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Peyton Manning: More Athletic and Less Intelligent Than You Might Think

By conventional measures, the Denver Broncos quarterback's athleticism and smarts don't stack up. This is why conventional measures are dumb.
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Peyton Manning. (Photo: Associated Press)

Peyton Manning. (Photo: Associated Press)

We begin with a quote from 1998: "He has adequate mobility and good overall AA, although he is not a scrambler by nature."

The words are pulled from the dramatically named War Room Value Board scouting report for an Tennessee senior from New Orleans, Louisiana. In his last collegiate season, the player in question threw for 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions. That quarterback, who would go first in the draft, was—of course—Peyton Manning.

If you listen to any of the pre-Super Bowl hype this week, which you will because this is America and it's impossible to avoid, it's unlikely that you will ever hear any of the talking heads discussing the athleticism of the Denver Broncos starting QB. They'll talk about his quick mind, his fast release, his arm strength, that weird red mark he gets on his forehead, but they won't talk about Peyton Manning, athlete.

On an NFL field, Manning looks slow and awkward. But that doesn't mean he's a bad athlete. Far from it, in fact.

"We're talking about the best athletes in the world based on size and strength. We think that somehow because Peyton Manning doesn't look like them or doesn't move like them, we think that he's not athletic or he's just an average guy."

"Compared to most people in the country, he's definitely a very good athlete," says Russ Lande, a former scout for the Cleveland Browns.

Clint Irwin plays goalkeeper for the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer (and is a part-time Pacific Standard economics blogger). Netminders, like quarterbacks, are sometimes overlooked athletically since they play a position that traditionally relies more upon the mind than the body. Smart positioning, after all, is a goalkeeper's best friend, just like pre-snap adjustments are a QB's. I asked Irwin about the Manning conundrum.

"We're talking about the best athletes in the world based on size and strength," he says. "We think that somehow because Peyton Manning doesn't look like them or doesn't move like them, we think that he's not athletic or he's just an average guy. But he's 6-foot-5, 240, and he was running a 4.9 40."

A couple things: One, Peyton Manning would probably be the biggest person you know. He is an enormous dude. Smaller than the monsters who try to tackle him but a full seven inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than the average American male. Peyton Manning would kick your butt in pickup hoops. And two, he's not a plodding monstrosity. A 4.9-second 40-yard dash isn't terrible. Every November, my friends and I—all of us above-average athletes—try to break five seconds on a football field. No one ever has.

The other thing people always talk about when they talk about Manning is how well he reads the game, which is another way to say how smart he is. "I do think that Peyton Manning, because of his limited athleticism, especially after his neck surgery, has had to develop what I think is almost like a mental athleticism to be able to calculate things quicker based on his physical limitations at that level," Irwin says.

While there's truth to this idea that his success comes from his complete understanding of the game, some of the metrics wouldn't indicate that would be the case. The Wonderlic test is a 12-minute, 50-question exam given to players at the NFL Combine that is designed to determine a player's learning and problem-solving skills. (It's hard.)

You would think that Manning would have done well. You would be wrong. He scored a 28, which tied him for 19th among starting quarterbacks at the beginning of the 2013 season. Those ahead of him included Blaine Gabbert (42), Alex Smith (40), Matt Flynn (38), and Colin Kaepernick (38). Manning's brother Eli scored a 39.

While Manning might not have done as well as some of the other, younger quarterbacks because the Wonderlic wasn't considered as important in the late 1990s, it's pretty surprising to see just how low he scored on what is a pretty typical intelligence test. That's not to say that Manning isn't smart, but, much like his athleticism, his intelligence doesn’t hit all the standard measurements. A football genius yes, but he's no Will Hunting-type savant.

There's a fun line near the end of the SI scouting report about Manning: "He may be a solid and productive NFL QB, but he may not have Hall of Fame type skills."

Sometimes, the conventional wisdom can be deceiving.