Jason Cole Misses the Mark in Colts Rankings: Quarterback

There’s a saying in life, that I can’t repeat here due to the family nature of this website, so I’ll summarize:

You can do a thousand great things in your life, but get caught committing one embarrassing act and that is what you’ll be known for the rest of your life.

Welcome to Peyton Manning’s world. Damned as much for his comments after the Colts’ playoff loss to the Steelers and his pick-6 in the Super Bowl against the Saints as he is lauded for his durability, intelligence, and golden arm. Peyton Manning is this era’s most criticized star NFL player.

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Continuing our off-season series looking at Jason Cole’s analysis of the Colts units, this week we’ll be looking at his ranking of quarterbacks. Here is what Jason had to say about this year’s Colts’ quarterbacks:

2. Indianapolis Colts: One very bad pass play in the Super Bowl cost Manning a chance to be at the top of this list. If this were on overall achievement, Manning would rank ahead of Brees, but this ranking is a snapshot of what’s happening at this moment. Manning is the essence of what the Colts do in every way. That said, if he doesn’t get another Super Bowl victory, expect the critics to have a field day with him.

And with that Cole succinctly and totally reduces Peyton Manning and the 2009 Indianapolis Colts’ season to a single play. Gone is his masterful performance against the Dolphins, where he was able to salvage a win with only 15-minutes of possession. Gone are the amazing comebacks against the Texans and Patriots. Gone is slight shuffle of the feet in the face of enormous pressure and the beautiful bomb down the sidelines that hit Reggie Wayne in stride to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars and take the Colts to a league-best 14-0. Also gone are the deliberate, masterful dissections Manning performed on the vaunted defenses of the Ravens and Jets in the playoffs.

Today’s sports media, for the most part, seems to take the easy way out. There are labels for everything. You can be clutch. You can be a choker. You can be the best at seeing the field. The best at calling a game. You can have the best arm. You can have the best football I.Q. You can be JaMarcus Russell. And you can be defined not by a body of work, but by a single play.

It all feels so lazy to me — romanticizing the sport and its athletes to make them something that they aren’t, instead of judging and analyzing them based on their merits.

Some of you have joked that last week’s article was on the longer side , so I’m going to save you time this week and spoil the ending: I disagree with Jason Cole. I disagree with him for a few reasons: In part because of the stats, in part because of my eyes, and in part because, unlike Cole and the rest of the NFL media in general I’m not in a constant search for the next best thing. Peyton Manning is the best quarterback in football and I’m okay with that.

We’ll start our statistical analysis with conventional NFL stats, which gives us a pretty mixed bag. While Manning did not lead in any single category, he was near the top of the rankings in every important stat. Manning was second in the league in passing yards, having played around one and a half fewer games than most of his competition. Drew Brees, Cole’s #1 this year, was 6th on the list, with 15 full games under his belt.

Manning was also second in the league in completion percentage with a career-best mark of 68.8. The number is made more impressive in my mind when you consider that Manning was second in the league (Matt Schaub was first) in total pass attempts (and was first in the league in adjusted attempts per game). This superb number wasn’t good enough to beat out Brees, however, who set a league record with a 70.6% completion percentage.

The final conventional stats we’ll look at are touchdowns and quarterback rating, which I feel is sorely outdated, but we’ll make up for that with advanced stats. Manning was second in the league with 33 touchdowns, one behind league leader Drew Brees. Manning was 6th in the league with a 99.9 QB rating (Drew Brees was first), which is the result of an equation which factors in completion percentage, touchdowns, interceptions, good looks, marketability, and number of times the quarterback has been arrested.

Through round one, it seems that Jason Cole made a good decision ranking Drew Brees first. Let’s continue our look now with advanced stats, which will continue to use FootballOutsiders.com (DYAR and DVOA) with an assist from Pro-Football-Reference.com (ANY/A – adjusted net yards per pass attempt).

DYAR, in basic terms, is an advanced stat that compares a quarterbacks’ value to that of a replacement-level quarterback while adjusting for situation and opponent. Peyton Manning’s DYAR in 2009 was 1,936, meaning that he produced 1,936 yards more than a replacement-level quarterback would have in his place. Manning was second in this category (Tom Brady was first, with a DYAR of 2,170), while Drew Brees was 4th on the list (1,845).

DVOA, the second FootballOutsiders stat we’ll be looking at, is the quarterback’s value, per play, over a replacement level quarterback in the same situations. One again, it will be adjusted based on opponent. Instead of being in yardage, this number is in percent form. Once again Manning was top-5 in the league, with a DVOA of 38.2%, good enough for 5th (Philip Rivers was first, with a DVOA of 45.9%), but trailing Drew Brees, who had a DVOA of 41.0%, good for 3rd in the league.

The final advanced stat we’ll look at is ANY/A, or Adjusted Net Yards per Passing Attempt, which is the steroid version of the conventional Yards per Attempt (ypa) stat. The advanced version of the stat adjusts not only by including sack totals into the pass attempt totals, but also providing a reward and penalty, respectively, for touchdown passes and interceptions thrown.

Some of you may remember that early last season that not only was Manning poised to break the mark for consecutive 300-yard games, but he was also on pace to set a record for ANY/A. Manning and the Colts offense slowed, unfortunately, and Manning ended the season with an ANY/A of 7.51, good for 5th in the league, with the pace again being set by Drew Brees with a mark of 8.31.

It’s at this point in time that we cut to Jason Cole, who has a big grin and is giving us two thumbs up and doing a victory lap while sippin’ on purple drank with our buddy JaMarcus. Not so fast, my friend! While I respect all of the stats and sites I’ve referenced so far, I believe there is still more to this story.

First, as we touched on last week, the Colts’ running game isn’t very good, and hasn’t been for quite some time. You may ask if this matters, and I’m here to tell you it does. Over the past 8 seasons (from the 2002 season through the 2009 season), Peyton Manning’s three lowest years in terms of ANY/A happened to coincide with the three lowest rushing totals for the Colts’ offense (2002, 2008, 2009). Along those same lines, Manning’s record setting season in 2004 coincided with the Colts’ best rushing effort of the past eight seasons (1852 rushing yards that year).

A good running game helps increase the effectiveness of the play-action pass, which has been a staple in the Colts’ offense since Manning arrived. Opposing defenses have had such little respect for the running game, however, that there have been times when linebackers and safeties would ignore the play-action fake altogether, and continue to get their depth in coverage. Not only does the running game increase the effectiveness of the play-action pass, but it also changes the way teams play defense against the Colts.

The past two years, the defense of choice against the Colts has been zone coverage with two-deep safeties. This type of defense is inviting the offense to run, since safety help is so far away. The Colts, however, have been unable to take advantage of this in the running game, which has forced Manning to throw into these zones more often than not. In a zone defense, where the defenders have their eyes on the quarterback more often, there is less margin for error on every throw, yet Manning has successfully attacked these defenses week-in and week-out.

The second point that needs to be examined in Manning’s greatness is the play of the Colts’ defense. The 2009 defense, which was lauded for being more aggressive under new Defensive Coordinator Larry Coyer, was actually worse in every conventional category than its 2008 counterpart.

On top of that, the Colts’ defense allowed a mind-numbingly bad 45% 3rd-down conversion rate on the year, meaning that most drives, whether they resulted in points or not, left Manning and his buddies sitting on the bench. For his part, Manning responded by posting a league-leading 3rd-down conversion rate of 49.2%.

Despite Manning’s efforts on 3rd downs, the Colts’ were still 31st in the league in time of possession (TOP) with 27:40 per game of TOP. The Colts were also 23rd in the league in plays from scrimmage, running 980 plays, 52 fewer than the New Orlean Saints (or about 3.5 a game for the 15 games that Manning and Brees played, which equates to one fewer series, per game).

Very smart people, Bill Polian included, will tell you that TOP does not matter, it’s what you do with the time and the possessions that you have. While agree with this, in principle, the fact is, there comes a point when you need possessions to overcome the opposing team.

While we might expect Manning to score every time he has the ball, and he may even expect it of himself, it is not realistic. Having a defense that can force 3-and-outs, that can get stops, that can force turnovers, all of those things reduce the pressure on the offense, widens the margin of error, and offers them more options. This simply was not the case last year.

I don’t have a stat or numbers or even a source to back up my final point about Manning, it’s just what I feel when I watch him play. I don’t believe any quarterback in the league is asked to do as much as the Colts ask of Manning. Not only does have more input at the line of scrimmage than any other player in the league, but he’s also the best in the league at understanding the rhythm and flow of the game.

When he feels his defense needs a break, you can see the Colts offense change their methods. Conversely, there is no greater team to watch in the 2-minute drill than the Manning-led Colts. His ability to get everyone to the line, get them set, get a play called, and executed is second-to-none.

I believe that Peyton Manning is the best player in the NFL today. I believe that he makes his teammates better. I believe that he covers up a lot of blemishes on a team that I don’t think is more than a four-to-six win team without him.

He never goes a game without giving me a wow play with both his mind and his body. I can watch a team play 64 snaps against Peyton in Cover-2, but they decide to blitz just one play, Peyton will recognize it and exploit it.

I love watching him at the line of scrimmage, anticipating what counterattack he’ll unleash on the next play. I enjoy knowing that no matter how big the deficit, Peyton will bring us back. I love watching “genius” head coaches wilt on the sidelines, making decisions out of fear — fear of giving Peyton Manning the ball back.

I love Peyton Manning, and think he’s the best quarterback in the game, and so should you, Jason Cole.

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