Peyton Manning Hasn't Improved in This Year's Playoffs

Super Bowl 50 may be Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's last rodeo. Does he have the postseason firepower to get it done?

For all of the Wild West-themed “sheriff” puns we writers have made about Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning since the dawn of his career, it’s refreshing to see that even he is willing to take on his media persona every once and a while. Manning, after defeating his long-time rival New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game this past weekend, apparently mentioned to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, “This might be my last rodeo”.

Well, then, let’s saddle up for one final pun-slingin’ cattle drive before The Sheriff trades in his spurs like Brett Favre did -- for a pair of Wranglers.

Here’s the thing, though: Super Bowl 50 might be a real, ol’-fashioned shootout, as Manning seems to have relocated his deadeye accuracy during the 2015 NFL playoffs.

Or has he?

Hot as a Brothel on Nickel Night

The results speak for themselves: Peyton Manning is a Super Bowl quarterback once more. But has he really gotten hot of late?

We here at numberFire have been in agreement for most of the season: Manning had not been the vintage “Sheriff” we knew and loved, and it was time for him to turn in his badge and six-shooter in favor of the younger and more physically impressive Brock Osweiler. Well, Manning tore his plantar fascia (foot tendons) and was benched in Week 10 for tossing four interceptions. Osweiler rejuvenated a lagging offense, but began to lose effectiveness himself and sprained his MCL in the final regular season game.

The Broncos were Manning’s show once again. Still, the answer to whether he could lead the offense was as clear as Kansas mud. Week 17 saw him attempt nine passes in relief of Osweiler, completing five for just 69 passing yards (7.7 yards per attempt).

A cursory glance at box scores will show us that, in Manning’s last five regular season games with at least 10 attempts, he passed for at least 7.3 yards per attempt (the 2015 league average) just three times. He averaged a 7.14 percent interception rate (league average was 2.4 percent) across that span of games, and just a 1.79 touchdown rate in that time. His completion percentage in that span was a meager 56.5 percent (league average was 63.0 percent).

In the playoffs so far, he’s actually been worse in some regards. His yards per attempt has plummeted to 5.77, and his completion percentage has sunk to a horrendous 55.1 percent.

So, what’s changed? He’s making more from his throws, as his 2.89 percent touchdown rate is a marked improvement and he’s thrown no interceptions in the 2015-16 NFL postseason.

Still, this mistake-free football is the kind of play one would expect from a game manager, not arguably the greatest quarterback of all time.

A Gentleman of the First Water

How can we properly value Manning’s postseason performances? Is he back to being a big gun or is he still a dadgum dunderhead?

numberFire’s signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric can help us nail down the specifics on Manning’s performance in 2015. NEP is an analytic helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Manning completes a pass for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below compares Manning’s performances in the regular season and postseason through the use of Passing NEP -- expected points gained or lost on drop backs. Is he still lily-livered, or is he finally feeling his oats?

Weeks Passing NEP per Drop Back Success Rate Sack NEP per Play
Regular Season -0.04 41.38% -0.07
Playoffs -0.06 38.36% -0.10

Manning is producing 0.02 fewer expected point per drop back in the playoffs than he was in the regular season, which seems fairly negligible considering the playoffs sample size is just 69 drop backs. To put it in perspective, that’s the difference in per drop back value between Jameis Winston (0.13) and Eli Manning (0.15) this season. In addition, his Sack NEP -- the amount of expected points lost on sacks taken -- is worse in the playoffs too, but only slightly. This is important to note, however, as the Carolina Panthers’ defense was sixth in the regular season with 44 sacks.

What is fairly troublesome is that Manning’s already-poor regular season Passing Success Rate (the percentage of passing plays that result in positive NEP gains) has slipped 3.02 percent in January. Or, just below the Success Rate that Colin Kaepernick and Jimmy Clausen generated in 2015, and just a hair above Nick Foles’.

Make no mistake: even though he’s back under center for the Broncos’ Super Bowl run, this is no longer Peyton Manning’s team. The real value-makers in orange are on the other side of the ball.

With one last hurrah before his career is fitted for a pine suit, “The Sheriff” certainly isn’t looking bulletproof.