Welcome to Week 10 of “On the Numbers,” a weekly column that mines for statistical oddities, numerical fun facts and analytical observations from around the NFL. This week, the format is a little different.
Apologies to Kirk Cousins’s perfect quarterback rating, Allen Hurns’s seventh straight game with a touchdown and the incredible push for everyone who bet on the 42-point total in the Chiefs-Broncos game. All of them would have been fun topics to dive into, but this week is all about Peyton Manning.
Manning, as you almost certainly know by now, came into Sunday two yards shy of Brett Favre’s all-time record of 71,838 career passing yards and finished (gulp) 33 yards clear of it. This prompted a special Sunday all-Peyton Manning edition of On the Numbers, in which I gave up on comparing him to players and instead compared him to entire franchises and draft classes.
But enough about Manning’s extremely successful past—on to the present and the future. It’s time to start thinking about who might break his record. (That’s how the internet works, right?)
At the moment, Manning is… not so great. On Sunday he went 5-for-20 with four interceptions and was benched for Brock Osweiler. Reports on Monday morning said that Manning has a partially torn ligament in his foot, and Osweiler will start Week 11 against the Bears.
So let’s look at who is next, and what it will take for some of today’s top quarterbacks to break his record. I’ll break the league’s best quarterbacks and most likely candidates into tiers based on career stage.
We don’t know what Manning’s final career total will be. This may sound bleak, but let’s not guarantee him any more yards, and just figure out how long it will take each potential successor to reach the current bar of 71,838.
Before we delve into this, some housekeeping notes:
Years is the number of seasons since taking over as a starter—that includes injury-plagued seasons, because durability is such a critical part of this record anyway. This includes full seasons lost from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, as well as stretches lost to injury for guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo. There’s just no cleaner way to do it. Though I did count 2015 as half a season when calculating averages. Again, inexact. But I hope you can appreciate the spirit of this exercise.
For the players with the most realistic chances, I tried to offer two different career paths to get to the magic number. Some of this was based on what kind of passing stats each player had racked up throughout his career, or in recent seasons. Some of it was based on trying let players get to 40, but not expect much more than that from them.
Manning is in his age 39 season. Only three quarterbacks have put up significant passing yardage after reaching their age-40 season: Warren Moon (7,148 yards), Brett Favre (6,711) and Vinny Testaverde (6,675). No other QB has even eclipsed 2,000 career yards after that point.
Now, to look specifically at this list of the most prolific passers over the last decade.
For many of these breaking the record is unrealistic. Some players like Eli Manning, Palmer or Romo would need to outperform their career primes long past their primes should end.
Others will have a tough time because of health issues. Ben Roethlisberger’s numbers look doable, but then consider all the games he’s missed to injury in his career and it becomes hard to imagine him staying on the field enough for all those 4,500-yard seasons. He can barely stay on the field now at 33.
The best bets are probably Drew Brees, who is hot on Manning’s heels; Tom Brady, who has a real shot if he plays as long as he says he wants to; and Philip Rivers, who has the benefits of his age, a clean bill of health and his current pace. But we’ve all seen the difference between Peyton Manning in 2013 compared to 2015, and it’s clear that quarterbacks in his age bracket can hit that wall at any point. Brees and Brady have both already flirted with that wall before, and gone through stretches in their career that made everyone wonder if their skills were declining with age.
The Next Generation
This list has some more established veterans, and some younger QBs who have been entrenched as their teams’ starter for a few years now.
Without looking at the numbers, lots of people would likely pick Aaron Rodgers as the most likely heir to several of Manning’s records. But here’s where you can see how much he’s hurt by the two years spent on the bench behind Brett Favre. His career total is so close to Matt Ryan, but he’s a year older despite having spent less time on the field. It’s tempting to just bump his potential projected totals up because he’s Aaron Rodgers, but Ryan and Matthew Stafford actually both have multiple seasons with more yards than his career high of 4,643. And Rodgers has also missed time for injuries in his career, whereas Ryan hasn’t.
But for this group, as opposed to the 10-year starters, I did feel a little more comfortable playing around with 4,800- or 5,000-yard seasons, since they’re all still in their prime. Sure, a string of 5,000-yard seasons is generous, but they’re not going to break the all-time passing record without a great prime. It’s just hard to predict who might be able to pull that off. One of the amazing things about Manning’s career is his renaissance with the Broncos when he suddenly set a career high in yards and touchdowns.
Some of these scenarios are easier to envision than others. For example, I think it’s easier to picture a 41-year-old Joe Flacco throwing for 3,500 yards than a 41-year-old Jay Cutler hoofing around in need of 4,500.
If I’d left the names off and given a blind test, Stafford might be the smartest bet on the board. Throwing for more than 10,000 yards in your age-23 and age-24 seasons combined can do that for a guy.
The younger players on this list are so far away, it’s almost silly to bring them up. Part of the reason I included them is just to show how amazing Manning’s career has been. It can be easy to take his accomplishments for granted when you see his numbers next to Brees and Brady, who are similarly incredible. But then look at how far away Andrew Luck is, and how one bad season can change the way people perceive him so much, and you understand why Manning’s run is so impressive.
But it must be possible one of the younger players could catch him. If you wade into the numbers really far, you can make a case that Cam Newton’s path looks attainable. Then take a step back and realize that predicting 10 straight 4,000-yard seasons for any quarterback is insane, let alone one who takes as many hits as Newton. Maybe this will be the future of the NFL, and with rules to protect quarterbacks we’ll see all these guys playing deep into the 2020s.
But Newton, Luck and the others are—quite literally—miles away. But if you think that’s far…
Freshmen and sophomores
And keep in mind that Manning hasn't retired yet. Despite his foot injury suffered in Week 10, there's a chance we'll see him under center again this year, with a chance to pad his total with anywhere from one yard to one thousand.
Any extra yards (or if he attempts to play another season maybe?) just makes it tougher for him to be caught.
The most likely?
If I have to pick three names off this list, I’d probably go Brees, then Brady, then Rivers. Those answers feel like a bit of a cop-out, which probably means they’re the smart bet. Simply having banked the yards they’ve already picked up is more valuable to me than upside or potential.
Manning’s record may stand for as long as it did when it belonged to Marino (1995–2007) or Favre (2007–15), or we may see one, two or even five guys on this list surpass him.
But for anyone to match that number, they’ll have earned it. And put up production that’s thus far been unprecedented.