Good afternoon, Bronco fans! Tomorrow is the big day and I’ll get to a few final thoughts about that game, but first, I wanted to talk about the career of one player who will most likely be playing the final game of his NFL career.
Of course, that’s Peyton Manning, a player who we have discussed countless times this season and who I discussed a fair amount a couple of days ago as to what he’ll need to keep doing to give the Broncos a chance to win. But I don’t want to focus on what he’s done this season (one point aside that I’ll get out of the way early), nor do I want discussion in this thread to focus on this season alone, because that’s not the focus of this piece.
Instead, I want to focus on his career and why some of the narratives that come along with his career really need to be tossed aside and that we recognize him as one of the best to play in the game and that total wins or playoff wins don’t really put his career into proper perspective.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The dumbest thing anybody can talk about regarding a quarterback is QUARTAHBACK WINZ! I will now roll out a simple point that will prove, beyond a shadow of doubt, that it’s not opinion, but fact, that quarterback wins are a dumb thing to discuss.
Ready? Here it is: In 2015, Peyton Manning was 9-2 as a starter.
There, that wasn’t difficult, was it? Nobody would go around talking about Peyton Manning’s QUARTAHBACK WINZ this season, because we know he wasn’t good overall. Now go tell your friends that one simple point has proven the argument about quarterback wins being meaningful is dumb!
Seriously, though, the real point behind citing the nine games the Broncos won with Peyton Manning as the starter is not just to demonstrate that those wins don’t tell the bigger picture about Peyton’s 2015 season, but that because they don’t, it follows that any sort of “quarterback wins” at any point of a quarterback’s career or in any particular situation don’t paint the bigger picture about what the quarterback was really like. And, yes, that still applies to the playoffs, because nobody is going to believe that Peyton Manning outplayed the likes of Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger in this year’s AFC playoffs simply because the Broncos won those games and the Patriots and Steelers each went 1-1.
Scott Kacsmar at Football Outsiders has gone over this multiple times, to the point many accuse him of being a Peyton Manning apologist. Kacsmar’s latest pieces can be found here and here. In reality, Kacsmar’s goal was to strike down the ridiculous narratives about how certain quarterbacks were better than Peyton in the playoffs because they won more games than they lost. The narrative does not simply focus on Tom Brady, but on quarterbacks such as Eli Manning, whose Giants teams went 10-3 in the playoff games he started. But the reality is, Eli has had fewer seasons in which his Giants teams made the playoffs, while Peyton’s teams have made the playoffs in all but two of the years in which he played at least 70 percent of the team’s offensive snaps for the season. (The Colts did not make the playoffs in 1998 or 2001 and Peyton missed the 2011 season following his neck surgery.) More playoff trips means more chances that you will be on the losing team as much as it means you will be on the winning team.
This does not mean that, therefore, Peyton Manning is better than Tom Brady, but that’s not the point I’m addressing. The point is that we need to stop harping so much on Peyton’s playoff performance as the be-all, end-all of defining what his career has really been like. We need to recognize that the Peyton playoff narrative comes up because the following factors apply:
1. The typical football fan prioritizes the games he watches in this way: Favorite football team or player comes first, marquee matchups second, and “if there isn’t anything else I’m interested in” third. The exception is the playoffs, in which the typical fan will try to watch every game, making sure not to miss a game involving a favorite team or player. This means most fans aren’t watching Peyton or any other quarterback in every single game to know what went into the outcome and whether or not other parts of the team were really that good. Instead, the typical fan relies on whatever reporter or analyst is offering easy-to-digest statistics and buys into it, particularly when it comes to the playoffs.
To be fair, the typical fan can’t sit down and watch every game. But what the typical fan must remember is, because he or she can’t watch every game, he or she must be careful about what conclusions or statistics he or she relies upon to make conclusions. That goes double for any of us who take a deeper look at what happened in games.
2. The typical football fan tends to remember highlights from a game, even if he or she has watched it from beginning to end. Typical fans don’t think about key plays in context of the entire game and what play may or may not have influenced what decision later in the game. Because these fans take that approach, they fall into the trap of looking at those easy-to-digest statistics to draw their conclusions. Yet those of us who look closer at the game must be smarter than that and not fall into the trap of buying whatever narrative is out there.
3. Given how much more attention the top players in the NFL draw these days, it’s easier for some fans to grow weary of hype surrounding any one player. If that happens, those fans feel the need to argue with anyone who tries to paint a clearer picture about the player’s career or defends a player from criticism that really isn’t warranted. It’s natural for people to hold opinions and defend them, but how one comes to that opinion must be considered. Those of us who take a deeper look at football will hold opinions, but must strive to avoid anything we may not like about a player from putting that player’s career into perspective.
4. This one specifically applies to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady: They have been compared to each other so much because they have been on opposing sides so many times, more often than any two quarterbacks who come to mind. Combine this with the focus that gets put on the top NFL players, more so than it’s ever been, and people start debating who is better more than they have before.
Back when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders were the top AFC teams in the 1970s, few people talked about the win-loss records that Terry Bradshaw and Ken Stabler had when they faced off. Nor did that talk always come up whenever Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach started in any meeting between the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys. Fast forward to the 1980s, where Joe Montana drew comparisons at times to John Elway and Dan Marino, but Montana played in the NFC and the other two were in the AFC, so the meetings between their teams were fewer. Even in the AFC, not as much talk focused on Elway vs. Marino because those teams didn’t meet up every year given how scheduling worked then.
That brings us back to Peyton and Brady, in which the four-division-per-conference structure meant that the Patriots and whichever team Peyton played for (Colts or Broncos) would often meet up during the regular season because of how scheduling works (and their teams won their divisions in the majority of their seasons), so you had far more times when the two would be on opposing sides. You didn’t just have to wait for the Super Bowl or the playoffs; you could see it almost every year. Put one or the other in the NFC, though, and the total meetings are reduced, meaning there may be some talk, but not as much as there is now.
And, as Kacsmar notes, it’s only natural that Brady gets pulled in at times when discussing his playoff career against Peyton’s career, even when demonstrating that Peyton’s playoff “record” is a silly thing to harp on, because the Patriots have made the playoffs so many times since Brady joined the roster. In Brady’s case, the Patriots have made the playoffs in all but one season in which he took at least 70 percent of the offensive season snaps (the one year that didn’t happen was 2002 and Brady missed nearly all of the 2008 season with a torn ACL). Hence, Brady’s sample size of playoff appearances can be easily compared with Peyton’s sample size.
But making such comparisons is not meant to declare Peyton is better than Brady; it’s only about putting both quarterbacks into perspective, in which each played in playoff games in which certain plays were not under their control. (That can be done with any quarterback, by the way.) If we want to talk about which quarterback is better, it requires looking at the big picture, not head-to-head WINZ. In Brady’s favor over Peyton, he has one less season in which his team missed the playoffs when Brady played the bulk of the snaps and fewer of his teammates are considered top candidates for the Hall of Fame. In Peyton’s favor over Brady, advanced metrics show that Brady’s teams often had better defenses than Peyton’s and that Brady has had the same head coach for his entire career thus far, so there’s been more consistency for him. And that’s just the start for both quarterbacks.
Getting back to Peyton, those who want to throw him under the bus for being a “playoff choker” are the ones who are really spending most of their time defending a narrative. Instead, we should simply recognize that Peyton has been one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game and that he did a lot to elevate the play of his teams in the bulk of his seasons. Recognizing that does not require we declare him to better than Brady or to say nothing about his overall play in 2015 matters.
But it does require us to recognize that QUARTAHBACK WINZ are a dumb thing to talk about, playoff or otherwise. We need to stop believing in such things and start looking at the bigger picture when it comes to measuring what a quarterback really does for a team.
With all that out of the way, I have a few final thoughts about Super Bowl 50. I have a very good feeling about the Broncos this year, one I did not have the last time when the Broncos reached the big game two years ago. I am certainly aware that they are facing a tough team, but this team doesn’t quite scare me the way the Seattle Seahawks did. And while I understand why the Carolina Panthers are favored by most, I believe the following factors will play into the Broncos’ favor.
1. The Broncos defense is much better than the Panthers. Yes, the Panthers have the second-best ranking per Football Outsiders DVOA, but the defense isn’t one of the best of all time, at -18.4 DVOA. Compare that to the Broncos, whose -25.8 DVOA ranks it as the eighth best defense since 1989, the furthest year back when FO has compiled such ratings. And since the NFL switched to four divisions in 2002, the Broncos D ranks fourth among those defenses that reached the Super Bowl, trailing only 2002 Tampa Bay (an unbelievable -31.8), 2008 Pittsburgh (-29.0) and 2013 Seattle (-25.9, just a difference of -0.1). All three of those teams won the Super Bowl, so beating an all-time top defense in the Super Bowl is not an easy task.
2. The Broncos may not have faced an offense like the Panthers run, but the Panthers haven’t faced a defense like the Broncos run. Sure, the Panthers beat two quality defenses in Arizona and Seattle, but once again, per FO, the gap between the Broncos D (-25.8 DVOA) and the Arizona D (-15.6) and Seattle D (-15.2) is considerable. The Panthers can’t count on getting big plays (like Seattle gave up) or the defense constantly blitzing (like Arizona did) and will need to earn every point they get through sustained drives.
3. I believe the Broncos will find a way to win the field position battle. This was key to how the Broncos gave themselves a chance to beat the Steelers and the Patriots. The Panthers won the battle of field position in the bulk of their games, but they could find it tougher to do that when you look at how well the Broncos play defense and how the special teams has come together. In particular, the Broncos overall special teams is better than the Panthers and that could become a big factor.
4. I believe Peyton Manning has accepted his limitations and will not try to create something on every down. He won’t try to pick on Luke Kuechly or Josh Norman and focus more on whoever those two don’t cover, until the Panthers adjust and he can take other targets. He’s not going to insist on operating out of the shotgun every play and won’t likely run the pistol. Finally, he’ll come into the game with a chip on his shoulder, which just might allow him to surprise people and complete a throw or two downfield, something I imagine nobody is expecting to happen.
5. The Broncos are as healthy as they’ve been all season and that Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward were full participants in practice the past two days shows they should be no more limited than Jared Allen or Thomas Davis during the game. Losing Ryan Clady was a blow, but that happened before the season even started. David Bruton Jr. and Omar Bolden will be missed, but the Broncos should have enough depth to cover for them. This isn’t like the number of players the Broncos lost for the season in their last Super Bowl.
I make no scoring prediction, but I will say this: It will be a low-scoring game throughout, with each team forcing a turnover through a great play that leads to each team’s only touchdown of the game, while each getting a couple of drives that end in field goals. And the winning team gets it done by sustaining a drive for the go-ahead score and that team’s defense holds on to ensure the victory.
Of course, as a Broncos fan, I’m going to say that the Broncos will be that winning team. Wouldn’t you?