With Brady and Manning, the Numbers Disprove the Narratives

You might not hear this Sunday, but Peyton Manning has been one of the more efficient playoff quarterbacks of his generation, while Tom Brady has been one of the best regular season quarterbacks ever.

The Broncos are playing New England this Sunday, so it’s time for another week of getting one of the most annoying sports narratives rammed down our throats.

For perhaps the final time, we’ll get to hear all about how “Peyton Manning is a great regular season quarterback, but Tom Brady does it when it counts.”

We’ve heard it all before: Manning has the regular season touchdown and yardage records despite a 12-13 playoff record, while Brady is 22-8 in the playoffs with four Super Bowl rings.

This thinking, though, does a great disservice to both quarterbacks.

Manning has averaged 7.17 adjusted net yards per attempt in the regular season; Brady has averaged 7.0 (ANY/A takes raw net yards per attempt and adjusts for touchdowns and interceptions).

In the postseason, Manning has actually been the more efficient of the two quarterbacks, at least in terms of ANY/A, averaging 6.5, compared to Brady’s 6.2.

Both quarterbacks have been excellent regardless of when the games are played, and pundits who push the false dichotomy that one is “a regular season quarterback” and the other is “a playoff quarterback” are frankly just being lazy.

Brady: The Regular Season Stud

By painting Brady as a David Eckstein-like player -- a fine player who “rises” up in the biggest moments -- we may forget that Brady has really been at his best all the damn time. His regular season numbers are in the same ballpark as Manning's and better than most passers who have played the game.

In terms of adjusted net yards per attempt relative to league average, Brady is tied with Dan Fouts for seventh all time, among passers with at least 2,000 attempts.

He does trail Manning, who is fourth all-time and would be higher without his substandard 2015 dragging his career average downwards. Still, Brady is certainly in the conversation as one of the best regular season quarterbacks ever, ranking in the top seven in touchdown and interception rates and 20th in raw net yards per pass relative to league average.

If we raise the minimum to 5,000 attempts, the top four in ANY/A+ becomes Manning, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Brady.

This was not always the case, as when Brady was winning Super Bowls early in his career, he did fit the bill as the good, not great player with some excellent playoff performances.

From 2001 to 2006, Brady was tied for ninth in ANY/A relative to the league average (ANY/A+) in the regular season, behind Chad Pennington and one slot ahead of Jake Delhomme. His ANY/A+ was 109, less than a standard deviation above the mean.

Manning, meanwhile led the league by a wide margin during this span, with an ANY/A+ of 126, close to two standard deviations above the mean and more than a standard deviation ahead of Brady (the nine-point gap between Manning and second-placed Rich Gannon equaled the gap between Gannon and Jeff Garcia, who was tied for 13th).

Since that point, Brady entered one of the greatest peaks in NFL history; from 2007 to the present, Brady has posted a league-best 122 ANY/A+, a run which lets us go from describing Brady as a “clutch” player to one we can mention in the same breath as Marino and Montana.

Brady is not a guy who plays great when it matters most. He is a guy who is always great.

Manning: The Postseason Performer

What about the claim Manning is not a good postseason quarterback?

Unless you’re the type of person who puts stock into a quarterback’s win-loss record, it’s hard to substantiate this claim with facts.

12 quarterbacks have thrown at least 300 passes in the playoffs since Manning made his postseason debut in 1999. Manning is tied for fourth in this group in ANY/A, third in raw NY/A, and fourth in completion percentage (ahead of Brady in all three categories). His interception rate is seventh in the group (2.5%), 0.2% worse than Brady, who is sixth.

But perhaps, you might say, Manning padded his stats in garbage time when he already blew the game for the Colts/Broncos. In fact, when the game has been within one score, Manning’s postseason ANY/A is 6.8, and when trailing by two scores or more, it is 4.5.

Another way we can debunk this is by looking at Win Probability Added (WPA), which measures how individual plays and players impact a team’s win expectancy.

WPA is influenced by down and distance as well as the score and time remaining. So while an 11-yard pass on 3rd-and-10 is certainly a valuable play in terms of expected points, if it occurred during a 50-point blowout in the fourth quarter, it would hardly move the WPA needle.

Before he moved to ESPN, Brian Burke kept track of Win Probability Added at Advanced Football Analytics for both the postseason and regular season. Here is how the 12 quarterbacks with at least 300 postseason passes since 1999 rank in win probability added per playoff game as of February 2015 (this year’s postseason is not included):

Player WPA/Game Games
Drew Brees 0.33 11
Kurt Warner 0.27 13
Aaron Rodgers 0.23 11
Tom Brady 0.21 29
Peyton Manning 0.19 24
Ben Roethlisberger 0.12 15
Joe Flacco 0.12 15
Eli Manning 0.12 11
Brett Favre* 0.09 10
Matt Hasselbeck 0.08 11
Steve McNair 0.01 10
Donovan McNabb 0.01 16

A few things to keep in mind:

In 2014, the last season we have on record, the average quarterback averaged 0.12 WPA per game during the regular season.

In 2003, the average was 0.05, and since this list is not era-adjusted, we should expect guys who played later in the sample to come out better than the passers who played earlier in the 2000s.

So while this should hardly be looked at as a definitive ranking of postseason quarterbacks, it does show that Manning has not been outclassed by Brady and has been considerably better than the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and his brother, Eli Manning (both of whom are often contrasted with Peyton as “clutch winners”).

As a final note of bookkeeping, with Favre, we are only looking at his postseason career during the sample, meaning only his playoff games from 2001 to 2009.

Playoff Manning vs. Playoff Brady: A Brief History

So earlier, we spoke of how Manning has the edge over Brady in terms of postseason ANY/A, while Brady has the advantage in Win Probability Added.

Here's an additional twist: While we traditionally think of Manning as the player who has needed to catch up to Brady in terms of postseason performance, in terms of passing efficiency, the opposite has actually been the case.

In 2010, Manning had the edge over Brady by a full adjusted net yard per pass, and before last year's playoffs, Manning led by 0.6 ANY/A.

In terms of WPA per game, Manning averaged 0.21 before last year’s playoffs, compared to Brady’s 0.18.

Since then, Manning’s age and injuries have come to the forefront, with Manning having poor playoff games against the Colts in last year’s playoffs and the Steelers this year. Brady meanwhile had an exceptional playoff run last season, culminating in a fourth Super Bowl ring, while averaging 8.1 ANY/A during the postseason.

Here is a look at how both passers’ career ANY/A averages in the playoffs have changed over the years.

Brady was briefly ahead in 2002, even though he had not played all that well during the 2001 playoffs, averaging 5.3 raw NY/A with a touchdown and interception (his defense that allowed 15.7 points per game in the playoffs and a kicker who made clutch kick after clutch kick after clutch kick played a bigger role in Patriots’ title run).

Manning, though, laid an absolute egg against the Jets during the 2002 playoffs (3.9 NY/A, 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions) after mediocre performances in postseason defeats in 1999 and 2000.

Manning surged ahead the following January by eviscerating Denver (5 touchdowns, no interceptions, 14.5 NY/A, 377 yards against a defense ranked seventh in net yards allowed per pass that season) and Kansas City (11.4 ANY/A), before losing to Brady’s Patriots in snowy Foxboro in the AFC Championship.

He peaked after the wild card round in 2004-05 (458 yards, 14.1 ANY/A against Denver, the league’s eighth ranked pass defense) before losses to New England that season and Pittsburgh the following year (5.3 ANY/A in the two games combined).

Incidentally, this decline continued the following year despite Manning and the Colts winning the Super Bowl that had eluded them. After getting carried by Manning for the better part of a decade, his defense and running game picked up the slack and helped push Indianapolis over the top (Manning averaged just 4.6 ANY/A during that postseason, but the Colts' defense allowed only 16.3 points per game; Broncos fans will hope this history repeats itself).

Brady, for his part, had fine postseasons of his own in the Super Bowl-winning 2003 and 2004 campaigns (6.4 and 7.2 ANY/A in ‘03 and ‘04, respectively), and he caught up to Manning in 2006 (despite the fact that Manning's Colts ended his season).

Manning regained a decisive edge the following postseason, one that he would maintain for the duration of his career in Indianapolis. Prior to 2007, while Manning had played well in the playoffs overall, his team's January losses were primarily on his shoulders.

From 1999 to 2005, Manning had a passer rating of 61.4 in his team's losses, with a 52.6% completion percentage, 3 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. 

In the four years following the Colts' Super Bowl triumph, the team lost four postseason games, but Manning had a 95.0 passer rating in these contests, completing 66.5% of his passes with 6 touchdowns and 3 picks

This run included a trip back to the Super Bowl in 2009-10, when he posted a 7.2 ANY/A that postseason, in addition to one of the best performances in a playoff loss in a game against the Jets the following year (he averaged 8.9 ANY/A in that game against a defense that had only allowed 5.5; he also became one of six quarterbacks to post a passer rating above 100 and lose a home playoff game).

In this time, Brady gave subpar performances in a pair of one-and-done losses to Baltimore and the Jets in 2009 and 2010, respectively (posting a putrid 0.82 ANY/A against Baltimore in a game where he threw 3 interceptions and averaged just 2.9 net yards per pass).

In 2011-12, Brady led New England back to the Super Bowl and had one of the best postseasons of his career, completing 75 of 111 passes (67.6%) for 878 yards, 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions (a 7.4 ANY/A).

This began a new upward trend for Brady that corresponded with a downward trend for Manning upon arriving in Denver.

So with all this in mind, as you’re watching these two legends go head-to-head for what will likely be the final time, remember that you’re watching two of the best players ever at their position, regardless of whether the calendar says “September” or “January.”