(Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports)
Peyton Manning owns a lot of records. The number is somewhere in the hundreds when you combine his college, rookie, regular season, and playoff resumes, and he’s just 12 touchdowns away from owning the most prestigious one in his sport — the career touchdown passes mark. Brett Favre sits atop the mountain at 508, but he could be unseated before October if Manning reassumes his 2013 pace. The Jets will be especially ripe for making history if they keep rolling out Antonio Allen, Darrin Walls, and Kyle Wilson at corner.
Manning, of course, is the center of several quarterback debates when it comes to bestowing that elusive Greatest of All Time title. Pitting him against archrival Tom Brady creates the most bitter internet debates this side of Human or Replicant, and Manning vs. Montana serves as a line in the sand to where one stands in the ultimate athletic cogitation of rings vs. stats.
What shouldn’t be controversial is this — Peyton Manning is the greatest statistical passer in the history of football, and he has an excellent chance to be the best old-age quarterback the sport has ever seen. He’s capable of something unprecedented … and may already be on the verge of it.
Consider Manning’s record-breaking 2013 campaign, his age 37 season. Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) — Pro Football Reference’s efficiency metric that weighs for yardage, touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks — is probably the most useful tool we have to compare across eras given that the site adjusts for the league mean. ANY/A+ ranks a league-average amount (4.2 at the merger, 5.2 at the turn of the millennium, 5.9 last season) as a 100 and has standard deviations of 15, so a mark of 130 — an elite season — ranks as two standard deviations above the average passer.
Among all 37-year-olds since the merger who attempted at least 250 passes, Manning was just the second to register a season that fell (roughly) two standard deviations above the league average.
It’s pretty incredible that 20 of the 22 quarterbacks in this sample posted above or near-average efficiency at that age, but I suppose it takes a very talented player to stick around that long and actually be relied upon to contribute on the field.
And while Manning tore through defenses with epic volume in 2013, his rate statistics weren’t the best when adjusted for era. Staubach’s final NFL season was arguably his finest, finishing almost a full point higher in ANY/A than Dan Fouts and Terry Bradshaw (5.89), the next-best-rated passers in ’79. The original Captain Comeback was nothing short of ridiculous for his age, registering four-straight 120 ANY/A+ seasons after turning 34; he was a standard deviation above average in all but one season he was healthy for.
This piece isn’t about Roger the Dodger, though, as he retired at 37. Manning wasn’t crossing new water when he won MVP last season — both Gannon and Y.A. Tittle took home the award at the same age in what proved to be their best seasons — but no one has been rewarded as the NFL’s best player at 38. In fact, only nine quarterbacks since the merger have posted above-average efficiency at that point.
The number of those who finished a standard deviation above the mean drops to four, and only John Elway’s 1998 campaign is remembered as an all-time great in retrospect (although Favre’s 2007 may be his most underrated). After that, just nine seasons in total featured teams that were manned by quarterbacks 39 or older. Favre and Moon own three each.
This sub-group is home to Favre’s miraculous 2009 season and some surprisingly productive years from the ageless Moon, but there clearly isn’t much precedence for a quarterback of Manning’s caliber who has continued to put up elite numbers with uninterrupted consistency. Favre was an All-Pro in ’09, but he was below average the year before and a standard deviation below the mean in his 2010 swan song.
While Manning’s arm strength has steadily eroded since returning from neck surgery, he’s been as good as a Bronco as he ever was a Colt. His wits haven’t left him, perhaps even still sharpening, and that’s all you need to succeed in a league that has never relied more on short routes and quick reads.
Through two weeks, Manning already owns the lead league in touchdowns and is just a quarter of a point from the top spot in ANY/A — currently owned by one of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s nine lives, who probably won’t be there at the end of the year. It’s a small sample, sure, but Manning has been the NFL’s best quarterback through his first 34 games as a Bronco (by a landslide, too), and he doesn’t seem to have missed a step since succumbing to Seattle’s Super Bowl blitzkrieg.
A lot of people won’t appreciate what he’s accomplishing due to longstanding rivalries, but Manning is still the most valuable player in the world at an age where the vast majority of players at his position are signing the lease to their first steakhouse. I look forward to another piece of history being shattered by the best quarterback to ever sling it, bit-by-bit, pass-by-pass.