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On Peyton Manning and Fellow Geezer Quarterbacks

At 38, Peyton is the runaway favorite for MVP. Just how common is that? Is it unprecedented?

(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.

Player Year Tm Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Y/A ANY/A ANY/A+
Roger Staubach 1979 DAL 267 461 57.92% 3586 27 11 36 7.78 6.82 133
Peyton Manning 2013 DEN 450 659 68.29% 5477 55 10 18 8.31 8.87 129
Rich Gannon 2002 OAK 418 618 67.64% 4689 26 10 36 7.59 6.95 126
Steve Young 1998 SFO 322 517 62.28% 4170 36 12 48 8.07 7.28 125
Joe Montana 1993 KAN 181 298 60.74% 2144 13 7 12 7.19 6.54 119
Jeff Garcia 2007 TAM 209 327 63.91% 2440 13 4 19 7.46 6.98 118
John Elway 1997 DEN 280 502 55.78% 3635 27 11 34 7.24 6.49 116
Kurt Warner 2008 ARI 401 598 67.06% 4583 30 14 26 7.66 7 116
Steve DeBerg 1991 KAN 256 434 58.99% 2965 17 14 19 6.83 5.55 105
Dan Marino 1998 MIA 310 537 57.73% 3497 23 15 23 6.51 5.54 104
Brad Johnson 2005 MIN 184 294 62.59% 1885 12 4 23 6.41 5.71 103
Johnny Unitas 1970 BAL 166 321 51.71% 2213 14 18 19 6.89 4.49 103
Craig Morton 1980 DEN 183 301 60.80% 2150 12 13 26 7.14 4.94 101
Doug Flutie 1999 BUF 264 478 55.23% 3171 19 16 26 6.63 5.27 100
Len Dawson 1972 KAN 175 305 57.38% 1835 13 12 28 6.02 3.9 99
Mike Tomczak 1999 PIT 139 258 53.88% 1625 12 8 15 6.3 5.13 99
Fran Tarkenton 1977 MIN 155 258 60.08% 1734 9 14 22 6.72 3.76 98
Brett Favre 2006 GNB 343 613 55.95% 3885 18 18 21 6.34 5.21 97
Warren Moon 1993 HOU 303 520 58.27% 3485 21 21 34 6.7 4.95 97
Vinny Testaverde 2000 NYJ 328 590 55.59% 3732 21 25 13 6.33 4.9 96
Gus Frerotte 2008 MIN 178 301 59.14% 2157 12 15 29 7.17 4.72 89
Dave Krieg 1995 ARI 304 521 58.35% 3554 16 21 53 6.82 4.44 87

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.

Player Year Tm Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Y/A ANY/A ANY/A+
John Elway 1998 DEN 210 356 58.99% 2806 22 10 18 7.88 7.11 123
Brett Favre 2007 GNB 356 535 66.54% 4155 28 15 15 7.77 7.18 121
Craig Morton 1981 DEN 225 376 59.84% 3195 21 14 54 8.5 6.03 116
Phil Simms 1993 NYG 247 400 61.75% 3038 15 9 37 7.6 6.22 114
Jeff Garcia 2008 TAM 244 376 64.89% 2712 12 6 23 7.21 6.47 110
Joe Montana 1994 KAN 299 493 60.65% 3283 16 9 19 6.66 5.99 109
Kurt Warner 2009 ARI 339 513 66.08% 3753 26 14 24 7.32 6.46 109
Warren Moon 1994 MIN 371 601 61.73% 4264 18 19 29 7.09 5.61 104
Jon Kitna 2010 DAL 209 318 65.72% 2365 16 12 21 7.44 6.03 103

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.

Player Year Tm Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Y/A ANY/A ANY/A+
Brett Favre 2009 MIN 363 531 68.36% 4202 33 7 34 7.91 7.61 123
Warren Moon 1995 MIN 377 606 62.21% 4228 33 14 38 6.98 6.18 113
Jim Plunkett 1986 RAI 133 252 52.78% 1986 14 9 27 7.88 5.9 113
Warren Moon 1997 SEA 313 528 59.28% 3678 25 16 30 6.97 5.85 108
Vinny Testaverde 2004 DAL 297 495 60.00% 3532 17 20 34 7.14 5.27 99
Doug Flutie 2001 SDG 294 521 56.43% 3464 15 18 25 6.65 5.1 98
Warren Moon 1998 SEA 145 258 56.20% 1632 11 8 22 6.33 4.83 95
Brett Favre 2008 NYJ 343 522 65.71% 3472 22 22 30 6.65 4.91 92
Brett Favre 2010 MIN 217 358 60.61% 2509 11 19 22 7.01 4.57 86

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.

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About Brandon Magner (27 Articles)
(@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the one-year MBA program at the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He is now enrolled in the University of Kentucky College of Law.

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