The Dandy Dozen: 12 best passing seasons in history
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jun 27, 2010
Normal people bide their time each summer with trips to the beach or the summer home by the lake. The Cold, Hard Football Fact crew uses the idyllic days of summer to uncover redneck honky-tonks in remote French mountain towns while studying American football history so that we can deliver you the best analysis on Planet Pigskin.
Today, stiffened by a few bracing shots of Jack Daniels and maple syrup, we ponder the Dandy Dozen: the 12 greatest passing seasons in the history of football.
We go beyond just the regular-season numbers and the regular old ways of looking at big-volume passing stats. Instead, we considered those seasons that were more than just spectacular, but filled by the coldly efficient passing performances that also produce big scores, plenty of victories and, more often than not, world championships, too.
Then we examined whether those gaudy regular-season performances translated into the postseason. We get a rather unique list: those gaudy-number quarterbacks who spit the bit after their best seasons tend to suffer in our comparison. That's bad news for the likes of Brady, Manning and Marino.
Those quarterbacks whose regular-season performances might have appeared humble on other lists, but who delivered high-efficiency performances when it counted most, are elevated in this exercise. So that's good news for the likes of Staubach, Luckman and Montana.
As always, we value efficiency numbers (yards per attempt, passer rating) over volume numbers (attempts, completions, yards). The former deliver victories. The latter merely deliver headlines. The best players on our list delivered both.
So here goes: the 12 best passing seasons in NFL history.
12. Y.A. Tittle, Giants, 1963
Regular season (11-2): 221 of 367, 60.2%, 3,145 yards, 8.6 YPA, 36 TD, 14 INT, 104.8 rating
Postseason (0-1): 11 of 29, 37.9%, 147 yards, 5.1 YPA, 1 TD, 5 INT, 26.7 rating
It's safe to call Tittle a late bloomer. He enjoyed various degrees of success in his first 14 seasons with three teams in two different pro football leagues. But then in 1962, at the age of 36 and under second-year head coach Allie Sherman, Tittle exploded for a record 33 TD passes to lead the Giants to a 12-2 record.
He was even better in 1963, breaking his own record set the year before with 36 TD passes while also leading the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating.
Tittle's G-Men scored a league-leading 32.0 PPG and he lifted his team to an epic title-game showdown with the Bears, who possessed what was easily the league's best defense in 1963 (10.3 PPG).
You know what usually happens when great offense meets great defense: the stoppers carry the day.
The glory ride came to a crushing end for the Giants: Tittle was abused mercilessly by the Monsters of the Midway. He threw five picks, was twice knocked out of the game, was hastily taped up on the sidelines and famously injected with more needles than a med-school lab dummy. It was a dismal end to what was, at the time, a season that had redefined our concept of passing production in the NFL: consider that Tittle's touchdown record stood for 21 years.
11. Roger Staubach, Cowboys, 1971
Regular season (10-0): 126 of 211, 59.7%, 1,882 yards, 8.9 YPA, 15 TD, 4 INT, 104.8 rating
Postseason (3-0): 31 of 51, 60.8%, 321 yards, 6.3 YPA, 3 TD, 0 INT, 98.6 rating
Roger Staubach is beloved today by the Cold, Hard Football Facts and even the lesser pigskin analysts as Captain America – the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner who spent the next five years in the Navy during the Vietnam War, then finally went out and produced two championships and a Hall of Fame career with the Cowboys, turning Dallas into "America's Team" in the process.
But even with that resume, we wonder what might have been had not had to wait until 1971 – eight years after his Heisman season – to become a fulltime starting quarterback in the pros. He might stand alone today as the greatest ever at his position.
Regardless of what might have been, we do know what was: Staubach finally out-jockeyed Craig Morton for the starting gig with the Cowboys in 1971 and instantly produced one of the greatest passing seasons in history. The numbers are not big and gaudy, but they were ruthlessly efficient – the 104.8 passer rating truly amazing in a season in which the average rating was 62.2.
His 8.9 YPA in the regular season is phenomenal in any era of the NFL, as was his 18 TD against a meager 4 INT (including postseason).
The Cowboys did not lose a single one of Staubach's 13 starts in 1971 and – most impressively – he lifted the proverbial "team that couldn't win the big game" to its long-awaited first NFL championship: Dallas had suffered five straight seasons of postseason collapses and crushing near misses before Captain America (what a great f*ckin' nickname) took command.
Dallas destroyed Miami, 24-3, in Super Bowl VI, while Staubach completed 12 of 19 passes for 119 yards, 2 TD and 0 INT. It was a fittingly efficient end to a season that marked the emergence of the Cowboys as America's Team and Staubach as a pro football icon.
10. Bart Starr, Packers, 1966
Regular season (11-2): 156 of 251, 62.2%, 2,257 yards, 9.0 YPA, 14 TD, 3 INT, 105.0 rating
Postseason (2-0): 35 of 51, 68.6%, 554 yards, 10.9 YPA, 6 TD, 1 INT, 135.6 rating
Poor Bart Starr: the greatest quarterback in NFL history and he barely gets any consideration on those other hopelessly out-classed-by-CHFF "best of" lists that always prize big empty stats over those coldly efficient numbers that produce titles.
We guess he'll have to drown those sorrows over his pile of five championship rings.
Starr, always underappreciated, was at his classic assassin-like best in 1966, his lone MVP season. He led the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating, while his 4.7-to-1 TD-INT ratio remains one of the very best in history.
Starr, as always, cranked out great performances when he absolutely had to: the 1966 Packers, for example, were the worst rushing team in football, with a meager average of 3.5 YPA on the ground, despite the reputation Lombardi's Packers still carry with them today as a dominant running team.
So the championship 1966 season hinged largely on the ability of Starr to come up big, as he so often did.
He followed his MVP regular season with one of the great big-game performances in pro football history, shredding the Cowboys in the NFL title game at the Cotton Bowl: 19 of 28 for 304 yards, 10.9 YPA, 4 TD, 0 INT and a 143.5 rating. That's some tasty good ju-ju today, let alone in the 1960s.
The Packers needed every ounce of Starr's prolific effort that day. They held on for dear life in a 34-27 victory that ended only when Dallas QB Don Meredith was picked off in the end zone just yards from a game-tying score at the end of regulation.
Starr's legions of bashers insist that he was merely a role player for dominant Green Bay teams. They conveniently forget this statistically dominant playoff effort (and others), which lifted the Packers to their second straight NFL title.
The 1966 NFL title game was also more important than the more heralded Ice Bowl which followed one year later. In fact, it was a sports-culture milestone in American history that we chronicled in great detail a couple years ago. And Starr was the star.
Starr wasn't quite done: he closed out his MVP 1966 season by winning the very first Super Bowl MVP award, completing 16 of 23 (69.6%) for 250 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT and a 116.2 rating as Green Bay dominated the AFL's Chiefs, 35-10.
Other than that, he was just a role player for the Packers.
9. Peyton Manning, Colts, 2004
Regular season (12-4): 336 of 497, 67.6%, 4,557 yards, 9.2 YPA, 49 TD, 10 INT, 121.1 rating
Postseason (1-1): 54 of 75, 72.0%, 696 yards, 9.3 YPA, 4 TD, 2 INT, 107.4 rating
Manning has been football's Chosen One since the day he was born in a stable to the Virgin Olivia in 1976. He fulfilled the pigskin prophecies with a season for the ages in 2004. His 121.1 passer rating makes it the most efficient season in NFL history.
In fact, how's this for efficiency? Dan Marino needed 564 pass attempts to set the touchdown pass record of 48 back in 1984. Twenty years later, Manning needed just 497 attempts to achieve his record 49 touchdowns. Three years later, Tom Brady would break Manning's TD pass record. But the Patriots QB needed 578 attempts to do it.
Manning also led the league with a phenomenal 9.2 YPA, while leading the Colts to what was, at the time, the fifth-most prolific scoring output in NFL history (522 points).
But a season that seemed destined to end with the Chosen One's ascension into the heavens fizzled to a disastrous end at Peyton's own personal gridiron Golgotha: Manning and the Colts, who averaged a league-leading 32.6 PPG in 2004, couldn't even find the end zone in a 20-3 loss to the Patriots in the divisional playoffs.
Relative to regular-season output, it was the most spectacular postseason offensive failure of the Super Bowl Era, and it soured a passing season that might have gone down as the greatest ever.
As you'll soon see, it's actually just part of a long curse of TD-pass record holders in the postseason.
8. Tom Brady, Patriots, 2007
Regular season (16-0): 398 of 578, 68.9%, 4,806 yards, 8.3 YPA, 50 TD, 8 INT, 117.2 passer rating
Postseason (2-1): 77 of 109, 70.6%, 737 yards, 6.8 YPA, 6 TD, 3 INT, 96.0 rating
Only two teams in the Super Bowl Era have negotiated an entire regular season without a defeat. The 1972 Dolphins built their unblemished 14-0 record upon a dominating ground game and the league's No. 1 defense (though, to his credit, quarterback Earl Morral played quite well in relief of Bob Griese).
The 2007 Patriots built their unblemished record upon a truly stunning performance by Brady and battery mate Randy Moss (record 23 TD catches), who carried New England to the greatest scoring output in NFL history (589 points). It was a statistical breakout season for a quarterback who had already won three Super Bowls paired with journeymen wideouts.
Brady threw a record 50 TD passes, his 117.2 passer rating is second only to Manning's 121.1 of 2004 and his 4,806 passing yards are the fourth most in history. He also led the league in completion percentage in 2007.
But Brady's greatest individual number was his record 6.25 to 1 TD-INT ratio – a remarkable stat in a league where 2-to-1 typically signifies a great season in the modern game.
The respective quests for history by Brady, Moss and the Patriots created a national wave of hype and hysteria around the country entering Week 17: the Patriots-Giants finale was broadcast on three different networks and local TV, an NFL first.
The playoffs looked like they'd be nothing but a coronation for the only 16-0 team ever: Brady opened the 2007 postseason with the most accurate passing effort in NFL history, completing 26 of 28 passes (92.9%) in a 31-20 win over the Jaguars.
Then came the curse of the TD record setters: like Tittle, Marino and Manning before him, Brady couldn't cash in with a title. Brady fizzled with three picks in the AFC title game, though the Patriots still managed to muscle through a 21-12 victory over the Chargers.
He and the Patriots played their worst game of the year in a shocking 17-14 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Brady was ineffective: 29 of 48, 266 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT as history slipped from his grasp. The New England organization has not recovered from the defeat and it marred what could have gone down as both the greatest individual passing season and the greatest team season in the history of football.
7. Kurt Warner, Rams, 1999
Regular season (13-3): 325 of 499, 65.1%, 4,353 yards, 8.7 YPA, 41 TD, 13 INT, 109.2 rating
Postseason (3-0): 77 of 121, 63.6%, 1,063 yards, 8.8 YPA, 8 TD, 4 INT, 100.0 rating
Warner redefined the concept of a breakout season in 1999, when the unknown veteran of arena football was unexpectedly handed the starting job in St. Louis after an injury to Trent Green.
He responded with an incredible campaign by any measure: Warner instantly led the league in completion percentage, touchdowns, yards per attempt and passer rating as pro football talent evaluators everywhere were forced to reassess their own worth as human beings.
At the time, Warner's 41 touchdown passes had been surpassed by only one player in history: Dan Marino (48 in 1984, 44 in 1986). Not bad for a former supermarket stock boy.
Warner capped the unexpected MVP regular season with an MVP effort in Super Bowl XXXIV: he passed for 414 yards and the game-winning score in a 23-16 victory over the Titans.
It was just a spectacular season by any measure, and perhaps the greatest story of individual rise and redemption in the history of North American sports.
Only a tough outing in the NFC title game prevents the now retired gunslinger and Cold, Hard Football Facts favorite from a spot higher on the list: Warner threw three picks as the Rams eked out an 11-6 win over the Buccaneers to earn a spot in the Super Bowl.
6. Dan Marino, Dolphins, 1984
Regular season (14-2): 362 of 564, 64.2%, 5,084 yards, 9.0 YPA, 48 TD, 17 INT, 108.9 rating
Postseason (2-1): 71 of 116, 61.2%, 1,001 yards, 8.6 YPA, 8 TD, 5 INT, 94.1 rating
The NFL made wholesale rule changes in the late 1970s to bring an end to the Dead Ball Era – a period of pro football history utterly dominated by defense.
Pete Rozelle & Co. could have only dreamed of the arrival a few years later of Dan Marino and the offensive explosion that he would bring about in the wake of their gamble to change the league.
Marino's rookie season of 1983 was impressive (20 TD passes in nine starts). But the 1984 season remains the most Ruthian of all NFL passing seasons, a year of numbers so gaudy by the standards of the era thhat we simply could not have envisioned them a year before.
The 23-year-old Marino hit for a Quintuple Crown, leading the NFL in completions, attempts, yards, touchdowns and passer rating. His 48 touchdown passes utterly shattered the previous record (36 by Tittle in 1963) and were highlighted by four scoring strikes in each of the last four games of the year, as a breathless Football America clicked a collective tote board each Sunday in awe.
Marino's 5,084 passing yards was spectacular in an era when only a few players in history had surpassed even 4,000 yards and it remains the standard today, a quarter century later. In fact, only one player has come within 250 yards of Marino's 1984 record (Brees, 5,069 yards in 2008).
He led the Dolphins to a 14-2 record and delivered a dominating performance in the AFC title game: 21 of 32, 65.6%, 421 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT and a 135.4 passer rating in a 45-28 demolition of the Steelers.
But Marino and the 'Fins fizzled in showdown for the ages against Joe Montana and his superior 49ers. Marino tossed two picks that day – critical big-game picks would haunt his career – as Miami was shut out in the second half and San Francisco dominated, 38-16. It's the only performance that keeps Marino and his Ruthian 1984 campaign off the top of the list.
5. Johnny Unitas, Colts, 1959
Regular season (9-3): 193 of 367, 52.6%, 2,899 yards, 7.9 YPA, 32 TD, 14 INT, 92.0 rating
Postseason (1-0): 18 of 29, 62.1%, 264 yards, 10.5 YPA, 2 TD, 0 INT, 114.7 rating
The legend Johnny U became a star in the famous 1958 NFL championship game – the so-called Best Game Ever. He proved he was more than a one-hit wonder the very next season, leading the league in attempts, completions, yards and TDs.
His 32 scoring strikes was an NFL record – he was the first and only to top 30 TDs in the NFL's first 40 years – and remains the standard for a 12-game season. He was in the midst of his record 47-game streak with a touchdown pass, and connected on at least one in every game of 1959.
Unitas's performance set up a rematch of the Best Game Ever in the 1959 NFL title tilt. It was a classic battle of strength vs. strength. The Colts led the NFL in scoring (31.2 PPG), while the Giants led the NFL in scoring defense (14.2 PPG).
This time, offense carried the day as Unitas torched Sam Huff and the league's toughest defensive unit.
Unitas opened the scoring with a 60-yard strike to Lenny Moore, and then threw another TD in the fourth quarter, as the Colts exploded for 24 points in the final frame and cruised to a 31-16 victory and their second consecutive title.
The Giants could do little to stop Unitas, as he averaged a devestating 10.5 YPA and secured his reputation as a big-game legend.
4. Sid Luckman, Bears, 1943
Regular season (8-1-1): 110 of 202, 54.5%, 2,194 yards, 10.9 YPA, 28 TD, 12 INT, 107.5 rating
Postseason (1-0): 15 of 26, 57.7%, 286 yards, 11.0 YPA, 5 TD, 0 INT, 135.6 rating
Luckman was essentially the player who first fulfilled the position of quarterback as we know it today: the player expected to handle every snap and attempt almost every pass.
He was also the first to put up modern-looking numbers. When you consider Luckman's numbers in 1943, consider that the league-wide passer rating that year was a meager 48.5.
Hell, his 28 TDs, 12 INTs and 107.5 passer rating would be downright impressive in today's game, let alone back in the virtual Stone Age of the NFL. His 10.9 YPA, meanwhile, is simply mind blowing in any era. The Bears scored 30.3 PPG in 1943. Again, great in any era.
But the best part of Luckman's 1943 campaign is that he closed out the year with a dominating Montana-esque effort in the NFL championship game: he threw an astonishing five touchdown passes, including a 66 yarder to Dante Magnani, as the Bears laid waste to the Redskins, 41-21. (Bronko Nagurski added a 3-yard TD run for Chicago. Yup, Luckman and Nagurski in the same backfield.)
The only reason Luckman isn't No. 1 is the dearth of talent in the NFL during the war years. We can't help but think that his numbers would have looked different (re: less impressive) had hundreds of the game's best players not been serving in the military.
But the numbers are what the numbers: and Luckman's numbers in 1943, especially by the standards of the era, were among the most spectacular in history.
3. Drew Brees, Saints, 2009
Regular season (13-2): 363 of 514, 70.6%, 4,388 yards, 8.5 YPA, 34 TD, 11 INT, 109.6 rating
Postseason (3-0): 72 of 102, 70.6%, 732 yards, 7.2 YPA, 8 TD, 0 INT, 117.0
Brees dabbled around the edges of greatness for much of his career. In 2008, he became the second player in history to pass for more than 5,000 yards in a season (5,069), falling just 15 yards shy of Marino's 1984 record.
But he largely produced big empty numbers, not the big and efficient numbers that create championships.
That all changed in 2009: Brees delivered the most accurate passing season in NFL history, while leading the former sad-sack Saints franchise to a 13-0 record before their first loss. Along the way, he produced arguably the greatest single statistical game in NFL history, in a nationally televised Monday Night Football showdown against Brady and the Patriots.
The 34 touchdown passes led the league, though barely challenged the record books, while his passer rating was also tops in the league.
But Brees separated himself from many of the quarterbacks in history when he produced a near perfect performance in the postseason – a near statistical equal of his regular-season effort. He capped the third-best passing season in history by out-gunning Peyton Manning with a nearly flawless performance in Super Bowl XLIV.
Brees completed a remarkable 32 of 39 passes (82.1%) for 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT and a 114.5 rating, leading the Saints to a 31-17 victory and the first title in the otherwise inglorious history of one of the NFL's worst franchises of the previous 42 seasons.
We said before the Super Bowl that Brees, not Manning, was the MVP of the 2009 season. When you look at his 2009 campaign through the lens of history, you can only feel sorry for the foolish pigskin "pundits" who pulled an MVP lever for Manning when Brees was crafting one of the greatest seasons in the history of the game.
2. Steve Young, 49ers, 1994
Regular season (13-3): 324 of 461, 70.3%, 3,969 yards, 8.6 YPA, 35 TD, 10 INT, 112.8 rating
Postseason (3-0): 53 of 87, 60.9%, 623 yards, 7.2 YPA, 9 TD, 0 INT, 117.2 rating
Young had spent his first seven years in San Francisco in the long shadow of four-time champion Joe Montana.
He finally made a name for himself at age 33 with a spectacular 1994 campaign: Young topped the league in all four major efficiency stats: completion percentage, touchdowns, yards per attempt and passer rating.
In fact, his 112.8 rating was the best in history – narrowly edging out the previous record of 112.4 set by, you guessed it, Montana (1989). His 35 TD passes easily surpassed the best Montana had ever produced (31 in 1987), while his completion percentage set a new standard in a 16-game season (the mark Brees surpassed last year).
If that wasn't enough, Young was spectacular in the playoffs, too, and capped the season with what was probably the greatest statistical effort in Super Bowl history. He passed for 325 yards and 6 TDs as the 49ers laid waste to the Chargers, 49-26, in Super Bowl XXIX.
It was the end of a nearly flawless and virtually unstoppable postseason for Young in which he passed for nine TDs, ran for two others, and led the San Francisco offense to an incredible 131 points in three playoff games (43.7 PPG).
1. Joe Montana, 49ers, 1989
Regular season (11-2): 271 of 386, 70.2%, 3,521 yards, 9.1 YPA, 26 TD, 8 INT, 112.4 rating
Postseason (3-0): 65 of 83, 78.3%, 800 yards, 9.6 YPA, 11 TD, 0 INT, 146.4 rating
Did you ever see that scene in "Band of Brothers," the one where Lt. Speirs runs right through the middle of a squad of armored German infantry so that he could connect with an American unit on the other side of town?
The narrator of the episode (Sgt. Lipton) says in a soft, haunting voice: "At first (the Germans) couldn't quite believe what they were seeing. But that wasn't the really astounding thing. The astounding thing was that, after he hooked up with I Company, he came back."
Hell, here's the scene here:
show video here
What does that scene have to do with our list? Well, that's kind of how we feel about Montana's record-setting 1989 season, the greatest passing season in NFL history. At first we couldn't believe what we were seeing in the regular season. But that wasn't the really astounding part. The astounding was that Montana, after he hooked up with the playoffs, was even better.
Montana posted a then-NFL-record 112.4 passer rating in 1989. Yet in the playoffs he was better in every single statistical indicator – completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, you name it – than he had been in his record-setting regular season.
In his lowest-rated playoff game that year, a 30-3 win over the Rams in the NFC title game, Montana completed 26 of 30 passes (86.7%) for 262 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT and a 125.3 rating. Again, that was his lowest rated playoff game in 1989.
Montana ended the year with arguably the greatest performance in Super Bowl history: 22 of 29 for 297 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT and a Super Bowl record-147.6 passer rating in a 55-10 win over John Elway and the Broncos. It was and remains the biggest blowout in Super Bowl history.
Under Montana's leadership, the 49ers dominated three straight playoff opponents by a combined score of 126-26 (42.0 PPG - 8.7 PPG) – probably the single most dominant postseason effort by any team in history, thanks largely to the single most dominant postseason passing effort in history.
And remember, this postseason effort came on the heels of what was the most efficient passing season in history (112.4 rating) at the time.
The 1989 season proved something of a San Francisco swan song for Montana: his numbers tailed off dramatically (by his standards) in 1990, even as he led the 49ers to a 14-2 record. But Montana was knocked senseless by the Giants in the 1990 NFC title game and never started again for San Francisco.
The 1989 campaign remains his signature statistical season – and the one by which we must measure all other passing seasons.
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