Peyton Manning is on pace to have the best season of any quarterback in NFL history.
Through four games this year, he’s thrown 16 touchdowns, zero interceptions, 1,470 yards, and has a 75 percent completion rating and 9.42 yards per attempt. The Broncos are 4-0.
As far as realism goes, it would be more or less impossible for Manning to have played better than he has; hypothetically, he could have completed 100 percent of his passes, thereby increasing the number of yards and touchdowns he would have thrown for, but this is only possible in the sense that it is physically possible: it will never happen, and I feel pretty comfortable predicting that.
For practical purposes, Manning has been perfect in this, his 16th year in the league. (I’m including 2011 for these purposes. You’ll see why.) Manning has been perfect despite being 37 years old and playing for a team that is not the one with which he made his name and built his Hall of Fame credentials. And in so doing, he’s capping off what might, at its end, be the weirdest career completed by a football quarterback.
Take a look at the list of Hall of Famers at the quarterback position in the modern era. They all have something in common. And that’s that they gave their best years, and any Super Bowls or championships they might have won, to the same team.
Almost without exception, the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks have tallied their accomplishments for the same franchise, with detours to other teams only coming at the fresh-faced or tail ends of their career, i.e. Joe Montana’s dalliance with the Chiefs, or Joe Namath’s with the L.A. Rams.
And the current crop of passers with a decent chance to see themselves enshrined in the Hall when their careers are over are no different: Tom Brady’s a lifelong Patriot, Aaron Rodgers a Packer, Ben Roethlisberger a Steeler, Eli Manning a Giant.
The one exception, Drew Brees, only had one truly impressive season, 2004, with the Chargers before being allowed to walk to New Orleans to make way for Philip Rivers. Could you still argue that was a mistake knowing what Brees had accomplished to that point? Oh, sure. But remember that Brees was coming off a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, and that San Diego had a top-five draft pick waiting in the wings.
Manning’s situation is completely different. If he had retired after 2011, the year he missed entirely due to hugely concerning neck issues, Peyton would’ve had a convincing argument for enshrinement: a Super Bowl ring, a record of 141-67, 399 touchdowns to 198 interceptions, a career QB rating of 94.9, four MVP awards.
The only knock against him, his 9-11 playoff record, would’ve been reasoned away as it was for Marino — plus, Manning did have a ring. He might not have been the greatest playoff quarterback of all time, but he got it done once, and once is enough if we’re talking enshrinement.
The Colts bottomed out during his season-long absence, released Manning, and drafted Andrew Luck. It feels like we didn’t make enough noise about this at the time, in retrospect: it sort of made sense, what with Luck’s boundless promise and the question of Manning’s health and whether he could return to the field, much less form. Looking back on it now, though, it’s mind-blowing: a team voluntarily released arguably the best player in football.
And now Manning has his chance. If he can win this Super Bowl with the Broncos — and he’s got as good a chance as anyone; Denver is the clear frontrunner in the AFC, with the most points in the season’s first four games of any team since the merger — Manning will have accomplished something no other great quarterback has, which is be truly great with two different franchises. (Kurt Warner’s strange journey through the league being the closest anyone’s come. Fun fact: Kurt Warner was 8-23 from 2002-06.)
And if Manning were able to win the MVP award this year, for the fifth time in his career, as he’s well on track to do? He’d be the first player in NFL history to do it with two separate franchises. Weirdest of all: despite his greatness with the Colts, if Manning can take the Super Bowl or MVP or both in 2013, we’ll legitimately have to look back and consider him a Bronco as well. They might need to stitch two jerseys together for whatever they hang in Canton.