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Is Peyton Manning Immune to Age?

2013 October 15
by Brian Goff

Six games into the season, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has thrown for 22 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. If he continues at or near his present pace, he will generate the best statistical season of his career and one of the best by any quarterback ever, while at the age of 37. How long can he sustain this level of performance?

Sometimes, sports commentators let their sentiment run wild when it comes to long-lived and well-liked players like Manning or the Yankees’ Derek Jeter and make statements to the effect that they can continue as long as they have desire.  A less enthusiastic consideration from sports and life suggests otherwise.  Time and age inevitably diminish athletic performance. Yale economist, Ray Fair, supplies extensive data on running and field event performances by age along with swimming and even chess. Masters running records indicate that by age 50 runners, whether in the 100 meters or mile, drop off by about 10 percent relative to world records. Of course, the incentives driving these records are not nearly as substantial as the open records and may not attract the most talented performers. During the height of PED use, particularly in baseball, 40 became the new 28, but even the modest enforcement policies of MLB have curtailed the drug-enhanced career lengths.

How long can Manning keep it up? After all, it’s the skill in Manning’s head and arm more so than his ability to run 100 meters that makes him great.  Evidence collected specifically for NFL quarterbacks by Advanced NFL Stats offers clues. QBs over 35 tend to drop off with another precipitous drop after 37. These data indicate that the drop-off does not happen gradually. Instead, it’s usually quite sudden. As their analysis points out, however, the sudden drop-off could be an artifact of the data. All QBs experience up and downs in their careers, only to bounce back toward the mean in subsequent years. With a QB in his late 30s, the down year frequently leads to retirement and may accompany an injury, which imposes a selection bias on the data. Another selection issue with the data is that most (starting) quarterbacks who continue playing into their late 30s are among the league’s best, which makes for a small sample.

One Response
  1. Brian Mills permalink
    October 16, 2013

    “During the height of PED use, particularly in baseball, 40 became the new 28, but even the modest enforcement policies of MLB have curtailed the drug-enhanced career lengths.”

    I don’t know that there is real evidence for either of these. Certainly the former claim is hyperbole based on Bonds. I am OK with that as long as qualified as such. But to be clear, of the Top 50 non-pitcher performances between ages 35 to 40, only 13 played the majority of their careers between 1980 and 2005 (if we include Jim Thome, who’s 35-40 seasons came after 2005). Among those 13, we have Ricky Henderson, Kenny Lofton, Chipper Jones, Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker, Paul Molitor, Ozzie Smith, Moises Alou, and Wade Boggs. Not exactly a bunch of suspicious steroid users. The others are are, but are guys we would expect to be mixed in with others on the list (Ruth, Aaron, Williams, etc.) based on their earlier careers anyway. These include guys like Bonds, Thome, and Palmeiro. Jeff Kent rounds out the list.

    The latter is an empirical question that I have yet to see answered in any way. Offense has decreased, but I suspect there are other things contributing to this besides Jose Canseco no longer being in the league, including bat regulations, strike zone changes and umpire training, focus on defensive aspects of the game, focus on strikeout type pitchers, etc. I think you’re giving MLB waaaay too much credit for their steroid “intervention.”

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