Several years ago when I attended the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., one of the first people I sought out was Cooper Manning, the eldest of the Manning brothers. You see, as the third of four boys in my family, I understand better than most that if you really want the unvarnished, brutal truth about somebody, just ask their brothers. When I caught up to Cooper, I explained my theory on brothers-as-sources and then I asked him one simple question: After Peyton won Super Bowl XLI, had his notoriously intense, type-A, by-the-book, brother been able to, ya know, loosen up?
Nope, Cooper replied with a knowing chuckle. Not one little bit. Peyton's more Peyton than ever, he said.
This anecdote popped into my head the other day as I sat in front of my computer screen gob-smacked, trying to make sense of what is one of the more startling, and overlooked, stats of this season's NFL playoffs: Peyton Manning, the as-yet-to-be-named league MVP, has gone one-and-done in the postseason a record eight times, four more than anybody else.
For anyone who has enjoyed 2013, The Season of Peyton, something just does not compute. Was this the same guy who, at 37 after four neck surgeries, had just thrown for a record 5,477 yards and 55 TDs while setting a new and virtually unattainable standard of excellence for the art of quarterbacking?
That Peyton Manning? Eight oh-fers?
I mean, in Cincinnati, quarterback Andy Dalton has gone one-and-done three years in a row and they're already talking about running him out of town.
Is it possible that Peyton Manning, the greatest passer of all time, is somehow, secretly, the Buffalo Bills of playoff quarterbacking?
And, if so, with just a few days before the Broncos' first playoff game and Manning's potential ninth one-and-done, why the heck isn't anyone else talking about this? Are we all so mesmerized by his gaudy regular-season stats that we'd just ignore, possibly, one of the most remarkable performance anomalies in all of sports?
Maybe Manning is so good in the regular season he is able to cover up his team's flaws only to watch them get exposed against elite competition in the playoffs? Maybe he played great in these games and his teammates choked? Maybe the Colts and Broncos were underdogs in these games and not expected to win anyway? Maybe, from a historical perspective, losing your first game in the playoffs eight times is no big deal and we should actually applaud him for getting to the playoffs so often (this is his 13th trip)? Maybe they just ran into a team of destiny, you know, like, eight different times?
Or, maybe, like Cooper had confirmed, Peyton's single flaw, his Achilles' heel, is the fact that the extreme parity and high stakes of the playoffs elevates the importance of the one quarterbacking quality he doesn't possess in droves: the risk-taking, go-for-broke, improvisational, gunslinger mentality.
There had to be some explanation. So, using data originally compiled a year ago by Grantland's Patricia Lee, I decided to get to the bottom of this by breaking down each of Manning one-and-dones.
See for yourself.
GAME 1: Jan. 16, 2000, divisional, Titans (14-3) at Colts (13-3)
Spread: Colts by 5½
Score: Titans 19, Colts 16
Manning performance: 19-42, 227 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 62.3 passer rating. Indy didn't score its first TD until after the two-minute warning.
Mitigating factor: Colts defense gave up 162 yards rushing to Eddie George.
Manning blame scale (1-10): 8
GAME 2: Dec. 30, 2000, wild card, Colts (10-6) at Dolphins (11-5)
Spread: Colts by 1½
Score: Dolphins 23, Colts 17, OT
Manning performance: 17-32, 194 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 82 passer rating.
Manning blame scale: 6
GAME 3: Jan. 4, 2003, wild card, Colts (10-6) at Jets (9-7)
Spread: Jets by 6
Score: Jets 41, Colts 0
Manning performance: 14-31, 137 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 31.2 passer rating.
Mitigating factor: Colts had the ball for just 7:44 in the second half of one of the worst shutouts in NFL postseason history.
Manning blame scale: 9
GAME 4: Jan. 15, 2006, divisional, Steelers (12-5) at Colts (14-2)
Spread: Colts by 8½
Score: Steelers 21, Colts 18
Manning performance: 22-38, 290 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 90.9 passer rating. Sacked on fourth down with 1:20 to play.
Mitigating factors: Returning a fumble late in the game, the Colts' Nick Harper had a clear path to the end zone and the winning TD, but he was tackled by Ben Roethlisberger. The Colts missed a 46-yard field goal that would have tied the score. The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.
Manning blame scale: 7
GAME 5: Jan. 13, 2008, divisional, Chargers (12-5) at Colts (13-3)
Spread: Colts by 11
Score: Chargers 28, Colts 24
Manning performance: 33-48, 402 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 97.7 passer rating. Manning threw for more than 400 yards, but his picks ended two excellent scoring opportunities.
Mitigating factors: The Chargers were without their starting QB and running back and were a double-digit underdog, but they still scored 28 points against the Colts' No. 1 ranked scoring defense.
Manning blame scale: 8
GAME 6: Jan. 3, 2009, wild card, Colts (12-4) at Chargers (8-8)
Spread: Colts by 2½
Score: Chargers 23, Colts 17, OT
Manning performance: 25-42, 310 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 90.4 passer rating.
Mitigating factors: Manning never got to touch the ball in OT after a 22-yard rushing TD by the Chargers ended the game.
Manning blame scale: 7
GAME 7: Jan. 8, 2011, wild card, Jets (11-5) at Colts (10-6)
Spread: Colts by 2
Score: Jets 17, Colts 16
Manning performance: 18-26, 225 yards, 1 TD, O INT, 108.7 passer rating. Manning led a drive with under a minute to play to put the Colts up 16-14.
Mitigating factors: The Jets returned the final kickoff 47 yards and moved into game-winning field-goal range in only five plays.
Manning blame scale: 6
GAME 8: Jan. 12, 2013, divisional, Ravens (11-6) at Broncos (13-3)
Spread: Broncos by 8½
Score: Ravens 38, Broncos 35
Manning performance: 28-43, 290 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 88.3 passer rating. Interception in OT led to Ravens' winning field goal.
Mitigating factors: Broncos gave up a 70-yard TD pass with 1:09 to play.
Manning blame scale: 8
Conclusion? I hate to be a killjoy, and I tried until I was dizzy to spin these stats, I really did, but there's no way around it. As great as he is, in the opening games of the playoffs, as my colleague Bomani Jones likes to say, Manning suffers from "First-degree lemonbooty."
Yes, poor play by the defense was a factor in a lot of these games and several times Manning put his team in a position to win only to lose because of a missed field goal or a fluke play. But, for the most part, the more you dig the worse it gets. A perfect example of how we tend to re-write history in Manning's favor is the Ravens game from a year ago. Most of us tend to blame the Broncos' sleepwalking defense for giving up a 70-yard pass to send the game to overtime. Now maybe it's all the fantasy wins he has given us, or all those adorable against-type commercials, but it was Manning's interception in the second OT that set up the winning field goal. Or had you forgotten?
In the Ravens game, for the sixth time in his eight one-and-dones, Manning's passer rating (88.3) was below his career average of 97.2. What's more, the Broncos were playing at home after a week off and were favored by 8½ points. In fact, Manning's team was favored in seven of his eight one-and-dones. Twice they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champs, sure, but the Hall of Famer Manning has been outgunned and one-and-doned by, among others, Mark Sanchez, Jay Fiedler and Chad Pennington.
Adding historical perspective doesn't help Manning's case, either.
Manning has twice as many one-and-dones as any other quarterback in the Super Bowl era. Joe Montana has four in 11 trips. Manning's closest contemporary, Tom Brady, has played in four more playoff games than Manning and has gone one-and-done only two times in 10 trips.
The plain truth is Manning has not played well in the playoffs, overall, but especially so in close games. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Manning has 50 game-winning drives in the regular season and only one in the playoffs. In fact, in one-possession games, Manning is 2-7 overall in the playoffs. (His take on this is classic Peyton: Game-winning drives only mean you did something wrong earlier in the game to fall behind. Not exactly Brett Favre, is he?)
In the regular season, Manning's career completion percentage is 65.5 and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is more than 2-to-1. But in the fourth quarter during the playoffs, his completion percentage falls to 58.3 and he has seven touchdowns against seven interceptions. By comparison, Eli Manning's numbers go in the opposite direction. From the regular season to the playoffs, Eli's completion percentage jumps from 58.5 to 61.5 and his TD-INT ratio goes from 1.3 to 2.1 in the playoffs, where improv and gunslinging often trumps preparation and perfect execution. Eli just had one of the worst regular seasons, ever. Peyton had the best. But in the playoffs, you need a gamer, you need a guy who can scramble out of a sack on third down and complete a pass to someone's helmet, if need be.
Yes, Peyton has the best brain in the game, the best work ethic, best study skills, best field vision, best preparation and best execution but, according to one expert who has studied Manning since his college days, the one thing he lacks is the ability to throw caution to the wind, let the ball fly and make something out of nothing. Normally, when you call Manning a robot it's a high compliment. But not in the playoffs. There, it can be a liability.
Knowing this, defenses tend to play a lot of nickel and dime, clog the field, muddy his reads and get him to overthink and suffer from paralysis by analysis. And, because of his age, his neck and his kudzu-like speed, well, improvising with his feet, the way Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson can, is totally out of the question.
So what does this all mean?
Well, I think the data is pretty clear cut.
If Manning falters yet again Sunday against the Chargers and suffers his ninth one-and-done in the playoffs, he'll still go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
Fifty-one weeks of the year.