Peyton Manning retired after winning his second Super Bowl in 2016 and could hardly have gone out on a higher note. But looking at the stats, it was clear he was slowing down and that he was no longer the same player in the final stages of his career.
Manning was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts and went on to achieve great success with them. He won four NFL MVP awards with Indianapolis and led them to their first Super Bowl since relocating to the city (Super Bowl XLI, February 2006). He also won the Super Bowl MVP award in that game.
An injury and subsequent neck surgery saw him miss the entire 2011 season. In his absence, the Colts tanked and had a chance to take another quarterback as the first pick of the upcoming NFL Draft. Andrew Luck was available and was widely touted as the most NFL-ready quarterback since Manning himself. Not knowing how Manning would return after injury, the Colts decided to cut Manning and draft Luck.
That is how Peyton Manning ended up playing his final years (2012 to 2015 seasons) with the Denver Broncos. With 4,659 passing yards and 37 touchdowns in his first season, he was awarded the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. But it was just a taster of what was to come. 2013 saw the greatest season for a quarterback of all time.
With 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards (both NFL records), Peyton Manning obliterated the record books. The Denver Broncos scored 606 regular-season points that season and remain the only team to have breached the 600 points barrier.
They reached the Super Bowl in 2013 as well, but lost in a blowout to the Seattle Seahawks. Coming off a historic season, this was a downer for Manning and the Broncos. But the coming seasons would get worse.
In 2014, it was not immediately apparent that Peyton Manning was slowing down. Coming off a record-breaking 2013 season, it was not possible for anyone to maintain those same standards. The 12-4 regular season record masked any potential talk of his declining capabilities. But what should have been a point of concern was that as good as he still was, he was now forcing the play more. A hint of that is apparent from his regular season statistics.
Here are three signs that he was declining:
#1 - Peyton Manning started throwing more interceptions
In the 2014 season, Manning had 39 touchdowns but 15 interceptions. He still finished with a passer rating of 101.5, but it was a decline considering Manning's own standards. It was painfully exposed in the divisional round matchup against the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs. The Broncos lost 24-13, which cost head coach John Fox the job.
The very next season, Manning threw 17 interceptions. The Broncos Super Bowl win masked much of this, but Manning was clearly not the player he had used to be.
#2 - Peyton Manning's touchdown-per-game ratio fell below one
However, if the decline had been missed in the 2014 season, in the 2015 campaign there was no hiding it. Under new head coach Gary Kubiak, Peyton Manning played the worst season of his career. He played in only 10 games and was relieved by Brock Osweiler during the regular season.
He threw for only nine touchdowns in those 10 games, and the aforementioned 17 interceptions. He ended up with just a 67.9 passer rating, even worse than his historically bad rookie season.
#3 - Peyton Manning depended on his defense to win
Thankfully, the Broncos defense bailed them out during the playoff run and took them all the way to the Super Bowl in the 2015 season. They took a leaf out of the Seahawks, who had upset the Broncos' dominant offense and the reigning NFL MVP two years prior with their suffocating defense.
That allowed Peyton Manning to ride off into a glorious sunset. He was a passenger on the team driven by others. But considering how often he elevated other players, nobody can begrudge him for that swansong.