Aging Peyton Manning losing his grip?

The start of the new NFL year officially begun with a kick off of the 2012 NFL Free Agency on March 13th. Certain teams already made some splashy moves in this year’s free agency, but most talked-about free agent – QB Peyton Manning – hasn’t decided yet where he wants to continue his pro football career. Peyton will turn 36 on 24th of March and despite of his age and his unknown status health-wise is still considered as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. After neck surgery, he had to sit out the entire 2011 season and was eventually released by the Colts earlier this month, making him the hottest commodity on the market.

Over the years in his career with the Colts, Manning showed his ability to perform at the highest possible level and is considered by many as one of the top 3 QBs in the past decade. Since he entered the league in 1998 he was an above average QB and I’m not trying to convince you otherwise, I agree with most of NFL analysts and fans that wherever he decides to go and play in the next season, if healthy, he will be a huge upgrade for a team looking to improve at QB, but that’s a big if. What I’ll try to point out with this post is that after his statistically best season in 2004 he slowly but surely started to drift towards mediocrity of the NFL. He did win the Super Bowl with the Colts in 2006, but his numbers all-together were less impressive as those from the 2004 season when he posted a 121.1 passer rating which was then an NFL record.

Let’s see some Peyton’s stats over his NFL career with the Colts, for starters let’s look at his year-by-year passing yards per game compared to an NFL average. I made it clear in my past posts that I’m not really fond of measuring players and teams solely based on yards, especially passing yards. I think that the volume of passing yards as a statistical measure is overrated. But it cannot be denied that in the last decade and especially in the last 5 years passing game has dramatically increased and it shows in the first chart below.

At first glance we can see that Peyton’s performance based on passing yards more or less increased in each year and also after his best season in 2004 (as a result of a league-wide increase in passing game), but it is also true that the league average in that same span jumped even more. From 2004 to 2010, Peyton’s average passing yards per game increased only 3% compared to 5% increase of league-wide average.

Let’s now move on to see Peyton’s passing yards per attempt. Again I looked at his performance over his NFL career compared to NFL average. In the next chart we can see how Manning statistically peaked in 2004 and has been drifting toward an NFL average ever since.

The same stories tell the next two charts, Manning’s passer rating and TD to INT ratio versus an NFL average. In 2004, 2005 and 2006 Manning finished No.1 in passer rating, in 2004 when he set an NFL record of 121.1 he was 50% above NFL average passer rating of 80.9. In his last season as active NFL player in 2010 Manning recorded 91.9 passer rating and was ‘only’ 12% above NFL average passer rating (82.2).

For every INT, Peyton has thrown 4.9 TDs in his best season in 2004, in 2010 his TD to INT ratio dropped to 1.9, but still above 1.5 NFL average ratio.

Just to make it clear, I don’t think that Peyton is about to become just an average NFL QB, but I do think that with his age and injury problems his best days are well over and he won’t come even close to his best production from 2004 to 2006. A desperate team which will eventually land Peyton Manning will probably overpay him, hoping that he can lead the team to Super Bowl, but history tells us different. Its difficult this days for an NFL quarterback well in his 30s to continuously perform in the NFL, the risk of getting injured gets bigger nad bigger with age. In his 2 NFL seasons with the Chiefs, Montana played in only 25 of 32 regular season games. He did lead the Chiefs to AFC championship game in 1993 but didn’t last the whole game. It’s clear that the team that lands Peyton Manning will be taking a lot of risk not knowing what they’ll get from the future Hall of Fame quarterback.