A Look at Peyton Manning's 2014 Season: Is This Really the End?

Peyton Manning has had one of the best careers of any quarterback in NFL history. Is the end really near?

Peyton Manning looks done.”

That was one of the narratives surrounding Manning’s future after his struggles late in the season and the Broncos’ subsequent 24-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

It’s almost hard to fathom. How can it be? Manning is just a year removed from the best statistical regular season a quarterback has ever enjoyed. Now he's “finished” after dominating defenses for 17 years in the NFL. Is it possible? Did one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play finally meet the undefeated Father Time?

In Sunday afternoon’s loss, Manning completed only 6-of-21 passes that traveled five or more yards down the field. His 4.6 yards per attempt was his second-worst yards per attempt average in 24 career playoff games. He clearly was not the quarterback we have all watched for almost two full decades. Maybe his time has come.

But what do the advanced metrics say? Manning clearly regressed some as the season progressed, but just how bad was the drop-off? Are we writing him off too quickly?

Manning’s 2014 Season In Review

If you are new to numberFire, you may have never heard about our Net Expected Points metric (NEP). NEP quantifies how well a player is doing on the field based on what is expected on a given play he is involved in. Yardage gained isn’t created equally: an 8-yard gain on 3rd-and-7 simply isn’t the same as a 8-yard gain on 3rd-and-13. The first down conversion on 3rd-and-7 adds more NEP than the other, and the amount of NEP is relative to field position -- among other variables.

With this in mind, just how badly did Peyton Manning regress over the course of the season? Are his late season woes over-stated?

Comp.Att.Comp. %YardsY/ATDINTPass NEP
First eight games20830967.3%25778.3245112.67
Final eight games18728864.9%21567.5151054.80

Based solely off of Passing NEP, Peyton Manning was the second-best quarterback in the NFL in his first eight games this season. In his final eight, he was the fifth-best quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan. That’s not terrible company.

His decline may have seemed statistically steep, but he was still a top-five quarterback over the last eight games. However, the Broncos changed their offensive approach to over the last two and a half months of the season, possibly to counteract some of Manning’s shortcomings.

Manning averaged roughly the same amount of attempts in his final eight games (36.0) versus his first eight (38.6), but Denver did start running the ball more. A lot more.

In fact, in Week 1 through 9, the Broncos ran the ball just 36% of the time. In Week 10 through 17, Denver ran the ball 41% of the time.

But, in the final five games of the regular season, Week 13 to 17, that number spiked to 46.6%. Maybe it was due to Manning’s aging arm, or maybe it was just a total change of offensive scheme due to CJ Anderson’s emergence. We probably will never know.

Not Quite Done

Peyton Manning’s performance in Denver’s Divisional Round playoff game probably left a sour taste in Broncos’ and NFL fans mouths alike. No one wants to see one of the all-time greats go out like that -- if it happens to be the case.

Please, don’t get me wrong, Peyton Manning had another fantastic season. He finished second among all quarterbacks in Passing NEP and was the third most efficient passer on a per-drop back basis. What’s funny is that this is what we expect of Manning. So when he doesn’t perform up to his incredibly lofty standards, like he failed to do against the Colts, something doesn’t seem right.

However, if 2014 was indeed Peyton Manning’s final season in the NFL, no one should remember him for his struggles late this year. He is quite literally a master of the quarterback craft. A wizard, if you will.

To put his excellence in a historical perspective, since the 2000 season, 14 quarterbacks have posted a Passing NEP of at least 130.00, totaling 39 instances in which the mark was met. Of those 39, Manning owns 12 (30.7% total). The next closest is Tom Brady with five (12.8%).

Of Peyton Manning’s 12 seasons with 130 or more Pass NEP, his 2014 total of 167.47 is sixth among his personal best seasons. So, while his greatest years are behind him, it’s probably smart not to write Manning off entirely until he has officially called it a career.