(Playoff) Wins are a (Hall of Fame) QB Stat

   Jan 26, 2024     9 min read

Imagine you are the GM of an NFL team. It’s your first season on the job and you’re looking to turn your team around after they posted a pathetic 4-12 record last season, tied for worst in the league. However, the team’s futility has granted you the number one overall pick for just the second time in your franchise’s history. Three years prior your predecessor made an ill-advised trade out of your franchise’s first number one overall pick due in large part to his inability to come to contract & signing bonus terms with that year’s top prospect quarterback. Luckily for you, he ended up trading down and taking a running back who has already made a Pro Bowl and two second-team All Pro teams in three seasons.

Now you have your eyes set on selecting a quarterback from this year’s draft. While your current starter has potential, he did get benched for five games for an over-the-hill veteran after a 1-7 start to the previous season. Selecting the right quarterback in this draft could drastically improve fortures of your team. Below are the career statistics for the first two quarterbacks drafted from that year:

Of course, if you had this information before the draft, you would take quarterback B. Unfortunately for you, quarterback A is the consensus number one overall prospect and at the top of most analyst’s draft boards. You want to choose quarterback A but there’s a problem: he absolutely refuses to play for your team. Quarterback A has relayed to you that he doesn’t have confidence in your organization’s ability to foster an environment for him to succeed in. Quarterback A’s agent – who also happens to represent your current quarterback, coach, and previously mentioned star running back – has told you his client is willing to sit out his entire rookie season if you draft him. Plus, quarterback A comes from a family of football royalty that has both the resources to put real credibility behind his threat to forgo his first season and the influence to put substantial pressure on you to make a trade.

Draft night rolls around and despite all of your misgivings, you pull the trigger on quarterback A. But, by some stroke of dumb luck, the team picking three spots after you drafted quarterback B and is willing to trade him to you along with a third round pick in this year’s draft as well as a first and fifth round pick in next year’s draft. What a steal! You let go of your number one overall quarterback who ends up having a long career of almost fairly good numbers and you get back one who had an even longer career with Hall of Fame level stats and three additional picks. Pretty fortunate for you, right?

Well, uh, kinda? Quarterback A is of course Eli Manning and quarterback B is Philip Rivers. Linked through the infamous draft day trade in 2004 that landed the former with the Giants and the latter with the Chargers it’s difficult to resist comparing both their careers and achievements. In terms of regular season statistics, the fact that Philip Rivers was better than Eli Manning is unassailable.

By measure of approximate value – a win shares-like statistic created by Pro Football Reference founder Doug Drinen that distills the value each player creates for his team each season to a single number – Rivers was an equivalent and often much better quarterback than Manning in 11 of the 13 seasons they were both starting quarterbacks from 2006 to 2018. In fact, Rivers produced as much or more approximate value than the median Hall of Fame QB in seven of his 15 seasons as a starter while Manning did in only three of his 15.

For almost every major regular season statistical quarterback measure, Philip Rivers was substantially better than Eli Manning. From quarterback rating, adjusted yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdown percentage, and interception percentage Rivers was anywhere from four to 15 percentage points better than Manning was for their careers. For each of these measures Philip Rivers is either at or within a few percentage points of the median for the cohort of Hall of Fame quarterbacks plus Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Patrick Mahomes, all of whom are very likely to join in the future. Conversely, Eli Manning’s index scores on these measures are closer to the non-Hall of Fame QB averages.

Given the disparity between their career statistics, one could be forgiven for assuming Philip Rivers would be the much likelier candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame than Eli Manning, given both of their impending eligibilities in the coming years. However, while both player’s statuses in the hall are uncertain, there seems to be as much, if not more, momentum for Eli Manning’s candidacy than Rivers’s. Many people point to Eli’s playoff success as a factor separating him from Rivers. While Manning does have two Super Bowl MVPs and Rivers never played in one, the differences in their playoff statistics isn’t as clear-cut as one would assume.

Looking at the all-time regular passing stats for qualifying playoff quarterbacks (minimum 150 career attempts) and Eli Manning does have a slightly better total passer rating at 87.4 compared to Rivers’s 85.3. However, every other statistic is effectively even with the edge Manning has on Rivers in completion percentage, touchdown percentage, and interception percentage being at or less than one percentage point. Rivers even has slightly more adjusted net yards per attempt in the playoffs than Manning.

Something that sticks out in the playoff numbers is just how negligible the differences between the stats for qualifying Hall of Fame and non-Hall of Fame QBs are. This is not a result of skill but rather the sample size of the data. Since 1946 are only 83 quarterbacks that have thrown enough career passes to qualify for playoff statistics. Additionally, these quarterbacks have only played in 947 total games all time, which is about 3.5 total current NFL seasons worth of games. Compared to the number of regular season games played over that time span playoff stats – as well as to a certain degree outcomes – are going to have a much higher degree of variance and randomness. So if the playoff passing stats between Manning and Rivers are essentially a wash, what is the case for Manning’s playoff performance giving him an edge for the Hall of Fame over Rivers? The one statistic I have yet to mention to this point: playoff wins.

Plotting playoff wins alongside career weighted approximate value for qualifying quarterback seasons elucidates just how much of a premium is put on playoff wins for the quarterback Hall of Fame resume. There are nine other quarterbacks that have as many or more than Eli Manning’s eight career playoff wins. Of them, four are shoo-ins to be inducted: Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and (already) Patrick Mahomes. The others are Russell Wilson, Donovan McNabb, Mark Brunell, Joe Flacco, and Jim Plunkett. Of those Manning has either more Super Bowls as a starter – two versus none for McNabb and Brunell and one for Flacco and Wilson – or a substantially higher career weighted approximate value, 119.8 vs. Plunkett’s 82.5.

Meanwhile as of writing Rivers’s career weighted approximate value of 149.4 is sixth all time for quarterbacks going back to 1960. The quarterback with the next highest weighted approximate value that isn’t in the Hall of Fame is Ken Anderson with 119.9. Rivers also has only five playoff wins, which puts him and Matt Ryan in a camp with excellent regular season stats without much playoff success. That said, quarterbacks Len Dawson, Warren Moon, and former Chargers great Dan Fouts all have five or fewer playoff victories – the latter two like Rivers never played in a Super Bowl – and are in the Hall of Fame. Even adjusting for era, all of these quarterbacks don’t have nearly the same regular season statistical numbers that Philip Rivers or Matt Ryan had in their careers.

There is a bit more nuance to Eli Manning’s Hall of Fame case than just playoff wins. He not only has a lot of them, but crucially he has a good number of memorable ones. The types of wins that stick out in the memories of both casual fans and Hall of Fame voters. In Manning’s eight playoff wins he led the Giants to five game winning drives and four 4th quarter comebacks. Included in those is the iconic throw that David Tyree trapped against his helmet before finding Plaxico Burress for a game winning touchdown to complete a 4th quarter comeback against Tom Brady and the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII in 2008. Also featured is the perfect 38-yard sideline throw to Mario Manningham to set up another game-winning, 4th quarter comeback touchdown against Tom Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI in 2012.

So how does one properly account for playoff wins – much less enduring and epochal ones – when evaluating a Hall of Fame quarterback candidate? Pro Football Reference actually has a Hall of Fame monitor statistic that attempts to quantify the strength of a player’s candidacy to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame which includes, among many other metrics, the number of Super Bowls the player won.

A score of around 100 being the average for a modern-era inductee and the average score for current Hall of Fame quarterbacks is 108. Currently, Philip Rivers is at a 98 while Eli Manning is at an 85. Notably, the quarterback with the highest score that isn’t a virtual lock to get in is Matt Ryan at 106.

So if Eli Manning gets into the Hall of Fame and Philip Rivers doesn’t what would account for this difference? There’s actually one more underlying aspect to Manning’s Hall of Fame candidacy that isn’t his regular season statistics or playoff success. Manning is part of a legendary football family and was MVP of two Super Bowl wins for the New York Giants, one of the league’s premiere franchises in one of the country’s largest media markets. While by the regular season numbers Philip Rivers has a case for being at worst one of the fifteen best quarterbacks of all time, Eli Manning has prestige and the good fortune of both personal and team successes in critical moments. Fair or not, it might be the difference between making him a Hall of Fame quarterback and Philip Rivers an eternal bridesmaid.