The Peyton Manning Story

Lies, damn lies, statistics and other things
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At some point in the next week or two, and for an unprecedented fifth time, Peyton Manning will likely win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. For more than a few, it’s tough to argue that he hasn’t earned it: after missing a year with a scary-sounding neck injury, Manning led his new team, the Denver Broncos, to a 13-3 season and the top seed in the AFC while essentially tying career highs in completion percentage (His 68.6 mark just trailed his previous best of 68.8), yards (4,659/4,700) and YPG (291.2/293.8). On Saturday, for a (coincidentally?) fourth time, Manning threw two or more interceptions in a playoff loss. It was (less coincidentally) the eighth time in his (record) 12 postseasons that Manning failed to win his first playoff game.

This matters, if that’s the right word for it, but in at least one meaningful way it almost certainly won’t. Manning, like Brett Favre if not quite like Brett Favre, is known not just for his greatness but for the degree to which and the volume at which that greatness is celebrated. He has lost 11 postseason games, which is as many as any quarterback in history, while throwing game-turning interceptions in several playoff games: against the Patriots in an AFC championship, the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV and now the Ravens in this year’s divisional playoffs. It has not really impacted the perception of his genius at all.

In some ways, this is a good thing: a rare instance of sports media holding two contradictory opinions -- Manning as consummate field general; Manning as player who, for whatever reason, has not excelled in big games -- at once without heads exploding. But it’s worth wondering, in the wake of Manning’s most recent defeat, why he’s above the law in this regard, and mostly beyond criticism.

Grantland’s Bill Barnwell, unequivocally the best football writer (on non-Andy Reid related topics) working, led the charge yesterday, explicitly blaming second-year Denver safety Rahim Moore for his mistake -- something Moore did himself in as upfront a way as can be imagined, while the verge of tears -- before acknowledging in passing that Manning’s interception played a role to the loss. 

“You can rightly blame Manning for that second interception, of course,” Barnwell writes. “But the game should never have even gotten to that point. Manning had performed well enough to put his team in an extremely advantageous position. His team promptly blew it. It seems worth separating the two.”

There’s a certain “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” thing at work here, though. Manning’s team explicitly and directly lost the game because they gave up the ball within their opponent’s field goal range, which happened explicitly because of a pass thrown by Manning which was -- by his own admittance -- a bad throw off a bad read. Barnwell essentially absolves Manning of the same thing for which he blames Moore. Whether or not Manning’s defense put him in a position to make a bad play -- and they did -- is irrelevant with regard to the actual very bad play that Manning made. Denver lost the game when their quarterback threw a bad pass at the worst possible time. That the quarterback happened to be Peyton Manning shouldn’t invert the narrative quite this much. If the quarterback hadn’t been Peyton Manning, it’s hard to believe it would.

***

Baseball’s statistics, advanced and un-, are uniquely valued in the sport, and unique in some other ways beside. They’re numbers and decimals on their own but, if taken together, they give us an understanding that’s surprisingly concrete, if not especially poetic. The clear distinction between “power” and “skill/speed” stats help provide a firm idea of the shape, size and style of the individual players that the numbers are supposed to represent; while they’re not there yet, it’s easy to imagine fielding stats like Ultimate Zone Rating eventually rounding out this understanding. The function that baseball statistics play as signals of value (current and predictive) in the noise of the sport -- even when the relative utility or relevance of the stats is being debated, or when curmudgeons fall back on “more like DORK, you blogger nerds” grumpiness -- suggest that we’re all more or less okay with statistics and in agreement on their import. It’s not like that in football.

Mostly, this is because football’s stats are not nearly as illuminating or intuitive as baseball’s. The counting stats are counting stats; the advanced stats are still opaque; quarterback ranking is impenetrable. More to the point, football statistics don’t tell you much about what a player looks like or plays like and -- because of the team-to-team and situational variations in terms of how different positions are used -- they really can’t offer anything other than a suggestion of how effective players are at the style of play that their team uses. Individual stats in football provide only marginally more insight than trying to determine the quality of a violin player using an individual piece of sheet music in an orchestra: you may get an idea, but that idea isn’t worth much without an understanding of role and context and conducting and a host of other obvious influences. Without that other understanding of the broader picture, it’s easy to misconstrue -- or completely misunderstand -- quality; it’s almost impossible to properly construe it. Football stats have some meaning, in other words, but they don’t mean much on their own.

So, what to make of Peyton Manning’s numbers, then? There’s his otherworldly consistency: the twelve 4000-yard seasons, 25-plus TDs in all fourteen of his NFL campaigns, the record twelve trips to the playoffs. These certainly suggest that Manning is the great player of his generation, and he has been rewarded with accolade after accolade -- at least four MVP’s so far, five first-team All-Pro selections, and hilariously high rankings on the type of lists that measure historical greatness to name a few -- that further shore up that impression. He has won passing titles and awards and honors and a great many football games, and so Manning is perceived as a winner.

And he is one, if not necessarily in the most important games of his career. In addition to those eight one-and-done postseasons and four multiple-interception postseason losses, Manning is just 9-11 in the playoffs. He has had supporting casts of varying quality during those seasons, but Manning’s sole successful Super Bowl run included some of his worst-ever playoff performances. His Super Bowl XLI postseason began with two legitimately putrid games -- a three-interception, one-touchdown stinker in a 23-8 victory over the Chiefs, followed by a 15-6 escape against the Ravens in the midst of a no-touchdown, two-pick shitstorm. He turned things around in the second half of an AFC Championship Game win against the Patriots, but neither his Championship Game nor Super Bowl stat-lines were especially inspiring.

Compare this, and even Manning’s regular season resume, to the work of Tom Brady. Brady, who is two years younger than Manning, has spent the second half of his career speaking the preferred language of the pundits in his cosmic argument against Manning. He has passed for more scores in a season; his 50 touchdowns in 2007 surpassed Manning’s old record by one. He has thrown for more yards in a season, 5235 to 4700. He has won three Super Bowls, yet still suffers a certain perception deficit relative to Manning. Brady has been on two fewer All-Pro teams and being chosen for three fewer Pro Bowls, already won 2 less MVP awards and is seen, in a way Manning never has been, as being a product of a coaching system and team culture. On the NFL Network’s list of the greatest players of all-time that I linked above, Brady is ranked 21st; Manning is eighth. He is also in many fewer television commercials, although that’s neither here nor there.

None of which is Manning’s fault, of course. But why are Brady’s achievements couched in the context of Bill Belichick’s genius and the Patriots’ “culture,” while Manning’s successes are seen as standing apart from the work done by coach Tony Dungy -- a significantly more successful coach before he joined forces with Manning than Belichick was when he brought Brady on board -- and Colts GM Bill Polian, who built four Super Bowl teams in Buffalo and won six NFL Executive of the Year Awards? Even by the standards of the NFL’s usual resistance to common sense, this is strange.

***

Narrative, in the free-range “____ is a warrior” and “___ doesn’t have the heart of a champion” sense, is still the language of the NFL broadcast booth. But, in other venues and for some very good reasons, it has eroded under a wave of numbers. Even those who prefer that old emo-soothsaying stuff -- the most hardcore of fans and the hackiest of writers who have begun to cling on for dear life -- use numbers to make their cases. Football stats are inert in a way that baseball stats aren’t, but both can be used selectively to shore up an argument, pro or con. I did it above, as you probably noticed.

There’s not quite a stats-versus-emotion dynamic at work here so much as it’s a debate between different types of stats. Miguel Cabrera’s counting stats win him a Triple Crown and a Most Valuable Player Award; Mike Trout’s superior WAR (and steal totals, and UZR) loses out. ESPN’s tumid choir of Tebow-worshippers focus on his won-loss record as a starter, and leave out the other metrics attesting to his manifest not-goodness. And Peyton Manning cruises towards another MVP because of some numbers, while Adrian Peterson -- another comeback story, another player who made a massive individual impact on a team, and a player who had one of the best seasons for a running back in history -- may see his own numbers fall short. Peyton Manning has numbers that make his case; even Tebow has some numbers that make his. But Manning’s great advantage is one that the NFL’s narrative junkies have constructed over years. His numbers are fine, except when they’re not. But his story is a winner.

This is unfair in a basic sense, but the schism isn’t as daunting as it seems. Stat geeks should be able to acknowledge the relative worth of an evaluation not driven entirely by stats, or by the right stats. Narrative proponents should acknowledge that Manning’s greatness, while buttressed by very-good-to-great regular season stats, owes much to the fact that he’s likable, and that they’re choosing to overlook his postseason performance because of that. And this is all fine: Peyton Manning may sell us shitty pizza and make some bad passes at even-worse moments in the postseason, but he represents what a quarterback is supposed to represent. He stays late after brutal losses to congratulate fellow greats on a career well done. He really does make his teammates better. And he throws for a lot of touchdowns and wins a lot of games, although those are secondary to his harder-to-define greatness.

If that’s why we talk about him the way we do, there are worse stories we could tell. If only to acknowledge that we’re trying to tell a story as much as we’re talking football.


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