Appreciating Peyton Manning's Fantasy Football Career

Peyton Manning is a legend for what he accomplished on the field, setting passing records and winning two Super Bowls. The way he consistently took care of his fantasy owners was also historic.
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It's Peyton Manning Week at Sports Illustrated. Peter King joined The Record podcast to discuss his SI story on Manning's free agency tour in 2012, so all week we are sharing some of our favorite Manning stories from the Vault and writing some new ones too.

What comes to mind when you hear the name Peyton Manning? Is it the plethora of records he set in his career? Is it the come-from-behind Super Bowl XLI victory with the Indianapolis Colts, after the combination of Devin Hester and Mushin Muhammad put Manning’s team down 7-0 and then 14-6 in his first championship game? Is it his own personal free agent frenzy and nationwide tour that resulted in him landing in Denver with the Broncos? Or how about his final NFL game, with the soon-to-be Hall of Famer leaving the field at the pinnacle of his profession as a two-time Super Bowl champion?

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Each aforementioned memory should flash in fans’ minds when they hear the name “Peyton Manning.” However, there are a few more moments that fantasy football junkies remember well too.

Manning walked away from the game after the 2015 season. At the time, he had two of the 10 best quarterback seasons in fantasy football history. He was also the highest-scoring quarterback of all-time (4,689.1 career fantasy points in standard scoring). His fantasy greatness was truly unparalleled, highlighted by two magnificent seasons nine years apart in 2004 and 2013.

Colts fans may shutter when thinking about the 2004 season, a campaign that ended with a second consecutive playoff defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots, but it was a magical season for anyone who rostered Manning in fantasy. The 2004 NFL MVP finished with the third-best fantasy season for a quarterback in history (360.1 points), behind only Daunte Culpepper (who had 371.3 that season) and Steve Young (364.2 in 1998) despite attempting only two passes in Week 17. Considering he was averaging 23.99 fantasy points per game entering that meaningless January contest against the Broncos, he would’ve blown by both Culpepper and Young with a 383.83-point season if he remained on pace. (And of course Week 17 isn’t a concern in most fantasy leagues anyway.)

What’s even more remarkable was his consistency. Excluding Week 17’s stat line of 1-for-2 for 6 passing yards, Manning had two games all season with fewer than 17.9 fantasy points. For context, St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger averaged the fourth-most fantasy points per game that season with 16.8. Manning had nine games with 21 or more fantasy points and three games with at least 33 fantasy points that season.

As far as raw stats go, Manning had a career-high (at the time) 4,557 passing yards, a career-high 49 passing touchdowns and a career-low (tied) 10 interceptions. The former No. 1 overall pick was in the prime of his career at 28 and this was as good as it was going to get, right? Nine years, one season-stealing neck injury and a new city later, Manning made history again. Arguably the greatest passer of all time put together the greatest fantasy season of all time when he became the first quarterback to break the 400-fantasy-point barrier in 2013.

Manning’s second year in Denver started off with a bang. His 462 passing yards and an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes produced a whopping 46.3 fantasy points in Week 1. Manning scored at least 20 fantasy points in all but one game from that point until Week 11 (14.9 points against the Kansas City Chiefs). The 37-year-old finished as a top-five quarterback in 10 of the 16 weeks he played and ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 six times.

Manning finished the season with an astounding 5,477 passing yards and 55 passing touchdowns, both NFL records that stand to this day. His 412 fantasy points set a new quarterback record by nearly 15 points. It also ended a seven-year run where no fantasy player, regardless of position, broke the 400-point plateau. Manning set a new benchmark that wouldn’t be surpassed for the next half-decade.

Manning’s 2004 and 2013 seasons are a reminder that we live in a golden era of quarterback play. If we remove his barely-played Week 17 game from the equation in 2004, his 23.99 average fantasy points per game that season was eventually surpassed eight times over the next 15 years, including once by Manning himself. His unreal 2013 season now stands third in fantasy history behind a pair of young signal callers who are the current faces of the NFL, Patrick Mahomes (2018) and Lamar Jackson (2019).

And of course part of what makes his fantasy production so incredible is how little he helped himself as a runner, which has been key for some of the players who’ve since topped his numbers. In 2004, Manning ran for 38 yards and no touchdowns. In 2013, he ran for minus-31 yards (that’s a lot of kneel downs!) and one score. Lamar Jackson’s 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in 2019 made him comparable to some running backs. Manning did it all with his arm.

While his two mind-blowing years deserve the most notoriety, Manning’s consistency over a prolonged period of time is why he’s as highly regarded in the fantasy community as he is in the NFL community at large. Here are his finishes among all quarterbacks between his rookie year in 1998 and penultimate season in 2014:

1998: 9th
1999: 4th
2000: 4th
2001: 5th
2002: 4th
2003: 2nd
2004: 2nd
2005: 3rd
2006: 1st
2007: 3rd
2008: 6th
2009: 5th
2010: 4th
2011: DNP
2012: 6th
2013: 1st
2014: 4th

He started his career as a top-10 fantasy quarterback and didn’t relinquish that spot until his final season, 17 years later. Outside of his rookie campaign, he never finished worse than the overall QB6 when playing a full season. That record of success won’t be replicated anytime soon.

Manning will almost assuredly make his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021. If there were a Fantasy Football Hall of Fame, he’d already have his own wing.