This was supposed to be the end of their eras. Drew Brees, begging for a new contract, would start the 2012 season missing his head coach, interim head coach and half his defense. Peyton Manning, wearing the wrong uniform, would be be without his favorite targets and protectors—and maybe even his ability to throw.
Instead, Brees is on pace to break his own single-season passing yardage record, and Manning's passer rating is the second-best of his 15-year career. Not only did these two living legends keep their heads above water, they've found the fountain of youth.
Meanwhile, the kids have found out they still can't sit at the grownups' table.
But which of these two perennial All-Pros is having the better great year? Who is in better form? Whom, if you had to pick one to start for your team tomorrow, should you suit up?
By the Numbers
By the numbers, Brees is at least having the bigger year. Per Pro Football Reference, Brees has completed 166 of 273 attempts (60.8 percent) for 2,097 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The yardage and touchdown totals are second- and third-best in the NFL, respectively—but that completion percentage is nothing special and his interception percentage (2.6 percent) puts him in the bottom half of the NFL. Brees's passer rating is a seventh-best 96.1, but his Total QBR is a mediocre 69.77.
Manning's completed 154-of-227 (67.8 percent) for 1,808 yards. Manning's thrown fewer touchdown passes, 14, and fewer interceptions, four. With 46 fewer attempts, Manning's touchdown percentage (6.2 percent, fifth-best) almost equals Brees' (6.6 percent, third-best). But Manning's interception percentage is much lower (1.8 percent, eighth-best).
Brees is averaging 7.68 yards per attempt, and 12.63 yards per completion. Manning's 7.96 yards per attempt, 11.74 yards per completion. These rate stats really bring it home: Manning is moving the ball more effectively, but with shorter passes. Brees is making bigger plays, but at the expense of more interceptions and incompletions.
Making the Grade
One of the best tools for analyzing player performance are the grades and charts done by Pro Football Focus. Brees and Manning are ranked seventh and ninth, respectively, in the PFF overall quarterback grade. Sorted by just the passing grade Manning stays at ninth, but Brees moves up to sixth.
Both Brees and Manning have had positive PFF grades every week except Week 2, and both quarterbacks' grades have climbed steadily since. Per PFF's passing summary, Brees's game-by-game NFL passer rating has gotten better every single week, culminating in a 130.1 mark against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Brees threw two interceptions in each of the first two games, but no more than one in any game since. He's also thrown four touchdowns in each of the last two games; Brees is clearly getting stronger as the season goes on.
Manning, per PFF's passing summary, had one brutal game against the Falcons in Week 2, throwing three interceptions to just one touchdown. But he's only thrown one pick in every other game combined, and he's been sacked just 10 times (against Brees' 12).
The Eyeball Test
Watching film of the two quarterbacks, the differences are obvious. The two teams run very different systems, and they play to what each quarterback is bringing to the table now.
Manning is doing a great job finding the right man and delivering a timely ball, but he's not doing a whole lot more than that. Manning and the Broncos are passing very conservatively, almost like a college-style passing game. They're not using a extreme formations, but quick horizontal passes designed for the receivers to pick up yards after the catch.
Manning's arm is clearly not what it used to be. He's not "spinning" his throws; he's pushing the ball through the air with leg and back strength. Not only is that less accurate and less effective, it can cause his deep balls to flutter and wobble.
Manning is not getting good protection, and he doesn't look settled in the pocket. When he drops back he's constantly bouncing on the balls of his feet, patting the ball, and drifting away from pressure. His lack of solid footwork may be hurting his delivery.
Manning can still be effective on deeper passes. However, he's picking his spots very carefully and delivering the ball ahead of his target's break. He's using his Hall of Fame field-reading skills to make up for clear physical limitations.
Are those limitations permanent? We should have a good idea by the time next season rolls around. In the meantime, Manning is still finding points in the cracks between the same-old, same-old choices.
Meanwhile, Brees is reaching rarefied air in New Orleans. The offense is geared to maximize his abilities, and he's executing like you'd expect. The Saints are using many exotic four- and five-receiver sets and using aggressive downfield route combinations to attack the secondary.
Brees is getting good protection and using it to step through all of his progressions. He knows what the offense is trying to achieve, and he's able to let the routes develop.
Brees's passing is as good as it's ever been. He's throwing beautiful passes with plenty of zip and touch; he's able to carve up defenses with precision strikes all over the field. His deep sideline routes tend to be slightly underthrown, but his receivers are generally doing a good job of anticipating this and adjusting.
You Can't Go Wrong, But...
Manning has removed all doubt: He can still play professional quarterback at a high level. He and the Broncos coaching staff have done a great job of putting him in position to maximize his current skill set—and those of his tall, physical receivers.
But Manning doesn't seem to be capable of making the deepest throws, or putting the necessary zip on some routes. That's going to be a limiting factor going forward.
Brees had a rougher start to the season and may have been trying to do too much. But as Brees and the Saints get used to life without head coach Sean Payton, Brees seems to be rounding into the form of his life.
Brees has been much more aggressive, and that's resulted in more risk and negative plays. But the way he's executing his offense is a sight to behold, and it almost doesn't matter who's on the other end of his passes right now.
Both of these quarterbacks are playing well, and both are the biggest reason why their team can win football games. But right now, Brees is the better quarterback.