The NFL has watched Peyton Manning revolutionize the quarterback position for over 17 years. Manning wasn’t the first quarterback to call plays at the line of scrimmage but he was the first to pick apart defensive sets and coverages by just taking a glance across the line of scrimmage.
Playing against Peyton Manning was a defense's nightmare, unless you were able to play that chess match with the future hall of famer. Contrary to what many believe, stopping Peyton Manning was not as rocket science or impossible, especially in the playoffs. Many of Peyton detractors love to say that he is the “greatest regular season quarterback of all time”, which is not only funny but somewhat factual.
With Manning career coming to a close, football pundits across the globe are going to dissect his career and look to prove why is the best quarterback in NFL history - an angle that I decided not to used.
Instead I want to ignite the debate; How great is Peyton Manning?
Before you overreact, Peyton Manning is great. Manning will go on the Mt. Rushmore of quarterbacks. This is not a piece to denounce his legacy or accomplishments. This is a piece to question his spot in history and the value of his legacy.
Manning is one of the few athletes that was already placed on a pedestal before he stepped foot on an NFL field. Coming out of Tennessee, many thought he would be the future of quarterbacking in the NFL, which turned out to be a fair assessment. By his third season, Manning led the league in passing yards and touchdowns.
In 17 seasons, Manning has only two years with losing records and fourteen seasons with 10+ wins. No one has passed for more yards or thrown more touchdowns than Manning and he is second in pass attempts and passing yards. His most impressive records that often gets overlooked is the 56 game-winning drives and 46 comebacks, both NFL records.
One of my favorite Manning moments was his Monday Night comeback against the Tampa Buccaneers.
I remember sneaking to stay up long enough to watch that game (something I did quite often on Monday nights). At age 13, I completely understood the magnitude of what Manning achieved that night, and for me, it was the turning point in NFL football. What many considered as the greatest comeback ever, against a legendary defense, ignited the “passing league era” of football.
After the 2005 season, we seen an explosion of quarterbacks with 4000+ passing yards. For the first time in NFL history, in 2009 10 quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards, with Manning’s 4,500 yards coming second behind Matt Schaub. That feat would be achieved six times in the ten-year span and we haven’t had a season with less than five 4,000 yard passer since 2005. Six times we have seen a quarterback throw for 5,000 yards, which was only done once prior to 2010 by the great Dan Marino in 1984. Seeing quarterbacks with large numbers are something of the norm in today’s era of football. If it wasn’t for that epic night in Tampa, I’m not sure if the NFL would have made that transformation.
The no-huddle offense also was revamped by the Colts and Manning. Manning ability to see the defense coverage at the line of the scrimmage completed disrupted how defenses use packages and substitute. Manning knew exactly where to attack the defense and where the holes in the coverage would be before he even hiked the ball. Offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, worked with Manning for the first 12 years of his career and he gave Manning complete freedom to call the plays at the line of scrimmage, which would change the way quarterbacks and offensive coordinators would cooperate in the future.
It is expected for a quarterback to be able to read a defense at the line, especially if they're the number 1 pick. Matt Ryan and the Falcons has adopted a very similar style of offense that gives Ryan the same freedom Manning had throughout his career. Andrew Luck, who was brought in to replace Manning was given that freedom as soon as he walked into the building.
Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers all have their own systems where they are allowed to do call the plays with little assistance from the sideline. If it wasn't for Manning's success in Indy, none of them may have been granted that freedom.
With Manning’s contribution to the game, it gives his detractors less steam, until you bring up the playoffs. This is where Manning’s legacy get complicated and why some consider him the “greatest regular season quarterback of all time.”
When you think of all-time greats, you think of postseason moments that defines a player’s career and greatness. Manning doesn’t have many of those. Up until 2003, Manning had three one-n-done trips to the playoffs. The narrative for Manning was that he could not win the big game, and prior to that Monday Night in Tampa, the term clutch was not used to describe Manning.
In 2006 he finally became a champion but it wasn’t how we would expect it. During the 2006 postseason, Manning threw 3 touchdowns and 7 interceptions with a QB rating of 70.5 in four games. While Manning was essentially a game manager, the Colts defense was a big part of the Colts making it to the Super Bowl. Manning also got his first win against Bill Belichick in the postseason during the 2006 run - who also is a negative factor in Manning claim for Greatest of All Time.
Manning has played in four Super Bowls and has a 2-2 record. This is where Manning detractors can create steam for their claim against Manning. Even in Manning’s victories, his numbers do not pop out at you. For the Colts in Super Bowl 44, he threw for 247 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception - basically playing the role of game manager.
For the Broncos in Super Bowl 50, he was even worse, 147 yards and an interception. Neither game have memorable career defining moments except for when Manning is hoisting the Lombardi trophy. As far as highlight plays, Manning’s most memorable came in his losses.
In Super Bowl 45, Manning had an opportunity protect his crown as the league’s top QB over Drew Brees, who was becoming a legend in his own right. Down 24-17 late in the fourth quarter, Manning had opportunity to lead the Colts on a game tying drive but things didn’t turn out that way.
And we can't forget the debacle in New York where the Seahawks completely destroyed Manning and the Broncos - the same season where Manning and the Broncos offense broke every offensive record in the book.
These moments in Manning’s career is why I can’t give of the top spot of the all-time quarterback list. Manning don’t have those great plays in the postseason like Johnny Unitas, Rodger Staubach, or Joe Montana. His numbers are far beyond those I named but each of those players were pioneers in their own right, just like Manning. The postseason is where you make your legacy and Manning’s legacy was created during the NFL season, making it hard to argue the claim “greatest regular season quarterback of all time”.
Lack of postseason greatness won’t define Manning’s legacy but it won’t help his supporters who have to debate against the points I made in this piece.