Marino vs. Manning

by Michael Tanier

Peyton Manning's 41st touchdown of the year was a five-yard pass to Marvin Harrison late in the third quarter of the Thanksgiving game against the Lions. The pass made the score 41-9, and coming against a thoroughly beaten team, it was about as meaningless a touchdown as you'll see in the NFL, save for one fact: it brought Manning a little closer to Dan Marino's touchdown record.

There have been some whispers, in taprooms and chatrooms, on websites and on talk radio, that Manning's assault on Marino's record has been unduly helped by touchdowns like these. The logic goes like this: Marino rarely threw easy touchdowns late in the game in 1984. Therefore, Manning spent a month in midseason stat-packing, scoring touchdowns just for the sake of running up his totals. There are some defenders in Houston, against whom Manning threw an 80-yard pass to Dallas Clark to make the score 42-7, who would agree.

My first inclination was to write off Manning's critics as knee-jerk bashers and asterisk chasers. For every legitimate accomplishment, there seem to be a thousand cranks looking for an excuse to taint that accomplishment. Manning, who is certainly over-exposed right now, was just a lightning rod for the type of angry fan, talk show host, or sportswriter who lives to point out clay feet on heroes.

But then I realized that I knew little about Marino's 1984 season. It was 20 years ago, after all, and my memories have faded to images of the Marks Brothers and the Killer B's and a Super Bowl loss to the Niners. For all I could recall, Marino threw every touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of a life-or-death struggle against the Raiders or Broncos. How many blowout touchdowns did Marino throw? Has Manning thrown more? And what about other factors: has Manning, for example, thrown more short touchdowns than Marino?

To answer these questions, I combed Marino's 1984 record and looked up the line scores of each game on NFLHistory.Net. I hoped to discover the "shape" of Marino's historic numbers, to see how that shape compared with the statistics that Manning has put up. Some factors I was looking for:

  • How long was each of Marino's touchdown passes? Thirteen of Manning's TDs this season came from five yards or in. Is that unusual? Did Marino throw more touchdown bombs?
  • What quarter were the touchdowns thrown in? In Manning's best games, he pounced on the opponent early, then kept the heat on in the second and third quarters. What did Marino do?
  • What was the score at the time of each touchdown? How often did Marino throw a touchdown with the Dolphins trailing? With the Dolphins leading by seven? How often did he score while just coasting?

The answers were fascinating. Let's break things down one at a time:

Touchdowns by Distance

Close your eyes and picture a Marino touchdown from 1984. Chances are, you'll conjure a vision of Mark Clayton streaking along the sidelines, hauling in a 60-yard strike two steps ahead of the nearest defender. Those scores stick in our memories more vividly than, say, five-yard tosses to Joe Rose. But not every Marino touchdown was a bomb to Clayton or Duper, just as not every Manning touchdown is a 45-yard pass to Marvin Harrison.

Here are the breakdowns of Manning and Marino's touchdowns by distance:

  Marino 1984 Manning 2004
1-10 yards 19 22
11-20 yards 11 8
21-30 yards 6 8
30 or more yards 12 9

As you can see, Manning had a few more short touchdowns than Marino, but a few less from the 11-20 yard range, canceling out the advantage. Both got similar production on deep passes, a testament both to their abilities and the quality of their receivers. Marino actually had five touchdown throws of over 60 yards in 1984; Manning has had two, both in the first game against the Texans.

Manning's first four touchdowns of the year came on short throws, and he had several games in which he scored two or more touchdowns on passes of 10 or fewer yards. His first three scores against the Texans in Week 10, for example, came on passes of four, five, and one yard. But Marino also had his share of short strikes. In Week 13 of the 1984 season, Marino threw a seven-yard TD pass to Clayton, a one-yarder to Bruce Hardy, and a five-yarder to Dan Johnson. The following week, when Marino would break the record, his first score was a seven-yard TD pass to Duper. Interestingly, the first score of that game was a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown by Lester Hayes. Did Marino get sloppy while gunning for a record early in the game, recklessly throwing into tight coverage?

What sticks out most when analyzing the 1984 Dolphins, though, is the number of opportunities Marino didn't take advantage of to score quick touchdowns. In one early-season game, Marino racked up late touchdowns on short passes to Clayton and Jim Jensen, eventually beating the Redskins 35-17. A few weeks later, though, in a 44-7 rout of the Colts, FB Woody Bennett was given the ball to score on two short plunges. Bennett and Pete Johnson scored 19 rushing TDs that season, almost all of them in short yardage situations. Hidden in those touchdowns are at least six or seven chances for Marino to score on a quick, play-action flip. Of course, Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes have scored seven times from inside the five-yard line, and the Colts wisely opted to run out the clock at the four yardline against the Ravens. Both teams needed somewhat balanced red zone offenses, but the idea of balance has changed in 20 years.

Quarter by Quarter

With 14 touchdowns in the first quarter this season, Manning has done an outstanding job of getting opposing defenses to play back on their heels. Manning has 30 first half touchdowns this season, so if he left the game at halftime every week he would still be tied for third in the NFL in passing touchdowns.

Dan Marino's 1984 statistics have a very different shape:

  Marino 1984 Manning 2004
1st Quarter 5 14
2nd Quarter 17 16
3rd Quarter 17 11
4th Quarter 9 6

Marino had two fourth-quarter comebacks in 1984, against the Jets and Eagles. Manning had a fourth-quarter comeback against the Titans and also had to lead a late scoring drive to break a tie against the Vikings. The Colts and Dolphins were so dominating that late heroics weren't often needed.

Marino's low first quarter touchdown total is interesting considering how many 44-7 and 31-7 blowouts his Dolphins were involved in. Those Dolphins teams didn't come out of the tunnel on fire. The 44-7 rout of the Colts in Week Four was actually tied 7-7 early in the second quarter. A few weeks later, the Dolphins and Steelers played to a scoreless tie in the first quarter, but the Dolphins led 21-0 at half en route to a 44-7 win. A 28-10 win over the Oilers was also a scoreless tie at the end of the first quarter, while the Dolphins score just once in the first quarter of what became a 38-7 win against the Bills.

Too much can be made of that low total though. The number of 20 and 21-point second quarters the Dolphins put up that year suggests that they often scored very early in the quarter, capping drives that started in the first quarter. And the Colts' 44-10 rout of the Bears this season began as a 7-3 game. Routs become routs later in the contest, so it's natural to expect that both quarterbacks would have high totals in the second and third quarters, when they are putting teams away. It's also natural to assume that the numbers would dip in the fourth quarter, considering that both Marino and Manning finished a lot of blowouts.

The quarter-by-quarter figures dispel any notions that Marino scored most of his touchdowns in white-knuckle, fourth quarter situations, or that Manning gobbled up tons of gift scores in the fourth quarter of runaway games. Say what you will about those Lions touchdowns, but Manning finished his work and was out of the game in the third quarter. If he made the game a laugher that quickly, then maybe he earned a little stat padding.

Racking up the Points

If you break down Manning and Marino's touchdowns by game situations, some interesting facts emerge:

  Marino 1984 Manning 2004
Trailing 11 12
Tied 13 14
Up 1-6 points 11 3
Up 7-13 points 11 8
Up 13-20 points 2 6
Up 21+ points 0 4

Manning bashers get to say "A-ha!" here. Manning threw 10 touchdown passes with very comfortable leads. Marino had only two such passes. Nine of Manning's offending scores came in the run of routs from Week 10 through Week 13, when the Colts were feasting on Bears, Lions, Texans and Titans; the other came against the Packers. Forgiving Manning for pouring it on with Brett Favre on the other side of the field, that leaves nine TDs against weaklings at a point in the season when he was consciously approaching the record.

Before addressing that point, there are other matters to consider. One is Marino's big edge in touchdowns scored while the Dolphins were leading by six points or less. In one game, an eventual 44-24 win against the Patriots, Marino threw a 19-yard TD pass to Nat Moore to break a 10-10 tie, then threw a five-yard pass to Johnson with the Dolphins leading by six (the 1984 Dolphins missed a lot of extra points). The Patriots scored, so the Dolphins were again ahead by six. Marino hit Clayton for a 15-yard touchdown in the third quarter. But the Patriots scored again, so again the Dolphins held a six-point lead. Marino found Moore for one more touchdown in the fourth quarter. That's three TDs that would have gone in the "leading by 7-13" category, meaning that the numbers could look quite different if they were broken down in a different manner. A Week Five win against the Cardinals played out similarly: two field goals and a missed extra point allowed Marino to score three touchdowns while holding on to a six-point lead at various times in the game.

So while Manning had more blowout touchdowns, he rates neck-and-neck with Marino in terms of touchdowns scored with his team trailing or the game tied. Marino's big edge essentially comes in games when the Dolphins had a one-touchdown (six or seven point) lead. Marino threw a lot of touchdowns to make the score 33-21. Manning threw more to make it 34-3.

How significant is the difference? Manning's late touchdowns against the Packers and Titans (a team that played them tough in the first half) were hardly lily gilders. In defense of those four laugher touchdowns in games where the Colts led by 21, it must be noted that none of the scores came in the fourth quarter. Two came on long bombs against the Texans, 69 and 80-yard strikes that had Houston defenders complaining but could hardly be described as easy scores. In today's NFL, playing with a weaker defense in his corner, Manning threw for more security touchdowns than Marino felt the need to. It's hard to blame him.

Summing It Up

Records are set by players who are trying to set records. Peyton Manning has a series of goals this season, starting with winning the division (mission accomplished) and working all the way up to the Super Bowl. As much of a team player as he is, he had to become aware that he was approaching Marino as his touchdown total reached the mid-30s.

That being said, Manning may have taken some opportunities to speed his advance on the record while blowing out teams like the Texans and Lions. The record was certainly on Tony Dungy's mind, and on Tom Moore's mind, when they called for pass plays in those games. They wanted to win, and having Manning throw more would meet that objective. If it helped him make history, so much the better.

But the record was surely on Marino's mind, and in Don Shula's mind, as well in the final weeks of the 1984 season. Marino threw 10 short touchdown passes (1-10 yarders) in the final five games of the 1984 season, after throwing three in the opener and just six in the other weeks. Some of those short scores occurred after Marino passed Tittle and Blanda, but there were other goals to shoot for: passing 40, possibly passing 50, setting a record that would stand for 20 years. Late in the year, Bennett and Johnson saw less goal line action. Marino was the bread-and-butter, just like Manning.

Breaking down the touchdowns score-by-score reveals a great deal of similarities between Marino and Manning. Both blew opponents away in the second and third quarter. Both would have had 30-TD seasons even if they hadn't completed a single touchdown pass of over 20 yards. Both threw a considerable number of touchdowns -- 24 for Marino, 26 for Manning -- when their teams were tied or trailing in the game.

Manning benefited from some touchdowns against lousy opponents in games that were already out of hand. Depending on how you count, he had three, five, or even seven more "garbage time" touchdowns than Marino. If he only breaks Marino's record by one or two scores, some naysayers with long memories will point to those scores and suggest that Manning's accomplishment was somehow tarnished.

I don't buy it. Manning was able to score those touchdowns because he himself helped build those overwhelming leads. He made the Colts offense so good that they were up by 24 at halftime. What were the options? Bring Jim Sorgi in to play the third quarter? Hand off to Edge 30 times? Those "easy" scores were the residue of greatness, touchdowns that Manning scored almost by default as the Colts tried to whittle away victories. Marino had fewer such plays, in part because his Dolphins built fewer commanding first half leads, in part because teams were less likely to throw with a big lead in 1984.

Two great quarterbacks, two amazing seasons. Dan Marino was one of my favorite players. Peyton Manning is about to break his touchdown record. And he has earned every inch of the road.


1 comment, Last at 27 Mar 2007, 9:24am

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