Jan 102014


Barring a shocking development (which is not out of the question in today’s NFL), the league will get yet another Manning/Brady showdown come January 19. If it happens, it will be the fifteenth time they have faced each other, the fourth time in the playoffs, and the third time a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line.

If you thought the hype was big back in November, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

So, what’s an interested fan to do but join in? It’s time for Danny’s answer to the Great Quaterback Debate. Here’s the executive summary:

Manning is a better quarterback than Brady.

Sure, I’m a homer, having been a Bronco fan since the early Elway days and a Manning supporter more often than not (Super Bowl XLI being the rare exception — curse you, Rex Grossman!). However, I fail to see any way of honestly viewing the numbers that convincingly shows otherwise. That being said, Manning and Brady are clearly #1 and #1A in the modern era. (I’ll leave the “Best of All Time” argument for another day.)

“But what about winning?” asks the voice on the other side of the screen. “Brady has the highest winning percentage of any quarterback in history! Brady has three rings; Manning only has one!”

My response is simple: “So what?”

Football is a team sport, not an individual one. Baseball statisticians long ago figured out wins are the absolute worst way to assess the effectiveness of pitchers; one day, football will catch up and realize the evaluation of a quarterback does not begin and end with “games won”. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous, unless you can explain his role in winning during the 50% of the time he is not on the field. At best, the quarterback’s job is to run the offense effectively and score as many points as possible; even then, he is severely limited by the talent pool around him. Sure, he can play a role in defense by keeping his offense on the field, but that only goes so far — particularly since the better the quarterback, the more likely the team is going to score quickly.

In fact, assigning wins to quarterbacks makes even less sense than doing the same for pitchers. A superior pitcher essentially negates the talent of the rest of his defense. Surround Walter Johnson with seven scrubs for nine innings, then do it again with seven All Stars. The results are going to be surprisingly similar. No one with a functioning brain can suggest the same is true with a quarterback.

Further, if a quarterback’s value is solely in championships won, please feel free to argue that Trent Dilfer is a better quarterback than Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Dan Fouts, and Jim Kelly.

Simply put: if your answer to the Manning vs. Brady question is, “Wins and championships are all that matters,” you’re not going to like this article. Then again, you are objectively wrong, so I can safely dismiss you.

For the rest of you, here goes.

Pro-Football-Reference.com tallies 26 statistical categories for passers. Of these, several can be discarded:

  • Games Played and Games Started have little to no bearing on a QB’s effectiveness; all they can tell us is how often the player was considered the best option for the team signing his paychecks.
  • Quarterback Record (i.e. team win-loss record when the player started) is, as stated above, one of the worst ways to evaluate a quarterback.
  • “Raw” statistics, like Completions, Attempts, Yards, Touchdowns, and Interceptions are useful, but not as much as the related “rate” stats.
  • Longest Completed Pass is mildly interesting at best. As it represents the single most successful pass thrown in a given season, its value in assessing a player’s overall performance is limited.
  • Yards per Game is a “rate” stat, but it is much more dependent on the team’s gameplan than the quarterback’s skill level.
  • Total Quarterback Rating has only been tracked by ESPN since 2008, so it can’t really tell the whole story of our two players’ careers.
  • Times Sacked, Yards Lost, Net Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, and Sack Percentage have some relation to the player’s skill level, but they are much more a reflection of the offensive line playing in front of him.
  • Fourth Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives are highly subjective. Just because two players have the same number of game-winning drives does not mean they are equally skillful. You have to consider, for example, how often the team has had to play from behind, how big the deficits were, and so on.

This leaves us with seven categories: Completion Percentage, Touchdown Percentage, Interception Percentage, Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Yards per Attempt, Quarterback Rating, and Approximate Value (Pro-Football-Reference.com‘s proprietary rating system). (The remaining category — Yards per Completion — is simply a combination of Completion Percentage and Yards per Attempt, and is therefore superfluous.)

A direct comparison of career totals shows that Manning leads in six of the seven:

Statistic Manning Brady Difference
Completion Rate 65.5% 63.4% +3%
Touchdown Rate 5.8% 5.5% +5%
Interception Rate 2.6% 2.0% +23%
Yards per Attempt 7.7 7.5 +3%
Adjusted Yards per Attempt 7.7 7.6 +1%
Quarterback Rating 97.2 95.8 +1%
Adjusted Value 16.9/season 15.8/season +7%


Admittedly, the numbers are remarkably close. Manning throws more touchdowns, but not decidedly so. Brady throws fewer interceptions, although Manning is a touch more accurate overall.

Okay, so Brady and Manning are essentially neck-and-neck. But what about consistency? After all, a quarterback who throws 40 touchdowns one year and 10 the next will have the same average as one who throws 25 touchdowns year after year, yet it should be obvious which would be the preferable signal-caller.

Manning and Brady have played in 11 seasons together, not counting years when one or the other was sidelined by injury: 2001 through 2007, 2009-2010, and 2012-2013.

Peyton Manning
Year Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR AV
2001 62.7 4.8 4.2 7.6 6.6 84.1 15
2002 66.3 4.6 3.2 7.1 6.6 88.8 15
2003 67.0 5.1 1.8 7.5 7.8 99.0 18
2004 67.6 9.9 2.0 9.2 10.2 121.1 21
2005 67.3 6.2 2.2 8.3 8.5 104.1 18
2006 65.0 5.6 1.6 7.9 8.3 101.0 20
2007 65.4 6.0 2.7 7.8 7.8 98.0 17
2009 68.8 5.8 2.8 7.9 7.8 99.9 17
2010 66.3 4.9 2.5 6.9 6.8 91.9 16
2012 68.6 6.3 1.9 8.0 8.4 105.8 15
2013 68.3 8.3 1.5 8.3 9.3 115.1 19


Tom Brady
Year Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR AV
2001 63.9 4.4 2.9 6.9 6.4 86.5 12
2002 62.1 4.7 2.3 6.3 6.1 85.7 13
2003 60.2 4.4 2.3 6.9 6.7 85.9 11
2004 60.8 5.9 3.0 7.8 7.6 92.6 16
2005 63.0 4.9 2.6 7.8 7.5 92.3 15
2006 61.8 4.7 2.3 6.8 6.7 87.9 14
2007 68.9 8.7 1.4 8.3 9.4 117.2 24
2009 65.7 5.0 2.3 7.8 7.7 96.2 16
2010 65.9 7.3 0.8 7.9 9.0 111.0 18
2012 63.0 5.3 1.3 7.6 8.1 98.7 18
2013 60.5 4.0 1.8 6.9 6.9 87.3 13


As you can see, Manning has been better in each of our categories at least 8 out of the 11 seasons — except for interception percentage, which Brady has won 6 of 11 times. More impressively, Manning was better than Brady in all seven categories for four straight seasons, from 2003-2006, and again in 2013, and bested him in six of the seven in 2009 (the year after Brady’s knee injury). Brady was better in a majority of categories only twice: in 2007, when he won all seven, and in 2010, when Manning surpassed him only in completion percentage (the season before Manning’s neck surgery).

In fact, one of the big points assumed to be in Brady’s favor is his consistency; yet, over those 11 seasons, look at the coefficient of variance (standard deviation divided by average) for each player in each stat:

Statistic Manning Brady
Completion Rate .026 .040
Touchdown Rate .251 .251
Interception Rate .318 .315
Yards per Attempt .076 .081
Adjusted Yards per Attempt .133 .134
Quarterback Rating .102 .107
Adjusted Value .113 .225


In every case, Manning has been at least as consistent as Brady, if not more so. To further highlight this, consider the players’ best seasons — in 2007, Brady had what is arguably the best year either has seen in leading the Patriots to a perfect regular-season record. Manning’s 2013 campaign comes close, but not quite. And yet, if you express their stats in terms of standard scores (i.e. numbers of standard deviations above or below the career average), something interesting emerges:

Player Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR AV
Brady (2007) +2.15 +2.44 -1.08 +1.26 +1.72 +2.13 +2.30
Manning (2013) +0.92 +1.72 -1.21 +0.94 +1.37 +1.52 +0.88


In nearly every case, Manning’s “great year” numbers are closer to his career averages than Brady’s. In other words, Brady’s 2007 season was possibly the best a quarterback has ever had, but it was more of an outlier than Manning’s only slightly less-impressive 2013 season.

Take names out of it, and ask yourself this question: if you are comparing two players and one (a) has better career numbers, (2) has better season numbers more often than not, and (iii) has maintained the same level of performance year in and year out, who would you conclude was the better player?

As noted at the outset, you cannot reasonably say a quarterback’s sole job is to win games; a quarterback can throw for five touchdowns per game, but if his defense gives up six, he’ll lose every time. That being said, I can feel the doubters out there: “Just win, baby!”

So, we’ll take a quick look at winning.

Using the Pythagorean win percentage, we can look at how many games each player’s teams can be expected to have won based on points scored versus points allowed. Over the 11 seasons both Manning and Brady have been in the league together, their teams have performed as follows:

Player Points For Points Against Estimated Win % Expected Record Actual Record
Manning 4985 3738 .664 117-59 129-47
Brady 4836 3232 .722 127-49 134-42


It can be argued that Brady’s one clear advantage is explained by the fact he has had much better defenses on the other side of the ball. Swap them, and this is what you get:

Player Points For Points Against Estimated Win % Expected Record Actual Record
Manning 4985 3232 .736 130-46 ?
Brady 4836 3738 .648 114-62 ?


Another point often trotted out in Brady’s favor is the idea of “intangibles”; that he “knows how to win” or somesuch drivel. Frankly, the evidence doesn’t bear that out; if anything, Manning has the advantage here, as well. As shown above, Brady’s teams “should have” won 127 games during those 11 years. In reality, the Patriots won 134 games, or 6% more than expected. Meanwhile, Manning’s teams, projected to win 117 games, actually won 129, or an increase of 10% over the expected win total.

Or, if you don’t like the whole Pythagorean thing, consider this: in their careers, Brady has won 12.4 games per full season as a starter; Manning has won 11.1. Are you really comfortable saying the Patriots’ demonstrably superior defenses (and arguably the most effective head coach of all time) are worth less than 1.3 wins per season?

“Okay,” say the Brady defenders. “We can’t argue with the stats, and Manning seems at least as good at winning. But that’s the regular season; and everyone knows Manning chokes in the Big Game.”

Do we really know that?

Brady has won more playoff games than any other quarterback — but as we’ve said, you can’t lay those wins solely at Brady’s feet, nor can you entirely blame Manning for his teams’ 11 playoff losses. Instead, let’s look at their individual performances in the playoffs:

Player Record PPG Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR
Manning 9-11 23.0 63.2 4.2 2.8 7.5 7.1 88.4
Brady 17-7 25.4 62.3 4.7 2.5 6.7 6.5 87.4


Brady throws more touchdowns than Manning in the playoffs, but the difference in interception rates is narrower than in the regular season, while Manning is significantly better in both Y/A and AY/A. Note that both players’ QBRs are the same, relative to each other, from the regular season to the playoffs, so it’s hard to justify claiming either player “chokes” more than the other.

Honestly, when I started this analysis, I assumed I would find the conventional wisdom borne out: Manning would have clearly superior regular-season statistics, while Brady would shine in the playoffs. It turns out both assumptions were wrong. Manning’s performance in the regular season has been consistently better, but not by much. Meanwhile, in the playoffs, Brady’s performance suffers more than it improves relative to Manning’s.

In short, while Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, Manning is a notch above. This is not a prediction of the outcome should the Patriots head to Denver next Sunday — the Broncos’ defense is far too questionable for me to put money on that (and that blown 24-0 lead back in November still stings). But in the battle of individual performances, there can be no realistic doubt: Peyton Manning is the best quarterback of his generation.

Danny Boy

Hi. I'm Dan. I like football, baseball, and cheese. Also beer. I live in Colorado, where we have good beer and great football. Baseball and cheese? Not so much.

  13 Responses to “Manning > Brady”

  1. Well written. No realistic doubt? Yes, you are indeed a homer. And you missed two telling points.

    First, Brady has consistently done more with less in terms of a receiving corps, particularly when the Patriots were winning Super Bowls. The Pats only picked up receivers like Moss and Welker after they had won their third championship. Brady has consistently made mediocre receivers better, while for much of his career Manning had Harrison and Wayne to throw to. And Manning clearly has a superior receiving corps in Denver.

    Second, the measure of a quarterback’s greatness is in championships; plain and simple. It doesn’t matter how good Dan Marino was; he lost the big game when he was there and he never got back. So he will never be considered as great as quarterbacks who won the championship. Championships ultimately define a team’s success. To that end, three championships is better than one any day of the week.

    Oh, and I’ll make one other comment. Don’t count on a re-match between the two teams in Denver next week. Given the state of the Patriots’ defense right now, with four defensive starters (Wilfork, Mayo, Kelly, and Spikes) now on IR, I am fully expecting Andrew Luck and the Colts to give the Patriots all they can handle, and probably a little bit more. New England has proven to be an incredibly resilient team this season, but there is only so much that any team can make up for.

    • I only missed one “telling point”, Ghost. I addressed the “championships are all that matters” thing at the very outset. :)

      If you want to believe Joe Flacco is a better quarterback than Dan Marino, or that Roethlisberger and little Manning are the best of the past decade, you go right ahead. I choose to disagree.

      I’m willing to concede there is a point to be made on differing skill levels of the receiving corps — but as Botrott mentions, that is difficult to quantify. You can say Brady did more with less and that Manning benefited from Harrison/Wayne — but I can just as easily question whether Manning made Harrison/Wayne or vice versa. To me it is instructive that Manning’s best year was with the likes of Eric Decker and Demariyus Thomas, who averaged 388 yards/season before Manning came to Denver.

      • Not saying Flacco is better than Marino. I am saying that when you have two great quarterbacks like Brady and Manning, the thing that would tip the scales for me is winning, and winning championships. In that department, Brady wins.

        The receiver question isn’t close. Harrison and Wayne would have thrived under other quarterbacks. Not so for Reche Caldwell, David Givens, Deion Branch, and others. Welker and Moss would thrive under any quarterback, but as I noted, they cam along much later.

        My biggest point though, which I simply hinted at before, is that to suggest there is “no realistic debate” on this question is both preposterous and hyperbolic. There is of course great debate, and both sides have strong arguments.

        • “when you have two great quarterbacks like Brady and Manning, the thing that would tip the scales for me is winning, and winning championships”

          This, I can get behind. What I heard you (and many others) say was “championships are ALL that matters”. And this, IMHO, is ludicrous. I do think it brings up an intriguing question, though: how close do player’s “greatnesses” (presumably as measured by individual stats) need to be before team success can be used to tip the scales? Put another way, how many QBR points is a Super Bowl ring worth?

          Besides, you’ve read my stuff before. Hyperbole is what I do. I hereby rescind my “no realistic doubt” comment. I still think Manning’s oeuvre speaks for itself, though. :)

  2. You also fail to mention that for his years with the Colts…Manning got to play half of his games in a dome, surely playing in a climate controlled environment is an advantage. As Ghost Rat alluded to Manning never had deal with receivers like Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney as his wide receivers and Manning consistently had the same receivers every year. Brady won Super Bowls with David Givens and Dion Branch, guys that didn’t do much after they left New England. While it would be difficult to put into stats one could argue Brady has done more with less.

    As you say a teams loss is not entirely the fault of the quarterback but Manning has had 8 one and done in the playoffs (is that another record he owns?) and his play in some of them certainly did not help his teams chances in them. Plus you did not compare stats when the temperature is below 40°, which..for some reason…seems to happen a lot at playoff time.

    • Agreed. It would be informative if we could separate the degree to which a quarterback’s outcomes are affected by his receivers, but until the NFL starts keeping — and releasing — better numbers (why isn’t “yards after the catch” a standard stat?) we won’t know.

      As far as the dome goes, again, it’d be interesting to see what effect it had, but the stats just aren’t available. Based on my experience looking into detailed park effects in baseball, however, it’s often not as large a difference as one might assume.

      My point, ultimately, was to turn the Manning vs. Brady conversation away from a (IMHO) wholly inadequate “just win, baby!”/team-outcomes-focused focus to one based on something a bit more objective and individually-focused. I’m doing the best with what I have access to. :)

  3. Wow…so rates that make Manning look good are rates we need to analyze, rates that make Brady look good, let’s throw them out. Okay, now let us compare…

    You obviously set this up based on prejudice. You took your favorite QB and voted him best. I agree with the last two comments which stated that he has surrounded himself with more talented WRs and personnel who he can dumb the ball to than Brady has been able to. You cannot forget the stadium fact as well.

    Brady has more Championships as well as more Superbowls with less skilled receiving corps. Manning has better “stats” as you call them (which I may add, rely on the skill of the WR as much as the QB lobbing the ball.)

    Regardless of what anybody in this world thinks, they are BOTH quality, top of the line, impressive QBs who are capable of things nobody else has been able to do thus far in American Football. Props to both QBs for being on an entirely new level.

    • What “rates” did I throw out that would make Brady look good?

      * Games Played and Games Started: Manning “wins” both.

      * Quarterback Record: Brady’s winning percentage is higher, but Manning has more wins.

      * Completions, Attempts, Yards, Touchdowns, and Interceptions: Manning has more in every category. (Okay, more interceptions is bad, but I made it clear in my analysis that Brady’s interception rate is superior.)

      * Longest Completed Pass: Brady has a 99-yard completion; Manning’s long is only 86 yards. I’m listening if you want to make the argument that this makes Brady a better quarterback.

      * Yards per Completion: Brady 11.8, Manning 11.7.

      * Yards per Game: Manning wins again.

      * Total Quarterback Rating: In the years they’ve both been in the league together (and this stat has been kept), Manning has had the advantage five times, Brady only twice.

      * Times Sacked, Yards Lost, Net Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, and Sack Percentage: Manning has been sacked less often, for fewer yards, which means his NY/A and ANY/A are higher and his Sack% is lower.

      * Fourth Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives: Manning has more of each.

      If anything, I helped Brady’s case by focusing on rate stats rather than raw totals, since Manning has three extra years as a starter, and has been in more pass-happy offenses.

      I do not deny my bias — I put it right out there in graf five. But the “stats” as I call them say what they say. If I had access to information that would help me fine-tune them, like the effects of the receiving corps or the domed stadium, I would happily use them. I love stats. They keep me warm at night. 😉

      One more time: yes, Brady has more championships. Why is it that Manning should be docked on the stats for having better receivers, but Brady is assumed to be solely responsible for his team’s successes, despite demonstrably better defenses and a legendary head coach?

      “Regardless of what anybody in this world thinks, they are BOTH quality, top of the line, impressive QBs who are capable of things nobody else has been able to do thus far in American Football. Props to both QBs for being on an entirely new level.”

      Agreed on this. Brady is a legitimately great quarterback. I question whether either he or Manning should be called the “best of all time”, but in this era, there are none better. Nevertheless, if the debate is “who is the best of this generation?” there can only be one winner. I picked mine, and I backed it up with objective, if admittedly incomplete, data. I’m not going to say you’re wrong if you pick Brady — all I’m asking is that the conversation not begin and end with what are ultimately team achievements.

    • Well said.

    • I did acknowledge this. :)

      Those calling Manning’s 2013 season “the best ever by a quarterback” are being swayed by raw totals, which I purposefully excluded from my analysis. To be fair, there could be circumstances in which simply inflating one player’s totals because his team threw less often doesn’t work — for example, if a team’s running game is good enough to cause defenses to back off the pass. In that case, it’s possible that starting to pass more often would result in diminishing returns.

      However, that’s not the case here: the Patriots’ 2007 and Broncos’ 2013 rushing attacks are almost identical:

      2007 New England: 451 attempts, 1849 yards, 17 TDs, 4.1 average
      2013 Denver: 461 attempts, 1873 yards, 16 TDs, 4.1 average

      So, the only reason to think Brady in 2007 wouldn’t have maintained his rate stats if he passed as often as Manning in 2013 is if Brady suffered from arm fatigue. :)

      For what it’s worth, in my opinion, if you’re talking about great passing seasons, you have to consider Aaron Rodgers in 2011. “Only” 45 touchdowns and 4643 yards, but the rate stats are off the charts: 68.3 comp%, 9.0 TD%, 1.2 Int%, 9.2 yards/attempt, and a QBR of 122.5. And this was on a team with a subpar rushing attack (only 395 attempts for 1558 yards).

      For comparison:

      Brady 2007: 68.9%/8.7%/1.4%/8.3/117.2 (4806 yards, 50 TDs)
      Manning 2013: 68.3%/8.3%/1.5%/8.3/115.1 (5477 yards, 55 TDs)

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