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Manning In Decline: Peyton's Best Days Are Now Behind Him

Dan Watson |
January 12, 2011 | 2:07 p.m. PST

Staff Writer

Peyton Manning's best years are behind him. (Creative Commons)
Peyton Manning's best years are behind him. (Creative Commons)
For seven years, Peyton Manning played a stretch of football that may never be equaled in the history of the game.

He won four league MVPs — the most ever. He took his team to two Super Bowls, winning one. He had a season, 2004, so flawless, it's unlikely anyone will ever match it.

Among the measurements of the game, passer rating is thought to be the purest form of assessment for a quarterback. Peyton registered a rating of 121.1 that season, the greatest passer rating ever. He also threw 49 touchdown passes, the most ever at the time.

The next year, 2005, he was a bit of a disappointment. His rating was only 104.1.

The next season only 101, and the Super Bowl.

It was something altogether otherworldly and, despite the praise heaped upon him, not truly appreciated for its brilliance.

But it is with a heavy heart I must admit, we have seen the best of Peyton Manning.

You’re a moron, you say. Manning may not have had a great year (by his standards, mind you), but he still broke records, he led the Colts to yet another AFC South title and he did it with an infirmary on the sidelines. He’s still got it, he’s only one year removed from a Super Bowl, for God’s sake!

All this is true. The Colts were decimated by injury this season -- at one time a total of 17 players were nursing injuries. And yes, Manning broke the record for most completions in a season. He also threw the ball 679 times, a byproduct of the injuries. That’s 100 times more than any other season for the legend.

His QB rating dropped to 91.9. For most QBs, this number is enough to retire happily on. Enough to garner 1st Team Pro Bowl honors. Enough to demand big figures.

Not for Peyton. It’s his lowest mark since 2003.

But the most important number is this: 35.

Peyton Manning will be 35 years old next season.

Consider the following:

- At age 36, Dan Marino saw his decline. His quarterback rating dropped to 80.7, his touchdowns plummeted to 17, and only in his rookie year did he produce fewer passing yards in a full season. He lasted two more seasons before retirement.

- Joe Montana's career may as well have ended at 35. His numbers plummeted in 1990 — just a year removed from one of the finest seasons ever put together by a QB (26 TDs and 8 INT in just 13 games with a 112.4 QB rating in 1989).

He played in one final game in San Francisco at age 36 before ending his career in mediocre fashion in Kansas City (two seasons, 29 combined touchdown passes).

- Troy Aikman’s demise occurred so abruptly at age 34 that he retired after tossing just 7 touchdowns against 14 interceptions in 2000. 

- Terry Bradshaw threw in the towel at 35, after two injury plagued seasons.

- Johnny Unitas, whose longevity in the league is well-documented -- he played 17 seasons from 1956 to 1973 -- began to break down at 35. He only played in five games that year and didn’t start a single one. His play never recovered as he sludged through four more mediocre seasons with Baltimore before doing the unthinkable, leaving to sputter out in San Diego.

- Fran Tarkenton's decline came at 37 -- in 1977 he only played in nine games. He ended things the next season.

- Even Steve Young, who in essence got a late start after waiting for Montana to break down, had his last hurrah at age 37 before the concussions got to him.

The examples are endless: Joe Namath (34), Bart Starr (36), Roger Staubach (37), Jim Kelly (36), Otto Graham (34), Dan Fouts (36, dropped off at 35), Sammy Baugh (dropped off at 36 and fizzled until the end at 38), Len Dawson (dropped off at 34), Bob Griese (35) — it goes on and on.

At 34, George Blanda threw 36 touchdowns. At age 35, he threw 42 interceptions, the most ever in a season.

It is the natural course taken by almost all the greats — father time chimes in around age 35 or 36.

Once again, Peyton Manning turns 35 next year, and is coming off his most trying season.

For a stretch of games we saw something, by its very nature, un-Manning. For five games he was simply terrible.

In Week 9, versus the Eagles, he made his 200th consecutive regular season start — something entirely Manning-like. What wasn’t was the interception with six seconds remaining as the Colts vied for field goal position to win the game. They lost.

In Week 10, he threw for 185 yards and no TDs.

In Week 11, again while trying to lead the Colts to a game-winning rally, Peyton was intercepted, his third of the game. Even worse, it came against New England.

In Week 12, he was picked off four times.

In Week 13, another four.

It was inconceivable. For Manning, inexcusable.

In Manning fashion, he bounced back on Thursday Night Football with a huge game.

But the first cracks had shown.

Which begs the question: What will come in 2011? An all-out flood?

There are a few legendary quarterbacks who have had continued success past age 35, but they can be counted on one hand: Warren Moon, John Elway, Kurt Warner (late start) and Brett Favre.

They are the exceptions. It’s unlikely Manning will join that select few.

Nevertheless, we’ll always have those legendary seven years.

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cpisar on January 17, 2011 2:22 PM

love the heated discussion...I'm going to have to agree with the majority here. Manning should have no problem maintaining his pro-bowl like numbers in the next couple of years based on modern medical advances alone. It's a different era. Count it.

Anonymous (not verified) on January 15, 2011 5:08 PM

Pecrawley is right. A decline is inevitable. This article is like saying the sun will come up tomorrow or it gets cold in the winter. As players get older, they get worse. Not sure we needed an article to say that. One note on Montana: he took a mediocre KC team to the playoffs. Not sure of the author's age, but it was a memorable moment, to see an aging veteran turn in one more impressive performance before saying goodbye.

Anonymous (not verified) on January 14, 2011 10:01 AM

It's important to note that if the Colts' special teams and defense didn't give up the game losing field goal drive to the Jets that this article wouldn't have been written. Peyton played a near flawless playoff game and has yet again been handed 100% of the post reason responsibility in what has otherwise been a great year by NFL quarterbacking standards.

Anonymous (not verified) on January 13, 2011 6:01 PM

What a nasty, distasteful and outrageous title and notion to engender in the minds of NFL spectators, readers and fans. It is my honest impression that many, maybe even most of Peyton's critics are dead set on sinking him, his career and legacy...
WOW! What a remarkably noble society we've become that we deliberately slander any one/thing not meeting with our approval, as Watson appears to be doing here against Manning.

Anonymous (not verified) on January 13, 2011 3:50 AM

The only thing Manning has in common with all of those QB's are the words "Football Hall of Fame". Other than that, this guy is something the league has never seen before. He stands on a plateau all on his own. He is the modern day Unitas. A guy that has changed the passing game, and consequently, defenses, forever. No other QB's career statistics in league history embodies the word "consistent" more than Manning's. For instance, in just 13 seasons, he's had 11 seasons were he threw for more than 4,000 yards which is an NFL record. The guy who had it before him? Dan Marino, who played for 17 seasons, had only 6 seasons of 4,000+ yards passing (now tied with Brett Favre). Next year (if there is a next year), entering his 14th season, Manning will have a chance to surpass Marino's 420 TD passes, have a chance to post another 4,000+ yard season, another 30+ TD pass season, own the most 300 yard games record by himself (currently tied with Marino), have a chance to take the Colts to the playoffs for an NFL record 10th consecutive time, and have a chance to make a run at the playoffs to ultimately have a chance to be the first team in NFL history to play on the home turf in the Super Bowl. Yes, his QB rating has been on the decline, but not Manning. If anyone on the Colts is on the decline, it's his team-mates. Manning is unlikely to join the select few who've had success pass the age of 35? You're right, he won't join them. He is on a whole new higher plateau than them. Simply put: he's an anomaly.

Anonymous (not verified) on January 13, 2011 9:42 PM

WELL SAID! I am the one who wrote the reply just before you did and I must say you described him perfectly. Peyton Manning doesnt even need to have phenominal seasons to hold more records than anyone else in nfl history, he honestly would only need to be average.... But knowing him, he will be phenominal, and anyone who thinks that he, and the colts wpnt see the chance to play in the super bowl at home as huge motivation... Well... I wont go there. Bottom line, people need to stop looking for reasons not to be in awe of Manning, and respect his enormous tallent.

Anonymous (not verified) on January 12, 2011 8:20 PM

Sorry but I think ur so wrong... I think Peyton has several more years ahead of him, and I think they will be some of his best. He is one of the smartest qb's to play the game, he knows how to avoid a hit, he is well protected, and not to mention extremely tallented. Even this year, after losing SO many of his dangerous weapons, he had 4700 yards, at least 6 or 7 of his interceptions were not his fault, but should be placed on the shoulders of his rookie receiver... In his first few games. Those of us who know about Peyton, who watch him play week after week, who are in awe of his abilities, KNOW, that next year will be different, that this year was off from day 1 with injuries. Just wait, Peyton will prove you wrong.

Anonymous (not verified) on January 12, 2011 5:30 PM

The NFL today is nowhere near how it was 10 years ago. Rules are changed yearly in favor of the QB's. Medical procedures and surgeries are also more advanced. if his o line keep protecting him as much as they have done in the past, he still has a good 3-4 years before we start seing a decline

pecrawley on January 13, 2011 12:45 AM

Think this is a legitimate point, especially the part about medical breakthroughs. Montana didn't have the kind of medical staff Manning has access too. Same goes for the majority of guys on that list. At the same time, the numbers don't lie. Peyton's QB rating isn't where it was 4-5 years ago. A decline is inevitable.

Matt (not verified) on January 12, 2011 5:14 PM

everyone is different you cant compare when other players retired