How Long Will Peyton Manning Hold the Passing Yards Record?
by Scott Kacsmar
On Sunday, Peyton Manning became the NFL's all-time leading passer, surpassing the mark of 71,838 yards held by Brett Favre, who amassed those numbers in 302 games. Manning played his 265th regular-season game, and he is the ninth quarterback to finish a season holding the passing record since statistics became official in 1932.
Rarely would you ever associate a record with a player years before he even has it, but that has really been the case with this one. Manning may actually have spent more time being the player expected to break Favre's record (and Dan Marino's before that) than the length of time he will actually hold the record.
Regardless, it is still a staggering feat. A quarterback could throw for 4,000 yards in 18 consecutive seasons and still fall short of the number Manning is going to leave the game with -- somewhere around 74,000 if he finishes this season healthy. However, staying healthy and Manning's future are unknowns at this point. This sure feels like his last season, but you never know given the competitor he is. The miserable game Manning had on Sunday -- arguably as bad as any in his 289-game career -- after breaking the record certainly is not how he would like to end his career, but retirement may be the only choice.
If the final number is 74,000, then Drew Brees will need to play at a high level through his age-39 season (2018), which sounds reasonable. Tom Brady wants to play 10 more years, but he would only need to play into his age-42 season (2019) to potentially eclipse a milestone like 75,000 yards. If he avoids a major injury, it is possible.
Should Manning only hold the record from 2015-2019, that would be the second-shortest reign after Y.A. Tittle, who broke the record in 1964 and lost it to Johnny Unitas in 1966. That is a short run, yet somehow the path for Manning to this record still feels longer than it ever has for Brees or Brady, both drafted a couple of years later.
Passing statistics have changed so much since 1998, but the consistency Manning showed at an early age has always put him on a record-setting path few will ever approach.
A historic rookie season
One of the most hyped quarterbacks in the draft in the last few decades, Manning was a Week 1 rookie starter in 1998 for the Colts back when rookie quarterbacks rarely did that. In his debut game against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins, Manning passed for 302 yards, the first ever 300-yard game by a true rookie in his debut.
Manning finished that season with 3,739 yards, shattering the previous rookie record of 2,833 yards by Rick Mirer (1993). Since Manning, 11 rookie quarterbacks have passed for 3,000 yards, including two 4,000-yard passers (Cam Newton and Andrew Luck). All of those seasons happened since 2008 as the success of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco that year led to the current trend where rookie quarterbacks start right away so often. Manning was a decade ahead of his time when it comes to giving a rookie a full plate right away.
The dominant Indianapolis run (1999-2010)
While Manning was just getting started, Hall of Fame legends like John Elway, Marino, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon were all finishing their careers in 1998-2000. Manning quickly improved from his rookie mistakes to assume the mantle of a top quarterback along with Brett Favre, and in 1999 he finished second in MVP voting with his first 4,000-yard season. However, the unexpected rise in St. Louis of Kurt Warner is where the MVP trophy went, and Warner became the second quarterback in NFL history to throw over 40 touchdowns in a season. Manning was the third, but it did not happen until his record-breaking 2004 season where he threw 49 touchdowns to break Marino's record.
The 2004 season was pivotal for the NFL's modern passing game. Illegal contact after five yards was re-emphasized and the numbers spiked that season. In addition to Manning's year, Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper had their best seasons. Brady had his best to that point and Brees finally broke out in San Diego. Also, the 2004 draft produced long-time starters in Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.
From 1999-2004, Manning threw for at least 4,000 yards in all six seasons. To that point, Marino was the only other player in NFL history with six 4,000-yard seasons. Six players can make that claim now with a seventh, Aaron Rodgers, inching towards his sixth 4,000-yard season in 2015. That number used to have more significance.
Manning could have thrown for 4,000 yards in every non-rookie season of his career, but he rested for the playoffs for seven quarters late in 2005 and finished with 3,747 yards. Playoff rest also cost him 50-plus touchdown passes in 2004 as he only played one series against Denver in Week 17.
In 2007, the league-wide completion percentage was above 60.0 percent for the first time ever and it has not gone under that mark since. Shorter passes were increasingly becoming a bigger part of the game and the Patriots that year had a record-setting offense with a record amount of shotgun usage. Brady became the first quarterback to throw 50 touchdowns, throwing his 50th in the fourth quarter of Week 17 to break Manning's record. A year later, Brees threw for 5,069 yards, falling just 16 yards short of Marino's unthinkable record of 5,084 yards set in 1984.
The caliber of quarterback play in the NFL may have peaked in the 2009 season. All of these quarterbacks played at a high level that year: Manning (both), Favre, Warner, Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, Rivers, Rodgers, McNabb, Ryan and Tony Romo. Even Matt Schaub had a good year for the Texans and Carson Palmer had his moments for the Bengals.
Yet it was Manning who won MVP honors in 2009 after carrying the Colts to a 14-0 start, denied again of a chance for a record achievement (undefeated season) by playoff rest. Manning's statistics in 2007-2010 were still great, but not as eye-popping compared to his peers as they were in his physical prime of 2003-2006. It was becoming clear around 2010 that his peers were catching up while Manning was trying to keep a sinking ship afloat in Indianapolis.
Then things took an unexpected turn.
The lost season (2011)
Having missed one play due to injury in his first 227 starts, Manning missed the entire 2011 season after four neck surgeries. It was a rough season to miss with all the quarterback achievements that were reached. The lockout saw offenses way ahead of the defenses early in the season, which helped someone like a rookie Cam Newton throw for over 400 yards in each of his first two games. Rodgers won MVP honors with his best season, Brady had one of his best seasons on his way to another Super Bowl, but lost to the younger Manning again, who also had his most impressive season.
Brees, in his career-peak season, shattered Marino's record with 5,476 passing yards, and he was one of three quarterbacks that year to hit 5,000 yards and/or 40 touchdown passes. Matthew Stafford's season (5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns) is still the one that makes you pause about what the heck was going on in 2011.
One big change in 2011 was that kickoffs were moved to the 35-yard line, which has resulted in far more touchbacks, which means more 80-yard fields to drive. The past five seasons rank as the five highest in NFL history in receiving yards per game. 2015's mark of 263.3 looks to beat the record of 252.3 set in 2013. In Manning's rookie year of 1998, the average was 221.0 yards per game, so there has been a solid increase of 20-30 more passing yards per game since 2011.
There have been 18 500-yard passing games in NFL history -- eight have happened since 2011. Surprisingly, this is one of the few things Manning has not done in his career, but it has definitely become more common in recent years.
The Denver resurgence (2012-2014)
Andrew Luck was in and Manning was out in Indianapolis. With no one knowing if he could play at a high level again, his performance in Denver over the next few seasons was nothing short of incredible. At ages 36-38, after four neck surgeries, with the loss of feeling in his fingertips, Manning threw for 14,863 yards and 131 touchdowns in his first three full seasons with the Broncos. He won his fifth MVP and his seven first-team All-Pro selections are the most for a quarterback in NFL history.
Missing 2011 may ultimately cost Manning from putting the records out of reach, but it was still probably good for him overall as the change of scenery to Denver was a huge boost to his efficiency as an old quarterback. The Colts had to go through a quick rebuild.
In Denver, Manning reclaimed his passing touchdown record with 55 of them in 2013. No one in NFL history has ever broken a major record like that, lost it, and broke it a second time. He beat Brees' yardage record by one yard (5,477) before again sitting out a whole half of Week 17 to rest for the playoffs. He passed Favre in touchdown passes last season and is up to 539 in that department, still well ahead of both Brady and Brees, who entered this week at 414.
The future (2015-??)
Now ahead of Favre, will the numbers keep adding up for no more than seven games, or does Manning return for 2016? We don't know, but his legacy is secure regardless of how long his records last in an increasingly pass-happy game.
Someone like Stafford is on pace to break Manning's yardage down the line, but even if he did, he will never come close to matching Manning's overall success in the NFL. Stafford is not even a good bet for the yardage since you have to be very good for a long time to keep starting games in this league.
You also have to stay healthy for a long time. Manning unknowingly watched his replacement, Luck, suffer a lacerated kidney in last Sunday's game. He will miss 2-6 weeks after having already missed two games in 2015. Luck broke Manning's records for the most passing yards through a player's first, second and third seasons, but he is already falling off the pace in year four. He may not be able to regain that pace until year 14, which would be the 2025 season. We don't even know with great accuracy what will happen in the NFL in Week 11, let alone in 2025. Luck is the "safest" bet among the young quarterbacks to hold this record some day, but it is far from a given. Some people have even called for Luck's benching this season prior to the injury. It took 18 years before anyone even dared think that about Manning.
Over the course of 18 seasons, Manning has gone from looking up to legends to becoming one to watching new legends grow. When his career ends, he can rest easy knowing he will always be remembered even when the records bear another's name.
For reference, here is the updated list of the most passing yards by games played in NFL history (regular season only). You can see the pace at which Stafford (86th game on Sunday) and Brees (211th) are working, but only time will tell if they wipe Manning off completely in a few years.