doesn’t make a ton of sense to use team success as a measuring stick for any individual player. What’s more, it appears as though the periods when the team’s quarterback isn’t even on the field may be a bit more important to winning games than the ones where he is.
That’s right, it appears that the other NFL cliché, “defense wins championships,” actually holds up to further scrutiny even if the refrain of “that guy’s a born winner” does not.
Granted, this is a lot of wonky number-crunching just to throw cold water on a much-loved sports myth. So, since we’ve already compiled all of this data, I thought it might be fun to try and answer the other great football question of our age. Who’s better: Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?
Whether you’re of the opinion that the recent scandal involving the Patriots is a legitimate indictment of Tom Brady’s entire career or (ahem) overinflated hype, the simple fact remains that these two are among the all-time greats at their position – and forever linked as contemporaries.
So, what does a breakdown of team quality add to the debate?
Born Winners vs. Individual Achievers
The classic quarterback narrative tends to separate the all-time greats into two categories that resemble football’s version of the classic Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain debate. You had your guys who put up big numbers but couldn’t win the big one (Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, and, to a lesser degree, John Elway) and you had the consummate winners who eschewed personal stats for team success (Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and, to a lesser degree, Terry Bradshaw).
Some of those narratives changed over time (like when Elway capped his career with back-to-back Super Bowl wins), but I think the dichotomy that exists in the minds of many pundits is still worth mentioning. Particularly in the context of how Montana is typically viewed against his contemporaries Dan Marino and John Elway for most of their respective careers and how Peyton Manning is currently stacked up against Tom Brady.
And I’m here to tell you that the definitive answer to who is better, Manning or Brady, is, without question…
…entirely impossible to say. You simply cannot remove either of these two men’s achievements from the hundreds of other players they shared the field with.
But one thing is for sure: if your rationale is that Brady is better because of his team’s success, you’re probably wrong. Brady may well be the better quarterback, but that’s not why he has three Super Bowl wins to Manning’s one.
Brady: Tenacious Hero or Overhyped Pretty Boy?
So, is Tom Brady’s history of success the story of a clutch quarterback rising to the moment in the big game(s)? Or is it the story of a “pretty boy” stealing credit from a gritty defense?
Why can’t it be a bit of both? Take Brady’s first Super Bowl win – he took the field late in a tie game and led a drive that set up a game-winning field goal as time expired.
Or at least that’s how it’s often retold.
Sure, there’s inherent drama in the idea of “one man leading the charge,” but in the end, what’s really more valuable? Brady, for capitalizing on an opportunity at the end of the game, or an elite Patriots defense that managed to keep the game close despite facing a formidable St. Louis Rams offense?
A look at the box score shows that Brady completed 16 of 27 passes in that game for a grand total of 145 yards. Not exactly airing it out. Not like Kurt Warner on the other side of the football, who went 28 of 44 for 365 yards. St. Louis outgained New England 427 to 267, meaning that Brady’s offensive success was actually pretty limited.
Clearly, the biggest factor in the game was the Rams’ three turnovers. But, if the Rams had made a couple less mistakes and put up 30 points, Brady’s meager passing stats suddenly start to look like a liability more than his zero interceptions look like an asset. He also doesn’t even get the opportunity to play the role of hero by coming in to lead a late drive that sets up the game-winning field goal.
I think this is frequently true. It usually takes a great defense to keep teams in games long enough to create the opportunity for that dramatic, late-game drive even if we tend to only remember the quarterback in those situations.
A Tale of Two Bradys
I don’t mean to paint the picture of Brady as a weak passer who capitalized on a solid defense to cement his legacy – Brady has clearly proven to be one of the most successful passers of all time. In fact, if you look separately at the first and second half of his career, he proves to be a fascinating example of how warped the media narrative can be when it comes to the cult of personality surrounding QBs. If you look at Brady’s career before and after the Patriot’s dramatic loss in the AFC Championship game in 2007 (one of the key games in the Manning-Brady rivalry), it really paints two entirely different pictures.
The Tom Brady from the 2001 season to the 2006 season is a God. He wins three Super Bowls, he goes 12-2 in the playoffs, that’s the player that molded the perception of Brady that we have today. The Brady from 2007 and on? That Brady goes a respectable 8-6 in the playoffs and comes up short in the Super Bowl twice.
Why is this worth noting? Because by any measurable statistic, Tom Brady has been a vastly superior individual player since that key loss. His personal stats are outrageous since that point. Prior to 2007, Brady passed for 4,000 yards or more in a season once. Since the start of 2007? He’s thrown for at least 4,000 in six of eight seasons, with one of those two misses coming when he missed the entire season to injury. In 2007 he threw for 50 touchdowns, a new NFL record at the time. In 2011 he threw for more than 5,000 yards, a feat that, prior to 2011, had only happened once (Dan Marino in 1984).
And a look at the average rankings of his offenses during those two periods paints this picture even more vividly. From 2001 to 2006, the Patriot’s scoring offenses had an average ranking of 8.17. Since 2007? The average ranking for points scored is a phenomenal 2.71.
But Brady Since 2007 Has Actually Been Worse? Right?
So how do we explain the fact that six of the eight postseason losses for the Patriots with Brady as a starter all come during the period when Brady himself has been at his best? Well, variance for one. The postseason represents a very small sample size so saying that Brady’s just gotten a little unluckier is part of it.
But another big part of it? That’s right, defense.
The Patriot’s average ranking for points allowed from 2001 to 2006 was 7.5. And even that’s a bit skewed as the Pats featured unusually bad defensive efforts in 2002 (the lone year a Patriots team with Brady as a starter missed the playoffs) and 2005 (the year of Brady’s first playoff loss). In those two years, the defense ranked 17th in scoring while ranking 6, 1, 2, and 2 respectively in the other four (an average ranking of 2.75).
Some will also be quick to point out that the only thing separating Brady from being the only quarterback with five Super Bowl wins right now is two fluky losses to two obviously inferior Giants teams in 2008 and 2012 (sorry Giants fans, but it’s true). Win those games and we aren’t having this conversation. The Patriot teams with dominant offenses are 10-4 in the playoffs with two Super Bowl championships, a record largely consistent with the success of the Patriot’s teams with dominant defenses.
However, isn’t that line of selective thinking precisely the standard by which the quarterback deification crowd judges? Sorry, but you can’t just chalk up the first three wins to Brady’s winning ways and then just write off those two losses as bad luck. Especially when the win in 2001, where the Patriots squeaked out a close win against a dominant offense, can easily be viewed as the inverse of those losses in 2008 and 2012.
Postseason Outcomes Consistent
This even appears to hold true if you get a little more granular and actually look at all 28 postseason starts throughout Brady’s career. From 2001 to 2006, the Patriots offense scored an average of 26.57 points per playoff game and their defense allowed an average of 17.29 points.
From 2007 on? The offensive production barely budged, averaging 27.07 a game, which is odd considering the dramatic change in their regular season production. However, the Patriots defense got much worse in terms of points allowed, giving up 21.64 a game.
Can’t that be explained by opponents? Did the Patriots start facing much better offenses? Just the opposite, actually. The Patriot’s postseason opponents from 2001-2006 had scoring offenses with an average rank of 6.71. From 2007 on? Their opponents’ offenses had an average rank of 10.
All told, Brady has been an elite “winner” who led game-winning drives late in big games even if he wasn’t putting up gaudy passing stats. He’s also been an astonishingly good passer who created prodigious offensive production…just not so much at the same time. And the Tom Brady who created far less offensive production but could rely on consistently excellent defense is the one who was on three Super Bowl winners.
Manning vs. Brady
So let’s bring in the other guy.
Manning and Brady are astonishingly close in terms of the offenses they have played on over the course of their career. Overall, the average ranking for scoring offense on teams where Manning was the starter is 5.25 while it’s 5.23 for Brady-led offenses. So, advantage Brady, but by so little it’s hard to consider it particularly significant.
But their defenses?
The average ranking for scoring defense on Brady’s Patriots teams has been 8. And, as noted above, it was much better during those seasons where the Patriots were having the most success. Manning? Well, it’s 15.25, just about league average.
So, on the whole, the difference in record for the teams each quarterback has played for is dramatic, as any number of pundits has observed over the years. However, if you had to cite a key difference, it’s not the quarterbacks at all. It’s the defenses.
“Manning Alive, What a Choke Artist.”
This debate seemed to be changing significantly prior to last year’s Super Bowl. Manning had just had the single greatest season ever for a passer (breaking Brady’s 50 TD record) and was leading the top-ranked offense into a game in which they were heavily favored. A Bronco Super Bowl win and this whole narrative is completely different.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, though, the entire team collectively laid an egg, getting outplayed in nearly every facet of the game en route to a blowout loss. One year later, the Broncos suffer another disappointing loss in the playoffs, the Patriots are back in the Super Bowl, and the Brady-Manning debate is right back where it was.
So, what happens when we take a look at all of Manning’s 24 postseason starts? Well, for starters, Manning’s offensive numbers are not as good as Brady’s. Manning’s teams have scored an average of 22.125 points per game in the playoffs, over 4.5 points less than Brady’s.
It is worth observing that Manning’s individual passing stats in the postseason all seem to point to him being slightly better than Brady throwing the ball if also slightly more prone to throwing interceptions. It’s also worth noting that Manning has faced superior defenses in his postseason career, with Manning playoff opponents showing an average regular-season rank for scoring defense of 8.125 to Brady’s 10.74.
However, that 4.5-point gap is still a big one, so if you’re inclined to attribute total offensive success to the quarterback, this would seem to indicate that Brady has played much better in the postseason, particularly when you consider that Manning’s playoff teams had a slightly better average offensive ranking (4.5) than Brady’s (4.83).
However, it’s also clear that Manning’s defenses were significantly worse than Brady’s. Manning’s teams allowed an average of 22.29 points a game to the 19.46 mark for Brady, a gap of just under 3 points, despite the fact that they’re nearly dead even for the average offensive rank of their opponents. However, if you go back and look at the 2001-2006 Brady, whose postseason success so vastly exceeded Manning’s, it’s even more significant. The 17.28 points allowed per game during the stretch when Brady’s Patriots teams were going 12-2 in the playoffs and winning three Super Bowls is almost exactly five points a game better.
Head to Head
So what about their head-to-head playoff matchups? Certainly, in the early days of this rivalry Manning was seen as unable to beat the Patriots as they lost to Brady’s teams in the playoffs in 2004 and 2005. However, the dramatic comeback win in the 2007 AFC championship and the more decisive win in the 2014 AFC championship mean that they’re even at 2-2.
However, if we look at the quality of the teams that each brought to these match-ups, Manning starts to look a bit better.
It’s only four games, so we’re dealing with a small sample size, but Manning has brought exactly one team with a scoring defense ranked in the top 20 to the party. That was in 2005, when Indy’s defense was ranked 19th in points allowed. The average rank was 21. The Patriot’s defenses, meanwhile, had an average ranking of 3.75 in those games.
The difference in offensive ranking is also large, but less dramatic. Manning’s teams that faced the Patriots in the postseason have featured stellar offensive production, with an average scoring offense rank of 1.5 – that’s two top-ranked units, and two second-ranked squads. Brady, meanwhile, was at an average ranking of 6.5 – a good result that only suffers when compared to those excellent offenses from the Manning teams.
However, that gap of five spots is clearly a far cry from the 17.25 spot gap for defense. Is it possible that we’d view Manning very differently today if those early teams in which he led elite offenses into the playoffs hadn’t run into those outstanding Patriot teams? We’ll never know, but it does appear as though Manning’s gotten at least a little unlucky over the years in this regard.
Creating an Iconic QB is a Team Effort
On the whole, it appears to be a pretty critical mistake to think of this rivalry purely in terms of these two players. While they were constants, the hundreds of other players they shared the field with were crucial to all of their successes and failures. Thinking of these games independent of all of those players is a fundamentally flawed perspective from the start. Instead of thinking of team quality as a facet of the Brady-Manning debate, we should really be thinking of Brady-Manning as being a facet of the team debate.
What we can say is that Tom Brady has played for teams that had significantly more success over the years than Peyton Manning. We can also say that the primary reason for that appears to be better defense, a factor that our previous effort found to be more important to winning big games than the offensives that featured Brady and Manning.
Is this to say that Manning’s better than Brady because he overcame the hurdle of lesser defenses?
Hardly. It should also be noted that Manning has been on playoff teams with a scoring defense that was ranked in the top five for the regular season on three occasions (#2 in 2005, #1 in 2007, and #4 in 2013) and failed to win a single game. Manning probably would have had more successes over the years if his teams had fielded better defenses, but it’s impossible to say just how many.
Push comes to shove, one of the reasons this particular debate will probably never go away is because there’s no good answer. If you’re looking for a definitive metric that demonstrates the superiority of one player over the other, you’re just not going to find one. But that means that if you’re among the crowd that thinks Brady’s winning ways are the only evidence necessary for his superiority over Manning, you’re probably not giving anywhere near enough credit to their respective teammates.
All of our data was drawn from Pro-football-reference.com, a member of the Sports Reference family of sites. These are some great sites, without which this sort of article would have been nye impossible.