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A Quick Review of What We Know About Peyton Manning

[Author's note: We didn't do a whole lot of Super Bowl or post-Super Bowl coverage here.  This is to be expected, I suppose, as the Texans were not involved in the game.  No, it's true!  You can look it up!  What follows is a post that I started soon after that game, but did not finish until recently.  So, yeah, timing-wise, if it seems a little odd, that's why.]

I've never been accused of being impartial and unbiased when it comes to The Fivehead, neé Peyton Manning. I loathe him, and I've done so since January 2, 1998,  the day the Manning-led Vols -- a team that would win the national title the following season when led by the redoubtable Tee Martin -- rolled over easier than a co-ed with daddy issues in front of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  This, coupled with Scott Frost crying like a blogger who got spurned by a more popular writer in the Super Bowl media center, got Tom Osborne half of a national championship as a parting gift and, by extension, boned Michigan. 1

ANYWAY...I mention all of this as sort of an up-front full disclosure.  What follows could be construed as a hatchet job or an attempt to kick a fanbase while they are down.  (Avoiding the appearance of piling on is also why I waited a while to post this.)  While I'm not above such shenanigans, that's not the point here.  Instead, the point is to draw attention back to a single premise that (incorrectly, in my opinion) fell by the wayside of conventional wisdom after the Colts won a Super Bowl:

Peyton Manning was and remains to this day a mediocre playoff QB.2

Manning's 9-9 playoff record is well-documented at this point, but nevertheless let's start big picture.

  • Joe Montana: 16-7 (11 appearances, 4 titles)
  • Tom Brady: 14-4 (7, 3)
  • Terry Bradshaw: 14-5 (9, 4)
  • John Elway: 14-8 (10, 2)
  • Brett Favre: 13-11 (12, 1)
  • Troy Aikman 11-4 (8, 3)
  • Roger Staubach: 11-6 (9, 2)
  • Bart Starr: 9-1 (6, 5 (incl. pre-Super Bowl titles))
  • Kurt Warner: 9-4 (5, 1)
  • Donovan McNabb: 9-6 (6, 0)
  • Jim Kelly: 9-8 (8, 0)
  • Peyton Manning: 9-9 (10, 1)
  • Ben Roethlisberger: 8-2 (4, 2)
  • Jim Plunkett: 8-2 (4, 2)
  • Steve Young: 8-6 (11 (7 as starter), 2 (1 as starter))
  • Dan Marino 8-10 (10, 0)
  • Ken Stabler: 7-5 (7 (6 as starter), 1)
  • Phil Simms: 6-4 (5, 1)
  • Bob Griese: 6-5 (7, 2)
  • Fran Tarkenton: 6-5 (5, 0)
  • Craig Morton: 5-5 (7 (5 as starter), 0)
  • Danny White: 5-5 (8 (5 as starter), 1 (0 as starter))
  • Mark Brunell: 5-5 (7 (5 as starter), 1 (0 as starter))
  • Steve McNair: 5-5 (5, 0)
  • Warren Moon: 3-7 (7, 0)

Obviously, this is a list of QBs with a minimum of 10 playoff decisions as a starter in order of wins and, where there's a tie in wins, winning percentage.  While not the most dispositive metric we could use, I think it is a nice rough sketch of the discussion.  Manning's .500 record, were we to sort by winning percentage alone, puts him in the Morton/White/Brunell/McNair group, just ahead of Dan Marino and Warren Moon.  On a list with this broad of a spectrum of QB talent, as Marino/Moon illustrate, falling in with that group isn't fatal to your legacy, but it's definitely a knock against your all-time greatness.  I mean, every Marino conversation generally ends with one person saying something to the effect of "statistically, he's great, but...."  Now, granting that Manning has a ring, while Marino and Moon do not (the kids call that "foreshadowing"), I still don't think it's a stretch to say that Manning has been less than stellar in terms of wins and losses in the playoffs.

"But wait," you might be saying.  "The losses weren't all Manning's fault!  That's not a fair comparison!"  Ok...let's look at Manning's lines in each of his playoff losses.

1999--Loses 16-19 to Tennessee (divisional round).  19-42, 227 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 1 TD rush.  Indy won the AFC East at 13-3, with the best offense in the AFC, and they had a first-round bye.  Indy led the Titans 9-6 at halftime, then mustered a whopping six yards in the third quarter.  Tennessee never trailed after Eddie George ripped off a 68-yard TD early in the third.

2000--Loses 17-23 (OT) to Miami (wild card round).  17-32, 194 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT. Indy was the #6 seed at 10-6.  Miami had turnovers (all INTs) on three straight drives in the first half, and Indy led 14-0 at the half.  In the second half, Jay Fielder improved on his 5-14, 42 yards, first half, completing 14 of 20 for 143 and adding another 43 rushing.  In overtime, Miami won the toss but was forced to punt on their first possession.  On their first OT possession, Indy faced a 3rd and 12 wherein Manning completed an 11-yard pass to Marvin Harrison, but Vanderjagt (possibly drunk) missed the 49-yarder and Miami scored on its next drive.

2002--Loses 41-0 to New York (wild card round).  14-31, 137 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT.  Indy missed the playoffs after the 2001 season, but returned as the #5 seed after the 2002 season.  On the fifth play of the game, the Jets scored on a 56-yard screen pass to FB Richie Anderson (!), and they never looked back.  Indy trailed 24-0 at the half.  Manning saved both of his INTs for the fourth quarter, throwing one on the third snap of the period and again on the Colts' next possession.

2003--Loses 24-14 to New England (AFC champ game). 23-47, 237 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT.  The #3 seed after winning the AFC South, Indy destroyed Denver (Manning had a perfect QB rating that game) and beat Kansas City to get to the AFC title game, where, to be perfectly blunt, Manning imploded.  New England scored a TD on the opening drive; Manning responded with an INT.  New England scored a FG on their second possession; Manning responded with an INT on the very first Colts' play of that possession.  At the close of the first half, Indy trailed 0-15.  After Indy scored a rushing TD on their first second-half possession, New England answered with a FG to make it 18-7.  Indy went three-and-out (two incompletions).  New England added another FG, making it 21-7.  Manning responded with his third INT.  Walt Harris picked off Tom Brady at the goalline early in the fourth, giving Indy a second life.  Manning responded with his fourth INT.  Manning threw his only TD midway through the fourth, bringing the game to 14-21.  Indy tried an onside kick and failed, but held New England and forced them to punt, meaning Indy had one more shot.  Manning threw four straight incompletions.  New England added a FG, extending their lead to 10.  Manning threw three straight incompletions, then completed a seven-yard pass on fourth-and-ten.  Ballgame.

2004--Loses 20-3 to New England (divisional round). 27-42, 238 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT.  Again the #3 seed, Indy again destroyed Denver in the first round, leading to a second-round matchup with New England.  The game was a puntfest in the first quarter, with New England breaking through first on a FG in the early second quarter.  The Pats added another FG before Manning led the Colts into FG range as the first half expired, with Indy going into the lockerroom down 3-6.  The teams traded punts on their first second-half possessions, then Tom Brady found David Givens for a TD to increase New England's lead to 10.  Tedy Bruschi added another TD shortly thereafter, and Rodney Harrison sealed the win by picking off Manning with 12 seconds remaining.

2005--Loses 21-18 to Pittsburgh (divisional round). 22-38, 290 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT.  This game is most memorable because of Large Benjamin's fluke tackle of Nick Harper following Harper's recovery of a Bettis goalline fumble.  Coming into this game off a first-round bye as the AFC's #1 seed, Manning did not play poorly, though he struggled to find a rhythm in the first half as Pittsburgh rolled out to a 14-3 lead and continued that struggle into the third.  It wasn't until Pitt was up 21-3 that Manning locked in, hitting Clark for a 50-yard TD and leading a solid drive on Indy's subsequent possession that resulted in a James TD run.  (Worth noting, however, is that Indy forced Pitt to punt with the score 18-21, only to see Manning go 2-yard pass, sack, incomplete, sack for a turnover on downs.  But I digress.)

2007--Loses 28-24 to San Diego (divisional round). 33-48, 402 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT.  The Colts came into the playoffs with a first-round bye as the #2 seed in the AFC.  They led 10-7 at halftime, though a Manning INT with 25 seconds (a) killed what could have been a bigger lead and (b) would have resulted in a 14-10 San Diego lead at the half if Cromartie's pick-6 wasn't nullified by a stupid hold on Eric Weddle.  San Diego came out and scored a TD on their first possession of the second half, which Manning answered by throwing his second INT.  No damage was caused (relatively speaking) by this pick, as SD went three-and-out.  With just over 3 minutes left in the third quarter, Manning hit Wayne for a TD, only to see SD match it before the quarter expired.  Manning's fourth-quarter possessions went thusly: 2-3 (6 yds), punt; TD; 4-9 (43 yds, but 5 straight incompletes), turnover-on-downs; 1-4 (5 yds), turnover on downs.  Ballgame.

2008--Loses 23-17 (OT) to San Diego (wild card round).  25-42, 310 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT.  Indy, as a wild card, slotted into the #5 seed.  Indy trailed 14-10 at halftime, but the only scoring in the third quarter was a 72-yard Manning-to-Wayne TD, giving Indy a 17-14 lead going into the fourth.  (That quarter also featured an incomplete pass on 4th-and-1 on Indy's first possession.)  San Diego tied the game with 30 seconds remaining, and they won 6:22 into overtime without Manning ever touching the ball.

2009--Loses 31-17 to New Orleans (Super Bowl).  31-45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT.  You know how this one played out, so all I'll say is Jake's boy, Malcolm Jenkins, nearly intercepted a Manning pass two plays before Porter took his to the house.  It's hard to pin blame for the loss on a line like Manning had.  I've heard a lot of "if Garçon3 doesn't drop that pass" or "if Wayne hangs on" excuses for why this loss isn't at least partially Manning's fault.  Whatever.  He came out and threw a pick-6 on the one drive that Indy absolutely, positively could not have a turnover.  He hadn't been picked off all night, then he comes out and throws a near-pick to Jenkins followed two plays later by a game-clinching INT.  If you want to pretend like his line in a vacuum somehow trumps that level of screw-up, I can only assume that you were never interested in this discussion anyway.  (By the way, "INSERT WR NAME dropped a lot of passes in that loss to INSERT TEAM THAT BEAT THE COLTS" is a standard refrain when trying to explain away the losses.  It must be really nice to get all the credit when the team wins and have several Mad-Libs-style excuses ready to be deployed if you lose.)

So, what do we have?  Six years where the Colts lost their first playoff game ('99, '00, '02, '05, '07, '08).  An average line in his losses of 23-35, 263 yards, .67 TD, 1.11 INT.  Is that a horrible line?  Meh...not really, at least not in terms of yardage/completion percentage.  But in terms of TD-INT ratio?  Yeah, that's bad.  That's really bad, in fact, for a guy who is supposed to be one of the greatest QBs of all time.  (For comparison, Manning's regular season ratio is 1.9 TD / .94 INT.)  What else do we have?  Five games under 250 yards, compared to four games over that admittedly arbitrary cutoff.  But, hey, there is obviously an upward trend in terms of completion percentage and total yardage, so he's got that going for him.  Which is nice.

The most common defense you hear when some SuperFan184 gets annoyed by your knocking of Manning's playoff record is "it's not HIS fault that the Colts' defense was so bad for all those years."  To hear the apologists tell it, Manning has never had a defense that was better than absolutely abysmal.  If true, that would certainly go a long way toward redeeming Peyton.

Unfortunately, at least for the person asserting it, that excuse is completely and demonstrably false.  Here are the scoring defense and yards/game defense rankings.


In terms of scoring, that's two years when it was horrible, one year you might call bad (23), four years right around average, and FIVE years in the top ten (including one year as the best scoring D when the Colts still lost their first playoff game).  In terms of yards/game, it's slightly worse, with three horrible (>/= 29th), four around average (15, 21, 21, 18), and five in or right outside the top ten (8, 11, 11, 3, 11).  You've also got Manning's singular Super Bowl title coming in a year that his defense was subpar, which kind of flies in the face of "its always the defense's fault." 

You know what you DON'T see?  A consistently bad defense that would obviate Manning of the blame for his own poor performance.

Still not convinced?  Check Football Outsiders' rankings, both overall rank and adjusted rank:

Year: rnk, adj
1998: 25, 28
1999: 27, 25
2000: 23, 23
2001: 29, 29
2002: 16, 17
2003: 13, 15
2004: 19, 17
2005: 5, 8
2006: 25, 24
2007: 2, 4
2008: 10, 8
2009: 16, 19

Result?  Well, it's not quite as damning as the raw rankings, but you still have five bad-to-very-bad seasons ('98, '99, '00, '01, '06; four of which were his first four years, which Manning apologists like to use "he was young" as an excuse for as well), four right around average ('02, '03, '04, '09), and three in the top 10 ('05, '07, '08).  In case you are a lawyer and math ain't your thang, that's seven of the eleven seasons with an average-or-better defense.

Let's cross-reference what we have so far.

1998--bad defense, missed playoffs
1999--average-to-bad defense, first-game loss
2000--average-to-below-average defense, first-game loss
2001--very bad defense, missed playoffs
2002--average-to-above-average defense, first-game loss
2003--average defense, AFC championship loss
2004--average defense, second-game loss
2005--good defense, first-game loss
2006--bad defense, Super Bowl win
2007--very good defense, first-game loss
2008--good-to-very-good defense, first-game loss
2009--average-to-above-average defense, Super Bowl loss

If there's a pattern in there that suggests Manning would have won more if only he hadn't been saddled with the Indy D, I sure can't find it.

"B-b-but WAIT," you might be screaming at this point (if you have a pronounced stutter).  "ALL QBs are going to have more bad games than good in their playoff losses!!"  That is theoretically true, and it even seems logical, but that's not the point.  The point is the number of losses (and, tangentially, the number of bad games) that Manning has through his postseason career.  Even if you take the somewhat-dubious position that '05, '07, and '08 are not Manning's fault at all, that still leaves SIX losses that you can pin some percentage of on Manning. 

Also, it seems that we keep falling back on these built-in excuses.  To whatever extent you want to remove responsibility from Manning for some of the playoff losses where he put up good numbers, you have to remove credit for at least three of the wins during the 2006 run.  Unless we are back to that VY-esque thing where Manning gets the credit when the team wins but never has to take the blame when the team loses.  Check out these numbers:

Manning in Super Bowl win: 25-38, 247 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT.
Manning in AFC Championship win v. NE: 27-47, 349 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT.
Manning in Division Round win v. Bal: 15-30, 170, 0 TD, 2 INT
Manning in W.C. Round win v. KC: 20-38, 268, 1 TD, 3 INT

That is not exactly what I would call a great QB leading his team to Super Bowl glory.  I mean, INTs in all four games, a 7:3 INT:TD ratio, 87-153 (57%) overall?  How very Sex Cannon of you.

Finally (and maybe, at this point, I am piling on) it's also worth noting that struggling in big games is not just an NFL phenomenon for Manning.  Look at his college career:

1994--Manning was pressed into duty as a Freshman after the first- and second-string QBs went down.  Tennessee had already lost to UGA and Florida before Manning took over the gig, and they would lose to Alabama under him, but the only big game they had that year was the Gator Bowl against Va Tech.  They won that game, but Manning was not much of a factor, going 12-19, 189 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT.

1995--The Vols started the season 2-0, and were ranked eighth in the nation when they made the drive down to Gainesville.  Manning put up 326 yds and 2 TDs, but the Gators won big, 62-37.  While Tennessee's four fumbles were to blame, Manning was also unable to adjust after halftime.  He finished the first half with 216 yards and both TDs, but could muster only 110 yds and no TDs in the second half when Florida adjusted by stopping the run and blitzing Manning.  This was UT's only regular season loss.

1996--Tennessee was #2 in the country and Florida #4 when the two teams met.  Florida jumped out to a 35-0 lead thanks in large part to four first-half INTs from Manning.  When Florida went to a bend-but-don't-break coverage in the second half (and especially late when Florida went to a straight prevent), Manning put up most of his gaudy stat line (second half: 25 of 39, 277 yards, 3 TDs, no INTs).  Unfortunately for Peyton, both halves counted equally, and his three late touchdowns were not enough to overcome his four early INTs.

1997--Florida was the second-ranked team and Tennessee the fourth-ranked team when they met for Manning's final attempt to beat UF.  The 33-20 loss left Manning 0-for-Florida for his career, and Tony George's 89-yard pick-6 was a SportsCenter staple later that season when Heisman voters were discussing Peyton's inability to win the big one.  Manning's line for the game was 29 of 51, 353 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT.  Seems decent enough on the surface, but between the back-breaking George INT to end the first half, and the fact that UT was already down 33-14 before Manning notched the third TD, it was hardly a Heisman-esque performance.  This season ended with the aforementioned figurative defenestration of Manning in his final college game against Nebraska.

Look, like I said, I don't dispute that Manning is statistically a great QB.  But to sit there and act like he's been anything other than pedestrian as often as not in the playoffs?


1Is it fair to put all the blame on Manning there?  Probably not; he wasn't the reason that the Huskers ran for roughly 3,447 yards that day (estimate).  But being logical and being a fan rarely have a perfect correlation, and when Tee and The Martinettes won the title next year, Peyton's role as choking ninny was forever cemented in my mind.  (That Tennessee had an outside shot at the title had they won and Michigan lost, and that they didn't even have to WIN so much as "not get fisted" for Michigan to rightfully have the whole title just add to my disdain.)

2 Right here is where I imagine the less-witty among the Colts fans are scrolling straight to the comments to write something along the lines of "Let's compare Peyton's playoff stats to Matt Schaub's playoff stats. Oh, wait." Spare me. First, that's not witty; most of you can do better. Second, and more importantly, that in no way responds to the argument. Pretending otherwise doesn't change that. Make a real rebuttal based on the facts if you feel the need to respond. [/tilting at windmills]

3 It means "boy."

4 Someone should make Manning's head bleed for him.