Current Denver Broncos executive John Elway will always be the yardstick by which the team's quarterbacks are measured – the Hall of Fame legend who spent his entire career under center at Mile High.
He capped that gutty, brilliant run with a pair of Super Bowl victories, including a career-walk-off Super Bowl MVP award. Elway was immediately ushered into Canton in 2004, his first year of eligbility.
He retired having played in 148 victories – then the most ever for a quarterback and still third in NFL history. He added 14 more victories in the playoffs.
Not much more you can say about a quarterback than he helped his team win more games than anyone at the position who came before him.
But for all that success, Elway never gave Broncos fans the electrifying statistical jolt they’re getting from Peyton Manning and his all-star receiving corps right now – even if we account for the context of their respective eras.
In the wake of Denver’s 37-21 Monday Night Football victory over the Oakland Raiders, Manning and the Broncos right now rank:
Broncos fans ain't never seen nothing like you, Peyton, even at the height of the Elway Era.
Elway topped 20 touchdown passes just once in his first 10 years in the NFL (22 in 1985). Manning might top 20 TD passes in Week 5 of the 2013 season. He boasts 12 TD passes after throwing three more Monday night.
Those 12 TD passes put Manning on pace for a record-shattering 64 this year, for those of you keeping score at home. Elway's career best was 27 TD tosses in 1997, his 15th of 16 NFL seasons.
Manning has thrown 49 touchdown passes in just 19 games in a Broncos uniform. Elway threw 47 TD passes in his first three NFL seasons (42 games). In his greatest 19-game stretch, Elway threw 32 TD passes (1996 and first three games 1997).
Yes, it’s easier than ever to throw touchdown passes in the NFL. But not 53 percent easier – the rate by which Manning’s 19-game TD total exceeds Elway.
For all of Elway’s guts, grit and comeback glory, he was far from a statistical machine, even by the context of the era.
In fact, Elway never led the NFL in touchdown passes, passer rating, yards per attempt, completion percentage, TD-INT ratio or any of the measures by which we rate efficiency of quarterbacks. His Broncos topped the NFL in scoring just once, in 1997. Manning is lapping the field in all those categories and more (see list above).
Elway's greatest statistical season was 1993, when he led the NFL in attempts (551), completions (348) and passing yards (4,030), all of them volume indicators; none of them the more important efficiency indicators. Denver went just 9-7 that year and were soundly crushed by the Raiders, 42-24, in the wildcard round.
None of which is a knock on Elway. It’s just who he was: a hard-nosed QB warrior who won as much with gritty muscularity more so than statistical beauty and whose style of play seems almost antiquated by today’s standards.
Elway was more old-school Bobby Layne than new-school Drew Brees.
But the greatness of Elway and his style also helps set into sharp and startling contrast the statistical fireworks and machine-like Manning precision on display in Denver this season.
There’s nothing like it in football right now and, again, electrifying even within the context of our time. Nobody can hold a candle to the production Manning and the Broncos are cranking out right now. Hell, 28 other teams have thrown just half as many TD passes or fewer than Manning’s 12. He’s lapping the QB field through three games.
Yes, it’s easier than ever to pass the football. But largely because Manning makes it so easy.