Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Maddening Manning

Well, that Divisional Playoff weekend certainly lived up to any hype it could have had.  A lot of talking heads call it the best weekend of football of the year, because of the combination of excellent quality and good-enough quantity of games available.  Unfortunately, the actual results of these games didn't quite tickle my fancy.  I was banking on a Brady/Manning AFC Championship followed by the winner going up against Rodgers for the title, but two of those teams managed to lose thanks to dramatically ineffective defenses.

In this post, though, I'm going to focus on one player who appears to not only be getting a disproportionate amount of blame for his team's loss, but this loss appears to have tarnished his career legacy somewhat.  I am of course referring to Broncos QB Peyton Manning, whose two interceptions, one resulting in a pick-six early in the game and one in overtime, clearly had a significant impact on Denver's loss.  For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to ignore this game in particular, in which the Broncos secondary imploded in an inexcusable way to allow the Ravens to have several big passing plays that won them the game.  As a result of this last game, some of these aforementioned talking heads have now started questioning Manning's ability to perform in the clutch once again, a practice that was commonplace just under a decade ago.  But doesn't even having that discussion around a 4-time MVP and Super Bowl champion seem unfair?  I'm not so sure.  Really, I'm not sure.  I'm going to decide as I write this.  Sort of a choose-your-own-adventure thing.  Or a lack of prior research. 

First, the detractors' argument. 

Here are a few standard stats over Manning's career in both the regular season and postseason:
Regular season         
69% WinPct    65% Completions       266 Yds/Gm    1.9 TD/Gm      0.9 INT/Gm      7.63 Yds/Att
45% WinPct    63% Completions       284 Yds/Gm    1.6 TD/Gm      1.1 INT/Gm      7.46 Yds/Att

So it looks like he's producing more yards in the playoffs but fewer touchdowns and more interceptions, which probably produces the dips in completion percentage and yards per attempt.  However, the striking difference is clearly in the winning percentage, where he loses an extra 1/4 of his games in the playoffs than in the regular season.  It certainly stands to reason that the lost touchdown every three games and the extra interception every 5 games might be the difference between 9-11 and something like 11-9.  In fact, of his 11 postseason losses, 7 of them were by a touchdown or less.  If Peyton throws an extra touchdown in two of those, that's a jump to 11-9 right there.  On the other hand, those touchdowns could have occurred in a game which he would already have won, in which case nothing important happens.

Now, the supporters' argument.

We're going to set aside the whole "HOW COULD YOU DISPARAGE PEYTON MANNING, HE'S UNDOUBTEDLY ONE OF THE TOP TWO OR THREE QUARTERBACKS OF ALL TIME!" thing for the sake of rationality.  The first step in acquitting Manning is probably to point out that he was 3-6 in the playoffs from '99 to '05, and has been 6-5 since, including a Super Bowl trip.  There's also a point that some people appear to be missing, and that is that the level of opponent is significantly increased in the playoffs, which should produce declines in performance in the playoffs relative to the regular season.  This decline may not manifest itself strongly in passing statistics, as there are many good teams that have bad defenses and would allow similar performances statistically to bad teams.  However, they are still good teams, meaning that Manning likely faces teams with an average win percentage of around 65-70 (i.e. 10-11 wins) in the playoffs compared to 50 in the regular season.  If his team normally wins 69% of his games, but they are facing a team that wins 65-70% of their games, one would expect his team to at best win just barely over 50% of the time, which would probably make his "expected" wins 10 out of 20 instead of his actual 9.  Is this enough to crucify him over?  Probably not.  

That being said, contemporaries Brady, Brees, McNabb, Warner, Roethlisberger, Favre, and his brother Eli (all of whom have playoff records over .500) have a combined regular season win percentage of 63, with their average playoff win percentage 61.  This represents a sample of some of the most successful quarterbacks that have played over much of Manning's career, and yet he still has a significantly better regular season record than these players.  Despite that, his postseason record is nontrivially worse than theirs, and he is 1-4 in playoff games against these quarterbacks (and 0-2 against Philip Rivers, who could theoretically have been included in the above list).

I'm not one to lean on wins and losses as a measure of one player's performance, but with the quarterback position being so much more critical to a team's success than any other position in any other sport, it's hard to ignore the contrast between Peyton Manning's playoff success and the success of his rivals.  Yes, two close losses turning into wins would probably kill the detractors' argument, so it's pretty unreasonable to make any strong claim about Manning's "clutchness," or lack thereof, but the difference between his playoff performance and everyone else's makes for a compelling discussion, at least.  I'm inclined to give the man who will probably end up the most prolific quarterback of all time a little bit of slack, though. 

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