Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time. I’m willing to entertain arguments otherwise, but that’s all it would be—entertainment. In the public, quarterbacks and players in all sports are judged by championships won. That’s why you will see Eli Manning erroneously lobbed in with Peyton among the greats in NFL history. This logic, though, is flawed.
It takes an enormous amount of luck to win a championship. That is not to say it doesn’t also take skill, because it does. But, to make the playoffs, win each round of the playoffs, and ultimately win the big game without the ball bouncing your way is nearly impossible. The quarterback, unfortunately, has no control over the defense or special teams other than keeping them off the field. To be tasked with the complete success of the team without control over more than half of the team’s performance is unjust.
Putting up the best numbers in the league week-after-week and year-after-year doesn’t take luck. It takes skill. Manning has won five MVP awards, the most in history. He is a 13-time Pro Bowler. He has never thrown fewer than 26 touchdowns in a season. Greatness comes from talent, production and longevity. He is the GOAT.
This past week, he passed Brett Favre for most touchdown passes in a career, notching numbers 507, 508, 509, and 510. Manning is 38 years young, playing at the peak of his game, and seemingly only getting better.
So what will Manning's final passing touchdown record be? And who is the most likely candidate to break his ultimate record? For answers to these questions, we turn to our supercomputer at numberFire.com.
The Biggest Challenge
The biggest challenge in making these projections is also the biggest challenge facing all of these quarterbacks chasing Manning's record: How long will they play?
Once a player is 38 like Manning, his future is reasonably clear. Manning likely will play at least one more season, but it would be extremely unlikely for him to play more than five or six seasons.
With a 26-year old like Matthew Stafford, the future is not so clear. Sure, we would expect him to remain a starting quarterback through the age of 30 and maybe through the age of 35, but there are so many factors that could change this—injuries, decline in performance, trades, just too many unknowns.
So, the first step was to project each player’s chance of playing in future seasons. For reference, a great 25-year-old starting quarterback has a 93.4% chance of starting at the age of 30, 75.8% chance of starting at the age of 33, 45.8% chance of starting at 36 and just a 14.0% chance of starting at the age of 40. Keep in mind, we’re talking about the best of the best. More average quarterbacks would not have as high of a chance to continue starting.
Once we have an idea of each player’s expected longevity, we then look at age curves to determine the general rise and decline of each player’s performance throughout their career. Unlike how Peyton has performed, quarterbacks usually peak around their early 30s and decline afterward. Then, based on the quarterbacks average passing touchdown performance and their variance—a player like Aaron Rodgers has been much more inconsistent in terms of touchdown passes than Russell Wilson—we simulate thousands of potential career arcs to get each quarterback’s chances of throwing any number of touchdown passes in their career. We also adjust for the increased tendencies to pass the ball in the NFL in recent years.
Here is how Peyton’s future looks:
Proj Total TD
Chances of Playing
Projected total touchdowns show how many touchdowns Manning would likely end with if he played that many seasons. Using our chances of playing projection, you can see our expected passing touchdowns (E[TD]). We project Manning to finish his career around 627 passing touchdowns.
So who is most likely to overtake Peyton’s ultimate record?
1. Andrew Luck
TD total: 65 at age 25
Percent chance: 18.8%
Andrew Luck is the future of the NFL. Once a No. 1 overall pick, Luck is looking like a young Peyton Manning, playing for the same Colts squad and leading them to the playoffs. After only throwing 23 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons, Luck is on pace for 43.4 touchdowns this year.
How To Pass Peyton: If Luck can maintain a 35-passing touchdown per year pace or better, he will likely need to start until around the age of 38 to pass Peyton—or longer if Manning plays past the age of 40.
2. Drew Brees
TD total: 374 at age 35
Percent chance: 16.5%
Like Manning, Brees consistently puts up huge passing numbers in Sean Payton’s offense. Also like Manning, Brees is no spring chicken. Brees is essentially 3.5 years behind Peyton in terms of passing touchdown pace, but only three years behind him in age and two years behind him in seasons played.
How To Pass Peyton: If Brees can maintain or increase his close to 40-passing touchdown per year pace and he is able to play about a season longer than Peyton, Brees will have a chance to bring home the record himself. That means if Peyton plays until he is 40, Brees will likely have to play and perform at a high level until he is at least 41.
3. Matthew Stafford
TD total: 118 at age 26
Percent chance: 8.0%
Another young gun in a pass-heavy offense, Stafford is a little behind the Manning pace due to injuries in his first two seasons. Remember that Manning never missed a game with the exception of the entire 2011 season. Having started playing at the age of 21, though, Stafford has the potential to play for a very long time. Despite being on pace for just 20 touchdowns this season, Stafford has averaged 30 passing touchdowns per year recently and is the unquestioned franchise quarterback of the Detroit Lions.
How To Pass Peyton: Stafford’s best bet is for Manning to retire ASAP, but if he can return to his 41-touchdown 2011 form, he would have a shot at breaking Manning’s record around the age of 40.
4. Aaron Rodgers
TD total: 206 at age 31
Percent chance: 6.7%
Like Stafford, Rodgers missed significant time in his career due to injury. He also did not start in the NFL until he was 25—three years into his career. Rodgers is without a doubt one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league, and he’s on pace to have his third season with at least 39 touchdown passes in the last four years. Unrelated, Rodgers also rarely throws interceptions—he has thrown more than 10 just twice in his career.
How To Pass Peyton: If Rodgers throws 40 touchdowns per year and plays until he is 39, he would end up with around 550 total touchdowns. That means, like many others, he would either need Peyton to retire in the next year-and-a-half or Rodgers would need to play well into his 40s.
5. Tom Brady
TD total: 372 at age 37
Percent chance: 5.2%
The most common debate in modern football: who is the better quarterback, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? You already know my opinion, despite Brady’s three Super Bowl rings. Brady has been a pinnacle of good health like Manning, missing significant time only in 2008 during the Matt Cassel spectacle. While he sat behind Drew Bledsoe in his first season, Brady has put up numbers consistently throughout his career. Brady is on pace for close to 30 touchdowns in 2014, which is right around his average in recent seasons. Only one year younger than Manning, does Brady have an outside chance at the record?
How To Pass Peyton: Unless he puts up numbers like the 2007 undefeated, 50-touchdown season, Brady essentially needs Manning to retire in the next year and would have to throw his 30 touchdowns for another five seasons. That means Brady would have to produce at the same level until he was around 42 years old. If Manning plays until he is 42, Brady would likely need to start until he was 45!
Is anyone likely to break Peyton Manning’s eventual passing touchdown record? No. Is it doable? Yes. It just might take a little Luck, that’s all.