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Peyton Manning had three of the top eight quarterback seasons of the last 30 years

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Miami Dolphins v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Last week, we mentioned that Peyton Manning led four of the top 25 offenses of the past 30 years, at least according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

While he played on many good offenses, he was clearly the focal point of them, and in fact he also posted three of the top eight quarterback seasons over the last 30 years, according to DVOA. In a piece for ESPN, Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz wrote about the top ten QB seasons since 1987 in DVOA, and Manning was the only player to appear three times (Tom Brady was the only other player to appear more than once).

To no surprise, Manning’s record-breaking 2013 season with the Denver Broncos made the list, checking in at number eight (+43.2% DVOA). Here’s what Schatz wrote about that season:

The 55-touchdown season is No. 2 in DYAR (total value) because Manning threw 659 passes, but it's only No. 8 in DVOA. Denver's easy schedule that season is part of the reason.

Next up on the list for Manning was his 2006 campaign, which ranked number three (+51.3% DVOA):

Manning's raw totals in 2006 didn't match those of more famous seasons, but he was extremely efficient in a season in which quarterback play around the league was down a bit. He led the league with 31 touchdowns and had only nine interceptions. His completion rate of 65.0 percent was third in the league, and his net yards per pass attempt of 7.55 was second. Manning also took just 14 sacks and fumbled only twice.

And then number one on the list is, of course, Peyton Manning’s 2004 season, ranking as the best season a quarterback has had in terms of DVOA since at least 1987 (+58.9% DVOA):

The big difference between Brady's 2007 and Manning's 2004 is that it took Brady 578 pass attempts to throw 50 passing touchdowns, but it took Manning only 497 pass attempts to throw 49. Manning's 9.9 percent touchdown rate was the highest since 1960, and his 8.74 net yards per pass attempt were the highest all time for a quarterback who started at least a dozen games.

As we’ve talked about before, the thing that really makes Manning’s 2004 season the greatest and that makes it stand above his 2013 season and Brady’s 2007 season (which was second on the list) was his efficiency. While Manning’s 2013 season rightly holds the records for touchdowns and yards, and while Brady’s 2007 season eclipsed Manning’s 2004 season in both categories too, that’s looking at the volume stats. When looking at the efficiency, Manning’s 2004 campaign reigns supreme. Remember, that year he threw just 497 passes yet still put up 4,557 yards and 49 touchdowns. He averaged 9.2 yards per attempt, threw a touchdown on 9.9% of his throws, completed 67.6% of his passes, and recorded a passer rating of 121.1. Those yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, and passer rating numbers all rank among the very best of all time.

This isn’t trying to take anything away from those other seasons mentioned (all three are among the best of all-time), but here’s the reality: Manning in 2004 threw 497 passes; Brady in 2007 threw 557 passes; and Manning in 2013 threw 659 passes. If you take the pace Manning was on in 2004 and stretch that out to throwing 659 passes on the year, he’d have been on pace to throw for 6,042 yards and 65 touchdowns. That doesn’t count toward the stats, however, and that’s why Manning’s 2013 season and Brady’s 2007 season both are higher in the record books, but when discussing which was the best, the efficiency stats matter.

But the 2004 season and the 2013 season appearing on this list aren’t surprises, as Manning won the MVP award both years and set records both years. His 2006 season might surprise many, however, and it was ranked number three in the top QB seasons of the last 30 years! It remains an underrated season of Manning’s, probably because of a couple of reasons: 1) it was a non-MVP winning season in the midst of an insane stretch in which Manning won four MVP awards in seven seasons; and 2) it was overshadowed by the postseason run to the Super Bowl and the defensive turnaround. But nevertheless, Manning was very good in 2006. His nine interceptions on the year was the lowest single-season total of his career, and his 1.6% interception rate was the second-lowest of his career (behind only 2013’s 1.5%). He completed 65% of his passes for 4,397 yards (7.9 yards per attempt), and 31 touchdowns for a 101.0 passer rating - and to top it all off, he also rushed for four scores. If not for LaDainian Tomlinson breaking the single-season rushing touchdowns record that year, Manning almost certainly would have won his third MVP award in four seasons - and some argue he should have still won it anyways.

As you can see, there’s still plenty of room for healthy debate about some of these things, but this much is clear: Peyton Manning was really, really good, and it’s fun to go back and reminisce about those great years of Colts football.