Peyton Manning has been under pressure more than usual this season.
The quarterback is the poster boy of an NFL franchise. Fair or not, the success of a franchise directly affects the perception of its quarterback.
Not surprisingly there will be an abundance of article in the coming days discussing the decline of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Some may cite Ron Jaworski's explanation of Manning's diminishing skills. Others may look to laundry list of injuries that the Colts have had to endure. History, however, holds the key as to why the Colts, and therefore Manning, have had their struggles.
A quarterback gets the attention, but he is just one starter on a football team. Great quarterbacks can lead teams to improbable victories, but they don't typically deliver championships without a solid group of players surrounding them.
To illustrate this, I looked at the careers of five great quarterbacks: Manning, Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Dan Marino and John Elway.
I went through each season that these quarterbacks played a majority of their team's games. I looked to see if that quarterback was surrounded by a rushing offense or a total defense that finished in the top half (or 15) in the league. Once I got back to the years before the expansion of teams in Jacksonville and Carolina, I looked to see if the team finished in the top half (or 14) of the league. What I found out about each legend says a lot about their careers.
Brady and Montana are widely considered championship quarterbacks. Not surprisingly, they've also has solid teams surrounding them.
For Brady, his teams have finished in the top 15 in rushing offense and total defense four times in the same year during Brady's nine seasons that he's played a majority of the Patriots' games. More times than not, the Patriots have a top-15 defense to help Brady.
Only twice has a Brady-led Patriots team failed to be in the top 15 in rushing offense and total defense. During those two years, the Patriots failed to make the playoffs once (2002) and had an early playoff exit in the other season (2005).
For Montana, it's even more telling. In Montana's 13 years with the 49ers and Chiefs, Montana-led teams finished in the top 15 in rushing offense and total defense a whopping nine times. In fact, Montana-led teams only had one season in which they failed to finish in the top 15 in either category. That was in 1982, and the 49ers missed the playoffs that year.
Elway spent most of his career being categorized as a quarterback that couldn't win a championship. Elway finally won a Super Bowl in 1997 and repeated that feat in 1998 before retiring. Looking at his career, you would guess, then, that Elway's career is full of highs and lows.
And you would be right.
Seven times, Elway led a team that was in the top 15 in both categories, including the two Super Bowl championship years. Conversely, Elway captained five seasons in which the Broncos finished in the bottom half of the league in both rushing offense and total defense.
Marino is the lone quarterback that I reviewed that never won a championship. The stats tell us there may be a reason for that.
Marino-led teams never finished in the top half of the league in rushing offense and total defense in the same season. Not once in 16 seasons.
Marino-led teams were especially bad at running the ball. The Dolphins only had a top-15 rushing attack twice in Marino's career, and they never finished higher than 13th.
Prior to his victory in Super Bowl XLI, Manning was often compared to Marino: a quarterback with amazing stats but little to show for it. Again, stats suggest there was a reason for that.
During Manning's 13-year career, not once has he played on a team that had a top-15 rushing attack and defense in the same year. In fact, five times in Manning's career, the Colts have finished outside the top 15 in both categories.
Manning has had a top-15 rushing attack only twice in his career. More often than not, the Colts' defenses finished in the bottom half of the league.
What's most alarming is that of the five times in Manning's career that the Colts have finished outside of the top 15 in both categories, three have come in the last five years.
Manning is the only quarterback on the list to make the playoffs in every season in which his team finished in the bottom half in both categories. He even won a Super Bowl with a statistically poor team. Still, there's no denying that while Manning's ability may not be diminishing, the talent around him is.
Can the Colts recover and make the playoffs?
These stats don't excuse Manning's poor performances recently, but they do explain why one of Manning's early-career weaknesses have suddenly returned.
Coming out of the University of Tennessee, a weakness of Manning was that he had "happy feet" and would often bounce around in the pocket if the defense could put pressure on him. This nervousness from Manning could lead to rushed throws.
Without a tremendous supporting cast very early in his career, Manning would often be forced to move in the pocket and get out of rhythm, which showed in his high interception rate.
In recent years, Manning had all but done away with this tendency. Despite his teams being statistically weak on defense and in rushing, Manning had managed back-to-back MVP awards in 2008 and 2009.
However, during the current three-game losing streak that has seen Manning throw 11 interceptions, Manning's happy feet have returned. Even though the Cowboys didn't sack Manning in their 38-35 overtime victory, Manning was often forced to step up to pass or had to pass with Cowboys flying around him. The result was four costly interceptions, two of which led to touchdowns.
I've heard many remark that without Manning, the Colts are a five-win team. If anything, it shows you the importance of Manning. But even Manning can't hide the flaws of the 2010 Colts.
They can't run the ball. They haven't had more than 80 yards rushing as a team for five consecutive games.
They can't stop the run. Seven of the last eight games, the Colts have allowed more than 100 yards rushing. Against the Cowboys, they allowed over 100 yards by halftime.
To Manning's credit, his has owned up to his mistakes, and the Colts have toed the line that everyone needs to improve. But the Colts as a team won't improve much this season. The defense is not going to get substantially better. The offense will not get completely healthy.
For the Colts to make the playoffs this year, Manning must improve. Manning can't continues throwing interceptions at this alarming rate. Often, Manning has had to carry this team on his shoulders. It's what makes him great, but can also be his Achilles heel. Manning must now carry his team without playing like he is.
The Colts have four winnable games remaining, and win them is what they'll need to do. History shows us quarterbacks don't have a lot of success when their team suffers statistically, but Manning has got the best of history before.