Old Manning

What can we expect from Peyton Manning over the next few years?  Is the window for the Colts closing as Manning ages?

Everyone knows that over the past six seasons, Manning has won three MVP awards and a Super Bowl.  Now that he’s one of the elder statesmen of the NFL QB club, many have wondered aloud if Manning’s best days might soon be behind him.  No one is expecting a slowdown in 2009, but might we see one not long after?

It’s impossible to know of course, but we can look at the careers of other greats of the game and gain an idea of what 18′s final few seasons might look like.

In order to get a fair sampling, I’ve used the “Similar Players” list on Profootballreference.com as a guide.  I’ve taken some liberties (I took the top 9 that he’s most similar to through 11 seasons, and added Steve Young who is second in similarity to Manning for their careers) in assembling my sampling. The result is a solid class of Hall of Fame quarterbacks comparable to Peyton.

That list is: Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Steve Young, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly, Dan Fouts, and John Elway.

Not all these players are the same style of QB as Manning, and not all have played in the same era.  Still, it gives us a baseline to work with.  Over the course of the next few days I’ll examine how these QBs fared after age 33 to see what we can learn about possible future seasons for Mr. Manning.

1.  Is it likely that Manning will play in another Super Bowl?

Now obviously, this question has much more to do with the Colts as a team than with the play of just the quarterback, but it still merits investigating if HoF quarterbacks have any history of leading their teams to championship games late in their careers.

The Data:

Player Conference Championship Games Super Bowls
Unitas 3 2
Young 3 1
Montana 3 1
Marino 0 0
Favre 1 0
Moon 0 0
Fouts 0 0
Elway 2 2
Staubach 3 3
Kelly 1

1

As you can see from this list, 7 of the 10 QBs managed at least a conference championship appearance after their 33rd birthday, and 6 made at least one Super Bowl appearance.  Three of them went to multiple Super Bowls after their 33rd birthdays.

It’s hardly a large sampling, nor is it scientific evidence, I admit, but it is encouraging data.  Should Manning’s career continue to follow a similar path that of the 10 QBs he’s most like, the odds are good that he will make at least one more Super Bowl appearance before he’s done.  At the very least, there is ample evidence that great QBs older than 33 have guided their teams deep into the playoffs before.

2.  Attempts

Each of the 10 QBs selected (see yesterday’s post) played through age 36.  Seven were still playing at age 38.  3 by 39, 2 by 40, and only Warren Moon played past age forty (he played until 44 years old, though only saw a full season of play once after age 40).  Currently, we are guessing that Manning plays until 2014, when he will break most of Brett Favre’s records.  I can’t see him quitting at age 37, needing just one more season to take some of the most illustrious records of all time away from Favre.

Of the 10 QBs in question, injuries took a toll.  Johnny Unitas was never fully healthy after age 34.  Steve Young played until he was 38, but lost parts of three of his last four seasons.  Joe Montana lost almost 2 full years at age 35, before coming back at age 37.  Dan Marino was banged up two of his final four years in the league. Still, of the QBs who suffered lost or partially lost seasons due to injuries after the age of 33 (Young, Montana, Marino, Fouts, Elway), most came back to be successful again.  Only Unitas (again, very different era) got hurt and was never the same.

The stunning thing about all the quarterbacks on the list, is that other than Unitas and Moon, the end came quickly.  Eight of them posted a season of at least 430 attempts one year before retiring.  Staubach, Montana, and Favre all posted at least 460 attempts in their final season.

Manning has always been a high volume passer and bears a lot of similarity wtih Marino and Favre in that respect.  Favre never threw fewer than 471 times after age 33.  Four of Marino’s final six seasons saw him throw the ball over 480 times.  In two other seasons, he battled injuries, but still threw at least 369 times both seasons.

So, what can we take from this?  We know that injuries can hit any player at any time.  We also know that Manning has a suspect offensive line.  So we knock on a serious amount of wood as we draw these conclusions:

  •  Manning is likely going to throw the ball a lot right up until the end.  In terms of passing attempts, there’s more of a cliff than a gradual decline.  Most of the big time passers kept flinging it until they left the league.
  • Manning is likely to play to at least age 38.  Most of the greats retired at that age.  It would take him through the 2014 seasons which would put him one season short of Favre’s consecutive start streak (should he stay healthy all season).
  • In terms of playing time, we won’t see the end coming. The greats kept throwing until the end.  Once they couldn’t be the man, they walked away.  The exceptions were Warren Moon, who started in the NFL much later than other great QBs, and Johnny Unitas.
  • Even if he does get hurt, he can still come back to have fine seasons.  Many QBs in the modern era have done so.

3. Touchdown Passes and Interceptions

When looking at touchdowns thrown by the 10 passers selected, we see four groups emerge:

  • The Sharp Decliners:  These players lost their skills fast.

Unitas, Fouts and Montana.

Unitas and Montana never threw more than 20 TDs after they turned 34, even though both played more years. Fouts threw more than 20 TDs only once after turning 31 (27 when he was 24).

  • The Fine Wines:  These players got better with age

Elway and Staubach

Both players saw upward trends in their TDs from age 28 to the end of their careers.  Elway threw at least 25 TDs in 6 of his last 7 years in the league.  Staubach increased his TD total each of his last four years in the league and retired after throwing a career high 27 TDs at age 37.

  • The Soft Landers:  These players leveled off but stayed excellent

Marino and Favre

Marino threw at least 23 TDs in 3 of his last 6 years (two more were cut short by injury).  Favre never threw fewer than 18 TDs after turning 33, and threw more than 25 four times.

  • The Bell CurvesThey took time to get up to speed, peaked late, and then fell off.

Young, Kelly, Moon

These players started their careers in other leagues, and joined the NFL late.  Young peaked at age 33 and began a steady decline, but stunningly had one more amazing season at age 37 before retiring due to concussions.  Moon peaked at age 34 and then gradually fell off, posting a couple of good years late in his career (39, 41).  Kelly peaked at 31 and steadily fell off.

There are three ways to group the players by interceptions

  • The Wiley Vets:  They threw fewer picks as they aged

Montana, Elway, Young

Monatana almost never threw interceptions anyway and as his health declined, he played less, so he threw less.  His curve was straight to the floor.  Elway threw plenty of plenty of picks when he was younger, but as he aged (and got Shanahan) he became more careful with the ball, never throwing more than 14 picks after the age of 33.  Young never threw more than 12 picks in a season after age 33.

  • The Hangers On:  They managed to keep their picks steady

Staubach, Kelly

This is a deceiving group.  Staubach stayed in the low to middle teens in picks throughout his career.  Kelly consistent threw in the high teens.  As they got older, they did what they had always done.  Staubach kept throwing a reasonable number of picks; Kelly kept throwing more.

  • The Old Gunslingers:  They kept firing after the fastball was gone

Favre, Marino, Unitas, Fouts, Moon

Favre was always a pick machine, but as he got older, he grew more indiscriminate with the ball.  He topped 20 three times after his 33rd birthday.  Marino was more judicious, but still saw his pick totals rise his last several years.  Unitas’s playing time decreased, but his pick rate increased.  Fouts threw 74 picks after the age of 33, and only played four seasons.  Moon threw a lot of picks early in his career but seemed to figure things out in the middle.  By the end, he was back to throwing a high number of picks.

Conclusions:

It’s safe to assume that by volume, we won’t see much decrease from Peyton Manning in the touchdown department.  It’s reasonable to assume that barring injury he’ll still throw between 20-30 TDs a year.  He’s similar in many ways to Favre and Marino, so the ‘Soft Landing’ label fits nicely.

Unfortunately, the odds are high that he’ll fall into the trap of the ‘Old Gunslingers’ as well.  It is possible that as his arm deteriorates, he’ll change his game and protect the ball better.  This list has shown that Elway certainly elevated his game and became a better QB at 35-38 than at 25-28.  More likely, his pick rate will rise with time.  In fact, if the Colts have a down season, I would expect it to rise dramatically as he’ll have to throw more to keep his team in the game.

The good news for 18 is that because his INT levels are so low now that even a modest increase will keep his numbers at respectable levels.  We might see a few more seasons like 2003 (19 ints) late in his career, but are unlikely to see a Favrian number of picks.

A good baseline for “Old Peyton” would be 25 TDs 15 Ints starting around age 35.  Plenty of the greats had seasons at least that strong at an advanced age, so there’s no reason to expect Peyton to fall much further in terms of the volume stats.

4.   YPA and Yards
Yards per attempt is perhaps the most important “rate stat” in football. The Ten Greats break down into two categories (right click on chart to view image-note that seasons lost to injury by Montana, Unitas, and Young were omitted)

  • Dropped like a Rock:  These guys’ YPA fell dramatically as they aged.

Montana, Unitas, Marino, Fouts, Moon

Montana, Unitas and Marino battled injuries and it hurt their ability to get the ball downfield.  Moon and Fouts had some nice years after the age of 33, but declined quickly.

  • Held the Line: These guys may have had dips, but finished strong in YPA

Staubach, Elway, Young, Kelly, Favre

Once again, it’s plain to see how Staubach and Elway improved with age.  Favre’s curve stayed fairly flat, but only because he had several up and down years.  Some years, his YPA was very weak, but also posted a few excellent years.  The curve splits the difference.  Kelly was remarkably consistent in the last four years of his career, and actually finished with a 7.4 YPA, the highest of the last four years of his career.  Steve Young was remarkable and other than his partial final season had a YPA over 7.6 four of his last five seasons.

Yards

First, the good news:  the 10 QBs had nine 4000 yard seasons among them after the age of 33.  That might not sound like a lot, but considering that the same 10 QBs combined for only 6 such seasons from ages 28-32, that’s really a lot.

Now the bad news, the yards start to fall for almost all great QBs.  Simply put, teams typically don’t rely on older QBs to chew up yardage.  Again, click on the graph to magnify.

With only one true exception, the QBs showed a downward trend.  Only the aging wonder Roger Staubach managed to generally increase his yards passing as he got older.  That isn’t to say that an old man can’t have a big year.  At 37, Steve Young threw for 4155 yards (which was out of line with general decline).  Warren Moon went over 4000 yards four times after turning 33.  Still, it’s not the norm.  Notice Elway’s curve.  We’ve seen in recent days that Elway grew more efficient with the ball as he got older, but at the same time, his yards dropped.  The Broncos didn’t rely on him to throw the ball nearly as often, thus he was more effective when he did throw it.  Guys like Marino trailed off quickly.  He topped 4400 yards at age 33, but never again hit 3800.  Other big armed guys like Fouts and Kelly met similar fates.

Conclusions:

  • In terms of YPA, Manning has a decent shot at staying productive.  Currently, his YPA has taken a nose dive since 2004, dropping every season.  With uncertainty surrounding the Colts line this year as well, no one should be surprised to see Manning’s YPA dip below 7 (where it stood for a good portion of last season).  Having said that, he still should be able to post some strong seasons before he retires.  With some peaks and valleys, we can expect Peyton to settle in between 7 and 7.5 YPA.  In other words, where he finished last year is likely to be a typical Old Manning season.
  • In terms of pure yards, Manning will drop off.  It’s all but certain.  He may have one or two more 4,000 yard seasons in him, but will probably settle in around 3500-3800 yards (similar to Favre).  That’s higher than most of the other guys on the list, but Manning has had higher yardage totals at every step of his career.
  • A best case scenario would be a John Elway set up.  Manning gets paired up with a strong run game and a stifling defense and the Colts don’t need him to throw as much.  In such a selective situation, Manning could see his YPA move back up toward 8 or 8.5, though his overall yardage would still fall, perhaps even lower than the 3500 yard plateau.

5.  Passer Rating

First a caveat:  Manning is in a class apart from most of these QBs when it comes to passer rating.  Manning’s career rating of 94.7 is so good that Dan Marino and Brett Favre only had three seasons each that high.  Jim Kelly did it twice.  Warren Moon only did it once.  Dan Fouts, Roger Staubach and John Elway?

Never did it at all.

So when we talk about Manning and passer rating, understand that he is in a class that very few of the greats ever made.

The QBs divide into two groups:

  • Advancers:  These guys got better or stayed the same as they aged.

Elway, Staubach, Young, Favre, Kelly

It’s not exactly a homogeneous group.  We’ve discussed Staubach and Elway ad nauseum.  Remember, however, that both got better because neither one started out with a very good rating to begin with. Young, the career leader in passer rating, was incredible to the end.  After turning 33, he had a rating of 92 or better every year (until his last injury shortened season).  He beat 97 four times!  Favre was his typical all over the board self, alternating between amazing and awful (thus a flatter curve). Kelly was never very good as he aged, but kept his rating steady until the end.  The good news is that this group combined for 10 seasons over 90 after the age of 33.

  • Decliners:  These guys trailed off

Unitas, Moon, Fouts, Marino, Montana

No surpirse to see Unitas here.  Marino start alright, hovering between 87 and 91 for three years before injuries knocked him down.  Moon had a career best at the age of 34, but trailed off quickly.  Montana had an amazing year at 33, but trailed off to a still respectable rating in the 80s.  Fouts lost it fast.  This group combined for four seasons over 90 past age 33.

Conclusions:

  • The two QBs on this list with the highest career ratings (Young and Montana) both offer hope.  Both posted (then) record seasons at age 33.  Young never trailed off like Montana, but even Joe Cool kept his rating respectable.  Both QBs battled injuries, but their ability to pass for a good rating stayed with them.  That’s a good sign for 18
  • Marino kept his rating steady until his knees went.  Manning should be able to hold the line as long as his legs hold up.
  • When it comes to passer rating, Manning is so far above most of the Hall of Fame QBs, that in some ways there is no way to make an accurate comparison.  Young and Montana played in a completely different system than Manning and both were more mobile QBs.  That makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions, but it’s a good bet that Manning will have several more years over 90 and even one or two over 100 before he retires.  Toward the very end, he’ll likely settle into seasons in the high 80s.  Of all the categories, this should remain Manning’s strongest until the end.

6.  Wins

What are the general prospects for a team lead by one of these greats?  We’ve stated many times that while there is obviously correlation between having a good QB and winning games, it’s folly to give too much credit or blame to the QB for any given game.  Checking the overall records of teams with an older QB in no way violates that principle.  If anything, this particular study can be considered an appendix to the others.  It is a general recognition of the relative strength of the teams the QBs started for, as requested by a reader.

The difficulty with this particular category is that many of the QBs missed games as they got older.  In this case, a comparative chart would be meaningless because of differing lengths of seasons and games missed.  Because the goal is not to measure raw wins, but to find out about the general quality of the team, I offer a QB by QB look at their final years.  The win totals are by team, not by QB.  Not all the team wins were credited to the QB in question.

Unitas: We’ve talked about how Johnny U’s play tailed of dramatically, but it did so just as the Colts were strong.  In his final four years as a principally starting QB, his teams won 9, 11, 8, and 11 games (in a 14 game schedule).  Unitas’s decline was due to injuries, not general talent level.

Young:  Steve Young’s 49ers teams were great.  Even though he missed some games, his teams won 13, 11, 12, 13, and 12 games.  Having an old QB did not hurt them at all.

Montana:  The 49ers and Chiefs won 14, 14, 11 and 9 games after Montana turned 33.  Again, any decline in Joe’s performance was on him, not his team.

Marino: The Dolphins won 10, 9, 8, 9, 10, and 9 games.  Marino was actually the QB that spawned the question. As you can see, his Dolphins teams were solid, even as Marino’s play declined.  Still, with ‘old Marino’, the Dolphins were always a borderline playoff team.

Favre: The Packers (and Jets) won 12, 10, 10, 4, 8, 13 and 9 games.  Other than one difficult season, Favre’s teams were in or near the playoffs each year.

Moon: The Oilers won 9, 9, 11, 10, and 12 games.  He then jumped to the Vikings who won 10, 8, and 9 games.  He finished with two Seahawks teams that both finished .500.

Fouts:  The Chargers won 7, 8, 4 and 8 games in his last four years.  The Chargers were an average team, even as Fouts was becoming a below average QB.

Elway:  The Broncos won 9, 7, 8, 13, 12, and 14 games after Elway turned 33.

Staubach:  The Cowboys won 11, 12, 12, and 11 games.

Kelly:  The Bills won 12, 7, 10, and 10 games.

Conclusions:

  • Teams with these older QBs tended to be good or very good.  There are only 5 losing seasons out of the 54.  Conversely, there are 30 double digit win seasons.
  • We’ve already seen that most of the QBs were experiencing declining play to some degree or another.  Still, their teams remained competitive.  Without knowing the circumstances of each season, it’s probably safe to assume that whatever drop off was felt by the declining play/health of the QB was likely offset by other intangible factors like smarter game management.
  • The alternate hypothesis is that in some cases (Fouts? Marino? Unitas?) the old QB was actually holding back what was otherwise a talented club.  These men all made the Hall of Fame (except Favre, obviously), and it is possible that in some cases they continued to get credit for ‘wins’ that were actually generated by the rest of the club more than by their play.

What does this mean for Peyton Manning?  It certainly should reassure Colts fans that ‘the window’ isn’t closing.  There is no “window” for victory by older QBs. Now, the Colts’ window could close because Freeney or Wayne got old, certainly.  It will not close because of Manning’s age. There is every reason to expect the Colts to continue to be a playoff caliber team as long as Manning is under center.

Final Conclusions and Projections

1There is no window.  Older QBs have an excellent chance of leading their teams to great seasons. There is no reason to think that a 38 year old Manning won’t be able to take his team to Super Bowl.

2.  Statistically, Peyton Manning is head and shoulders above this list of Hall of Fame QBs.  Though this list was based on similarity scores, ultimately Manning statistically obliterates most of these players.  Even should he decline, he would still be among the most effective quarterbacks in history.

3.  Even if Manning gets hurt, he can still come back strong. Several QBs suffered shortened seasons or even lost seasons and came back to be effective.

Here’s how I see Peyton Manning performing from 2009-2014

 

Comp Att % TD INT YPA Yards Rating
33 2009 363 550 66 30 13 7.3 4015 95.8
34 2010 357 525 68 33 11 8 4200 104.3
35 2011 335 515 65 29 16 7.6 3914 93.8
36 2012 315 500 63 27 18 7.1 3550 87.2
37 2013 302 480 63 26 15 6.9 3312 88.3
38 2014 320 470 68 23 15 6.5 3055 88.9

Explanation:

Manning will likely have a similar 2009 to 2008.  The Colts still have line troubles, so I don’t expect his YPA to rise dramatically.  Still, his health is better, so it’s reasonable to forecast a slightly better season.  By 2010, the Colts will hopefully have fixed their line problems, and Manning have have hist last truly great season.  The fall off at age 35 will still put him more or less on line with his career norms.  By age 36, we’ll start to see the effects of reduced arm strength/older legs.  Manning’s pick totals will like spike as he adjusts to losing his fastball.  By his final season, he’ll have adjusted to more of a possession style passer, and his completion percentage and YPA will rise and fall respectively. These projections are not scientific.  They were derived by looking at Manning’s career totals and trying to generally find curves that look similar to other players.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of “Old Manning” will be his ability to change the kind of QB he is.  In my projection, Manning will alter his game to be come a higher %, lower YPA passer in his final season.  This would be similar to Brett Favre’s last two seasons where his completion % rose to new levels.  As for the Colts, they will continue to be in good hands.  There is no reason to expect a drop off in play as Manning ages, assuming the team continues to be well run.  It’s reasonable for Colts fans to expect at least one more shot at the Super Bowl in the Manning era.  The biggest problem will be replacing aging pass rushers (Freeney and Mathis) and wideouts (Wayne and Clark).

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