Four years ago, back when Peyton Manning was a 35-year-old quarterback coming off multiple neck surgeries, it seemed like a no-brainer for the Indianapolis Colts to move on –– especially considering prized Stanford QB Andrew Luck was set to enter the NFL Draft. But now, that decision looks more questionable.
Manning is all set to announce his retirement this week after setting a plethora of passing records and winning one more Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos. If Manning had stayed in Indianapolis over these last four years, the Colts may have better banners to hang up than an "AFC Finalist" pennant.
After missing the entire 2011 campaign, the Colts released Manning that March and went on to select Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in that spring's draft. Less than two weeks after Indianapolis cut Manning loose, the Broncos inked him to a five-year, $96 million contract.
He was worth every penny. Manning put up big numbers in Denver and outperformed Luck rather handily over the last four years.
|Peyton Manning||Andrew Luck|
Any comparison between two quarterbacks is always going to be inexact, given the disparity of weapons they have to work with. Manning has had a better receiving corps and superior running game to work than Luck, whose Colts have struggled to find a running back who can complement him. (Most infamously, Indianapolis traded a first-round pick for Trent Richardson three years ago.)
But that's not to say Luck's war chest has been barren. T.Y. Hilton has developed into one of the better deep threats in the league, recording more than 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last three seasons. Also, Manning deserves credit for bringing along some of his pass-catchers in Denver. Tight end Julius Thomas, for example, was a lowly heralded fourth-round pick before bursting onto the scene and catching 24 touchdowns in 2013 and 2014 combined. Great quarterbacks make the players around them better. Remember, Manning led the Colts to the Super Bowl in 2009 with Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie as two of his primary targets.
Speaking of the playoffs, that's the biggest difference between Luck and Manning. Both have had regular season success –– Luck led the NFL in touchdown passes two years ago –– but Manning has succeeded far more when the calendar has turned to January. Over the last four seasons, Manning has won five playoff games and been to the Super Bowl twice. Luck's record stands at 3-3 with two dreadful performances against the New England Patriots at the top of his resume.
As Manning learned last decade, the key to obtaining championship success in the AFC is toppling the Patriots. He was unable to do that for the last first several years of his career, not beating New England in the playoffs until the 2006 AFC Championship.
But since then, Manning is undefeated against the Patriots in the postseason. His most convincing win came in 2014, when the Broncos defeated the Patriots 26-16 in the AFC Championship. Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
The Patriots were vulnerable in 2013-14, as Tom Brady's receiving options were primarily a platter of guys who wouldn't even be picked in most pickup basketball leagues. His first pass in the AFC title game was a deep ball to Matthew Slater, which tells you all you need to know.
But yet, the Patriots thumped Luck's Colts in the AFC Divisional round. New England won by a score of 43-22, with Luck throwing four interceptions. He followed up that debacle with another embarrassing performance in the 2015 AFC Championship, only passing for 126 yards and hurling two INT's.
In five career games against the Patriots, Luck has only completed 53 percent of his passes, thrown more picks than touchdowns and posted a 53.1 QB rating. Manning, conversely, has recorded a 95.04 QB rating in five matchups against the Patriots with the Broncos.
Even in his hobbled state, Manning performed far better against the Pats in this year's AFC Championship than Luck ever has. He largely stayed out of the way and allowed the Broncos' dominant defense to win the game. Manning was a bystander for the Broncos' championship run this season, but he avoided costing them a game –– which is something Luck has been unable to do with the Colts in two playoff meetings against New England.
On the whole, Manning's four years in Denver were a rousing success. Luck enjoyed an impressive three-year start to his NFL career before bottoming out in 2015, missing nine games due to injury and throwing 12 interceptions in seven contests.
There's little doubt the Colts are better positioned for the next several seasons with Luck than if they had re-signed Manning. Despite a down year, Luck still seems poised to ascend into the upper-echelon level of NFL quarterbacks if he's not there already. But the future in Indianapolis looks a whole lot dimmer if Luck doesn't get right. That would be tough to take, considering the last four years may have been better with Manning under center.
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