We all have that piece of furniture in our homes that completes a room, something that ties the whole room together. The item has such staying power that you can't imagine walking into your house and it not being right there. It collects a little dust, but you lose track of what the clean floor underneath it even looks like.
For the last two decades, that's how it was with Peyton Manning atop the fantasy quarterback leaderboards. Yet, with the future Hall of Fame quarterback announcing his retirement, we're faced with something that once seemed so locked-in becoming a distant memory. Manning will leave a clean undusted spot where he once sat in the world of fantasy football.
Fantasy owners often hold grudges, never able to let go of the feeling of being burned by a player's most recent underperformance. If you relied on Peyton Manning in any shape or form this year, you're still reeling with the sting of his 9.9 fantasy points per game average. That rate comes in less than castoffs like Josh McCown, Blaine Gabbert and even Brandon Weeden. As they say, Father Time is the only undefeated opponent. Manning held him off long enough to be able to lift his second Lombardi trophy in Super Bowl 50, but after battling through a painful planter fasciitis injury earlier this year, it makes sense why Manning is calling it a career.
In order to do Peyton Manning's truly elite fantasy impact justice, we need to look to the past. What we find is an unparalleled and widespread effect on fantasy leagues.
Sustained levels of excellence
One thing fantasy owners crave is consistency. While there are plenty of holes in the "early round quarterback" draft strategy, and the 2015 season reemphasized why it's suboptimal, those who follow the ideology rave on the set-it-and-forget-it nature of the top passers. For years, no one epitomized that more than Peyton Manning.
Perhaps the greatest regular season player of our lifetime, Peyton Manning's 269 score currently leads all players since 1950 in Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value metric. That real life proficiency spilled over into his fantasy value. From 2002 to 2014, outside of 2011 where he missed the entire season, Peyton Manning never finished lower than the sixth best fantasy quarterback. He led prolific offensive attacks, built entirely to his liking, and produced at an alarming rate for fantasy.
Manning was such a tremendous fantasy asset because he brought home the lifeblood of fantasy scoring; he was an elite touchdown producer. At the sunset of his career, Manning finishes with a 5.8 career touchdown percentage. He ranks third among quarterbacks active for 2015 in that stat, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. Those three and Tony Romo are the only post 1980 players to hold a touchdown rate of over 5.5 percent.
The narrative that plagued Peyton Manning's NFL career was that he couldn't come up big when it mattered most. For fantasy purposes, that could not be farther from the truth. Manning was at his absolute best in the scoring areas. Through his 18-year career, Manning held a 56.9 completion percentage and 25.4 touchdown rate in the red zone. Getting better as he aged, Manning was actually better inside the 20-yard line as the quarterback of the Denver Broncos than he was with the Indianapolis Colts. He jumped his red zone completion percentage from 55.5 with the Colts to 60.7 with the Broncos, and his touchdown rate from 24.9 to 26.8.
Exemplifying true dominance, Manning rewrote the standards for fantasy quarterbacking. His stretch of exclusively finishing between QB1 and QB6 from 2002 to 2014 in unprecedented. For comparison sake, look how that compares with his chief career rival, Tom Brady. While Manning never dipped below QB6 before his final year, Brady fell short of that mark four times since 2002.
The Brady vs. Manning debate raged with fury during their many career face offs. The same was true in fantasy leagues, as the two were drafted on average within at most a round of each other in 2013, 2010, 2009, and 2008 per MyFantastyLeague.com. However, in terms of year-to-year consistency, there was no debate. Peyton Manning was clearly the superior fantasy quarterback.
A step above the rest
Peyton Manning finished as the top-scoring quarterback in two NFL seasons, 2013 with the Broncos and 2006 with the Colts. In 2013, Manning threw 55 touchdowns to lead the league, and Drew Brees finished second with 39. He accomplished the same feat in 2006 with 31 touchdowns, while Carson Palmer came in just behind him with 28.
Another benefit that early quarterback drafters cling to is the idea that when you land that top quarterback, they provide an unfair advantage over the rest of the field. That idea might be falsified and based more in anecdote than statistical basis, Manning did give it a leg to stand on twice in his career.
When Manning first hit the QB1 overall level in 2006, he finished with 309.5 fantasy points. Michael Vick came in behind him as the second-highest scoring quarterback on the back of his 1,039 rushing yards to complement his passing stats. In that year, Manning finished with a 46.5 point lead over Vick.
When he once again climbed to the highest stratosphere of quarterback scoring, Peyton Manning scored 410 fantasy points in 2013. That year, Drew Brees clocked in with 357.7 for second place. Outdoing his previous QB1 season, Manning bested Brees by 52.3 fantasy points that season, providing a vice grip-like unfair advantage to his fantasy owners.
Leading elite fantasy offenses
A fantasy quarterback isn't judged solely on the merits of what he provides those who start him in fantasy, but what he does for the players on his team. Having the architect of an elite fantasy offense is nice; we all want the chef not just the ingredients, but even just getting a taste of the best dish in town is nothing to sneeze at. In the peak Manning years, in both Denver and Indianapolis, there was no doubt who whipped up the tastiest meal.
In this stretch, Harrison was a WR1 all four years and Reggie Wayne a WR1 once and a WR2 three times. Having Manning on your fantasy team paired with either one of his top two talented receivers was simply an unfair advantage when they both went off.
Marcus Pollard was a TE1 in 2003, before ceding the job to Dallas Clark in 2004, where he finished as a top-12 option. Clark finished outside the TE1 range in 12 team leagues in 2005 and 2006, but only due to injuries. Clark missed a game in 2005 and another four contests in 2006.
2004 provided a truly special season, where Brandon Stokley joined Harrison and Wayne as WR1s, finishing as the 11th highest scorer at the position. Daily fantasy was far from our view in those days, but had DFS been in existence in its current incarnation the stacking potential from the Colts 2004 offense would have been outrageous.
When Peyton Manning's time in Indianapolis came to an abrupt end after a season on IR and several neck procedures, many wondered if he'd ever recapture the fantasy glory he held in the white and blue. Manning made the move to Denver in 2012 and vaulted both Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas to the WR1 level upon his arrival. However, it was not until 2013 that he assumed the controls of a fantasy mold-breaking offense.
Despite already having the athletic No. 1 threat in Thomas and the elite touchdown scoring complement in Decker, Denver made a move to acquire Manning another asset. The Broncos signed slot receiver extraordinaire, Wes Welker, when the AFC rival New England Patriots elected to allow him to walk in free agency. He was a fine edition, but the true difference-making new member was Julius Thomas, a 2011 fourth-round pick who had one career catch to his name prior to Manning's arrival. Thomas had athletic gifts, but harnessed his craft and stayed healthy in Manning's offense to ascend to the heights of the league's best tight ends.
Topping even his Colts 2004 season, Manning ran an offense that produced a top-three receiver, a top-nine receiver, a solid WR2 and an elite level TE1. As is the case when a group has this many star pass catchers and a lead maestro who broke the passing touchdown record, many 2013 fantasy championships were decided with a simple "who had the most Broncos?"
For a follow up in 2014, Manning and the Broncos of course didn't produce quite to the same historic levels as the year prior. Decker moved on to sign with the New York Jets, and Wes Welker's skillset eroded in route to a 464-yard, two-touchdown season. However, the two Thomas pass-catchers kept up their torrid fantasy scoring, and Emmanuel Sanders emerged as a more than capable replacement for Decker. Sanders' best fantasy season was his WR34 campaign with Pittsburgh the year before arriving in Denver. Helping Sanders reach new heights as a WR1 was the last great act of Manning's career as a fantasy quarterback.
Unfortunately, for Peyton Manning himself, that 2014 season was the beginning of the end. From Week 13 on, he averaged just 9.8 fantasy points per game. There was a thought that an offseason of rest after a thigh injury caused that crash ending to the season, he'd come back strong. Sadly, it was not the case. Nevertheless, not many quarterbacks can say they made high-end fantasy starters out of at least three of their pass catchers in six seasons and on two different teams. In fact, it's hard to think of any other quarterback who did that.
Elevating his ancillary teammates to usable levels
Anothny Gonzalez was a first-round flameout with the Colts as the heir apparent to Marvin Harrison. However, Manning got a few usable weeks out of him. In 2008, Gonzalez had double-digit fantasy points three times, and scored over seven fantasy points five times.
In 2009, Peyton Manning took two unknown late-round picks at wide receiver and made them fantasy contributors. Austin Collie, a slot receiver from BYU, caught 60 passes and scored seven touchdowns. He turned in a steady season as the WR30 in fantasy, scoring seven or more points nine times. Pierre Garcon, a seventh-rounder from Mount Union, was a bit more boom-bust, but made for a fine upside flex play as the WR36. He scored 10 or more fantasy points in six of the 14 games he played. Garcon went on to earn a big contract and eventually lead the NFL in receptions with Washington. He may never have found his way on the radar without Manning.
In his final dance with the Colts, Manning provided yet another elevating act. Both Garcon and Collie had similar seasons in 2010, coming in as the WR31 and WR33 respectively. However, they only played in 23 games between the two of them. Concussions that eventually cost Collie his career kept him from ascending to an every-week starter level with Manning. But it was during that stretch of absences that Manning took undrafted free agent Blair White and made him a fantasy asset. White had four games of eight or more points and scored five touchdowns that season despite only starting four games.
If you needed a spot start in fantasy, one of the best ways to find one was to just pluck a pass catcher working under Peyton Manning. We may not have ever uttered the names Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez, Austin Collie or Blair White if it were not for Manning, but they scored points for our fantasy teams. You could even make an argument that stars like Reggie Wayne, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders wouldn't be WR1s without Manning on their side. He always produced at least one top-12 wide receiver for fantasy, but in 2011 when Manning missed the whole season for the Colts, and this final season with the Broncos when he only made nine starts, none of the wide receivers on the team finished as a WR1.
The Manning running back
For many years, the running back was the most coveted position in fantasy football. The rule was you took a running back in the first round, no matter what. The thought gradually evolved as the NFL became more pass-heavy, and wide receivers now creep into the opening round. However, the positon still causes fantasy owners to chase even the faintest of ghosts in search of a starter at that spot in their lineup.
One way to cheat the system was to just acquire which ever running back playing with Peyton Manning. The mystique of the Manning running back is an age-old guide to finding at least a usable player at the position. From a schematic standpoint, it makes sense. Defenses could not stack the box to defend the run with Manning and all his weapons out there to account for. The extra space was gold for running backs. Manning was also always regarded for his mental acumen behind center, where he would frequently audible and change plays at the line. This led to several checks to running plays, always providing an optimal play for the running back to get loose.
The numbers also paint the Manning offense as a profitable one for running backs. In his first 12 seasons in the NFL, Manning's team had a running back go over 1,000 yards nine times. Those same players hit double-digit rushing touchdowns six times in Manning's first 13 seasons. Despite Manning's reputation as a player who demands the offense revolve around him, his Colts and Broncos offenses were committed to the run, with 26.3 and 28 carries per game respectively. Even when those ground games weren't efficient, his Colts teams averaged 3.89 yards per carry and his Broncos 3.97, the team stayed committed. Both teams averaged over 100 rushing yards per game as an offense.
While many of his early seasons came paired with first round picks like Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai, there were several unknowns who benefited from playing with Manning. Most recently, C.J. Anderson enjoyed a late-season swoon in 2013 that saw him go over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and score 10 touchdowns. In that elite 2013 offense, the Broncos' first-round bust from 2009 Knowshon Moreno rushed for 1,038 yards, caught 60 passes and scored 13 total touchdowns. An undrafted free agent by the name of Dominic Rhodes emerged as an injury fill-in during the 2001 season, totaling 1,104 rushing yards and 224 receiving yards, with nine trips to the end zone. All three of Rhodes, Anderson and Moreno were waiver wire heroes from whom many savvy fantasy owners benefitted.
Another sign that it was over for Peyton Manning this season was the outright failure of the running game under his watch. With Manning under center this season, the lack of common ground between the future Hall of Fame quarterback and head coach Gary Kubiak created a stalled-out ground game. Under Manning the Broncos averaged 22.8 carries for 86 yards per game on a 3.8 yards per carry average. Kubiak, like Manning but for different reasons, was known for orchestrating a league-leading ground game, and couldn't have been pleased with this development. When Manning left the lineup and Brock Osweiler took over, the Broncos re-committed to the run with 29 totes for 122.3 yards per game on a 4.2 yards per carry average.
Most importantly, it was fun
With the way fantasy football completely exploded as an industry over the last five or so years, sometimes it feels as if we lose sight of what this really is. Fantasy football is a game. At its basic core, it's a release of the monotony of our day-to-day lives, or even an escape from times of trouble. The public can get too caught up in the incentives of winning, and even us as analysts can get too caught up in wanting to get things right. We all forget what fantasy football is really about, having a little extra fun.
One of the best ways to increase the level of enjoyment from fantasy football is to actually watch the players on your team play in games. Nothing matches the faux symbiotic relationship felt by the fantasy owner as he watches a receiver he drafted dart through an opposing secondary, or a waiver-wire running back he picked up pound a defense into submission. Whether real or not, it feels like when they succeed, you succeed.
The most gratifying experience of this level is the primetime hammer: when you're chasing your weekly opponent by a few points after the 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. ET games are over, but you know you have a big-time player coming up in the Sunday or Monday night game who could turn the tide in your favor. The schedule makers always assure to get the popular teams with elite players into those spots, and Peyton Manning's Colts and Broncos were almost primetime fixtures.
Teams with Peyton Manning as their quarterback regularly got to watch their fantasy passer add to the stats that made him a regular top-six player at the positon. Sitting back on a Sunday or Monday night and watching Manning rack up the points for your fantasy team helped accomplish that release. Being able to fire off text messages to your league-mates talking trash as they all watched helplessly as Manning lifted your team to the top of the weekly standings in a nationally televised game was priceless. Walking into work the next day with just a smirk on your face was even better. Manning was the ultimate primetime hammer, and he made fantasy football fun.
As it always does, the game will go on; it truly stops for no one. We'll still draft teams, sweat out our lineups and make trades in fantasy football. Yet, the hypothetical undusted corner of draft boards that Peyton Manning once held near the top will be eery for a few years. He passes the baton off to a new generation of elite fantasy quarterbacks, like Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, who will give that same gratifying experience in the coming years. However, we might not see the sort of sustained elite excellence in fantasy that Manning brought for many years, and it will be missed.
We thank Peyton Manning for the years of points, unfair advantages and for bringing us so many great receivers and running backs along the way. Most of all though, we owe him a debt for making the game of fantasy so fun to play.