHING OFFENSE DEFENSE
Terry Bradshaw 48 78 86 43 61 62 82
Roger Staubach 79 70 79 83 40 73 75
Donovan McNabb 45 67 72 85 45 79 72
Joe Montana 93 32 74 84 71 73 69
Ben Roethlisberger 81 79 71 57 35 59 68
Steve Young 98 71 90 78 42 82 67
Brett Favre 78 55 82 57 70 47 63
Kurt Warner 93 82 89 44 67 60 61
Aaron Rodgers 82 79 93 88 36 77 59
Warren Moon 74 53 71 59 70 52 59
Troy Aikman 88 38 46 77 78 80 56
Jim Kelly 76 64 79 47 65 64 56
Tony Romo 80 77 82 59 60 69 54
Peyton Manning 91 64 88 70 95 60 52
Tom Brady 77 68 84 85 78 78 52
Bob Griese 86 55 87 56 45 87 50
John Elway 59 64 63 67 63 76 49
Carson Palmer 69 59 75 51 77 55 47
Ken Anderson 83 52 67 84 48 69 45
Philip Rivers 82 73 81 67 64 43 33
Drew Brees 90 52 82 67 88 70 31
Dan Marino 74 57 78 66 94 50 30
Dan Fouts 81 69 71 60 87 55 30
Joe Namath 42 88 68 39 92 49 30

Sources: pro football reference, football outsiders

 

After breaking down the characteristics of Manning and his teams over the years, it’s amazing to see how sharply the usual tendencies were inverted along Denver’s path to the championship. On average, Manning’s teams were middle-of-the-pack on defense, and a shade better than that at running the ball. That was more than enough to rattle off an absurd string of 10-plus-win seasons, because Manning was very good — if not completely and totally great — in every facet of passing the football. His average defense was worse than that supporting Brett Favre, Joe Montana or Steve Young, and the running game was less efficient than what Tom Brady, Drew Brees or John Elway was working with.

Manning did have a lot more help than Dan Marino, but he also bested him across every passing category — like a more accurate, deeper-throwing version of the Dolphins great, who got the ball out just as fast but was more careful with it. And since we’re looking at percentiles instead of raw output, the differences between eras soften, though they don’t completely disappear.

That was prime Peyton, however. This year’s version was far, far worse, particularly in categories where he once excelled. To wit: His rates of completions, touchdowns and interceptions, each typically among the top 30 percent of regular QBs, all dipped into the bottom quarter of passers this season. Meanwhile, his defensive support, usually in the middle of the pack, zoomed up to the best in football.

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It’s been a stunning reversal, the likes of which we haven’t really seen from such a good QB before; the only possible exceptions were the final full seasons of Marino, Ken Stabler and Joe Theismann’s careers. Those performances all came in the service of mediocre teams, though. Somehow Manning actually turned an even more extreme version of this formula into a championship.

We aren’t sure if the Super Bowl was Manning’s final game, and it’s hard to speculate about how this changes Manning’s legacy (not that a paltry two titles will ever satiate the “Count The Ringz!!!” crowd anyway). But even if Manning happened to be dragged to a championship in the final throes of his senescence by Von Miller and Denver’s ferocious defense, it’s hard not to appreciate the strange symmetry after Manning spent a career elevating middling and worse teams with his brilliance.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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