Unfortunately, father time might have other ideas. If Manning performs anything like he did in 2012, they should be in contention come January. If Manning starts to show any signs of aging, he’ll need some help from his team to win his second Super Bowl.
How much gas does Manning have left in the tank? That’s the big question, but it’s not one that’s easily answered.
Historical comparisons may be useful. Plenty of quarterbacks have played into their late 30s, but how long they remain productive and when they hit a wall could help us determine when Manning’s tank will run dry.
Manning’s past performance should also be an indicator of his future production, especially if there are any noticeable trends. We can also compare Manning’s physical ability to what it was in the past to determine how much mileage is remaining on his arm.
Not many quarterbacks make it to age 37 and continue to produce at a high level. Manning is an exception. In fact, Manning now holds the record for the highest completion percentage and most touchdown passes in a season by a quarterback age 36 or older, and he was just 31 yards short of the record for passing yards.
There are no perfect comparisons for a guy like Manning, as only five other quarterbacks in history have thrown for 4,000 yards at age 36 or older. Pro-Football-Reference.com also has a statistic called approximate value (AV) that can be used to compare players, and only eight quarterbacks have recorded an AV of 15 or more at age 36 or older, as Manning did.
In total, there are seven quarterbacks that I have determined are comparable to Manning at his age. The comparison is based on number of starts, passing yards and AV. Those quarterbacks are Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Rich Gannon, Steve Young, John Elway, Roger Staubach and Y.A. Tittle.
Of these seven quarterbacks, only Staubach had a worse AV when he was 37 years old than when he was 36, and it was only a slight decline from an AV of 16 to 14. This is a strong indication that quarterbacks don’t lose much between age 36 and 37.
However, there was almost a universal decline in AV at the age of 38. The only quarterback who managed to improve his AV between 37 and 38 was Favre. Of the players on this list, only Gannon and Favre even attempted to play at 39 or older.
If the Broncos don’t win the Super Bowl this year, it could be tough to get there next year, as history tells us Manning’s performance could dip—and such a decline is usually due to injury. You can’t count out Manning to buck the trend, but the historical comparisons don’t look good.
If you are like me, you're not a fan of historical comparisons. They provide some context to the situation, but they don’t tell us about this player in this situation.
Injuries also played key roles in the downfalls of Young and Gannon when they were 38, and Manning could easily stay healthy behind Denver’s stellar offensive line. Unfortunately, historical comparisons leave us with an incomplete view.
Manning’s career trends are perhaps more revealing. Since 2005, Manning’s production across the board is nearly trending flat. A good season in 2012 helped Manning reverse what appeared to be slightly declining production.
One very interesting thing to note is how Manning’s interception percentage trended opposite all his other stats in 2012. It’s also worth noting that his sack percentage trended along with the rest of his production for the first time since 2008. One could approximate that Manning had to compensate far less for his offensive line in Denver in 2012 than he did in his final two years with Indianapolis.
It certainly appears as though Manning had a rebound year in 2012 and that any decline in production is likely to be slow and steady as long as he stays healthy. Right now, nothing from the arc of Manning’s career indicates he’s going to quickly decline—even at age 38.
Of course, even a career trend is inadequate to tell us how much gas Manning has left in the tank. A great offensive line and receivers in Denver may be buoying his stats, hiding the fact that his physical ability is actually declining.
The only way to gauge Manning’s physical ability is to go as far back as possible and compare his past ability to his most current ability. For the most part, we are talking about Manning’s arm strength and accuracy.
How much gas did Manning lose as the result of neck surgery and how much does he have left?
In this case, the furthest NFL Game Rewind goes back is 2009, which just so happens to be the last year Manning made it to the Super Bowl. The most recent tape we have is during the 2012 season, so we can see how much ability Manning may have lost over the course of about three years.
Perhaps the biggest game of the 2009 season for Manning came against the New England Patriots in Week 10. Down 31-14 after a Tom Brady touchdown pass to Randy Moss to open the fourth quarter, Manning and the Colts came back to win the game 35-34.
The start of the comeback was a 29-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Pierre Garcon that traveled 28 yards in the air and was placed perfectly over the defensive back. It was a pretty throw and catch, one that Manning made look far too easy.
Manning sold the slant with a pump fake, looked off the safety and then went over the top, trusting that his receiver would have a step on the defensive back. Everything about the play was well executed by Manning, including a perfect throw over the outstretched arms of the defender.
Now let’s fast-forward to Week 6 of 2012. The Broncos are down 24-0 to the San Diego Chargers and end up coming back to win 35-24. The start of the comeback is a 29-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas that travels about 28 yards in the air.
You should be experiencing some déjà vu.
Instead of a slant-and-go (Sluggo) route with a pump fake by Manning like the play from 2009, the Broncos run a post-corner-post route off of play action. The play action—like the pump fake—manipulates the strong safety. The tight end also attacks the safety aggressively on the comeback route and gives Thomas even more space in the deep middle.
Manning has an easy checkdown to his running back if he wants it, but he trusts Thomas to get at least a step to the inside. The safety is totally out of position, so Manning knows it’s a touchdown if he makes a good throw.
In this case, Thomas runs such a great route that Jammer never had much of a chance, and Manning delivers the ball to Thomas in a place only he could catch it.
Manning isn’t going to lose the ability to manipulate the defense and make great pre- and post-snap reads. The only thing that is going to hurt Manning at this point is losing accuracy or the ability to get the ball to receivers all over the field.
The velocity on Manning’s throws may be down slightly, but it’s had virtually no impact on his ability to make every throw he needs to make. As long as Manning avoids injury, he should continue to produce great numbers for at least the next two years.
It would seem that the Broncos have done their research. According to Spotrac.com, Manning is guaranteed $42 million in 2013 and 2014 as a result of passing his physical. But the Broncos will owe him no further guarantees in 2015 and 2016, unless he’s on the roster at the end of the season prior to those years.
Basically, the Broncos guaranteed Manning's salary when he should continue to produce, but they can get out of the contract for a minimal cap hit thereafter.
This is smart because the Broncos can keep rolling the dice on Manning as he gets older, but, starting in 2015 (when Manning will be 39 years old), these decisions will be made on a year-to-year basis and will depend on his health and production.