Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady: The Final Mathematical Answer

It's a tale as old as time (2001): who's the better QB, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?

This Sunday, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady renew one of the greatest rivalries in all of football, except this time, Manning's on a new team. Back with the Colts, the argument was always the same: which would you rather have, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady? Likely, the same question will be asked on this Sunday's broadcast.

Nobody was ever able to give a definitive answer. But that's because nobody had the math that we at numberFire do. And looking at our analytics, the question is not even close.

This Year

Taking a quick glance at the passing statistics, this one should be obvious, right? Tom Brady has three separate games of over 300 yards, while passing for seven total TDs as compared to only one interception. Peyton Manning and his noodle arm, on the other hand, has only topped 300 yards twice, has thrown three times as many interceptions, and only has one more passing touchdown. Both of their teams have the same 2-2 record as well, but Brady's Patriots have lost their two games by a combined three points while Peyton's Broncos lost by six to each the Falcons and the Texans. Piece of cake, Brady wins, next round...

But hold up just one second. Looking at the advanced analytics, it's actually a much closer race than you'd believe. For the true answer, we turn to numberFire's best friend, the Net Expected Points (NEP) formula. As I've mentioned before, the idea behind NEP is simple. How many points does a particular player gain or cost their team on a particular play when compared to the average player? Looking at the team's positioning on the field, down and distance, and their opposing defense, we can figure that number out. For instance, on a second-and-two on the 50 against the Steelers, the average team can be expected to score 1.23 points on that drive. How much you increase or decrease that number on a play is your NEP.

This season, Tom Brady sits in sixth among quarterbacks with +44.22 NEP, or +0.26 NEP per pass attempt thrown. Peyton Manning is not far behind Brady's numbers, though, sitting in 11th among QBs with 35.34 NEP total, less than a point behind eighth in the standings. Manning has thrown only one less pass than Brady on the season (153 to Brady's 154), but his NEP per pass number sits at a very similar +0.22 average, which is good for the ninth-highest average in the league. The numbers become even more muddled when you look at their individual game-by-game stats. Peyton's highest single-game NEP total, 24.7 NEP of value earned week 4 against the Raiders, is higher than any single game Brady has put up this season (Brady's highest: 17.4 NEP week 3 against Baltimore). Manning's second-highest NEP total (week 1 vs. Pittsburgh: 14.66) is also higher than Brady's second highest total (week 4 vs. Buffalo: 12.97). Peyton suffers, however, because his troughs are much lower than Brady's low points. He is the only one of the two to have a negative NEP game so far this season, as he registered -6.89 NEP in his three interception game against Atlanta. If Manning had even sat out that Falcons game and not played, he would be essentially tied with Brady for the season. Manning has the higher upside this season, but Brady has been more consistent.

Back in History

So with Brady holding only a slight edge so far this season, what about taking a look at their past numbers? Warning: Patriots fans may want to stop here, because what you're about to see can be very depressing.

Historically, Peyton has been the much more efficient passer, and it really hasn't been close. Brady has only overtaken Manning in only two of the nine seasons where both have played a significant amount of snaps. To demonstrate, I decided to put together a table of Brady and Manning's passing NEP scores, dating back to 2001 and excluding last season when Manning was injured. The numbers paint a very specific story.

Year Manning Brady
2001 30.53 23.93
2002 91.82 22.76
2003 159.36 31.15
2004 254.16 129.79
2005 205.88 117.25
2006 220.37 66.36
2007 175.87 269.72
2008 166.85 -7.32*
2009 223.28 161.09
2010 178.78 235.29

*Brady only threw 11 passes this season due to injury. In every other season listed, each QB threw at least 450 passes.

This is an interesting chart to behold, because not only does it show when the NFL became a league outrageously dependent on passing (somewhere around Manning's 49 TD 2004 season), but it shows that Manning has been ahead of Brady just about every step of the way. Brady may have gotten the Super Bowl rings in 2001, 2003, and 2004, but Manning was easily the better QB in each of those years. In 2003 through 2006, the prime of Manning's career, Brady never even got within providing his team 80 NEP of Manning's total.

Recently, Brady has indeed been better than his early years. His 269.72 NEP of value earned in 2007 is the single highest season total since the 2000 season, when our stat collecting begins. His 2011 season, which does not make the above chart since Peyton was out for the year, ranks fifth all-time at 234.73 NEP. But Peyton Manning was consistently that good: four of his seasons (2004, 2005, 2006, and 2009) crack the top ten QB NEP values in the past dozen years. It shows how great of a rivalry it has been between these two where six of the top ten slots are held by either Brady or Manning (with Brees, Rodgers, Rivers, and Culpepper also each holding one a piece), but the edge for sheer consistency goes to Peyton too.

The Verdict: Manning

If I had a football team over the past dozen years, the one player I would want on my team is Peyton Manning. Tom Brady does not even enter the argument. Manning holds four of the top ten seasons of NEP value of all time, which was demonstrated for the world to see last year when the Colts did have an average quarterback and plummeted back to earth. Would I rather have Manning this season? I'm not so sure. But the Manning vs. Brady argument should not even be an argument.