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John Elway vs Peyton Manning: Career Paths

“Defeat doesn't finish a man, quit does. A man is not finished when he's defeated. He's finished when he quits.” ~ Richard M. Nixon

John Elway and Peyton Manning have stormed out of the tunnel for a combined total of eight Super Bowls. Add one more, to make nine, when Manning straps up his helmet this coming Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Manning was a rookie in Elway’s final season and the paths of the two legendary quarterbacks never met on the gridiron. Sunday night, on the sport’s grandest stage, a Denver Broncos win will culminate with each man, side by side, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy together in triumph.


The storied Colts franchise enjoyed the fortune of having one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks under center during the team’s early years in Baltimore. The late, great Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas led the Colts to consecutive titles in the late 1950’s and took command of Baltimore’s offense for well over a decade. By the late 1960’s, Unitas began to begrudgingly hand over the keys to the offense to Earl Morrall. However, at the age of 37, Johnny U came through with one last trip through the playoffs. Super Bowl V was far from being considered the model that all quarterback performances are compared to; however, Unitas, Morrall and the Colts claimed Baltimore’s first Super Bowl championship with a 16-13 advantage over Dallas.

The Colts endured many rough seasons following Johnny U’s departure. But the promise of the first pick in the NFL Draft had the potential to change the franchise for years to come. There were several budding superstar pivots in the draft class but there was one young gun that we all knew would be a game changer. Could this man be the chosen one? Could he be the one to raise the club up to heights not seen since the glory days of Unitas? The Commissioner approached the microphone and announced, “Baltimore selects, as the first choice in the draft, John Elway of Stanford.”

At this point, there are some of you thinking I must have my facts wrong – John Elway never played for the Colts. That is true. But for a handful of days in the spring of 1983, one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history was indeed a Colt.

Elway refused to play with Baltimore and the Colts would finalize a trade the following week to the Denver Broncos. It would be in Colorado, where Elway began and ended his on-field Hall of Fame career. He would lead the Broncos to five Super Bowl appearances, including two Lombardi trophies, and cement his legacy with a place on the team’s Ring of Fame.

Meanwhile, 11 months of after the lauded ’83 draft, the Colts packed up moving trucks and took off for Indianapolis leaving the football-mad Baltimoreans devastated. Through their first 14 seasons in Indianapolis, the Colts record was 88-135, including a disappointing 3-13 mark in 1997 following two encouraging playoff appearances. The three-win season did eventually bring hope as Indianapolis were once again granted the first pick in the collegiate draft. And it just so happens that another once-in-a-generation quarterback was there waiting. Perhaps Peyton Manning was the chosen one that the Colts’ faithful waited for this whole time.


His first trip to the Super Bowl wasn’t good, but 39-20 could have been much more unpleasant. Going up 10-0 and giving up 42 unanswered points the following season to a 3.5-point underdog with an untested running back was downright discouraging. But Elway went right back to work. Two seasons later, he was leading the Broncos to their third Super Bowl appearance in four seasons. But Denver would succumb 55-10 in the most lopsided Super Bowl on record – Elway was defeated once more.

From his first snap in 1998 through to the end of the 2010 season and the offseason neck surgeries, Peyton Manning never missed a game. He also rarely missed the playoffs. For 20 seasons, starting in 1978, the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts reached the playoffs a grand total of three times. Until the neck problems, Manning carried the Colts to the playoffs on 11 occasions including nine in a row. But success was not easy to come by for Peyton as the stakes rose.

Manning’s playoff career started slowly as he won only three playoff games during the first six trips through the postseason. Between 2003 and 2005, the Colts were shredding their opposition most weeks and posted two 12-4 and one 14-2 regular season record. However, Manning and the Colts continuously failed to meet expectations.

Everything changed in 2006 when Indianapolis would breakthrough to win the Super Bowl over the Chicago Bears. Could this newfound playoff success open the flood gates to arguably the most prolific passer in league history? The regular season wins continued to pile up. 13 wins in 2007. 12 in 2008. And then a 14-0 start to the 2009 season. Indianapolis looked invincible. Yet, the Colts couldn’t win the big game again. Manning was closer to Clark Kent than Superman and New Orleans carted off the Lombardi.

Following the 2011 neck surgeries, Peyton Manning was forced to relocate. Teams scrambled to audition the future Hall of Famer. Franchises were willing to juggle their lineups and contracts to lure Manning. This was perhaps the most jockeying for a quarterback that the NFL had seen since, dare I say, the 1983 NFL Draft when 27 other teams knew Elway wouldn’t sign with the Colts if they went ahead and selected him anyways.

Something else happened during the 2011 offseason. The Denver Broncos announced that John Elway would return to his former team as EVP of Football Operations. And it was Elway that bent Manning’s ear long enough. Peyton was convinced that the Broncos were the organization for him to cement his legacy. Two 13-3 seasons followed in the Mile High City and one more Super Bowl appearance, this time in the navy and orange of Denver. But no one could have imagined that the game would finish 43-8. Seattle won. Denver lost. Peyton Manning was again defeated. But he was not finished.


John Elway is the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. He was 38.

This accomplishment can never be taken away from John, but the record can. Peyton Manning will be turning 40 in a handful of weeks. Football fans want to know if a ground game and tenacious team defense will be the support Manning needs as he adjusts to his declining arm strength and fights through the midseason foot issues. Do you know who else faced those same concerns in his late 30’s? You guessed it, John Elway.

At 37, Elway, Terrell Davis and the rest of Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos finished 12-4, yet were 11-point underdogs to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. There were concerns that Elway would need to rely on Davis and others. But Elway and the Broncos proved us all wrong. We were not only surprised by the upset over Brett Favre’s Packers but were equally stunned that Elway did not ride off into the sunset. His retirement would wait a year.

With Elway back under center, the Broncos would repeat as champions and the Denver legend was named MVP of the Super Bowl. His career was always remembered for the late game drives. But the lack of a championship would have left his legacy mired in disappointment. Instead, Elway finished his career like he so often finished football games. His two Super Bowl wins in his late 30’s were the ultimate game winning drives.

The chart below shows the career path for both Elway and Manning. Each line represents the wins for the quarterback’s team during the regular season. Instead of showing wins by calendar year, I have presented results based on the years of experience for each quarterback. This way, we can compare Elway and Manning as a rookie, or in their 5th pro season, for example. Note that I have excluded the 2011 season from Manning’s results since he didn’t suit up at all during the season.


Their paths have some similarities at the tails – both Elway and Manning struggled as rookies only to see marked improvement in year two. And then, as I have discussed, both quarterbacks have delivered strong results in the late stages of their career. Elway did lift the Broncos to a handful of 10+ win seasons during the middle of his career, but Manning and the Colts were consistently unstoppable for a decade.

In the next chart, I have taken the results above and added playoff games. Elway and Manning have won approximately the same number of playoff games in their career. Elway’s career playoff record was 14-7 and Peyton Manning is sitting on his 13th win as we speak. A victory on Super Sunday versus the Carolina Panthers and Manning matches the number of playoff games, and number of Super Bowls, won by his boss.


The symbols on the chart above refer to the Super Bowl championships (the Lombardi Trophy) and the Super Bowl defeats (the stop sign). Elway’s three Super Bowl appearances early in his career help identify some consistency in his, and Denver’s, performance over his first seven seasons. Also, Elway reached the Super Bowl in bunches; whereas Manning’s Super Bowl attendance has been more sporadic.


Two different eras, I know. The current pass-happy NFL is incomparable to the balanced run and pass attack from back in Elway’s day. At the midpoint of Elway’s career, the league average for team passing yards in a season was a shade over 3,100 yards and clubs would convert about 20 touchdowns through the air per season. This season, a far cry from 25 years ago, the league averages were 3,902 yards passing and just over 26 touchdowns a game.

I wanted to compare each quarterback’s passing numbers but realized quickly that I needed to adjust for the evolution of the sport. Consequently, in my upcoming analysis, I have shown each quarterback’s passing yards per attempt as a percentage increase or decrease in comparison to the league average at that point in time. For example, let’s say that the league average was 6.0 yards passing per attempt in Elway’s rookie season. If he actually averaged 9.0 yards per attempt, this would be reflected in the chart as a 50% increase above the league average.


The ability of each quarterback stands out in this graphic. The only seasons in which Elway failed to pass per attempt above the league average was his rookie campaign; likewise, Manning’s only subpar effort was his most recent, and perhaps his final, season. Elway also had a noteworthy 5th season in which he passed for 7.8 yards per attempt. This result would have stood as his career high; however, at 38, Elway eclipsed this mark with 7.9 yards per attempt.

Elway’s passing yardage per attempt in comparison to the league average steadily rose throughout the last half of his career. Manning, on the other hand, has seen his figures drop since his high point during his 7th season. The decline for Manning has been more variable than Elway’s gradual increase; however, it is clear that Manning’s yards per attempt dropped to a career low during the 2015 season.

Similar to the previous chart, I have plotted below the per season increase in touchdowns per attempt for both quarterbacks in comparison to the league average. This statistic has far more variability when comparing to league averages; therefore, the results will tend to fluctuate. For example, Manning tossed 49 touchdown passes in 2004 on 497 attempts. Tossing a major once in every ten attempts was a whopping 120% higher than the league average.


John Elway sits in 7th place on the NFL’s all-time career touchdown passing list with 300 six-point strikes. However, Elway’s climb within the top ten has more to do with longevity since he rarely exceeded the league average in touchdown passes per attempt for the majority of his pro career. Manning on the other hand is out of this world and broke Favre’s NFL record early in the 2014 season. He now sits at 539 touchdowns thrown – 80% higher than Elway’s total that sits 7th all-time.


The knock against Elway is that he eventually needed Davis in his backfield to get the monkey off his back. The big question that always surrounded Manning was “How many could he have won with a great defense?” For my final analysis, I decided to explore the impact defense had on both quarterback’s ability to go deep into the playoffs and win a Super Bowl.

Again, because we are dealing with two distinct eras, I studied yards allowed by a defense in comparison to the league average for the applicable season. In the previous charts, it was positive to be above the league average (i.e., above zero). In this instance, you don’t want your defense to surrender more yards than the league average; therefore, the most stalwart defenses fall below zero.


The support Elway received in Denver from his Orange Crush defense fluctuated from season to season. However, in the early part of his career, the Broncos made the most of their finer defensive units. The four consecutive seasons in the mid 1980’s in which Elway and the Broncos qualified for three Super Bowls included three seasons with better than average defensive statistics. In fact, the one year they failed to make it was the season in which their defense gave up more yards than the league average.

The opposite holds true for Manning. Until this season, over the second half of his career, Manning has only ever reached the Super Bowl in seasons in which his team’s defense allowed more yards than the NFL average. Could Manning benefit this Super Bowl by playing alongside the best defensive unit he has ever suited up with? Of course. It’s by no means a guarantee, but it is a luxury that Manning and the Broncos cannot take for granted against the Panthers.


Peyton Manning isn’t telling you that Super Sunday will be his final game. But were you like me and thought we saw his final game before?

There was the January 2011 Wild Card Weekend one-point, last second field goal loss to the New York Jets. And we didn’t even think it could have been Manning’s swan song. Nobody knew the details of his neck injury. No one knew the severity, nor the effect it would have on his performance going forward. We weren’t even given an opportunity to bid farewell. There was no Elway-like tour of the stadium to shake the hands of fans. But Manning wouldn’t let the injury defeat him; he had unfinished business, this time in Denver.

What about this season’s mid-November 5 for 20, four interception meltdown at home versus the rival Chiefs? There was something so wrong with what we witnessed that afternoon. Did you not think that might be Manning’s last hurrah? But Manning wouldn’t be defeated; he knew he must finish on his own terms.

Johnny Unitas didn’t always stay a Colt. Following the Super Bowl title, Unitas was relegated to back up in Baltimore and eventually tried his hand out west in the powder blues of the San Diego Chargers. He became the poster boy for players pursuing one last shot far past their prime in colors not becoming the career Colt. But Elway left under different circumstances. He walked out on top with firm grasp of the trophy. He bleeds orange. His name, his number seven and his legacy intact.

Win or lose on Sunday, should Manning hang up the boots, he will still be going out on top. Few quarterbacks have demonstrated the resiliency, the leadership and the intelligence of Manning. The fight is about getting knocked down and showing what you are made of when you pick yourself back up. Manning has not only won 13 career playoff games, but he has also lost 13 career playoff games. He has faced defeat and he has returned.

Elway’s final NFL season was Manning’s first, but they never faced each other. Their paths never crossed on a football field. Since joining Elway’s Broncos, their paths have now intersected. But if Manning can lead Denver to victory over Carolina, echoing memories of Elway’s final triumph, their paths will have come full circle.

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.

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