Since the merger of 1970, only six other quarterbacks made at least 7,000 passing attempts in their career, a testament to Manning’s longevity. And if he never throws another pass in the NFL, Manning would finish with the sixth-most passes completed (4,319), the seventh-most passing yards (50,625), the seventh-most touchdown passes (334) and the 39th highest passer rating (83.8) in league history. In fact, if you look at Manning’s career head-to-head with John Elway’s, they are strikingly similar, and, in some cases, favorable to Manning.
|Eli Manning (2004 to 2017)||212||4,319||7,220||60%||50,625||334||222||83.8|
|John Elway (1983 to 1998)||234||4,123||7,250||57%||51,475||300||226||79.9|
However, after adjusting for the era each quarterback played in, it is clear that these numbers are very different.
To make an apples-to-apples comparison that is fair to each quarterback, we will use adjusted net yards per pass. Similar to passing rating, adjusted net yards per pass gives a bonus for touchdowns and it penalizes interceptions and sacks, making it more correlated to team wins than the more widely used passer rating. We can then compare that to the league average — the higher the metric was over the league average, the better that performance was relative to his peers.
For example, in 1995, at age 35, Elway produced 6.52 adjusted net yards per pass in a season in which the average was 5.4. Because he threw 542 passes that year, we give him credit for 607.4 adjusted net yards above average. Do that for each year, adding them up each season, and it is easy to see Elway becomes more valuable later in his career, while Manning declines.
If you go through the same exercise for all passers with at least 3,000 attempts since Manning’s rookie season in 2004, he ranks 15th out of 21 qualified passers for era-corrected adjusted net yards per pass (5.93, one percent above the league average). If you limit it to just the three quarterbacks who have thrown at least 7,000 passes in that span, Manning is a distant third to Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Being mentioned in the same sentence as Brady and Brees, two future Hall of Famers, does add legitimacy to Manning’s case, but those two were often considered among the best players at their position. Manning was not. In fact, according to career Approximate Value, Doug Drinen’s method of putting a single numerical value on any player’s season, at any position, from any year, Manning is the seventh-best quarterback since 2004 (143 AV). Brees and Brady rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.
Even similar players to Manning, according to Pro Football Reference, which compares the quality and shape of a player’s career to other pros using Approximate Value, is not optimistic. The most similar passer to Manning through his 12th year in the league is Mark Brunell, who is not in the Hall of Fame. In each of the two years before that it was Donovan McNabb, also not in the Hall of Fame. Brunell is the quarterback that best mimics Manning’s career arc.
|Number of years considered at the start of the player’s career||Players whose career was of similar quality and shape|
|First 3 years||Brett Favre (HOF)|
|7||John Elway (HOF)|
Take a look at the The Keltner List, a series of subjective questions formulated by famed sabermetrician Bill James used to help assess whether a player deserves to be elected to their sport’s Hall of Fame. Even the first few questions are enough to sway proponents away from Manning’s cause.
Was Manning ever regarded as the best player in the NFL? Did anybody, while Manning was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in the NFL? No and no.
Was Manning the best player in football at his position? No.
Was Manning the best player on his team? Not always. Tiki Barber had better years (2005, 2006 and 2004) than Manning. Michael Strahan had 11.5 sacks in 2005 and, like Brady, was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame 1st team All-2000s Team. Odell Beckham Jr. is widely considered one of the best receivers in football, and he is certainly considered better than Manning at this point of their careers.
And I’ve purposely steered clear of Manning’s Super Bowl accolades in relation to his Hall of Fame resume. While important — he is a two-time Super Bowl MVP — football is a team sport, and it is unfair to assign team wins and losses, even in the playoffs, to any individual player.
It has been a marvelous career for Manning, just not one worthy of enshrinement in Canton.