Friday, December 19, 2008

Peyton Manning: Let's Hold Our Horses

As I'm prone to do, I'll open with an admission: I'm not a fan of the Indianapolis Colts or Peyton Manning. I tend to think both are overrated, which naturally irritates me. It's not fair since neither the team nor the elder Manning can control it, but it's the truth (that they irritate me, not that they're overrated - that's my opinion).

That might make some of you discredit the rest off the bat and that's cool. I ain’t mad at ya.

Last night's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars is a perfect microcosm of why I don't think Peyton Manning can ever be rated a top five quarterback of all-time. Not unless he wins at least another Super Bowl or two.

He looked awesome and he led his team to a comeback victory on the road. But, good LORD, how many times did he even have to shift in the pocket? Forget leave it. And that's always been my problem with Manning. Sure, he puts up insane numbers, but he doesn't pass the eye test.

Let's be clear, I am NOT saying Peyton Manning isn't one of the greatest QBs of all-time.

I repeat, I am NOT saying he isn't a great QB. He is undeniably one of the greatest ever. This year is perhaps his best to date and I'm more inclined to cast my vote (if I had one) for him as the National Football League's Most Valuable Player as 2008 winds down. He's putting up another great numerical campaign while leading his team to big wins without the presence of even a decent running game.

However, therein lies the problem.

This is the first year he hasn't been surrounded by Pro Bowlers at all the skill positions. In past years, Peyton's had the full compliment of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark, Brandon Stokely, and/or Edgerrin James. Not every QB would look as phenomenal as Manning with such options, but most would look pretty good.

And the most devastating weapon in Peyton Manning's arsenal has always been his offensive line.

That line protects him from pressure the same way it saves me from accusations of being a homerific hypocrite.

Heretofore, I'm holding Peyton Manning's supporting cast against him, yet I don't do the same for Steve Young. To a degree, the accusation is warranted because Young had some pretty stellar players, coaches, and offensive plans to rely upon.

Notice I don't throw Joe Montana in there?

That's because I'm not a fan of comparing players across generations. Look at some guys from Joe Cool's protectorate: Steve Wallace - 6'4", 301 lbs. is big, but not huge; Harris Barton - 6'4", 292 is big, but not huge; Guy McIntyre - 6'3", 290 is getting smaller; Jesse Sapolu - 6'4", 278 smaller; Randy Cross - 6'3", 259 while sometimes taking snaps at CENTER; and Tom Rathman - 6'1", 230 as a blocking fullback.

Uh, there are some wide receivers in the League right now who would blow through some of those guys. You can't tell me comparing Joe's exploits against Manning's is apples to apples. Such an exercise isn't meaningless and is fun, but it's certainly not a discussion from which concrete conclusions can be drawn.

It’s just not the same game.

Besides, Joe Cool won two Super Bowls before Jerry Rice showed up and four total. I understand he always had Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense. You still need players.

The only modern quarterbacks I'd put in the argument with Montana are Tom Brady and John Elway. Both come up short at the moment, but I think Brady eventually shoots by Joe Cool. I don't like saying it, but that's the way of sports.

You're the best of all-time for a while, you hope your reign is long, and you graciously step aside when the Next Sh*t comes ‘round.

Consequently, comparing Young and Manning is much more realistic since both played while/after the Dallas Cowboys offensive line revolutionized the game in the 1990s. And I'd be a HUGE hypocrite except Peyton Manning’s offensive line is vastly superior to Young’s version.

Look at the sack totals versus quarterback ratings of each player:

Peyton Manning:

Year Sacks QB Rating
1998 22 71.2
1999 14 90.7
2000 20 94.7
2001 29 84.1
2002 23 88.8
2003 18 99
2004 13 121.1
2005 17 104.1
2006 14 101
2007 21 98
2008 13 93.8

Steve Young:

Year Sacks QB Rating
1985 21 56.9
1986 47 65.5
1987 3 120.8
1988 13 72.2
1989 12 120.8
1990 8 92.6
1991 13 101.8
1992 29 107
1993 31 101.5
1994 31 112.8
1995 25 92.3
1996 34 97.2
1997 35 104.7
1998 48 101.1
1999 8 60.9

I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not a pure stat guy and this case is no different. I don’t think the above proves anything, but it’s still informative. Young’s QB rating is all over the place while Manning’s pretty closely tracks his sack totals. Furthermore, look how many more times Steve Young saw the turf.

I know Young was a running QB and that distorts the situation, as do his days spent in NFL purgatory (Tampa Bay in ‘85/’86) and on the bench behind Montana (’87-’91). But the fact remains that, while Young had a similar cast at the skill positions, his offensive line didn’t compare to Peyton’s modern version.

Additionally, Young’s performance doesn’t appear to be particularly dependent on his offensive line’s dominance. Some of his best statistical seasons came while getting planted on a routine basis. The same cannot be said about Peyton.

When he is hassled on a regular basis, his play suffers.

Don’t get me wrong. Manning is the master of subtle shifts inside the pocket. He’s like that guy on the pick-up courts who isn’t particularly fast or quick, can’t jump very high, and is altogether physically unimpressive. But he’s got great touch, knows his game perfectly, and excels at those little bumps that create an extra inch or two of space to get off his shot (which usually goes in).

But how many QBs in the NFL wouldn’t excel at the same if they knew it was all they had to do? For the vast majority of their careers? How many QBs couldn’t put that nice tight spiral and touch on the ball while throwing with the confidence born from security? I bet a lot would love the chance.

And that, more than anything, is what I saw in the Jacksonville game.

I saw Manning rarely unable to sit back comfortably and step into his throw. There were a couple occasions where he was harried, but he threw the ball 34 times. Nobody’s perfect (not even Peyton who connected on 29 of those throws for 364 yards and three touchdowns, wow). I saw an offensive line that routinely gave him four or five seconds to find targets.

That’s just unusual.

Again, Peyton Manning is a very special quarterback and athlete. I’m not saying your average professional QB could switch places seamlessly. What I am saying is that there’s enough evidence to suggest that, without his offensive line, Manning would be nowhere near the player he is.

Such what-ifs are never enough to overwhelm real-world performance. You can’t deny that Peyton Manning’s career numbers and Super Bowl title put him amongst the best to ever call signals in the NFL.

But until he shows me he can do it without the deck stacked so much in his favor, I can’t consider him alongside guys like Brady, Elway, Young, or Brett Favre.

If Peyton Manning wins another Super Bowl title, I’d have to rethink it. If he wins another couple, it’s a no-brainer and he’s in.

Until then, though, I guess I’m in the minority.

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