While watching the Sunday night NFL game in which Peyton Manning made “history” by breaking Brett Favre’s short-lived record for career touchdown passes, I couldn’t help but to observe that it seemed to me that this was the same Manning who machine-like seemed to pass on every down to pad his statistics. I remember when Dan Marino set all those passing records, most people thought they were “unbreakable”; until then, most teams still put greater stock in the running game, and teams that employed the all-out aerial assault were seen more as “gimmick” teams.
Of course, now the opposite is true, with teams that focus on run given a great deal of lip service, but were essentially a “dying” breed until given new “life” only by the emergence of “read-option” quarterbacks who are not traditional pocket passers, but who rely more on their “athletic” ability. Being a life-long Packer fan, and who unlike those bandwagonners have deep memories of the “bad old days” post-Lombardi, I appreciated more the “miracle” that occurred when Ron Wolfe acquired the rookie quarterback sitting on a bench in Atlanta who didn’t seem to take his job seriously, and even his own coach didn’t want him on the team. With some “tough love” from former San Francisco offensive coordinator and new head coach Mike Holmgren, the rest was “history.”
But even after Favre broke all of Marino’s records, everyone saw that Manning was running right behind him. The only “doubt” occurred after his neck surgeries, but it was clear that in his first season with Denver this was the same old passing machine. Regardless of all the talk of “team” Manning mendaciously refers to press conferences, it really has been all about him. To confirm this, I decided to do some investigating using the data available on pro-football-reference.com and discover to what extent that was true, utilizing Favre for comparison purposes.
In all regular season games that Manning started for Indianapolis and Denver, there were 9197 pass plays (including sacks) and 6570 running plays; Manning was involved in 8947 of those pass plays. This meant that 58.3 percent of all plays were pass plays. It is interesting to note that for the first 10 years of Manning’s tenure in Indianapolis, the Colts did have a sound running game—when Manning chose to use it. I always felt that Marshall Falk—who went on to have his most productive years with St. Louis both as a runner and as a receiver (he caught 767 passes and 36 TD passes in his career)—was traded because he was a “threat” to the rookie quarterback’s “control” of the team.
Even after adding Edgerrin James, the Colts continued to rely overmuch on the passing game. In 1999, despite James leading the NFL in rushing as a rookie, the team seemed to be too pass-happy. Although James had 369 rushing attempts, the rest of the team had only 50—and 35 of those were by Manning, likely on busted pass plays. In 2000, James again led the NFL in rushing—but once more Manning was second on the team with 37 “rushing” attempts; shockingly, Lennox Gordon was third on the team in rush attempts: Four.
It was clear at least to some observers that James was being run into the ground, being used-up as the sole weapon on the ground. Not surprisingly he was injured in his third season, yet pairing with Dominic Rhodes they had 1766 yards rushing. But the Colts still “relied” heavily on the passing game, because those were the plays that Manning was by now calling himself. A healthy James in 2004 gained 1548 yards, and the Colts scored 522 points and were second in total yards. But in the playoffs, Manning abandoned the run early while passing for 458 yards against a sieve-like Denver defense in a blowout win. Fooled by this success, the Colts lost to New England in the divisional game 20-3, after again abandoning rushing game, despite being down only 6-3 at half time; all three Colt turnovers that undid them came on pass plays.
2005 was the closest a Manning team ever came to having a “balanced” attack—both on offense and defense. The team ran 535 pass and 465 rushing plays, with a healthy James again topping 1500 yards. 14-2 with home field advantage heading into the playoffs, the Colts imploded, losing to Pittsburgh 21-18 in the divisional game. In this game, Manning again abandoned what had been working, relying on “himself.” Steelers led 21-3 in the fourth quarter, but two TD drives made it close at the end. Jerome Bettis would fumble at the Colts’ two yard line with 1:20 to play, but Mike Vanderjaqt missed a game-tying field goal and was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.
James was gone the next season (as if he was the “problem” in the Colts’ playoff woes). Nevertheless, Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes combined for 1722 yards. The Colts advanced to the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears, and it was the Colts’ running game and Bears mistakes that decided the game. Manning was lackluster in this game and the entire playoffs, with a surprising 70.5 passer rating, throwing 7 interceptions and only three touchdown passes; in the Super Bowl he threw an interception and lost a fumble. People forget that the Bears actually led 14-6, and the game was still up for grabs until Kelvin Hayden’s 56-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Addai and Rhodes combined for190 yards rushing, and the Colts averaged more than 150 yards rushing in four games.
By 2008, the Colts abandoned any semblance of a rushing game, and let Manning run wild. From 2008-2010, 63 percent of their total plays were passes (and plays ending in sacks). Things haven’t changed in Denver; it may appear that the Broncos are running the ball in the box score, but Manning is still running pass plays 60 percent of the time. Interestingly, in the 43-8 blowout loss to Seattle in the Super Bowl, 50 of the 64 plays Denver ran were passing. Only 27 yards were gained on the ground, although the botched snap of -8 yards counted as a “run.”
The question is if Favre’s teams ran the ball more frequently than Manning’s. Unfortunately, it would not be an accurate statement. My calculations show that Favre’s teams passed on 57.7 percent of their downs, just barely below Manning’s percentage, tempered only by the fact that Favre was sacked more often and that Manning was “forced” to deal with credible run game weapons in his first 10 seasons. Manning’s pass plays per game were also only slightly above Favre’s.
Between the two of them, the 2003 Packers were the only team to have more running plays than passing, 507-492. The Packers were third in NFL in rushing, with Ahman Green setting season and game team records; the 2558 rushing yards were also a team record (the previous team record, 2460, was set by the 1962 squad, arguably the best in team history). After beating Seattle in overtime in the wild card game, the Packers seemed Super Bowl bound until the loss in overtime in the divisional round to Philadelphia, after the infamous fourth and 26 play that the Eagles converted late. Just before that, the Packers had been running at will on the Eagles (210 yards), and many questioned why coach Mike Sherman chose to punt on fourth and short late in the game in Eagles territory, leading to that aforementioned play and a game-tying field goal.
What do the statistics suggest? The reality is that the machine-like Manning was (and is) a more efficient passer than the “gunslinger” Favre, a point grudgingly made. The one caveat to note here, however, is that this does not mean Manning was more a “winner” than Favre; the latter still has a better playoff record—13-11 compared to 11-12 for Manning. In fact, Manning has more playoff losses than any quarterback in NFL history—and all of those can be placed quite comfortably on his “superior” shoulders.