Solving the Peyton Playoff Puzzle: Part I
by Scott Kacsmar
Peyton Manning is going to retire well short of winning the most Super Bowls in NFL history. He can become the 12th quarterback with multiple rings with a win over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. If that is his last win, he would also finish with a 14-13 record, making him a winning quarterback in the postseason. Seventeen quarterbacks have started at least 12 playoff games, and Manning and Dan Marino (8-10) are the only players in that group without a winning record. A victory on Sunday may be enough for some, but there will always be those who look at Manning's playoff career as a disappointment. That is a fair viewpoint, but how much of the disappointment should fall on the player versus his teammates?
Somehow, the phrase "greatest regular-season quarterback ever" has become the ultimate backhanded compliment to Manning's career. That title really is not up for debate, either. Manning is the most decorated quarterback in NFL history with five MVP awards, seven first-team All-Pro selections, 14 Pro Bowls and a ton of records. When you call him the greatest regular-season quarterback ever, you only leave a few quarterbacks in the field who can argue they had a better career, and that is even with an overemphasis on the postseason.
So how does one of the best quarterbacks ever spend the majority of his career without a winning playoff record?
This Peyton Manning playoff puzzle has existed for years, but no one ever put in much effort to solve it. They have called him a choker, even though countless other big-name quarterbacks have flopped in big games and crucial moments. They have said his style of offense does not translate to January and that he is too robotic, too studied to succeed in the playoffs. This ignores all the stellar playoff games he has had, or the fact that he is the only quarterback to have a fourth-quarter lead in 13 consecutive playoff games.
When you put the pieces together, you start to see the picture of a great playoff resume, but that win-loss record piece just does not fit. After years of research and an offseason of clarity on the subject, I am ready to solve this puzzle for good.
Note: parts of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
The Playoff Resume You Never Hear About
The standard that Manning set in the regular season was always going to be tough to meet in the playoffs. With each passing year, a quarterback's legacy grows, and stigmas become harder to shake. Manning lost his first three playoff games and took six seasons to get a postseason win, and nine seasons to win a Super Bowl. His stats were not very Manning-like during that Super Bowl run. Since then he had a couple of high-profile losses, including two Super Bowls. Add it all together and you have an easy target for years of playoff criticism. The good parts get brushed to the side, because they do not fit the narrative.
However, the thought that Manning has had a bad playoff career or even merely an average one is one of the silliest things I have come across in 13 years of football research.
There have been 215 quarterbacks (well, one was a true running back) to start the 525 playoff games in NFL history. I do not expect the average analyst to talk about a bell-shaped curve, but you would have to have a pretty repugnant idea of distribution to think Manning's playoff career is anything close to average. He will be just the seventh quarterback to start at least four Super Bowls. Thirty-one quarterbacks have won a Super Bowl, and only 20 were named Super Bowl MVP. That should at least get Manning into the above-average category, especially when you start ignoring some of the ridiculous small sample size issues. Mark Sanchez and Alex Smith have some better playoff marks than Manning and Tom Brady. Enough said.
When you get into the stats, Manning's QBR ranks sixth in the playoffs since 2006, according to ESPN. We have observed in the past that Manning's playoff stats are very similar to his stats against playoff teams in regular-season games, a sample size of 98 games now. Although his last four playoff games have not been too hot, Manning still holds the No. 8 passing DVOA since 1989. (We hope to add 1986-88 very soon.)
|Playoffs: Passing DVOA Leaders Since 1989 (Min. 150 Passes)|
|1||Joe Montana||9||62.3%||24||Randall Cunningham||10||10.7%|
|2||Kurt Warner||13||42.3%||25||Matt Ryan||5||9.1%|
|3||Drew Brees||11||32.5%||26||Dan Marino||12||6.6%|
|4||Troy Aikman||16||31.0%||27||Tony Romo||6||6.6%|
|5||Mark Sanchez||6||28.3%||28||Ben Roethlisberger||17||6.5%|
|6||Philip Rivers||9||27.5%||29||Chad Pennington||6||6.1%|
|7||Steve Young||14||26.2%||30||Rich Gannon||9||5.4%|
|8||Peyton Manning||26||25.3%||31||Michael Vick||6||4.0%|
|9||John Elway||14||24.7%||32||Neil O'Donnell||9||3.8%|
|10||Aaron Rodgers||13||24.0%||33||Brad Johnson||7||3.3%|
|11||Tom Brady||31||21.7%||34||Jake Delhomme||8||3.2%|
|12||Mark Rypien||7||21.5%||35||Jeff Garcia||6||2.4%|
|13||Vinny Testaverde||5||20.0%||36||Steve McNair||10||2.2%|
|14||Colin Kaepernick||6||19.9%||37||Alex Smith||5||-0.4%|
|15||Eli Manning||11||17.9%||38||Andrew Luck||6||-1.2%|
|16||Russell Wilson||10||17.2%||39||Donovan McNabb||16||-1.3%|
|17||Brett Favre||24||17.1%||40||Jake Plummer||6||-6.5%|
|18||Joe Flacco||15||16.8%||41||Mark Brunell||11||-6.7%|
|19||Warren Moon||6||15.8%||42||Stan Humphries||6||-13.0%|
|20||Matt Hasselbeck||11||14.9%||43||Jim Harbaugh||5||-14.0%|
|21||Jim Kelly||15||14.8%||44||Kordell Stewart||6||-16.3%|
|22||Cam Newton||5||13.9%||45||Drew Bledsoe||7||-25.4%|
|23||Kerry Collins||7||12.1%||46||Andy Dalton||4||-34.9%|
Even Manning's criticized Super Bowl run in 2006, when he threw three touchdowns and seven interceptions, holds up here. His DVOA that postseason was 29.8%, because it was the only time a team beat the league's top three defenses in a single postseason. His QBR, which is not adjusted for opponents, was still above average (54.2). How did the Colts win with that stat line from Manning? Five of his interceptions were thrown while leading, and four were thrown on third-and-10 or longer, when turnovers usually do less damage. How rare is the latter? No other quarterback has thrown more than three such interceptions in the playoffs since 1994, let alone four in a single postseason. Manning made up for his most damaging pick (Asante Samuel's pick-six) with 35 points in the rest of the game.
Since 1989, Manning has three of the top six playoff games in DYAR. He has the most playoff games with at least 200 DYAR (six). He is 4-1 in the AFC Championship Game, with his first three wins among the best games of his career. He led the largest comeback (18 points) in any championship game in NFL history. He threw five touchdown passes and had a perfect passer rating against the 2003 Broncos. A year later, he threw for 458 yards against Denver in a wild-card win. He has three 400-yard playoff games, tied with Drew Brees for the most in NFL history.
The only area where Manning's playoff resume looks average is the record, which is dead average at 13-13.
Victim of His Own Success
No one likes to lose a playoff game, but is it not still better to make the playoffs than to miss them entirely? With respect to the butterfly effect, Manning's playoff record could be 13-9 (.591) if he had not lead some of his weaker Indianapolis teams to double-digit wins, including 2000 (when they started 7-6), 2002 (started 4-4), 2008 (started 3-4) and 2010 (started 6-6). Those four teams lost in the wild-card round, including two overtime losses and another game decided on the final snap.
There, puzzle solved. Worse play down the stretch from Manning in those four seasons and he is four games above .500 in the playoffs. Who said this needed a complex solution?
Joking aside, continuously making the playoffs really is a main reason why Manning holds the records for most playoff losses (13) and most one-and-done losses (nine). The only formula for keeping him out of the playoffs (as happened in 1998 and 2001) has been for the Colts to go 1-9 against playoff teams and for the defense to allow the most points per drive. When you make the playoffs year after year, often with a flawed team (eight of Manning's playoff defenses ranked 15th or worse in DVOA), you are going to accumulate many playoff losses unless you become a dynasty.
Worse, if you go one-and-done, you have to win at least two games the next season just to get back to .500. When you earn a first-round bye as often as Manning's teams have (eight times, second only to Brady's 10), two wins means a trip to the Super Bowl. Those opportunities do not grow on trees. Those eight byes Manning has earned should essentially serve as eight wild-card wins, but the quarterback's record does not reflect that advancement.
Name a quarterback with a lot of playoff losses, and I will show you one of the best to ever play the game. I wrote an article about that two years ago. Eli Manning's record still sparkles at 8-3, because the Giants missed the playoffs in six of the last seven years. But hey, that means no one-and-done, or no interceptions in the clutch in January. All of that goes out the window when you lose enough games in the regular season. The Bengals are the latest example of this ass-backwards thinking, because they are deemed a laughingstock for losing in the wild-card round five years in a row. Yet nearly half of the league would trade places with Cincinnati in the last five years. At least they kept winning and gave themselves a shot in the tournament.
Some quarterbacks can only make the playoffs when their team is good, and some can only win in the playoffs when their team is playing great. If you are one of the elite few who can drag just about any roster into the playoffs year after year, you are going to experience some disappointing losses. Just being there should be rewarded, but instead you get branded with a one-and-done loss while the other player who missed the playoffs entirely gets nothing. Oh, if his name is Sam Bradford or Ryan Tannehill, maybe he gets a raise.
That is just one of many reasons why a quarterback's win-loss record in the postseason is such a poor indicator of performance. In the regular season, there is some value to it. Over a large enough sample size, you would be hard-pressed to find a good quarterback with a losing record. But in the playoffs, the record becomes more misleading than ever thanks to the one-and-done system. Come playoff time, you are no longer playing the Browns and Rams. Most of the bad defenses have been eliminated. Beating good teams is harder, and there is no next week when you lose. Many games are ultimately decided by plays where the quarterback is not even on the field.
Big games are not just limited to the playoffs, because the regular season is crucial to NFL success. Manning's season would likely already be over had the 2015 Broncos not earned a No. 1 seed (let's give some big credit to Brock Osweiler there in Manning's absence this time). But as far as navigating the regular season to get to the playoff goes, Manning has done it as well as anyone in his career.
Only 62 quarterbacks have even started in four different postseasons. That number shrinks to five if we look at those who have played 10 postseasons.
|Most Playoff Losses||Most One-and-Dones|
|1||Peyton Manning||13||1||Peyton Manning||9|
|2||Brett Favre||11||2||Andy Dalton||4|
|3||Dan Marino||10||2||Billy Kilmer||4|
|4||Tom Brady||9||2||Bob Griese||4|
|5||Jim Kelly||8||2||Dave Krieg||4|
|6||Joe Montana||7||2||Jack Kemp||4|
|6||John Elway||7||2||Joe Montana||4|
|6||Donovan McNabb||7||2||Warren Moon||4|
|6||Warren Moon||7||2||Y.A. Tittle||4|
By simple math, Manning is the quarterback most likely to hold the record for most playoff losses. He holds the record for most appearances with 15, two more than the next closest quarterback. Marino was the first to 10 losses, and he was surpassed by Brett Favre's 11. For Manning to have avoided this record, he would have needed to win a record five Super Bowls -- an unrealistic goal for anyone.
So far we have shown Manning's impressive playoff resume and explained the record number of playoff losses as a result of his consistency at leading teams into the playoffs. But why only 13 playoff wins? People wanted to see more wins from his career, and given the individual success, there should have been more.
The L Word
"See, the luck I've had can make a good man turn bad."
Bringing the element of luck into this might be as dangerous as throwing a hand grenade, but we are going to do it carefully. I have said in the past that I consider Manning the unluckiest quarterback in playoff history based on having the most close losses, among other things like poor starting field position. On a percentage basis, Manning probably is not the unluckiest. That may be Bernie Kosar or Warren Moon. For a cruder single-game example, Teddy Bridgewater has a legit claim to terrible luck in his first playoff game. It was spoiled by brutal weather conditions (one year before Minnesota gets a new roofed stadium), Adrian Peterson's fumble led to Seattle's game-winning field goal, and Blair Walsh shanked the shortest do-or-die field goal in playoff history. Ouch. And that's not even mentioning that Seattle's 9-point comeback started thanks to a botched snap sandlot play from Russell Wilson. Fortunately, Bridgewater is just 23 and has plenty of time to change things, but there is no guarantee luck evens itself out in a playoff career.
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Let's be clear in how luck is defined in the context of a quarterback's playoff career. From Merriam-Webster: "the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual." The other important part is that these events are happening out of the quarterback's control. Over the course of a three-hour game, there are a lot of things that could qualify, but we usually just focus on the most important events that have the biggest impact on the game, such as the Peterson fumble and the Walsh field goal in that Bridgewater example. The plays from late in the game tend to be the most significant due to the lack of time left to overcome them. There is also a preference to look at plays that have a general low probability of happening, such as a return touchdown, dropped pass or blocked punt. If a quarterback throws a pass right to a defender for an interception, that is not bad luck for the quarterback. That is a bad play, and it is bad luck for his teammates that they have to absorb the consequences of his actions.
For Manning, we can list a ton of unlucky circumstances that were out of his control. He has 26 playoff games after all, but just look at his three Super Bowls. The Super Bowl is generally known for good weather, but Manning's win in Super Bowl XLI was the most weather-affected Super Bowl of them all, with the Miami rain leading to six fumbles from the Colts and Bears. Manning's receivers dropped six passes, but he still got the MVP anyway. Devin Hester started that one with the then-fastest score in Super Bowl history with his kick return touchdown 14 seconds into the game. The record was broken when Seattle scored 12 seconds into Super Bowl XLVIII against Manning's Broncos, when miscommunication on the first snap from scrimmage saw the bail sail over Manning for a safety. The two quickest deficits in Super Bowl history happened to Manning, and he didn't even touch the ball either time. Then when you mention the most significant surprise onside kick in NFL history, it was Sean Payton's call to start the second half in Super Bowl XLIV. Hank Baskett botched the recovery and the Saints, down 10-6 at the time, went on to score a big touchdown.
Again, due to the sheer volume of playoff games he has, we can go a book's length on this type of bad luck for Manning. But we are looking for the most significant moments for each quarterback, and some of this stuff is just neat context more than anything game-deciding. The fact is, there probably isn't much that has happened to Manning's teams in the playoffs that has not also happened to other teams, but good luck finding someone else that has experienced all of these things in his playoff career like Manning has. That is where I am coming from when I say he has been the unluckiest quarterback in playoff history.
I can actually thank some random Patriots fans for providing me with the proper clarity on this subject last offseason after New England's fourth Super Bowl win. The usual line of "Brady would have six rings without the Giants' two catches" came up, which deserves the usual reply of "he would have two if not for Adam Vinatieri." But the enlightened response of "Brady always has them in position" was my light-bulb moment.
Many of the best quarterbacks always seem to have their team in a position to win a playoff game, but many times the game-deciding play is out of their control. Andy Dalton gets crucified for his postseason history for reasons well beyond his 0-4 record. Not only were the Bengals not close to winning those games, but his stats are horrific. You saw the table above with the DVOA rankings. However, there are 10 active quarterbacks with a DVOA of at least 16.0% in the playoffs. There are eight active quarterbacks with a Super Bowl ring, the most at one time in NFL history. Brady is not the only quarterback capable of having his team in position to win playoff games with respectable individual statistics. We see it from several other quarterbacks, past and present. The more you can make the playoffs and do that, the more respect you'll earn, but the real driving force behind the wins and losses tends to be someone other than the quarterback.
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Nothing is stopping us from keeping track of this stuff for every game (I already do), but at the very least we can do it for the playoffs, which are supposed to be so much more important for legacies. We can keep track of when the quarterback made the decisive play, good or bad, and when someone else did. It usually is going to be someone else.
Everyone knows about Joe Montana's breakout playoff moment culminating in "The Catch" to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, but did you know Montana turned the ball over four times that day, including an interception on the drive before Clark's catch? He may have been a little spooked from a pre-game death threat, but that was a shaky performance. Despite the great drive, it would have gone for naught had the 49ers not finished the game on defense, leading 28-27. Danny White hit a pass to the San Francisco 44 with 38 seconds left. One more good throw and the Cowboys would have been in range for a game-winning field goal, but White was sacked and fumbled, and Jim Stuckey recovered the ball to clinch the win. Montana's moment lives in lore, but we should still make note of the interception he threw on his previous drive and the fumble from White.
When fans talk about Manning's crunch-time turnovers in the playoffs, they speak as if there is a long history of them. Do you know why they only bring up the Tracy Porter pick-six in Super Bowl XLIV and the overtime interception against the 2012 Ravens? Those are the only two times in the playoffs when Manning has turned the ball over in the fourth quarter or overtime, tied or down by one score. Brett Favre has done that in three different NFC Championship Games (1995, 2007, and 2009). Colin Kaepernick had three turnovers in the fourth quarter of the 2013 NFC Championship Game. Mistakes happen.
We can do a better job of charting close playoff games. The following table breaks down close games for 28 quarterbacks with at least 10 playoff starts. Only starts were included, and games where the quarterback did not play in the fourth quarter due to injury were excluded for Tom Brady, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Donovan McNabb, Kurt Warner and Joe Montana.
|Playoffs: Breakdown of Starts|
|Quarterback||Games||Wins||Losses||Pct.||4Q/OT Lead||Pct.||4QC/GWD W||4QC/GWD L||Pct.||Win or Close||Pct.|
|4QC = fourth-quarter comeback; GWD = game-winning drive|
The "Win or Close" column is basically how often the quarterback "put his team in position to win," whether by winning the game outright or having possession in the fourth quarter or overtime with the score tied or a one-score deficit. Outside of poor Marino, who had eight blowout losses with Miami, most quarterbacks were above 80 percent.
Only three of Manning's playoff losses were not close games late, but a few other things really stand out from this table. For starters, Manning's abysmal 2-10 record at 4QC/GWD opportunities is nothing like the great 56-46 (.549) record he has in the regular season. While you might think that fuels the "choker" narrative, note that Manning had 19 fourth-quarter leads, yet only 13 playoff wins. Now we are onto something.
No quarterback in NFL history has lost more playoff games (six) after leading in the fourth quarter than Manning. Moon is the next closest at four games. Manning saw his team lose after leading in the final 40 seconds in four games. Again, only 28 quarterbacks have even been to the postseason six times.
This is actually worse than it sounds. Earlier, I glossed over Manning's record of nine one-and-done seasons, five more than any other quarterback. Yes, the 15 playoff appearances do a lot to explain why he has this record, but why such a high number like nine? Why not just five or six? Why didn't Manning's teams do better in their first playoff games?
The blown leads fill in so much of the playoff puzzle. Here is a list of every quarterback with at least two playoff losses after leading in the fourth quarter. The last column shows how many of those losses resulted in a one-and-done postseason.
|Most Playoff Losses with Fourth-Quarter Lead|
|Rk||Quarterback||4Q Leads Lost||One-and-dones|
Five of Manning's six blown leads resulted in a one-and-done postseason, two more than any other quarterback in NFL history. While you can argue it hurts more to a fan to lose a lead in the later rounds like in the case of Brady, that does not hurt the playoff record as much as going one-and-done does. Just look at all the times Manning was denied a shot at more AFC Championship Games or Super Bowls because of an early exit. His teams are an impressive 13-4 in the playoffs when they were able to get past the first game, but more often than not they stumbled out of the gate, hence a record number of one-and-done years.
If Manning's blown leads -- his bad luck -- were distributed more evenly amongst all playoff rounds, he would have a better playoff record with more wins. But you do not get to go to the AFC Championship Game when your defense lets backup Billy Volek drive 78 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, and then Dallas Clark does this on fourth-and-ballgame.
It is not as if Manning was only able to lead two go-ahead drives in 12 games with opportunities for his teams. A "lost comeback" is a game where the quarterback brought his team from behind in the fourth quarter to a lead, but still went on to lose the game. There have been 38 of these in postseason history. Manning is the only quarterback to have two of them (against the 2007 Chargers and 2010 Jets), and naturally they were both one-and-done seasons.
Manning is also the only quarterback to lose two playoff games after his kicker missed a clutch field goal (tied or down by 1 to 3 points in fourth quarter or overtime). Mike Vanderjagt was the culprit both times, with kicks that were closer to the parking lot than the uprights. And yes, both resulted in a one-and-done ending for the Colts (in 2000 and 2005).
Manning is one of six quarterbacks in playoff history to lead a go-ahead touchdown drive in a tied game (for a 7-point lead), and still go on to lose the game. That was with the 2012 Broncos, his highest DVOA team that still went, you guessed it, one-and-done.
Manning is one of seven quarterbacks to lose a playoff game in overtime with his offense never getting a possession. That was the one-and-done for the 2008 Colts in San Diego after Mike Scifres had perhaps the greatest punting night ever, pinning the Colts inside the 10-yard line five times.
While Manning is the master of experiencing the improbable losses, his playoff career lacks the improbable wins other quarterbacks have enjoyed. Terry Bradshaw has the Immaculate Reception, Roger Staubach has the Hail Mary, Steve McNair has the Music City Miracle. Manning has no wins like that. Hell, he basically lost a win on a Joe Flacco Hail Mary and had to play those Music City Miracle Titans, a 13-3 wild-card team. No kicker did a Billy Cundiff (Tom Brady) or Scott Norwood (Jeff Hostetler) for him. Manning's "idiot kicker" is in that same club. Tracy Porter did not pull a Lewis Billups and drop that fateful interception in the fourth quarter of a 7-point Super Bowl as Joe Montana's luck would have it. Manning's defense never snatched victory from the jaws of defeat such as Jim Plunkett's Raiders did on Red-Right 88, or when The Butler Did It at the 1-yard line (Brady, again) or Sterling Moore's play on Lee Evans (Brady, a third time). Lest we forget, little brother Eli was able to lead two game-winning drives in overtime of NFC Championship Games without completing a single pass on either one. Thanks, Brett Favre (2007) and Kyle Williams (2011).
This is the part where you expect me to talk about how Manning did get lucky in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, or else he may not have a ring to this day. But that will have to wait until next time. For now, just soak in the fact that circumstances out of Manning's control -- luck, if you will -- are what have kept him at .500 in the playoffs. No one is saying his record should be excellent, but he definitely played winning football in the postseason more often than not.
In Part II tomorrow, we will look at how even Manning's good playoff luck had a poor distribution that did not help his two best teams advance. The meat of the piece will focus on how changing one play not involving the quarterback can drastically alter his playoff fortune. Not only will we look at Manning, but we'll also go through Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson, as well as issue last words on Manning's playoff career as he heads into what is likely his final game.