Peyton Manning Has Become the Greatest Quarterback in NFL History

Ryan MichaelSenior Writer IIIAugust 17, 2010


Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback in NFL history; and would be whether I proclaim that he is, or others declare that he isn't.

Opinions are formed by our perceptions, and our judgments are influenced by the aforementioned; heavily.

The reality is, sad though it may be, is that a great percentage of the football-appreciating community does not appear capable of making rational judgments when it comes to the "ranking" of players at various positions.

Especially quarterback.

The product of a lifetime's worth of misconceptions has given birth to a system fundamentally flawed, and backed to the hilt with substantiation that serves only to reinforce the misconceptions at hand.

We all have our opinions; myself included.

The term "greatness" in and of itself is the by-product of personal opinion; but not a concept in which the "majority opinion" substantiates actual fact.

Peyton Manning can be labeled the "greatest" as a result of his supporters’ opinions; but he would be in reality, the "best" because of what he's done on the football field, regardless of whether or not the majority accepts it.

There are a number of areas in which to analyze when making such a proclamation; many of which would be impossible to capture in the length of a single article.

I will however, analyze a number of areas critical to the judgment of Peyton Manning's career; details essential to arriving at the most accurate conclusion.

It's my opinion, for better or worse, I do not expect everyone to agree.

There are 23 modern-era quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, three first ballot future-inductees active today (Manning being one of them), and a number of promising young prospects who have yet to reach to later chapter of their careers.

There are fans of 31 teams outside of Indianapolis; and the end result will be the predictable...difference of opinion.

My intent is not to stir up a debate, but rather, to illustrate exactly why Peyton Manning is what some people feel him to be and why he still is, what many refuse to accept...

The greatest quarterback in NFL history.


Perhaps the most important aspect of analyzing an individual players' ability and success.

There are plenty of other areas to be sure (many of which I'll address later in the article), but it is impossible, logically, to overlook the importance of producing on the football field.

People use the term "numbers" and often, "big numbers" to bypass Manning's most significant contribution to his team's chances of winning.

Have you ever heard someone say that so-and-so "might not have the biggest numbers, but he gets the job done"?

I know I have; but the reality is that this concept of "getting the job done" in spite of producing on the football field is, in most instances, unsubstantiated glorification of a player who rides the coattails of his team's success and wins games in spite of moving his team up and down the field less, and putting fewer points on the board.

"Big numbers" as some like to refer to production as, is what amounts to winning football games.

To win (from an offensive perspective), you need to score points.

There's no way around it. Passing yards move you up and down the field to give you the best opportunity to score some, and passing touchdowns do exactly that.

From a passing perspective, Manning has become the most productive player in the 90-year history of the sport.

Peyton Manning (1998-2009)

4,232 of 6,531 (64.8) for 50,128 yards, 366 touchdowns, and 181 interceptions.

QB rating: 95.2

An aspect that many people tend to look past is how impressive these figures are given that he has only started 192 (consecutive, by the way) games in his career.

Total production is bound to go up the longer you play, but completion percentage and quarterback rating are not.

It's common sense, the longer you play, figures that appear high will begin to decline as it's impossible to keep up with paces of exceptional magnitude.

But Manning has.

To put it in perspective, no quarterback in NFL history has maintained a completion percentage or quarterback rating that high after throwing as many passing attempts as Manning has (6,531); especially quarterbacks facing the "pass-defense first" defense schemes Manning has.

Along the way, he has set an NFL record with 10 (no, that's not a typo) 4,000-yard passing seasons.

That figure would have easily been 11 had he not sat out of the majority of the final two weeks of the 2005 season due to playoff position being secured.

Backup quarterback Jim Sorgi attempted 61 passes during that span. If you average Manning's 8.3 YPA over 61 passing attempts, you'd get an additional 506 passing yards (bringing his total to 4,253).

Maybe he would have thrown for more than 4,253 yards, maybe he would have throw less, but logically speaking, it would be reasonable to assume he would have easily eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark and extended his record to 11 such seasons (speaking of which, six such seasons is second best in league history).

To have eclipsed that figure for 83-92 percent (depending on your perspective) of his entire career defies logic; especially since every other quarterback to have played last decade had been granted the same opportunity, with nobody even coming close.

Many will be quick to point out..."that's just all in the regular season."

After all, Manning isn't the "clutch" quarterback Tom Brady is during the "only time that really matters," right?

You could point out that his 131 wins in his first 12 seasons is an NFL record (a record reached by becoming the driving force behind transforming the worst team in pro football into the winningest franchise the NFL has ever seen in a single decade); but I suppose it means little while he has a questionable 9-9 record in the post-season.

Manning's a choke artist, isn't he?

Sure, he helped set an NFL record with seven fourth-quarter comebacks in a single season; but that doesn't matter because his Colts didn't win the Super Bowl and nobody plays for second place.

But just how bad has Manning been in the post-season anyway?

I'll show you...

Peyton Manning (Post-Season Career: 18 Games)

435 of 692 (62.9) for 5,164 yards, 28 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.

QB rating: 87.6

Surprising production for a post-season choke artist; but he's still no Tom Brady...

Tom Brady (Post-Season Career: 18 Games)

395 of 637 (62.0) for 4,108 yards, 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

QB rating: 85.5

Wait a second!

That can't be right; Tom Brady has the best post-season winning percentage in NFL history. He can't be out-produced by the league's most infamous choke artist!

But nevertheless, that's the reality.

I'm waiting for it, I know...Tom Brady didn't have the same weapons that Peyton Manning had; that's not fair!

And you'd be right; but you have to look at both sides of the equation at the same time.

Marvin Harrison was unquestionably Manning's No. 1 target for the majority of his career; but what exactly did he contribute while Peyton Manning was producing during the post-season?

Marvin Harrison (Post-Season Career w/Manning, 15-games)

62 receptions for 812 yards and two touchdowns.

Your eyes do not deceive you; although they may as Harrison's one "semi-great" playoff performance vs. Denver in 2003 (seven receptions for 133 yards & two TD's) skews his totals a bit...

Marvin Harrison (Post-Season Career w/Manning, 14 of 15 games)

55 receptions for 679 yards and zero touchdowns.

Per-game average for 93 percent of his post-season career w/Manning...

Four receptions for 49 yards and zero touchdowns.

So while yes, Manning did have more talented receivers to throw to than Brady did for most of his post-season career, let’s not pretend that his No. 1 target was anything short of the most disappointing post-season wide receiver in recent history.

All the while Manning produced anyway and wrote his own chapter of the post-season NFL record book...

*Most 300-yard passing games in post-season history (8).

*Most 400-yard passing games in post-season history (2).

*Most passing yards in 1st half of a post-season game (360).

*Most passing yards in a post-season game (458).

*Most post-season games with 20+ completions (14).

*Most post-season games with 30+ completions (4).

*Most completions in a single post-season (97 in 2006).

*One of only two QB's to complete over 80% of their passes in two post-season games.

*One of only four QB's to post a perfect QB rating in a post-season game.

*Led the biggest comeback in conference championship game history (Back from 18 points down in 2006 AFC championship game).

I'm not saying that Peyton Manning has been necessarily better than Tom Brady in the post-season (as you could make a good argument for either QB at this point); but I am saying that it is a lot closer than many people have conceptualized.

Yes, Manning has been more inconsistent in that he's mixed very bad games in with his record-breaking games; but I'm not sure it says much more when a guy like Brady could go out, play average football, and win his first Super Bowl contributing exceptionally little along the way...

Tom Brady (2001 Post-Season)

60 of 97 (61.9) for 572 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

QB rating: 77.3

When one touchdown pass in two and a half playoff games is all it takes to bring home the Lombardi trophy and 145 passing yards on the grandest stage is enough to earn a Super Bowl MVP, why do we hold Brady in such high esteem for his "three" Super Bowl victories?

He didn't perform that well while winning one of them; but you'll never hear people say that he won two championships playing good football, but walked away with another by doing exceptionally little to earn it.

I suppose it's better than glorifying Ben Roethlisberger for his "two" Super Bowl rings (yes, I watched Super Bowl XL).

But it illustrates very well, the issue fans have with glorifying individual players for the wrong reasons that they do not even understand.

I mean, why do we put such a great emphasis on the post-season anyway?

Is it simply the date on the calendar?

Is it because a team's season is on the line; the ultimate pressure situations?

But is it only a "clutch" victory when the masses dictate it to be so?

I'll take you back to 2008 when the Indianapolis Colts sat with a 3-4 record after Week Eight. 

Every game that followed essentially began to hold "season-ending" ramifications; as if the Colts were to lose another game before the season ended, their post-season hopes would have likely come to an abrupt halt.

With their season essentially on the line, how did Peyton Manning fare in the face of such adversity?

Peyton Manning (2008: nine-game winning streak)

209 of 290 (72.1) for 2,248 yards, 17 touchdowns and three interceptions.

QB rating: 109.7

Perhaps the highlight of that streak came when he led his Colts to victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers; in Pittsburgh no less.

A game in which Manning threw three touchdowns to zero interceptions against the league's No. 1 defense while Ben Roethlisberger (a man whom many considered to be "Mr. Clutch" by the end of the season) threw zero touchdowns to three interceptions against the Colts defense.

Was Manning really "Mr. Clutch" and Roethlisberger the "choke artist"?

Or did it not matter because it was during the wrong month of the calendar?

After all, we know the Steelers don't give 100 percent of their effort during important home games in Pittsburgh; right?

Still during the course of this winning streak, Manning continued to break NFL records into December...

Peyton Manning (December 2008)

90 of 110 (81.9) for 1,054 yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions.

QB rating: 130.8

His 81.9 completion percentage is higher than any quarterback has ever posted during any single month in the 90-year history of the league; and he did all of this under the pressure of knowing that each game had "season-ending" ramifications.

Does this mean that we should credit Manning with nine additional "playoff-caliber" victories?

I'm not saying we should; but we have seen how well Manning has performed with his season on the line.

The important thing is to take a look at his career totals (both regular and post-season) to get an idea of how well Manning has performed during his 12 years in the league.

Peyton Manning (Career Totals)

4,667 of 7,223 (64.6) for 55,292 yards, 394 touchdowns and 200 interceptions.

QB rating: 94.5

He's struggled and broken records during the post-season (which has only accounted for under 9 percent of his career); and has become the most prolific player in NFL history during the other 91 percent of his career.

The playoffs are extremely important; but it's ignorant to lessen the significance of what constitutes the majority of all players' careers.

But with the combination of both, nobody is in Manning's league.

It's not so much about the career totals (as the rules of the game have evolved over the years to become era-specific) as much as it is the consistency.

So for instance, if 4,000+ passing yards has become the measuring stick of how we evaluate productive players during Manning's generation, but 3,000+ passing yards was the measuring stick used decades ago...

Never in NFL history has an individual player continued to both produce on the football field at an elite level, as efficiently or as consistently as Peyton Manning.

The man has been elected to the Pro Bowl 10 times during his 12-year career; 10 times in the past 11 years (a feat that no one has ever achieved before in history, or will likely ever achieve again in the future).

The Pro Bowl system is flawed, but Manning has nevertheless earned all ten of his selections.

Playing at that high a level for 10 out of 12 years, 10 times in 11 seasons, and eight seasons consecutively, again defies logic...because it's never been done in NFL history.

As a matter of fact, when throwing for 4,131 yards (in 2001) and 3,739 yards (in 1998; number one in the AFC that season) are the two worst seasons in your career; that more is there to say?

Yes, he threw a ton of interceptions during those two seasons; but that happens to quarterbacks who are backed by 31st- and 29th-ranked scoring defenses.

Playing from behind and having little chance to win even when you are productive aren’t exactly the easiest circumstances to play under; yet he remained productive anyway.

Beyond those two seasons, Manning's helped lead the Colts to a 122-38 record.

That's a heck of a lot of winning for a team that wasn't exactly stacked to the brim with All-Pro talent.


Receiving Support

How many times have you listened to people rant and rave about Peyton Manning and all of his "weapons"?

With the way in which it is often spoken about, you'd think Manning's been the beneficiary of some of the greatest offensive support in NFL history.

Truth be told, he has been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to play with some very talented players.

The issue is, talented though they may be, the degree of which the cumulative support is often referred to, has become inflated beyond logic.

It's not so much that every fan is looking to be unfair as much as it is their adoption of the "name-recognition method" as their primary tool of which to gauge offensive support.

People sit back and talk about how he's had Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Dallas Clark to throw to over the years; so how couldn't he be successful?

Yet with as easy as it may be to roll the names of Pro Bowl players off of your tongue, what exactly does it mean for Manning to have been throwing to all those players over the years?

Has Peyton been paired with the proverbial Pro Bowl powerhouse of offensive support; or have talented players become great as a result of their pairing with him?

One thing that people need to realize is that when your are receivers playing with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, someone is going to have to be contributing to the production.

Someone is going to be catching the passes, racking up the yards, and scoring the touchdowns.

But even though we could all debate how talented Manning's receivers really have been, we cannot debate how productive they've been. The result of which is actually contradicts common conceptions.


Indianapolis Colts Receiving Production (1998-2009 annual averages)

No. 1 receiver: 100 receptions for 1,345 yards and 11 touchdowns.

No. 2 receiver: 70 receptions for 862 yards and seven touchdowns.


The top figure will likely come as little surprise to most as the Colts' No. 1 receiver during any given season was likely selected to a Pro Bowl.

The above figures are a bit deceptive in that I recorded the No. 1 and No. 2 highs in each category; even if they didn't come from the same player.

So for instance, it could have been Reggie Wayne who caught seven touchdowns (second best on the team), but it could have been a tight end or half back who was second on the team in receptions (thus illustrating a greater distribution of production) and inflating the figures of the averages for both the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers.

Nevertheless, it was the annual production posted by the No. 2 receiver that caught my eye.

Impressive though the production may be for a No. 2 target, it's a far cry from the multiple Pro Bowl receiver perception that many have. A lot of fans seem to think that the way it was in 2006 (when Peyton threw to two Pro Bowl receivers who both ranked high in production) was the way it was during the majority of Manning's career.

The reality is that years like 2004, 2005, and 2006 were the exceptions; not the rules.

That explains why the overall average for the Colts' second most productive receiver is no more impressive than Mike Simms-Walker's production in 2009.

Of course, since Manning's career has covered three different decades, it might be more fair to take both a modern-day equivalent (or close to it) as well as a productive equivalent from the middle of Manning's career (I choose 2003).


Colts No. 2 receiver (1998-2009)

70 receptions for 862 yards and seven touchdowns.


David Boston (2003)

70 receptions for 880 yards and seven touchdowns.


Mike Simms-Walker (2009)

63 receptions for 869 yards and seven touchdowns.


So let’s erase this conception that Manning's been throwing to three Hall of Famers or three Pro Bowlers over the course of his career.

His No. 1 most productive target (be it Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne) has produced at that level while the second most productive target has produced no better than a player the caliber of David Boston or Mike Simms-Walker (with no disrespect intended to those two players).

Any other receivers would be below that level of production and a far cry from a Pro Bowl prospect.

Yet even those figures are a bit skewed.

2004, 2005, 2006, and 2009 inflate the overall averages as it was only during those seasons that one could make an argument for Manning being paired with at least two high-caliber productive targets.

Remove those seasons and...


Colts No. 2 receiver (1998-2003, 2007-2008)

62 receptions for 721 yards and six touchdowns

So for 2/3's of Peyton Manning's career, that is the level of productive support he had to work with.

Not Hall of Fame support, Not All-Pro support, and not Pro Bowl support.

Given that Manning has become the most productive player in league history, his No. 2 receiver by default is bound to become that productive. That's simply the logistics of football.

And that it not to take away anything from the contributions of Manning's receivers.

They have been very productive during a number of seasons; it's just nowhere near the level that many people perceive it to be.

There have been times when he's been given fantastic productive support (2006, for instance) and other seasons where he's played with essentially one impressive productive target (2000, for instance); but Manning has continued to remain productive regardless of his supporting cast.

It has changed to varying degrees (as would be the case for any player affected by team changes) but despite all of this, Manning has become the most consistently productive player in NFL history.

Take a guy like Marvin Harrison, for instance.

He became one of the most consistently productive players in NFL history. It just so happened to take effect after Peyton Manning came along...


I excluded 2007-2008 because Harrison suffered from a knee injury that essentially ended his career.

He wasn't himself after that injury; so it didn't honestly capture the degree of productivity he was capable of when playing healthy.


Marvin Harrison (1996-1997, annual average)

69 receptions for 851 yards and seven touchdowns.


Marvin Harrison (1998-2006, annual average)

102 receptions for 1,379 yards and 12 touchdowns.


The differential is staggering.

That's an average of 33 receptions, 528 yards, and five touchdowns per-season beyond his career averages prior to playing with Manning.

I'm not saying for a moment that Marvin Harrison wasn't a phenomenal talent.

I'm simply saying that there are some instances where it’s more about the receiver making the quarterback better and other instances where it’s more about the quarterback making the receiver better; and while both may be applicable to this instance, there was far more of the latter between Manning and Harrison.

Rushing Support

Another thing I'm tired of hearing about is all of the Pro Bowl running-backs Manning has played with during his career.

There have been three: Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, and Joseph Addai.

With players like that, the "name-recognition method" is quick to come into effect.

Since he's played with three Pro Bowl running-backs, he has to be getting more rushing support than most, right?

Nobody would say that the running-game in Indianapolis has actually been worse than what the New England Patriots produced in 2009.

And nobody would ever dare say that with name recognition aside, the Indianapolis Colts running game over the course of Manning's career has been a virtual carbon copy of the 2003 Houston Texans.

Yet public perception cannot change reality...

Indianapolis Colts running game (1998-2009)

423 carries for 1,652 yards (3.9) and 14 touchdowns.


Houston Texans running game (2003)

421 carries for 1,651 yards (3.9) and 14 touchdowns.


New England Patriots running game (2009)

466 carries for 1,921 yards (4.1) and 19 touchdowns.


Is that supposed to be shocking?

Not really; because just as much as "teams" win championships, "teams" produce on the ground as well.

The Colts have long been a team dominated by the "stud-back": typically one productive rusher backed by few other players who do not produce.

The thing is in football, it doesn't matter who it is gaining the yards or scoring the touchdowns; a touchdown counts as six points regardless of the name on the back of the jersey.

But because of that name recognition, fans have been under the false belief that the Colts running game has been much more productive than it has actually been.


Blocking Support

Have you ever heard someone say that Manning's been blessed with the "greatest offensive line of his generation"?

That may be an extreme of course; and it certainly wouldn’t come from the mouth of anyone who has watched a Colts game recently.

The "name-recognition method" has also run rampant in this regard as well.

Never mind that Jeff Saturday and Tarik Glenn have been the only two Pro Bowl blockers in Manning's career; but their presence has also added a false sense of security to the eyes of the unknowing public.

Jeff Saturday's been one heck of a center and for a number of years; Tarik Glenn was a solid left-tackle.

But there have been so many issues with the Colts offensive line over the years (especially recently) that it amazes me that as of last season, Manning has managed to become the least sacked quarterback in all of professional football.

People see low sack figures and simply assume that it had to have taken good blocking to make that possible.

This strips Manning of the recognition he deserves for being one of the best decision makers in NFL history.

Manning will take a sack when a play provides him no other option (often dropping to the ground to avoid the unnecessary collisions); but he is also extremely proficient in utilizing his quick release to make gains out of sacks and to make incompletions out of possible interceptions.

Manning has done a whole lot of that during his career; but it's something only recognized by those who take the time to really watch him play.

He doesn't run around behind the line like he's in a Madden video-game (ala, Ben Roethlisberger) or heave the ball into quadruple coverage (ala, Brett Favre).

He's a sound decision maker who has learned that when he cannot make a good play, it's better not to make something worse out of a bad situation.

With five linemen blocking him for 12 seasons, there have been 60 opportunities for linemen to be elected to the Pro Bowl; a feat only reached by two of his blockers (Saturday & Glenn) a total of seven times during their combined careers.

Not too shabby for those two players; but it still overlooks the problems the Colts have had with their offensive line over the course of Manning's career.



As I said at the beginning of this article, Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback in NFL history.

Has he had the combination of talented and great players to work with?

Yes, and I think Peyton would be the first person to tell you so.

But has the degree of support he's been given been blown out of proportion?

Yes, and that might be one of the most important aspects for people to reconsider.

Beyond that, his resume speaks for itself.

He's the most productive player in NFL history.

He's the most consistent player in NFL history.

He already owns portions of both the regular season and post-season record books.

He'll likely break every significant career passing record in history; and will have done so playing with a level of consistency never been seen before or likely to ever be seen after.

But he didn't become the greatest quarterback in NFL history because I said so; he became the greatest quarterback in NFL history through hard work, talent, and performance unlike anything we've ever seen in the history professional football.

There's Peyton Manning, then there’s everyone else.

Perception doesn't change reality; Manning's already achieved this by what he's done on the football field.

I can attempt to illustrate a small portion of that and others could attempt to beg to differ; but nobody can take away what Manning has accomplished during his 12 seasons in Indianapolis.

My opinion is that he’s the “greatest”; and biased though it may seem, the reality is that he’s the “best” to ever play the position.

Sometimes opinion and reality agree to terms with one another and Peyton Manning just so happens to be the catalyst for such a realization.


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