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Peyton Manning Was At His Worst, But He’s Still The Best

Sunday was bittersweet for Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Playing against the Kansas City Chiefs, Manning broke Brett Favre’s NFL record for most career passing yards when he completed a 4-yard pass to Ronnie Hillman in the first quarter. But aside from setting that new all-time high, Manning could scarcely have had a worse day. It was, statistically, the worst performance of his career — he went 5 for 20 with 35 yards, zero touchdowns, four interceptions and two sacks — and it ended with Manning benched in the third quarter amid a chorus of boos. (Later, we learned that Manning had a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot.)

It was also a tough game for us here at FiveThirtyEight. We’re on record as considering Manning to (probably) be the greatest quarterback in football history, an opinion informed by everything from his personal statistics to his comebacks and the catastrophic harm that came to his team when he was unable to play. So our jaws were agape as we witnessed the once-great Manning throw incompletion after incompletion, pick after wobbly pick.

But one game does not change a guy’s legacy. Manning has been so good over his career that he’d have to replicate his Sunday performance — a game so bad it ranks among the worst two dozen or so in modern NFL history — every week for nearly an entire season before he ceased to be the top statistical passer ever.

To figure out how good Manning has been, I used a formula created by Chase Stuart of the excellent FootballPerspective.com.1 The formula is based on Pro-Football-Reference.com’s adjusted net yards per attempt, and it judges the value that a quarterback accumulates over a league average quarterback.2 Applying it to every QB’s numbers since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger — and adding a wrinkle in which we also compare his adjusted yards to those of a backup-caliber passer — we can generate a list of the greatest statistical quarterbacks of all time:

CAREER ADJUSTED YARDS OVER …
PASSER GAMES STARTS A BACKUP QB LEAGUE AVERAGE
Peyton Manning 265 265 22,898 15,644
Dan Marino 242 240 18,806 12,312
Tom Brady 218 216 16,808 10,866
Drew Brees 211 210 15,514 9,400
Joe Montana 192 164 13,857 9,344
Dan Fouts 181 171 13,040 8,251
Steve Young 169 143 11,022 7,638
Aaron Rodgers 119 112 10,482 7,430
Ken Anderson 192 172 10,484 6,385
Brett Favre 302 298 14,357 6,337
Philip Rivers 157 153 10,241 6,210
Roger Staubach 125 113 8,646 5,994
Tony Romo 131 125 9,240 5,845
Kurt Warner 124 116 8,857 5,610
Ben Roethlisberger 165 163 9,115 4,919
Fran Tarkenton 120 120 7,971 4,878
Boomer Esiason 187 173 8,003 3,838
Warren Moon 208 203 9,233 3,752
John Elway 234 231 9,589 3,743
Jim Kelly 160 160 7,520 3,671

According to our version of Stuart’s metric, Manning didn’t need to break Favre’s yardage record Sunday to cement his status as the G.O.A.T. That’s because he owned that distinction as far back as 2012, when his lifetime values over both an average and a backup passer outstripped those of former Dolphins QB Dan Marino. Since then, Manning has continued to add to his greatness, particularly after he posted yet another of the best passing seasons ever in 2013.

Now the gap between Manning and the field is so wide that it would take Manning 12 consecutive games exactly like his outing Sunday (299 adjusted yards of value below average, by far the worst game of Manning’s 17-year NFL career) for Manning to fall behind Marino in those value over average rankings. And if we’re comparing Manning and Marino to backup QBs rather than average ones, it would take 15 straight games like Sunday’s (-282 adjusted yards of value, again the worst game of Manning’s career) for Manning to dip below Marino and into second place.

In other words, Manning is pretty firmly entrenched as the best statistical passer ever. Even though he was way (way!) off his game on Sunday and his plantar fascia injury could have serious repercussions for his career going forward, Sunday’s dreadful game in some ways serves to help us further appreciate how great Manning was when he was at his best.

Footnotes

  1. Full disclosure: I have written a number of articles for that site.

  2. Stuart’s full metric includes credit for QB rushing statistics and an adjustment for strength of schedule, but for the purposes of this story, I am using only the passing elements of the formula.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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