Sunday, January 4, 2015

Peyton Manning: GOAT or goat?

Like any sport, football lends itself to spirited debates about its heroes, and when it comes to football heroes, no one inspires our emotions like quarterbacks.

Inevitably, we football fans think, and argue, about which QB is the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). But no one even seems able to agree on the criteria for such a title, let alone which player deserves it. Even so, there are some parts of this debate that are, well, not up for debate.

Peyton Manning is deservedly always in the GOAT conversation--now more than ever, as one record after another tumbles into his grasp--but Manning has been dogged for years about his postseason performance. How could it be that a man who has thrown for more touchdowns than anyone else in NFL history, and who is a Brett Favre away from owning most of the other career passing records, with the nearest competitors nothing more than a speck in his rearview mirror, has so little postseason success?

"But what about Super Bowl 41?!" his many defenders shout. "Manning won the big game! He got the monkey off his back!"

But did he?

Year after year, Peyton has compiled eye-popping regular season performances, racking up so many passing yards that they should be measured in miles, throwing touchdowns by the dozen, and collecting double-digit win totals as if they were trading cards, prompting pigskin prognosticators across the land to assure us annually that no one would stop Peyton this year, that he would hoist aloft the Lombardi trophy at season's end for sure. Love him or hate him, you must admit that, if Manning won a Super Bowl every time he was supposed to, he'd be like two Joe Montanas. And yet, just the one.

"Still counts," you say. "He proved he could win the big one." Yes, but so have a lot of people who aren't in this conversation. Of course, Manning deserves the credit for winning a championship, but what about the rest of his postseason career? how does he stack up against the other great QBs in the playoffs?

With these questions in mind, I compiled regular season and postseason winning percentages for all 13 NFL QBs with 100 career wins or more. I chose the 100-win figure simply because, if we're looking for the GOAT, no one with fewer than that could expect to be taken seriously.

These percentages in hand, I simply subtracted the postseason number from the regular-season one and expressed the difference as a percentage:

One would naturally expect a QB's postseason win percentage to be lower than his regular-season percentage, due to the small sample size of playoff games, and the single-elimination format. But unexpectedly, three QBs, Terry Bradshaw, Johnny Unitas, and Fran Tarkenton, actually had a higher win percentage in the playoffs than they had in the regular season. Talk about clutch! Additionally, two QBs, Roethlisberger and Elway, had the same win percentage in the regular season as they did in the playoffs.

In Manning's case, my suspicions were confirmed: His postseason winning percentage was over 22% lower than his regular season percentage. This put him in 13th place--dead last--among the all-time elite QBs when it comes to postseason dropoff.

Note also that the bottom five QBs in our ranking--Favre, Kelly, Marino, Moon, and Manning, have a combined 718 regular season wins and just two Super Bowl titles, whereas the top eight have 995 wins and 17 Super Bowls, with another two (pre-Super Bowl) NFL championships for Unitas.

One other stat caught my eye: The number of One and Done seasons--seasons in which the QB lost his first playoff game--for each of the 13 QBs. Who do you think had the most?

Look, I know this is a tough pill to swallow for a lot of you. As I've said before, Peyton is a nice guy with a good sense of humor, and is easy to like. But his postseason futility is no longer up for debate. It's a statistical fact that his peers far outperform him.

Any questions?