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:
|Yards per Attempt||7.7||7.5||+3%|
|Adjusted Yards per Attempt||7.7||7.6||+1%|
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.
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:
|Yards per Attempt||.076||.081|
|Adjusted Yards per Attempt||.133||.134|
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:
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|
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|
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:
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.