The Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning to a 5-year, $96 million contract on Tuesday. Most NFL prognosticators believe the Broncos are immediate Super Bowl candidates with the addition of Manning. After all, the Broncos were a team on the rise even without Manning, weren’t they?
The Illusion of an Ascending Defense
Manning theoretically went to a team with an emerging defense, but their individual players combined to receive a cumulative grade of 17th by Pro Football Focus. Football Outsiders had Denver ranked a lowly 19th in 2011. They finished even lower according to Advanced NFL Stats. You’ve got to scroll all the way to down to 21st to find them.
In truth, this is a very mediocre defense that benefited from the Tim Tebow Effect. Broncos games featured low scores because they played at a slow pace on offense and weren’t a threat to outscore their opponents. This led to a limited number of total snaps and a conservative approach by the opposing team. You can expect this to be reversed with Peyton Manning under center.
The Myth of the Good Offensive Line
Because the Broncos led the NFL in rushing, most believe Denver has a good offensive line. The truth is very different. This is an area where Tebow’s unique rush ability dramatically distorts the stats. If you remove Tebow’s yardage, the Broncos drop out of the Top 10. Tebow averaged 5.4 yards per carry, almost a yard above what the RBs averaged, and his value as an option threat dramatically impacted how the defense had to play. This was true even when the RBs ended up with the ball.
The true measure of the Broncos offensive line can be seen in the advanced stats. Advanced NFL Stats ranked the Broncos dead last in offensive line play. They ranked last in OL-EPA (expected points added) by a wide margin. They ranked last in Rush EPA and they rank 27th in Pass EPA.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Broncos dead last in run blocking and they finished 50% worse than any other team. They ranked 25th in pass blocking. Advanced Stats are better than traditional stats in correcting for context and determining which metrics are predictive, but they obviously still have blind spots. Advanced NFL Stats and Pro Football Focus use completely different methodologies in determining their rankings. If both of them see the Broncos as having an atrocious offensive line, it’s a very bad sign.
Football Outsiders was the only group that didn’t see Denver as putrid in the running game. They had the Broncos offensive line 11th in adjusted line yards (although 26th in Power Rank). In the pass game, Denver finished 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate.
Peyton Manning will certainly make the pass blocking appear better, but don’t be surprised if the Broncos struggle to run the ball as badly as the Colts did in the waning years of Manning’s tenure.
The Sad Truth About Aging
Because Manning’s career numbers border on the surreal, it’s somewhat difficult to create comparisons. However, if we focus on the correct seasons, a small list of worthy comps emerges. Since I’ve previously demonstrated that even elite QBs tend to struggle after age 32, the list we want should focus on QBs who continued to play at a high level through the first half of their 30s.
Age 31 to 35 seasons, minimum 16,000 passing yards, 7 ypa, and 230 yards per game
The above divides itself fairly evenly into two categories. Those who would be worth the contract and those who would not.
Those Not Worth the Contract
Marino is the only QB with the full career pedigree to match Manning. He finished third in ANYA from Age 31 to 35. At age 33, he threw for 4453 yards and 30 TDs. The following two years he missed 5 total games and saw his performance start to subtly decline.
Marino played through his age 38 season, but his final three seasons he was only a shadow of his former self. From age 22 to age 35, Marino fell below 7.2 yards per attempt only one time. He never hit 7 yards per attempt after turning 36, while recording a 51-43 TD/INT ratio and failing to complete 60% of his passes.
Had Green not been injured on that fateful preseason play by Rodney Harrison, we might be talking about Green for the Hall of Fame instead of Kurt Warner. (Although Drew Brees just bested Marino’s single-season passing record, Green combined with Warner to throw for more yards in the year 2000 than Marino ever did. Green averaged a ridiculous 9 yards per attempt that season.)
Green’s subsequent run with Vermeil in Kansas City is probably one of the most underrated stretches of QB brilliance in NFL history. Among every QB to ever play, only Green and Manning threw for at least 16,000 total yards in between the ages of 31 and 34. Starting at age 33, Green notched three consecutive 4000-yard seasons, all them with high yards per attempt.
Because he was a late-round draft pick who was never physically imposing, Green was never considered for a contract like Manning’s. In the end, he wouldn’t have been able to earn it. Green began to deal with concussion issues the following season and only played in 16 more games.
Fouts was the field general of Air Coryell and led the NFL in passing yards every year from 1979 to 1982. He led the NFL in passing yards per game 6 times in 7 years from age 28 to 34. Unfortunately, starting at 32, he began losing games every year to injury. He played his final season at age 36.
Perception of McNabb has cratered over the last two seasons, but his previous three seasons were good enough to land him on this list. He was that good from age 31 to 33. McNabb never had a 4000-yard season, but that was mostly due to low attempt numbers. His yards per attempt and TD rate were very strong with Philadelphia. If he never throws another pass, McNabb will finish with an exactly 2-1 TD/INT ratio. No one is predicting Manning will go the McNabb route, but it’s worth remembering how the Eagles were savaged for letting McNabb go.
Those Who Would Be Legends
Young didn’t do much as an NFL QB until the age of 31, but he then embarked upon one of the greatest stretches of QB play ever recorded. Young is the only QB with a higher number for adjusted net passing yards over the time period we’re studying. He led the NFL in completion percentage four times, TDs three times, and yards per attempt three times. He made three Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, Young missed five games at age 34 and four more at age 35. The struggles to stay healthy may have foreshadowed a swift end. At age 37, Steve Young threw for 4170 yards and 36 TDs against only 12 INTs. Concussions forced him from the game the following year.
At the height of the Houston Oilers run-and-shoot, Moon finished 21 total yards shy of back-to-back 4700-yard seasons at age 34 and 35. The next two seasons featured injuries and a negative TD/INT ratio. He moved on to Minnesota where he rebounded with back-to-back 4200-yard seasons. In NFL history, only 5 QBs have turned in a 4000-yard season after age 35. Moon did it twice.
For someone who gained so much notoriety for playing into his 40s, it’s worth noting that Favre’s best seasons came in his 20s. He led the NFL in TDs for three straight years from age 26 to 28 and never finished with fewer than 3800 yards from age 25 to 32.
Of course, Favre did have his moments in the twilight. Like Moon, Favre recorded two 4000-yard season after turning 36. He also led two different teams to the NFC Championship game.
The good came with the bad. For his career, Favre averaged 1.7 TDs per game. From age 36 to 41, that mark fell to 1.2. Favre was always known as a gunslinger, but from age 25 to 35 his INT rate only crested 4% one time. He did it three times in his final six seasons and twice led the NFL in interceptions.
The comparison most Broncos fans would prefer is the one with which they are most familiar. John Elway.
By contemporary standards, Elway struggled as a passer for the first half of his NFL career. His completion percentage, TD/INT ratio, and yards per attempt were all relatively poor. That was a different time with different philosophies and even different rules.
Elway emerged in his 30s and turned in fantastic seasons at age 33 and 35 under the guidance of Mike Shanahan. The best was yet to come for the Broncos. At age 37 and 38, Elway shook off the Super Bowl demons and went out winning his final 7 playoff games.
A Closer Look at Peyton
Anecdotally, it would seem as though Manning has about a 50/50 chance of being the transcendent QB Denver envisions. However, of the four successes, only Elway was consistently good after the age of 35. Moon and Favre were hit-and-miss, while Young was awesome until his career abruptly ended. With a contract that averages over $19 million a year, the Broncos need Peyton Manning to be John Elway.
Our final step is to take a closer look at Peyton’s career splits.
|TD %||INT %||YPA|
Manning’s career trajectory has a curve not much different than other players; he’s simply doing the arc at a much higher level. It took him a while to perfect his craft. Then, once he’d learned the NFL game and was still at his athletic peak, he strafed opposing defenses like no quarterback in the history of the game.
None of the QBs in our study missed a full season, but those who began missing games at 34 and 35 went downhill much faster than those who remained healthy. Even if you are not concerned about Manning’s ability to fully recover from his neck injury, it’s fairly clear his decline phase has begun.
Is Manning capable of monster late-career seasons like Warren Moon and Brett Favre? Certainly. Was it worth the gamble for the Broncos? Definitely. It helped extricate their management from the Tebow madness and gives them an outside shot at the Super Bowl.
Could this move leave Denver in the position Minnesota finds themselves post-Favre, the position the Colts crash-landed into? For Broncos fans, the answer is also a nightmarish and emphatic affirmative.
Although the Broncos are flush with cap space, the Manning contract will begin to weaken whatever depth they might have otherwise been able to build going forward. If the contract numbers turn out to be correct, Manning is going to be paid more than Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Both of those teams have cap problems and a far superior supporting cast. In fact, almost the only way the Broncos can avoid cap purgatory in the future is to remain as thin as they are now across all other positions.
An AFC West Coup?
The AFC West’s status as one of the NFL’s weakest divisions must have factored in Manning’ decision, but 2011 might have overly skewed perception. San Diego seems to annually underperform its talent, but the Chargers are coming off of 8 consecutive non-losing seasons. Unlike the Broncos, they have an elite QB at his peak.
Kansas City is 17-15 over the last two years and has some of the best young talent in the game. The Chiefs actually have the things Denver ostensibly has – an ascending defense and good offensive line – and Manning would have had a much better chance at the Super Bowl if he’d taken his talents to Arrowhead. Matt Cassel is not an elite QB, but KC is now very similar to teams like San Francisco and Baltimore.