With the 2013-14 NFL regular season in the rearview, there’s little doubt Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will win his NFL-record fifth MVP award. He re-wrote the record books with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 passing yards and may even join his upcoming opponent—New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady—as the only unanimous MVP winners in league history.
Fans and pundits on both sides have already spent years and will likely spend the next several decades debating which QB ultimately reigns supreme. It’s not a debate that will end any time soon or one that either side will ever really win. At this point, most parties involved have already dug in, ready to wage hypothetical war in defense of “their” guy.
Anybody who has read my work, or visited my profile page, or played fantasy football with me, or even just met me knows where I stand. In my eyes, Brady is the best quarterback of his era, probably the best of all time. But that’s not the point.
The point is that when looking at their entire body of work, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish Brady and Manning. Manning’s got numbers, Brady’s got rings. Manning’s always had incredible talent around him; Brady’s always had an incredible coach. Manning knows Buick and slingin’ Papa Johns’ pizza; Brady sports Uggs and Under Armour. I say tomato, you say…well, you get the idea.
We really can’t even have an honest debate yet because both quarterbacks are still playing, and given the way they’ve dominated the NFL ever since I hit puberty, it’s safe to assume neither is finished building his legacy.
But rather than call the whole thing off, let’s narrow the scope and hone in on what’s already been firmly set in stone.
Manning’s 2013-14 season was the best of his career. There is no “maybe,” “could be” or “if” about it. The season is over, and when “on pace for” turned into “finished with,” he was sitting pretty atop the NFL record books.
Likewise, Brady’s best season came back in 2007 when the additions of Randy Moss and Wes Welker catapulted New England’s offense to previously unseen heights. Brady set his own record that season with 50 touchdown passes, which Manning of course broke this year.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t agree that Manning and Brady, when at their best, authored the two best seasons ever by an NFL quarterback. Their careers are still unfolding, their legacies still in flux, but their chefs-d’oeuvre are already gilded and canonized, forever preserved in the NFL annals.
But who truly had the better season?
One of my readers—he knows who he is—asked me to answer that question. At first I thought it was Manning by a landslide, but I loved the idea of really narrowing the Brady-Manning debate down to what we already know and comparing the two when each was at the absolute pinnacle of his craft.
I only mention this because I feel it’s important to acknowledge John Doe for sharing a good idea and encourage others to do the same. If there’s something you’d like to see covered, feel free to share in the comment section, message me through my B/R profile or tweet me @Keanedawg86. If you share something worthwhile, I’ll do my best to follow through on it. After all, I’m here to give the people what they want.
Now, back to the matter at hand.
Let’s start with the obvious. Manning broke Brady’s touchdown record and Drew Brees’ yardage record. These are impressive feats. Any disagreement so far? No? Okay then.
Now, let’s look a little deeper at how Manning accomplished so much and determine if his 2013-14 season was really better than Brady’s 2007 or simply more prolific.
THE STATS: BECAUSE NUMBERS NEVER LIE
Manning gets a serious edge on the stat sheet. Any fantasy owner can attest to his sheer dominance of the box score. His 55 touchdowns trump Brady’s ’07 total by five, and his 5,477 yards gives him a 671-yard advantage.
Manning also threw 16 more touchdowns than the next closest quarterback this season, while Brady eclipsed the field by 14 scores in ’07.
Brady holds a slight edge in completion percentage and passer rating, with respective marks of 68.9 versus 68.3 and 117.2 versus 115.1. The only significant edge Brady holds is in the turnover department. Brady threw just eight interceptions against Manning’s 10 and yielded 12 total turnovers whereas Manning coughed it up 17 times.
MORE STATS: NUMBERS DON’T LIE, THEY JUST DON’T TELL THE WHOLE STORY
Manning threw five more touchdowns but also attempted 81 more passes. So, while he edges Brady in sheer volume, Brady actually threw touchdowns at a higher clip in 2007. It’s close, but Brady’s touchdown percentage beats Manning’s, 8.7 to 8.3. In other words, if Brady threw the football as often as Manning, he would have heaved 57 touchdowns passes and his record would still stand.
By the same token, if Brady threw as often as Manning did this season, he would have also thrown more interceptions. He still threw picks less frequently on a per-attempt basis, but we’re talking less than a tenth of a percentage point separating the two. Attempts being equal, the percentages tell us Brady would have thrown nine interceptions—one fewer than Manning did.
Brady does hold a notable edge once again in the overall turnover department. Based on their total dropbacks (pass attempts+sacks), Brady turned the ball over just 2 percent of the time either via a pick or fumble. Manning gave it away at a 2.5 percent clip. A half a percentage point may not seem like much but over the course of a full season, would amount to three more turnovers for Manning than Brady.
Further muddying the waters, both quarterbacks had identical yards per attempt (8.3).
Here’s how their stats would look if both quarterbacks threw the ball equally as often.
While this does offer some useful insight as to just how effective Brady was in 2007, it is of course purely hypothetical. The numbers show that Brady would likely have had better numbers if given more opportunities, but we can’t say that for sure.
As Bill Belichick would say, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas. So let’s take the hypotheticals out of the equation and focus on established facts to determine which NFL demi-god truly had the more dominant season.
LEVEL OF COMPETITION
We hear a lot about certain players padding their stats against inferior competition, and both quarterbacks certainly had their fair share of cake walks. You don’t throw 50-plus touchdowns without laying a few smackdowns along the way.
The numbers tell us that one of them, however, faced significantly less imposing defenses during their record-setting season.
|Average YPG Allowed||Average Rank||# Top-10 Defenses Faced||# Bottom-10 Defenses Faced|
In 2013, Peyton Manning faced only two top-10 ranked pass defenses across the NFL and just one of the top five. It’s not his job to make the schedule, and he obviously deserves credit for beating whoever the NFL lined up across from him, but in 2007, Brady went toe-to-toe with a top-10 defense six times, including four showdowns against top-five units.
Brady gains an even greater edge when you consider that not only did Peyton face very few stout defenses this season, but he also had the luxury of feasting on bottom feeders.
Manning squared off against one of the league’s 10 worst pass defenses nine times, including an astonishing six matchups against a team ranked in the bottom five. Brady had no such luck, only netting four games against teams ranked among the 10 worst and just two matchups—both vs. the Bills—against a bottom-five unit.
Basically, Brady earned his numbers by grabbing the bull by the horns and wrestling it into submission. Manning, on the other hand, never even saw the bull until it was butchered, tenderized and served to him medium-rare with truffle fries. Makes me wonder if he chants “cut that meat!” to himself as he carves up a steak or a defense for that matter.
Again, you can’t blame the guy for feasting on what the schedule put in front of him, but any way you slice it Brady had a much tougher road to hoe.
Of course, the NFL ranks defenses in terms of yards surrendered, not points. Yards are great, and Manning just threw for the most ever, but those 55 touchdowns are what really set him apart in 2013. So let’s revisit each quarterback’s opposition, this time in terms of passing touchdowns allowed.
|Average Passing TDs Allowed (total)||Average Passing TDs Allowed (per game)||Average Rank|
As you can see, the defenses Manning faced allowed an average of four more passing touchdowns over a full season than Brady’s opposition did, which is to be expected, since the NFL is a more pass-happy league than it was even as recently as 2007. The difference here is really negligible, since when measuring those same scoring defenses against their contemporaries, Brady’s adversaries ranked, on average, 15th in terms of passing touchdowns allowed and Manning’s ranked 16th.
There’s a catch, though. Some of you undoubtedly made note of all of those aforementioned bad defenses and astutely concluded that many of them were so poorly ranked as a direct result of what Manning and Brady did to them.
This is absolutely, unequivocally and indisputably correct.
So to utterly and truly determine which quarterback actually engineered the more dominant season, we need to dig a little deeper.
BRADY AND MANNING VS. THE FIELD
The best way to accurately judge how unstoppable Brady and Manning were is to measure their achievements against league-wide production at the time. More specifically, we need to look at how opposing defenses fared against them compared to other quarterbacks in the league.
So if we go back yet again and remove the two quarterbacks from the equation, we can see exactly how defenses across the league fared in their other matchups and precisely how much more effective Manning and Brady were against their opponents than the rest of the NFL.
|Average YPG||Average TDs Allowed (total)||Average TDs Allowed (per game)|
|Brady||202.9 (209)||18.1 (21.9)||1.22 (1.37)|
|Manning||239.7 (246.1)||21.4 (25.6)||1.45 (1.60)|
It’s staggering to realize just how quantifiably better these two are than their peers. Another startling reality is that both quarterbacks were responsible for nearly identical increases in opposing teams’ counting stats. Both caused average yards allowed to jump by roughly six yards per game, and both fueled an increase in average passing touchdowns allowed per game of exactly one and a half.
It’s important to put those numbers into context, though. Since Manning’s 2013-14 season came about during a more prolific offensive climate than Brady’s 2007 gem, his increased offensive output doesn’t move the needle as much as Brady’s did when yards and points were at more of a premium.
|YPG Over Average||TD Per Game Over Average||YPG Percentage vs. Average||TD Per Game Percentage vs. Average|
Based on their passing yards and touchdowns per game, Manning surpassed what each defense typically allowed by an average of 102 yards and nearly two touchdowns. Teams surrendered 43 percent more yards to Manning than the average quarterback and more than twice as many touchdowns than against every other QB they faced.
Brady’s ratios are even more impressive as he averaged 48 percent more yards than defenses had otherwise allowed and a mind-blowing 150 percent more touchdowns than his opponents yielded, on average to their other opponents. That means when Brady came to town, however many touchdowns you expected to give up, you could count on doubling that number, then adding half of it again!
And he did so against tougher defenses than Manning.
In full disclosure, when I started writing this piece, I fully expected to come to the conclusion that Manning’s year was superior. As I looked more and more closely at the numbers, it became apparent that things aren’t so cut and dry after all.
Another factor to consider when splitting such fine hairs as these is who Brady and Manning had around them to facilitate their record-breaking seasons.
The age-old “supporting cast” argument tends to favor Brady as a whole, considering he spent his Super Bowl winning days throwing to Troy Brown and a crew of castoffs, but in 2007, that couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
Meanwhile Manning spent the 2013-14 regular season surrounded by his customary crew of all-stars.
Both quarterbacks had the benefit of working with Wes Welker, so let’s consider his presence a wash. Manning’s Broncos also boast All-Pro caliber weapons in the Thomas “twins,” Demaryius and Julius, the Pro-Bowl receiver and tight end, respectively.
Brady had no such threat at tight end—Ben Watson anybody?—but had the added luxury of finding Randy Moss in single, double, triple and sometimes quadruple coverage. Nobody on the Broncos, or on any of Manning’s teams for that matter, can match Moss’ star power.
Manning’s overall collection of talent probably trumps Brady’s 2007 squad, especially when you add Eric Decker to the mix. But I’ll still give the edge to Brady’s bunch, just on the Moss factor alone. I doubt we’ll ever see a deep threat like him again.
Point for Peyton.
There is still one last thing to consider when comparing two seasons for the ages, too…
UNDEFEATED AND UNRELENTING
Like it or not, wins matter when evaluating a quarterback. Other than perhaps a pitcher or goalie, it is the position in sports that has a greater impact on the games’ outcome than any other.
To be clear, losing three games doesn’t diminish Manning’s season at all. Most teams and quarterbacks would be thrilled with 13 wins. But to disregard, ignore or otherwise trivialize the fact that Brady was the driving force behind the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history would be downright asinine.
Those wins won’t show up on Brady’s personal stat sheet, but a quarterback’s job—other than passing the football, which we’ve already established both do very well—is to put his team in position to win. A 16-0 record isn’t the be-all, end-all of the discussion, but in an exercise of picking nits, it’s a clear edge to Brady, and a sizeable one at that.
SO WHICH QUARTERBACK REALLY HAD THE BEST SEASON IN NFL HISTORY?
Well, if you value records, it’s Manning. If you value stats, it’s also probably Manning. That is, if you value simple counting stats. If you prioritize ratios and efficiency, it’s Brady. If you value wins, it’s Brady in a runaway.
If strength of schedule or production relative to the rest of the league matters to you, then Brady’s your guy. At the same time, it’s unfair to punish somebody for putting icing on the cake, just because the league handed him a cupcake schedule.
If you appreciate the “wow” factor or rely on the eye test, it doesn’t now and probably never will get any better than the Brady and Moss combo. Conversely, if you wanted to argue that Moss brought more to the table than Manning’s mile-high machines, I’ll buy that, too.
In the end, there is no clear right or wrong answer, only personal preference.
As for me? I thought Brady’s 2007 performance was more impressive than Manning’s most recent assault on the record books. Manning set the new gold standard for record-chasers and statheads alike, but he never quite captured the magic behind the monstrous numbers like Brady did. It was almost boring. Maybe he’s simply too good and makes things look too easy.
I don’t know.
What I do know is that Brady’s 2007-08 season will live on forever, even after Manning’s records are broken. Going undefeated tends to stick in people’s minds.
History will remember both quarterbacks, and no matter how their careers end, the pair will be forever linked by their on-the-field meetings. Who ends up on top remains to be seen, but there’s no question Manning’s spectacular 2013-14 regular season adds another brilliant chapter to the NFL’s ultimate storybook rivalry.
All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com
Follow Sean on Twitter, @Keanedawg86.