Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Brett Favre vs. Peyton Manning
I am a student of NFL history. Longtime readers may remember my analysis of every great dynasty the league has seen, or a column on the NFL's greatest records, or my repeated assertions that Art Monk belongs in the Hall of Fame. A decent portion of my free time is spent researching — or at least thinking about — the NFL.
A week or two ago, I was doing just that, mentally going over a list of the greatest quarterbacks the league has seen. To make sure I keep things in historical perspective, I go by decade, starting with 1946 (the beginning of the NFL's modern era). 1946-55, Otto Graham. 1956-65, John Unitas. Then Fran Tarkenton, and so on. When I got to the current period, starting in 1996, I almost automatically said Brett Favre, but thought to myself, "You know, I bet Peyton Manning is getting pretty close."
And it turns out, Manning is really close.
Let's start with stats, and we'll go from there. Obviously, Favre — who has played 16 seasons to Manning's nine — is way ahead in gross numbers.
Att Comp Yds TD INT Favre 8,223 5,021 57,500 414 273 Manning 4,890 3,131 37,586 275 139
In average production per season, the tables are turned. All the numbers below are per-season averages, rounded to the nearest whole number.
Att Comp Yds TD INT Favre 514 314 3,594 26 17 Manning 543 348 4,176 31 15
Okay, so Manning leads in every category. But he's not just a guy who throws a lot. Manning leads Favre in every major efficiency stat, too.
Cmp% Yds/Att TD% INT% Rating Favre 61.1 6.99 5.0 3.3 85.1 Manning 64.0 7.69 5.6 2.8 94.4
Manning also leads in yards per completion (12.00-11.45) and adjusted yards per pass (6.97-6.00), an efficiency rating originally published in The Hidden Game of Football, by Carroll, Palmer, and Thorn. There's a very reasonable argument to be made in Favre's defense here. In fact, there are several. But the first one is that Favre is old. His play has declined sharply in the past two seasons, and that's hurting his averages. So the charts below present only Favre's first nine years as a starter (1992-2000), the same number of seasons Manning has played in the NFL.
Att Comp Yds TD INT Favre 4,927 2,997 34,706 255 155 Manning 4,890 3,131 37,586 275 139
Cmp% Yds/Att TD% INT% Rating Favre 60.8 7.04 5.2 3.1 86.3 Manning 64.0 7.69 5.6 2.8 94.4
Favre's averages get better (except completion percentage, which drops slightly), but Manning remains ahead in every category — now including the gross numbers. But Favre had several good seasons after 2000, so let's present his averages from 1991-2004, which includes everything except these last two years.
Cmp% Yds/Att TD% INT% Rating Favre 61.5 7.10 5.4 3.2 87.4 Manning 64.0 7.69 5.6 2.8 94.4
Again, better, but Favre is still far behind, and there can be little doubt that Manning has been a much more efficient quarterback. But Favre has been doing this for a long time, and there's no guarantee that Manning can keep this up for that long. So presented below are Favre's statistics from only his nine best seasons: 1994-98 and 2001-04.
Att Comp Yds TD INT Favre 4,831 3,007 35,301 297 148 Manning 4,890 3,131 37,586 275 139
Cmp% Yds/Att TD% INT% Rating Favre 62.2 7.31 6.1 3.1 92.1 Manning 64.0 7.69 5.6 2.8 94.4
Now this is close. Favre has gone ahead in touchdowns and TD percentage. But Manning leads in completions, completion percentage, yards, yards per attempt, yards per completion, fewer interceptions, interception percentage, passer rating, and adjusted yards per pass. These are the nine best seasons of Favre's career. If Manning goes on to play six years (Favre didn't play as a rookie, which is why it's not seven years) the way Favre did in 2006, or when his thumb was injured around 1999-2000 — which is to say, six pretty average seasons — he'll still finish with better stats.
I haven't included rushing statistics yet, but they don't change much. I'll also show the number of sacks taken. These are career numbers.
Rush Yds Avg TD Sacks Favre 526 1,774 3.4 13 424 Manning 269 701 2.6 13 170
One potential defense for Favre is historical perspective. The majority of Favre's career overlaps with Manning's, but he also played six seasons, 1992-97, before Manning was in the league, and the game has changed. Passer ratings have gone up over time. Presented below are the average passer ratings of the league's top 10 in passing yards, for every year since Favre became a full-time starter.
1992 83.7 2000 86.3 1993 84.6 2001 84.6 1994 85.8 2002 86.2 1995 88.6 2003 87.6 1996 83.2 2004 96.0 1997 84.3 2005 87.4 1998 85.7 2006 87.4 1999 85.5
Favre was in the top 10 every year except 2003, and Manning is in for every year starting in 1998, his rookie season, so their statistics affect the averages. This is especially noteworthy for 2004, when Manning's was 121.1, easily the NFL record for a season.
What these averages show is that passer ratings are higher than they were when Favre's career began. The averages have risen from (mostly) the 83-86 range toward (mostly) the 86-88 range. The main reason is that interception percentages have dropped. Favre's, though, have risen. He still throws for 3,800 yards every year, but now he's throwing 20 picks a season.
Manning, statistically, is the better quarterback. Right now. Not projecting, or at least not much. Right now, nine seasons into his career, Manning has better stats than Favre.
Four words help explain why Manning's stats might be better than Favre's: Marvin Harrison, Antonio Freeman. Favre hasn't played with a great receiver since Sterling Sharpe retired. Harrison will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Let's examine the company kept by these two great quarterbacks, and see who comes out ahead.
The most important category, obviously, and Manning definitely has more help. Besides Harrison, he has Reggie Wayne, who has been a really special player the last few years, and he's always had a good tight end (Marcus Pollard or Dallas Clark). Manning's wide receivers and tight ends have made a combined nine Pro Bowls, eight of them by Harrison.
Favre's best receivers were Sharpe and Freeman, plus Robert Brooks, Javon Walker, and Donald Driver — who does look really good right now. Favre also played with tight ends Jackie Harris, Mark Chmura, Keith Jackson, and Bubba Franks. Favre's wide receivers and tight ends have made a combined 14 Pro Bowls, not including two by Sterling Sharpe before Favre's career began. Manning gets the edge here, but not by as much as you might think.
Before this year's tag team of Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, Manning had Edgerrin James, plus one season with Marshall Faulk (1998) and another with Rhodes (2001, when James was injured). Favre's primary RBs have been Dorsey Levens and Ahman Green.
I'll give Manning a very slight edge here, but Green isn't far behind James, and Levens was better than you probably think.
I'll call this equal. Favre has always had a great line, including standouts like Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera, Mike Wahle, and Frank Winters. Indianapolis has one of the best o-lines in the NFL, led by center Jeff Saturday and left tackle Tarik Glenn.
This doesn't have much direct impact on a quarterback, so I'm lumping the entire defense together. This area is a huge edge for Favre. This year's postseason run notwithstanding, the Colts have never backed Manning with a good defense, while the 1990s Packers had exceptional defenses: the 1996 Super Bowl team led the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed. Suffice to say Dwight Freeney is no Reggie White.
Both quarterbacks had high-quality head coaches. Mike Holmgren and Tony Dungy have similar coaching records, and both are borderline Hall of Famers. Holmgren's talented offensive assistants included Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, and Andy Reid. Dungy has Jim Caldwell and Tom Moore working with Manning. I'll call this equal, too.
But consider that Favre has never been the same player without Holmgren. The physical ability is still there, but his decision-making is not. Favre's yards per attempt and interception percentage have gotten dramatically worse in Holmgren's absence. And while Manning has flourished with Dungy and his staff, he also succeeded with Jim Mora, winning two all-pro spots with Mora as his coach.
I believe Manning has gotten more help from his offensive coaches and teammates than Favre has, which helps to account for some of his huge statistical advantage. But Favre has gotten more help from the team as a whole, impacting wins and championships.
In the Clutch
Peyton Manning is a better winner than Brett Favre. The Packers have gone 148-92, a .617 winning percentage. That does not include an 11-9 record in the postseason (.550). Manning's Colts are 92-52, a .639 winning percentage. That doesn't include their 7-6 record in the postseason (.538). Those numbers are pretty equal, but remember, the Colts don't have a defense.
Both players were on a Super Bowl-winning team. Favre's Packers won Super Bowl XXXI on the strength of Desmond Howard's returning and Drew Bledsoe's four interceptions. The Colts won Super Bowl XLI on the strength of everything except special teams, and Manning was named the game's MVP.
Manning is the game's best clutch quarterback (yes, he's better than Tom Brady), just as Favre was in his prime. Both have led a ton of fourth-quarter comebacks, including a pair of record-breakers by Manning: last month's AFC Championship Game against New England, and 2003's 21-point comeback in the final four minutes of a Monday night game against the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
What about the Patriots? Manning's Colts are 3-6 against the Pats in the Tom Brady Era, including 1-2 in the postseason. Favre's biggest nemesis in his prime was the Cowboys. From the beginning of Favre's career until the end of Troy Aikman's career, the Packers went 1-8 against Dallas, including 0-3 in the playoffs and with all eight losses by double-digits. If you think Manning struggled against New England, the Cowboys owned Brett Favre.
All that said, this is at least close, so I'll call it a tie.
Stats are fine, but how about an objective — or at least ostensibly objective — look at these two great quarterbacks?
Favre has been named to eight Pro Bowls and five Associated Press all-pro teams, including three first-team selections. He was also NFL MVP three times, counting his 1997 co-MVP shared with Barry Sanders. Few players can boast a more impressive résumé.
Manning has been named to seven Pro Bowls and six AP all-pro teams, including three first-team selections. He has also been NFL MVP twice, counting his 2003 co-MVP shared with Steve McNair. Few players can boast a more impressive résumé, and Manning is only halfway through his career.
I'll call this a tie, also, but if you project at all, Manning goes way ahead.
Part of Favre's legend is his incredible, record-breaking streak of consecutive starts by a quarterback. Actually, scratch "record-breaking" — let's go with record-shattering. Favre, at 237 games, is way ahead of second place on the list, a position held by ... Peyton Manning, who has played in 144 consecutive games and has never missed a start. Favre has the edge in this category, but it is conceivable that Manning could break his record.
There can be no argument that Favre and Manning are both among the greatest quarterbacks ever to play. Both make my list of the 10 best QBs in the history of the game. It should be interpreted as no slight to Favre that I now believe Manning has had the better career.
In the modern era of professional football, seven quarterbacks stand out as statistically dominant over their peers, outdistancing their contemporaries to the point that there is almost no comparison: Graham, Unitas, Tarkenton, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Favre, and Manning. This is not to say that those are the seven greatest quarterbacks in history, or even in the modern era. But for Manning to have joined that group this early in his career is remarkable, and leads me to believe that Manning has a very real chance at retiring as the greatest quarterback ever to play.