The Clutch Enigma: Peyton Manning, Part I

After taking a long look at four of the best clutch quarterbacks of this era, or at least, quarterbacks known for being clutch, we conclude our series with the one and only Peyton Manning. With Manning now fully in the rear-view mirror, its a perfect time to look back at Manning’s career with the Colts. While in Indianapolis, Manning often was labeled as a “regular season” quarterback who couldn’t get it done in the playoffs. Is this true? How does Manning hold up to the traditional “playoff quarterbacks” like Tom Brady, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger, or less well known playoff guru Drew Brees?

Reg. Season Games Comp. % Yds/Attempt Yds/Game TD% Int. % Sack % Rating
1998 16 56.70% 6.50 233.69 4.52% 4.87% 3.69% 71.2
1999 16 62.10% 7.76 258.44 4.88% 2.81% 2.56% 90.7
2000 16 62.52% 7.73 275.81 5.78% 2.63% 3.38% 94.7
2001 16 62.71% 7.55 258.19 4.75% 4.20% 5.03% 84.1
2002 16 66.33% 7.11 262..50 4.57% 3.21% 3.75% 88.8
2003 16 66.96% 7.54 266.69 5.12% 1.77% 3.08% 99
2004 16 67.61% 9.17 284.81 9.86% 2.01% 2.55% 121.1
2005 16 67.33% 8.27 234.19 6.18% 2.21% 3.62% 104.1
2006 16 64.99% 7.89 274.81 5.57% 1.62% 2.45% 101
2007 16 65.44% 7.84 252.50 6.02% 2.72% 3.92% 98
2008 16 66.85% 7.21 250.13 4.86% 2.16% 2.46% 95
2009 16 68.83% 7.88 281.25 5.78% 2.80% 1.72% 99.9
2010 16 66.27% 6.92 293.75 4.86% 2.50% 2.30% 91.9
Totals 208 64.24% 7.60


5.53% 2.75% 3.10% 94.9

One of the things I love about Peyton is his Sack Rate. By far the best among the quarterbacks surveyed, Brees is the next closest at 3.7%. Brady and Eli both sit at 4.7%, while Roethlisberger is well over eight percent. That’s why Manning’s Net Yards/Attempt are the only one over 7.0 for this group. 

Fun Fact: Manning’s Sack Rate of 3.1% is 2nd all time to Steve Walsh, a journeyman quarterback who only started 38 games in the NFL, and also backed up Manning in 1999.

But regular season isn’t why we’re here: 

Playoffs Games Comp. % Yds/Attempt Yds/Game TD% Int. % Sack % Rating
1998 0
1999 1 45.24% 5.40 227 0% 0% 0% 62.3
2000 1 53.13% 6.06 194 3.13% 0% 0% 82.0
2001 0
2002 1 45.16% 4.42 137 0% 6.45% 0% 70.3
2003 3 65.05% 8.91 306 8.74% 3.88% 4.63% 106.4
2004 2 72.00% 9.28 348 5.33% 2.67% 2.60% 107.4
2005 1 57.89% 7.63 290 2.63% 0% 11.63% 90.9
2006 4 63.40% 6.76 258.5 1.96% 4.58% 3.77% 70.5
2007 1 68.75% 8.38 402 6.25% 4.17% 0% 97.7
2008 1 59.52% 7.38 310 2.38% 0% 2.33% 90.4
2009 3 67.97% 7.47 318.67 4.69% 1.56% 3.03% 99.0
2010 1 69.23% 8.65 225 3.85% 0% 3.70% 108.7
Totals 19 63.09% 7.51 283.63 4.04% 2.65% 3.23% 88.4

It’s very clear that Manning’s playoff numbers are nowhere near his incredible regular season numbers. Unlike Drew Brees, who has done a fantastic job of keeping his playoff numbers at or above his regular season numbers, Manning has a clear drop in production, with a six-point drop in rating, largely due to a percentage and a half drop in touchdown percentage, and slightly worse completion percentage, YPA, and Sack Rate. Manning has, however, done a surprisingly good job of lowering his interception rate during the postseason, albeit only a tenth of a percent. 

Where do Manning’s totals fall in our clutch quarterback posse? Well, Manning is second only to Drew Brees in completion percentage (66%) and yards/game (323). He is third in Yards/Attempt, behind Brees and Roethlisberger, but with sacks taken into account (as they would be in N Y/A) Manning would certainly pass Roethlisberger, and likely Brees as well.  Manning is fourth in interception rate, way ahead of Roethlisberger, but slightly behind Eli and Brady (Brees kills everyone here). Manning is last in touchdown rate, with Brees again well ahead of the pack. In playoff quarterback rating though, Manning is third, just behind Eli and way behind Brees. 

The most concerning piece of information among these statistics is Manning’s touchdown rate, which is by far the biggest drop in his regular season vs. playoff performances, as well as the only place where Manning is lacking in comparison to the other four quarterbacks. While Manning gets plenty of yards  per attempt, those attempts don’t turn into touchdowns nearly enough. 

Why is this? Well, I believe the answer has several parts. 

First, Manning’s playoff performance can’t be taken as a whole. Manning’s performance in the playoffs, at it’s most basic level, can be broken down into two parts: 1998-2002 and 2003-present. Although it may seem like I’m simply trying to take out Manning’s worst years, I assure you that my intentions are pure. Manning is the only quarterback in this group to have a trend like this. Manning’s first five years in the league are clearly far inferior to his last five, both in the post season and the regular season. Manning was awful in the playoffs in 1999-2000, and 2002, but since then he has been one of the best in the league during the postseason. Look at how drastically different Manning’s career looks in retrospect: 

Regular Season Games Comp. % Yds/Attempt Yds/Game TD% Int. % Sack % Rating
2003-2011 128 66.77% 7.79 267.27 5.94% 2.23% 2.72% 100.7

And the playoffs during that time:

Playoffs Games Comp. % Yds/Attempt Yds/Game TD % Int. % Sack % Rating
2003-2011 16 65.74 7.88 301.94 4.57% 2.77% 3.77% 93.4

While there is still an obvious drop from the regular season to the postseason, this gives Manning’s work over his career a much better picture, in my opinion, than the overall numbers. While Manning only played in three playoff games in his first five years in the league, it created a stigma among the media that Manning was a poor playoff quarterback (fairly, because he was during those five years). Unfortunately, over the last nine years he’s been one of the best in the league during the post season, I’d say only Brees has out performed him overall. 

But, that key statistic, touchdown rate, while much closer to his peers now, is still the worst among the five quarterbacks, dragging down his overall rating. Manning gets a lot of yards, and very efficiently (Brees gets more yards in the postseason, but Manning is more efficient), but it hasn’t translated into scores as often as it should have. While looking at the bulk of Manning’s career in proper context has helped us get part of the way there, Manning is still lacking. 

The reason why lies in the context of the games themselves.

First, Manning has faced far superior defenses during his time in the league. Let’s take a look at the defenses the quarterbacks have faced in the playoffs: 


Opponent’s Average Defensive Ranking (Passer Rating)

Opponent’s Average Passer Rating Allowed

Opponent’s Average Defensive Scoring Rank

Opponent’s Average Score Allowed
P. Manning* 7.00 71.58 6.88 17.48
E. Manning 8.27 76.65 9.45 18.85
Brady 11.41 77.04 10.59 18.97
Roethlisberger 11.93 78.34 9.36 18.61
Brees 12.67 79.26 11.56 19.51

*As stated above, we’re just talking 2003-2010 here. The total numbers, including 1999-2002, bring Manning’s averages up, but just slightly. He is still easily ahead in all categories. But, since we’re just looking at that period now, I only listed the numbers from that year. 

Overall, Manning has faced much tougher defenses during his trips to the playoffs. The difference is actually quite astounding, especially with a player like Drew Brees, who has faced much easier defenses, and feasted upon them. He has faced several top notch defenses (2011 49ers, 2006 Bears), and has put up solid numbers. But, they were nowhere near his average playoff numbers, and his team lost both games. 

Manning, on the other hand, has faced twelve top ten defenses out of his 16 games from 2003-2010 (both in scoring and passer rating), most of which were in the top five (Seven in passer rating and nine in scoring). Against those defenses, he has done pretty well, having great games against the 2010 and 2009 Jets and 2007 Chargers. He really only had two bad playoff games from 2003-2010: against the 2003 and 2004 Patriots, who had the number one rated defense in 2003, and another top five one in 2004. 

You could point to Manning’s low 39.6 game against the 2006 Ravens as well, but that game was wonderfully played by Manning, an incredible chess match against the #1 defense that year (and the best scoring defense out of any in this sample, allowing just 12.6 points per game). 

As telling as those defensive numbers are, there is another contributing factor to Manning’s low touchdown numbers in the playoffs: drive context. 

Colts Authority’s Scott Kacsmar has done some fantastic work on clutch quarterback play, and last year compiled a tremendous group of quarterback drive statistics for the playoffs that is quite telling, especially when it comes to Peyton Manning. Although these statistics do not include 2011, they are helpful nonetheless. In the group, Kacsmar charted two dozen quarterbacks over the last thirty years.

Some of the facts that are relevent here: 

  • Manning has had the worst starting field position of every quarterback surveyed. Combining that with the best defenses faced, and you get a very difficult time of scoring. 
  • Despite playing those tougher defenses, Manning was second among the quarterbacks in yards per drive, easily topping the other four quarterbacks in this study. Brees was second, then Roethlisberger, Brady, and Eli. 
  • The worst field position of any of the 314 games in the study was the 2008 Wild Card game in San Diego, where the Colts average starting field position was their own 15. This explains why the Colts only scored 17 points against a defense that wasn’t that great (Manning still posted a 90.3 rating). 
  • The second worst game was the 2009 Super Bowl against  the Saints, where again the Colts only scored 17 points. 
  • Manning’s average touchdown drives have been 70.6 yards, second longest in Kacsmar’s study, and longest among the five quarterbacks here. 

This just goes to show that Manning has faced a much longer field in the playoffs than his competitors, which helps explain why his scoring percentage is lower. 

Combining this with the defenses faced shows us that Manning has really done an incredible job in the playoffs. I’m not sure if you can push him past Drew Brees, simply because Brees has never had a truly bad game, although he has had a limited sample and faced easier defenses. But Manning, at least from 2003-2011, has been a simply wonderful playoff quarterback, despite facing very difficult circumstances. I would definitely put him ahead of Brady and Roethlisberger, and Eli, until he proves that his playoff stats are more than just streaky performances. 

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.