Revisiting the Andrew Luck Over Peyton Manning Decision After 3 Years

Parting ways with Peyton Manning was a controversial call three years ago, but was it the right one?

I can't be certain, but I'm fairly sure that roughly 25 (if not more) NFL teams would have been entirely happy entering the 2014 season with either Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck atop their depth chart at the quarterback position.

But three years ago, the Colts had to face that very decision. Manning or Luck. It was even tougher than that, considering the uncertainty surrounding Manning's health and the fact that not every rookie is a lock to be productive -- let alone able to replace Peyton Manning.

After the Colts beat the Broncos in the Divisional Round of the 2014 playoffs (or Luck beat Manning if you want to spin it that way), it looked like Manning was on his way out while Luck was on his way up the quarterback ranks at the top of the NFL.

So, opting for Luck may have turned out to be the right call -- though don't tell that to the 2013 version of Peyton who Hulk-rage-smashed record after record. But, really, how big is the gap between the two? And will Luck ever be able to perform at the level that Manning has -- even in ostensible "down years?" Did he already get there this year? How many more questions will I ask?

Just one.

What do the numbers have to say?

Not Yet

As in, Luck isn't yet as good as Manning, and he hasn't been so far in his career, which isn't really that surprising.

According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Luck is moving toward Manning-caliber but hasn't quite gotten there yet.

PlayerYearPassing NEPRankPassing NEP/
Drop Back
RankTotal NEPRank

So, basically, Luck has a career Passing NEP of 188.74, meaning he has added close to 200 points to the Colts with his drop backs that they wouldn't have had with a replacement level quarterback. That combined mark, 188.74, isn't much higher than Manning's was this year -- or in 2012. It's roughly 90 points shy of Manning's 2013 campaign.

Per drop back, Luck has added 0.10 points over his career, and 0.17, his mark this year, was by far the best of his career. Since 2000 (as far back as our data goes), Manning has had just two seasons with a Passing NEP per drop back below 0.17 -- 2002 (0.11) and 2001 (0.02) -- so Luck's best doesn't yet compare to Manning's down years.

As for Total NEP, Luck narrows the gap. In only one of the three seasons listed above did Manning actually add points to his production with his legs (2012). Luck did it in all three -- no real surprise. Still, Luck's Total NEP scores from 2012 and 2013 combined (150.16) fail to meet any of the three years from Manning. Luck's career Total NEP (264.17) barely edges Manning's 2013 score (262.88) -- and it actually fails to surpass Manning's Passing NEP score from that year (278.52).

A Fairer Comparison

I know that comparing a player's first three years to the prime of one of the best quarterbacks ever isn't fair, but if we wanted to look at what the Colts swapped in the deal, the previous section was necessary. Am I saying Manning would have copied those numbers in Indy? Nope, I'm not. But the Colts, for three years at least, lost a lot of quarterback production, which is unfortunate given their playoff berths in each of those three seasons.

I know Manning's career began in 1998, but our NEP data dates back to 2000. Rather than dismiss the early-Luck versus early-Manning comparison, I'm going to make things work.

And after an internal debate, I decided not to look at Total NEP but rather Passing NEP alone. It's been established that Luck is a great running quarterback, but Luck has dropped back to pass 600 times or more in each of his first three seasons. We have to be able to look at him for his passing.

So, while we don't have NEP numbers for Manning's first two seasons, we can begin by looking at his marks from 2000 and compare them to the rest of the position, something that's tricky to do with Luck's first three years more than a decade after. To balance things, I'm going to be including only passers with at least 300 drop backs in a given season (which turned out to be 30 passers in each year except for 28 in 2000 and 29 in 2001).

I cut off the high and low Passing NEPs when gauging the mean and median scores of the passers each year to make things a little more fair for the young passers but included the league's high and low Passing NEPs just for comparison's sake.



Well, cutting off the top was tough to do for Manning in 2000, as he had the best Passing NEP in the league. And he shattered the mean score and median score, too. In fact, Manning was significantly above the mean and median even when passing was harder to come by -- back in the day, you know?

Luck hasn't fared quite so well, but again, we're not looking at Manning's first two seasons, so keep that in mind before you hate me if you're a Colts fan.

Luck was below average as a passer in his rookie year but did eke above the median score among quarterbacks. He wasn't that far above those marks in 2013, either, similar for Manning in 2001, but in terms of relativity, Manning was better. Then comes Luck's best year to date -- 2014 -- which looks good but really pales in comparison of Manning's 2000 campaign, his third year in the league.

Back when the median among voluminous quarterbacks was actually -10.19, Manning was wildly above expectation. This year, when league-wide numbers were up significantly? Luck was still really good -- but not near Manning's year-three level in terms of performing better than the rest of the quarterbacks in the league.

Winning and Losing

I don't really know the consensus feeling toward this trade at this point. I don't know which team most fans think won this trade as of mid January 2015, but I wouldn't be surprised if most thought it was the Colts considering the longevity aspect.

Luck is trending up, sure, and he seems set for a bright future, but he's clearly not yet on Manning's level in any sense. Opting for Luck and parting ways with Manning has cost the Colts big time in the short-term, and it's tough to dispute that.

Still, opting for Luck over Manning was probably the right call for the long-term future in Indianapolis -- it's not like they drafted Robert Griffin III, whose future or talent is, at this point, uncertain -- but with how much better Manning was compared to the rest of the NFL quarterbacks in his career, it's hard not to wonder if the Colts could have won another Super Bowl if they just hung on to Peyton.

But there's no reason to think that Luck can never get them there -- maybe even as soon as February.