Goodbye to Peyton Manning, Greatest Quarterback of the 21st Century

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The aging, injured star may never play another pro football game. Why he's this era's most impressive player—no matter what Tom Brady fans say.

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Reuters


Perhaps it went unnoticed because of all the approaching September 11th anniversary coverage. And even without that, there were more than enough sports headlines—the opening of the NFL season, the second week of the college football, the baseball pennant races, the U.S. Open—to muffle the impact of the news. Maybe the press and fans just haven't put it together yet—and maybe they just don't want to. But it's likely that Peyton Manning will never play another pro football game after a second surgery to repair a bulging disc in his neck.

There's a number of factors in play here. Let's sort them out. First, with Manning out of the lineup, the Colts may not win a game all season. They hired 38-year-old Kerry Collins (39 in December) to take his place, and Collins has, in his NFL career, been beaten up more often than Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. That's an indication that the Colts aren't planning on winning anything this season, just playing out the string. They got stuffed opening Sunday by the Houston Texans, 34-7, and will most likely be underdogs in every game they play this year. This means that there will be absolutely no reason for Peyton to try and play in 2011 even if he gets the go-ahead from his medical team.

What about 2012? Well, no quarterback in NFL history has made a comeback at age 36, especially after sitting out an entire year. Plus, Peyton's skills are on the decline—he had his worst season last year. More to the point, he would be attempting a comeback with an aging, fast-fading team that could offer him little pass protection or support. And since it's unthinkable that he would try a comeback with anyone but the Colts, whom he has played for his entire career, it's a very good bet that we've seen the last of perhaps the greatest quarterback of the 21st century.

Greatest quarterback of the 21st century? Not so fast, you might say. Okay, let's examine the case to support that statement.

Had Peyton gone without injury, he would almost certainly have surpassed Brett Favre, the NFL's all-time statistical leader, in nearly every meaningful statistic from total yards passing to touchdowns.

There are only two arguments that Manning isn't the best quarterback of his era. The first is Tom Brady. The second is Peyton's postseason performance.

Let's deal with Brady: Peyton is way ahead of Tom in total yards and touchdown passes, but that's unfair since Manning has played three more full seasons. Brady's NFL passer rating—if you put stock in that or even understand it (I confess that my answer is no to both)—is slightly higher, 95.2 to 94.9, but Tom, who is just one year younger than Manning, is likely to decline over the next couple of seasons, and his passer rating will go down. And in the most the most important single passing statistic, the one that correlates best with winning, yards per throw, Manning has an edge, 7.6 to 7.4.

The case for Brady, then, is that he has been a better postseason passer. He has three Super Bowl rings to Manning's one. Both men have played 19 postseason games. The Patriots' won-lost record since Brady started is 14-5 v. 9-10 for the Colts with Manning. What's less certain is that Brady did more to help his team in the postseason. Peyton's completion percentage over his 19 games is 63.1 to Tom's 62.2; their touchdowns and interceptions are close, 30-to-16 for Brady and 29-to-19 for Manning. Manning's postseason passer rating is slight higher, 88.4 to Brady's 85.7, but in yards per throw, he leads by a whopping 7.51 to 6.46.

What all this indicates is that Tom Brady's team may have won more playoff games than Manning's, but he has not been a better quarterback. Let's put it another way: if the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts had switched quarterbacks at the beginning of the pervious decade, Manning would have won more Super Bowls than Brady. In fact, probably several more.

So, what about the still-lingering notion that Manning isn't a great "big game" quarterback? Prior to his 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in the 2007 Super Bowl, the rap on Peyton was that he "couldn't win the big one"—or, as a braying ass at the website coldhardfootballfacts.com put it, Manning was "the Picasso of choke artists." (As if losses in football games could be chalked up entirely to a quarterback and not to his team's bad defense.)

Many in the pro football establishment were ready to accord Manning the status of greatest quarterback of all time prior to the 2010 Super Bowl against the New Orleans Saints. One pass changed all that. In the fourth quarter, with his team trailing by seven points, the Colts seemed to be driving towards the tying score when Saints cornerback Tracy Porter picked off a pass and returned it 74 yards to clinch the win for the Saints. Manning's 333 yards passing in that game were forgotten.


That single errant throw was all that many still remember from that game, and the odds are very great that Peyton will never have a chance to redeem himself in a Super Bowl.

No matter. The career has been fabulous enough, and one aspect of it is absolutely without doubt: Manning had the biggest off-the-field presence of any player in the game since Joe Montana two decades ago. Last week Darren Rovell reported on CNBC.com that the impact of Manning not playing this year could affect 10 percent of the fantasy league winnings, which means that some football nerds are going to be out nearly $65 million.

He was, judged by ratings, the most popular sports celeb ever to host Saturday Night Live, where he was good sport enough to satirize his own image, and, along with his brother Eli of the New York Giants, a character on The Simpsons. (Try topping that one, Tom Brady.)


Here's hoping for the sake of his health and our memory of him at this best that next year he trades the locker room for a broadcast booth.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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