Obligatory Manning-Brady Post...But This One Is Cool, I Promise

The risk of injury aside, it's inevitable we'll see either Manning or Brady in this season's Super Bowl. These two great players will be linked for all of football history. Even advanced stats aren't going to separate their performance from their teams'--the numbers are only the start of the conversation, not the end. But as long as the conversation is going to happen, we might as well start with the best numbers.

The interactive visualization below chart's each player's career. It's a special version of the QB viz I update weekly throughout the season. In this edition, I've selected only Manning and Brady for comparison, plus I've included postseason data.

The viz offers two unique and innovative ways of looking at each player, unashamedly stolen from the best baseball analytics site on the Web, Fangraphs. First, there is a plot of career cumulative Win Probability Added (WPA) from each QB's first year through his most recent year. It's an interesting way to compare the career trajectories of top passers because it's a cumulative chart.

Second, there is an "Nth best season" Expected Points Added (EPA) chart, which takes some thinking to understand because it's not plotted in chronological order. It plots each QB's season in order from his best EPA season through worst EPA season. It's not cumulative and because it appears to trend downward does not mean the QBs are declining. I like it because re-ordering each season makes the separation between each player's performance clear to see.

There are a couple caveats. The data only goes back to 1999, so it misses Manning's rookie season. Remember that Brady only played mop-up duty in 2000 and only played a few snaps before being injured in 2008. Manning missed all of 2011, so unlike Brady's 2008 it doesn't show up as a 'season' for Manning at all.

Just from these numbers, and assuming all else equal, you'd say that Manning > Brady. But all else is not equal. Aside of offensive teammates, defenses play a role. Because Brady played on teams with better defenses than Manning, his EPA production did not translate into as much WPA as Manning's did. A touchdown pass to put your team up 35-31 would generate much more WPA as a touchdown pass that would make the score 35-3. Still, Manning appears to out do Brady in EPA as well as WPA.

The one thing Brady had over Manning was that his peak was higher. Specifically, his 2007 season was the best on record for any QB. But at age 37, Manning has now nearly matched Brady's peak with two games potentially left to play. In fact, their two top seasons are nearly identical in terms of EPA.

Remember the numbers are only the start of the conversation, but if we're going to talk numbers, we might as well use good ones.

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13 Responses to “Obligatory Manning-Brady Post...But This One Is Cool, I Promise”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Backwards, surely: "[a] touchdown pass to put your team up 35-31 doesn't generate as much WPA as a touchdown pass that makes the score 35-3."

  2. Anonymous says:

    Any chance we can see a visualization of career road games?

  3. Devon says:

    Sure his peak was higher, but look at that massive gap in seasons 4-12. That's pretty damn impressive. Any chance we can compare this to some other, pretty good QB for the past 13 years? I'd just like to see how much higher in the stratosphere these two are. Good stuff!

  4. Brian Burke says:

    Yes, I swapped those two phrases about WPA leverage. Fixed. Thanks.

  5. James says:

    The thing that drives me crazy about the Manning-Brady debate is that it was essentially 'decided' by 2006, and I don't think anyone's changed their opinion since then. So even though Brady's peak was higher, that didn't occur until 2007 and 2011, long after everyone made up their mind about who was better.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I don't know that the debate was decided in 2006... The debate is still going on.

  7. LamKram says:

    One thing I look at is something I call "virtual playoff record". Basically means win-loss record in all the playoff games that you could have potentially played in. I count a first round bye as a win and any games that get played after elimination as a loss. So winning the Superbowl means 4-0 for that season; missing the playoffs all together means 0-4. Getting knocked out in the divisional round is 1-3.

    By that measure, I believe Tom Brady would be the greatest playoff QB ever. His "virtual playoff record" is 25-19 (so far) or 57%. I think he is the only QB in history where that winning percentage is >50%. Joe Montana is 24-24 (50%). Peyton Manning is 16-38 (30%).

  8. Anonymous says:

    why are the seasons where they didn't play shown on all the graphs?

    one assumes they are in the cumulative totals as well.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I have made this same graph (minus the playoff data) a few times using this site. What has amazed me is the slope of Manning's line after season 4. Brady's line gets lumped with Rodgers, Brees, Rivers and a few other outstanding QBs. Manning is by himself up there. You can include every quarterback in the database and his line stands out. But, the lines that approximate his early career (Ryan and Luck) started their rookie seasons. I always wondered what it would look like if you shifted Brady's line so his first season was 2001 and the 2008 season was excluded.

  10. Anonymous says:

    LamKram, while I like the idea of rewarding a QB for making the playoffs and earning a bye, I can't get on board with a measure that charges a quarterback with counterfactual losses for games that were never even played.

    A similar approach would be to give quarterbacks one point for making the playoffs, one more for reaching the divisional round (whether by victory or bye), one more for reaching the conference round, one more for reaching the SB, and one more for winning it all. Total career points would tell us who had the most cumulative playoff success, while points per season could tell us how far a player got, on average.

    By that measure, Manning has 28 points in 15 years (discounting 2011, and with the potential for two more this season), and his average season has resulted in elimination in the divisional round. Tom Brady has 37 points in 12 years (discounting 2000 and 2008, and with the potential for two more this season), and his average season has resulted in elimination in the AFCCG. I do suspect that Brady would rank the highest of all time in this measure, as well, although I haven't run the numbers for everyone. John Elway gets 31 points in 16 years, for an average similar to Peyton's (Elway had more deep playoff runs, but missed the playoffs altogether more often, too). Joe Montana gets 35 points in 12 years, for an average close to Brady's. Intuitively, both results seem fair.

  11. LamKram says:

    Anonymous: I like that idea too. My idea of counting eliminated postseason games as losses was to essentially penalize QBs who are eliminated early or don't make the playoffs at all. So a veteran QB who wins a SB or two, but otherwise gets knocked out in the first round or misses the playoffs completely (*cough*cough*Eli*cough*cough) might have a misleadingly high postseason win percentage. By adding up points like you said and dividing by the number of eligible years accomplishes the same thing more simply. It is remarkable that Brady's "average" season is slightly better than making it to the AFC championship.

  12. Anonymous says:

    During his career Brady has typically been paid about $5 mil per year less than Manning. With a salary cap league that means that the Patriots have typically had an additional $5 mil to spend on the defense that Manning's teams didn't have for their defense. Also, Brady's receivers have typically been paid less than Manning's receivers, which is additional money that could be spent on the Patriot's defense. I realize the line has to be drawn somewhere on which numbers to include, but in a salary cap league salary differentials do matter.

  13. Anonymous says:

    This is a good point as player analysis in baseball considers salary but too often I find myself forgetting to consider salary in the NFL.

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