Peyton Manning Won a Super Bowl With Subpar Numbers, But He's Still Way Behind Other QBs


Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl this year, in a year when he was hurt, threw 17 interceptions in the regular season despite missing 7 games, and averaged fewer than 6 yards per attempt and threw exactly two passing touchdowns in the postseason.

So, needless to say, it wasn’t exactly a victory for the “you must have an elite quarterback” party line, unless you are giving him legacy points. But then again, that line has been largely overstated and justified after the fact anyway. It’s not like all the quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls recently have had stellar postseasons and carried their teams to titles by themselves.

Here’s one example, Peyton Manning’s postseason numbers compared to another quarterback who won a Super Bowl:

Manning: 3 games, 539 yards, 5.86 yards per attempt, 2 TD, 1 INT, team averaged 22.3 points per game

QB A: 3 games, 572 yards, 5.90 yards per attempt, 1 TD, 1 INT, team averaged 20.0 points per game

That’s Manning in his final season. And Tom Brady in his first season as a starter and Super Bowl winner.

I went through all postseason games since 1978 (825 total by a QB with 12 or more pass attempts) and found the winning percentage based on similar statistical games. Then I applied those expected records based on just the QB passing statistics to the actual records. Here are the results for every QB with at least 8 postseason games since 1978.

So, yes, Peyton Manning just won a title and a Super Bowl game where his numbers and play wouldn’t typically have resulted in a win, but for a great defensive performance by Von Miller and the rest of the Broncos. He would have a long way to go to catch a lot of other quarterbacks when it comes to winning games that maybe he didn’t “deserve” to win in the postseason. Tom Brady more than doubles the rest of the field in this category.

Of course, Manning and Brady have vastly different narratives, largely because of how their careers started. Five years ago, I wrote “The Twisted Tale of Paddy Ice”, which kind of feinted at the judgments of “Matty Ice,” but was really a look at how Tom Brady might be perceived differently if we just changed the ordering of his career. Here’s how it closed:

He signed on as a backup late in his career, and got a chance when the starter got hurt.  O’Grady led the team on an improbable run to the playoffs, though his numbers were not as good as they had been earlier in his career. No one believed his team had a chance, least of all because of who was taking the snaps. They won a memorable playoff game on a controversial call involving an O’Grady fumble. He was still a loser though, and one that just got lucky. They improbably won a championship game when special teams and defense made some key plays, and the media was quick to point that out. Crediting O’Grady for anything was simply against the narrative.

His team would be a sacrificial lamb for the Biggest Deal on Grass. O’Grady’s presence as a choke artist surely drove the line even higher, and by game time his team was a larger underdog than Namath’s Jets. When they improbably pulled the greatest upset of all-time, when Paddy Ice came out of hibernation and led the coolest game winning drive this side of Joe Montana, well, it was because of the other team choking, and the kicker, but it wasn’t because of Patrick Edward Thomas O’Grady.  That was against the narrative.

And once the narrative is written, any evidence to the contrary must be ignored.

In truth, as it turns out, I didn’t need a fictional reversal. There’s a pretty good argument in how Manning’s likely final year has been received that Manning and Brady, tied together at the hip, are mirror opposites in so many respects, including how those early results affect perceptions. Manning was the “regular season best QB” and statistical compiler of greatness early in his career. Brady would have been considered as such–save for last year’s Super Bowl win–for the last decade if his career reversed. (And Manning won exactly one in his first decade, while losing many others in the playoffs, if you want a counterexample of how Brady would have been viewed in reverse).

That above list shows which quarterbacks have been on teams and won games with statistical production that would not foresee such team success, before considering other factors. If we limit it to specific postseasons, here are the 15 with the lowest expected win percentage for Super Bowl winners (well, 17 with ties) going back to 1978:

Manning and Brady, still tied at the hip, turn in the five lowest expected winning percentages based on their numbers for that postseason when they won. It’s almost like other things matter too! It’s interesting that this postseason doesn’t even rank as his worst on an efficiency basis, because of all the interceptions he threw in the first 9 quarters of the 2006 campaign in the playoffs, while the Colts survived, before he had his career-altering comeback against the Patriots in the #1 narrative-altering event in NFL playoff history. Brady turns in the other three at the bottom of this list.

Even if you look at worst statistical performances for a QB in a winning effort in the actual Super Bowl, Manning is down the list, but not rock bottom. I’ll remind you that Ben Roethlisberger won his first Super Bowl while completing 9 of 21 passes and throwing 2 interceptions (and no touchdowns), that John Elway won his first Super Bowl–memorable for his helicopter spin on a leaping run–by completing just over half his passes, throwing for 123 yards, and throwing an interception (with no passing TDs). Or that Joe Theismann threw two interceptions and for 143 passing yards in his Super Bowl win.

It’s almost like teams that win titles are good in lots of areas, and sometimes very, very good in other areas like defense. For all the talk of “you need an elite quarterback,” I’ll note that over the last 20 years, only 60% of the Super Bowls were won by a QB who was even selected for the pro bowl that year–something that happens for between 20-25% of QBs in a given year–and only two first team all pros (Favre in 1996; Warner in 1999) have won a Super Bowl. Cam Newton would have been the first in over 15 years to do that, and he came up short against a great defense.

If you add in second team all-pros, you get Brees in 2009 and Manning in 2006. That’s 20% of the last Super Bowl champions. No one ever says “you have to have an elite safety to win a Super Bowl” though it would be a truer statement: Twelve safeties named as first or second team all-pro have won a title in the last 20 years.

So yes, Manning isn’t an outlier. He had many great seasons. He won titles in seasons that were not his best, either in the postseason or regular season. Lots of elite quarterbacks have failed to win a title in their best seasons statistically, and some of those won them in other years, when they had better luck or better all-around teams at other positions besides receiver.

This win won’t change the narrative on Manning. If you were inclined to think him the best QB ever, then this won’t affect that either way. If you were inclined to discount his regular seasons, you will discount this. Peyton Manning was selected as the best QB by the Associated Press seven different times. That’s more than double anyone else since 1950, save for Johnny Unitas (5 times) and Otto Graham (4 times).

Maybe he can go out changing the narrative, making people realize that all this elite QB stuff is largely after-the-fact bunk, but I doubt it. He is, after all, a choker, and now one with two ringz.

[all historical data via; images via USA Today Sports images]