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December 22, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Peyton Manning and the Greatest Season Ever

BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 22, 2004

Despite the relentless press coverage dedicated to Peyton Manning's pursuit of the single-season touchdown record, the extent of his dominance this season has, if anything, been overlooked. Indeed, what's even more remarkable than the Indianapolis quarterback's 47 touchdown passes - he should surpass Dan Marino's mark of 48 on Sunday - is the efficiency with which he has achieved that total. While Marino's 1984 campaign was the most prolific ever by a quarterback, Manning's 2004 can properly be termed the greatest.

Marino set the all-time touchdown and yardage records during his first full season as a starting quarterback. Even at the age of 23, it was clear that the Dolphins signal caller was tremendously talented. But one of the reasons why Marino's passing numbers were through the roof in 1984 was because the rest of the team around him wasn't very good.

The Dolphins' leading rusher that year, Woody Bennett, gained just 606 yards for the season. The defense ranked 19th out of 28 teams. Marino threw a lot because he had to; the Dolphins simply didn't have any other options on offense and the defense wasn't keeping opponents in check. Just two years after throwing 48 touchdown passes, Marino set the all-time record with 623 pass attempts in a season.

It wasn't uncommon for Marino to throw the ball 40 times a game. In 1984, he reached that mark five times in his final seven games, including an outing against the Raiders in which he threw 57 passes. By contrast, Manning has only reached the 40-pass mark twice this season, and has thrown fewer than 30 passes in half his games. He is on pace for a little more than 500 pass attempts, which may not even put him among the NFL's top 10 in that category at the end of the season.

The re-emergence of running back Edgerrin James has been a big factor in Manning's stellar season, enabling the Colts to play a much more balanced offense. Finally recovered from a 2001 knee injury, James forces defenses to account for him with extra defenders in the box. If Manning gets to the line of scrimmage and sees that the opponent is double covering his receivers, he's more than happy to audible to a running play and take advantage of the mismatch.

Likewise, if Manning sees eight defenders in the box and Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison left in man-to-man coverage, he'll change the play at the line. It's a nightmare for defenses, and nobody has come up with a viable strategy for slowing them down.

By throwing less often, Manning will fall far short of Marino's record of 5,084 passing yards. But the Colts QB has clearly been more efficient. He is averaging 9.24 yards per pass attempt this season, the highest total ever for a quarterback with at least 350 attempts. If Manning were throwing the ball as often as Marino did, he'd finish the year with over 5,200 yards.

It's this level of efficiency that makes Manning's performance stand out. Last year, Manning threw 29 touchdown passes in 566 attempts, a ratio of one touchdown for every 19.5 attempts. Those numbers were good enough for Manning to be named co-MVP. But they don't even begin to compare with this season's stats.

In 451 pass attempts so far this season, he's thrown 47 touchdowns - an amazing 9.6 attempts per touchdown ratio. Among quarterbacks with at least 250 attempts, no one has ever been below 10 in a season before. Marino's 1984 ratio was one TD every 11.8 attempts, which had been the best ratio for a qualifying quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger.

It boggles the mind to imagine how many scoring throws Manning might have if his team were pass happy, or if the lopsided score of so many of his games didn't result in him being pulled in the second-half. In back-to-back games in November, for example, Manning sat out the fourth quarter because the Colts winning by more than 30 points. At the rate Manning is throwing touchdown passes, he would end the season with 59 if given the same number of chances to throw as Marino had in 1984.

Manning's hot streak came not at the end but in the middle of the season, with a remarkable stretch in which he threw 24 TD passes in five games. Only three other quarterbacks have thrown for that many touchdowns in the entire 2004 season.

Marino threw his 30th touchdown pass in his 11th game. At the same point this season, Manning had notched 41 touchdown passes; if he had opted to sit out the last five games of the season, Manning's 41 TDs would still have ranked as the third-highest single-season total of all time.

Superlatives aside, the bottom line is that Manning has stepped up his game, cutting down on his interceptions and finding his receivers down the field with startling accuracy. This may be the best team the Colts have had in the seven years since Manning entered the league, and like Marino in 1984, Manning looks entirely capable of leading his team to the Super Bowl.

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