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

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.

Presented by

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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