10 Greatest Quarterback Seasons in NFL History
From Week 1 to the Super Bowl, which QB has had the greatest single season in league history?
By: Braden Gall | 9/5/12, 10:00 AM EDT
The word "great" is thrown around the sports arena entirely too liberally. Too many coaches, players, games or teams are considered great. Instead, the word should be reserved for the truly remarkable. Therefore, defining greatness becomes the key, and since there are infinite ways to describe the best, beauty lies solely in the eye of the beholder. Any of the memorable season's produced by the quarterbacks listed below could make a legitimate case to be No. 1.
Heart, toughness, statistical production, winning championships, clutch performances, leadership and overall physical ability are just a few of the ways to quantify greatness. It is using a combination of all these factors — NFL records, team records, wins and losses, championships and personal awards — that Athlon ranks the greatest complete NFL seasons a quarterback has ever had—from Week 1 through Super Sunday.
1. Steve Young, San Francisco, 1994
There hasn't been a more complete NFL season than the year Young and offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan put together in 1994. The 49ers finished the regular season with the best record in the league at 13-3 while Young set an NFL single-season record for efficiency with a 112.8 QB rating, breaking the previous record set by former mentor Joe Montana. He also came 0.3 percentage points from breaking Ken Anderson's NFL mark for completion percent at 70.6 percent (Young's 70.3 percent still sits at No. 4 all-time). He started all 16 games, finished with 3,969 yards and an NFL-best 35 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. Additionally, Young led the team in rushing touchdowns with seven as he compiled 293 yards on 58 carries. For all of this he earned the NFL MVP, but what made the '94 campaign special is what took place following the regular season. The Niners steam-rolled the Bears, Cowboys and Chargers en route to Young's first Super Bowl — a win commemorated by a record six touchdown passes, 325 yards passing, the MVP trophy and Gary Plummer's famous monkey exorcism. Oh, and No. 8 was the game's leading rusher as well. Young posted 623 yards passing, 128 yards rushing, 11 total touchdowns and nary an interception in San Francisco's three playoff games. It was the finest season a quarterback has ever seen.
2. Kurt Warner, St. Louis, 1999
Part of what makes Warner's '99 campaign so memorable is how the Northern Iowa signal caller ended up a Super Bowl champion and NFL MVP. The undrafted rookie finally broke into the league four years after graduating from UNI and led the inept Rams to the best record in the NFC (13-3) as a first-year starter. The 28-year-old led the NFL in touchdown passes (41), completion rate (65.1 percent), yards per attempt (8.7) and QB rating (109.2) while finishing with a franchise-record 4,353 yards passing. He then proceeded to complete over 81 percent of his passes for 391 yards and five touchdowns in his first career playoff start — a 49-37 win over Minnesota. By the end of Super Bowl XXXIV, Warner had thrown for 414 yards and two touchdowns to earn his second MVP trophy of the season. The huge numbers, the sheer improbability and ultimate victory combined to produce what was nearly the greatest season in history.
3. Tom Brady, New England, 2007
Today's sports culture values the championship and quarterbacks rarely disagree. So had Brady finished his magical romp through the NFL in 2007, he would be sitting at No. 1 on this list. He is only one of two QBs to ever finish a regular season 16-0 and eventually worked the record to 18-0 before the show-stopping loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII . Brady threw for a franchise record 4,806 yards, good for third all-time in NFL history at the time. His QB rating of 117.2 was second all-time in NFL history and he became the first and only player to ever throw 50 touchdown passes in one season. He threw only eight interceptions and led the league in 11 passing categories. In the postseason, Brady and the Pats were dominant against Miami in the Divisional Round, but the Michigan grad struggled in the final two games of the year. He threw three interceptions and had his second-worst yardage day of the year (209 yards) in the AFC title game win over San Diego. He capped his MVP season with an underwhelming performance against the extraordinary Giants defensive line, costing him his fourth Super Bowl ring and the unbeaten immortality of 19-0.
4. Dan Marino, Miami, 1984
Marino was well ahead of his time back in only his second year in the league. He set an NFL record for passing yards (5,084) that would stand for nearly 30 years and an NFL record for touchdowns (48) that would stand for 20 years. He led the Dolphins to the best record in the AFC at 14-2, claimed the MVP trophy and returned Miami to the Super Bowl where they fell just short of defeating the 18-1 Joe Montana-led 49ers. The Pitt Panther threw for 1,001 yards and eight scores in three postseason games. The 23-year-old with a lightning quick release led the NFL in completions, attempts, QB rating and yards per attempt in a season that totally changed the way the game of football was played. He paved the way for what we see today on Sunday and came up 22 points short of a championship.
5. Joe Montana, San Francisco, 1989
The Golden Domer wasn't ever the most talented or fastest or strongest quarterback on the field, but his 13 regular-season games — and subsequent playoff run — during the 1989 season were as brilliant as most's 16-game seasons. Montana completed 70.2 percent of his passes, led the NFL at 270.8 yards per game and finished with a then-NFL record 112.4 QB rating. His completion rate was second all-time to only Ken Anderson and is still one of only five seasons with a completion rate of better than 70 percent in history. The 49ers finished 11-2 in his 13 starts and 14-2 overall and Montana was the MVP of the league. Montana threw for 3,521 yards, 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He also added 227 yards rushing and three more scores on the ground. However, what made No. 16's '89 campaign one of the greatest in history was his thorough destruction of the NFC and Denver Broncos in the postseason. He completed 65 of his 83 passes (78.3 percent) for 800 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero picks, finishing his historic season with arguably the most dominant Super Bowl performance to date by crushing John Elway and company 55-10. Three more games puts Montana over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns and moves him ahead of Marino and Brady on this list.
6. Drew Brees, New Orleans, 2009
One could argue Brees' 2011 season was better, but I am guessing if you ask him which year was better, he would take 2009 everyday and twice on Sunday. He led the NFL in completion rate (70.6 percent), breaking the aforementioned Anderson's NFL single-season record. He also topped the charts in touchdown passes (34) and QB rating (109.6) en route to a 13-3 final record. He finished with 4,388 yards and only 11 interceptions. He then capped the magical New Orleans resurrection with 732 yards passing, eight touchdowns and no interceptions in three playoff wins. His performance in the Super Bowl XLIV win over the Colts and Peyton Manning gave the Saints franchise their first championship. Brees completed 82.1 percent of his passes and claimed the game's MVP honors.
7. Drew Brees, New Orleans, 2011
It is hard to argue that from a statistical perspective, no quarterback has ever had a better regular season than Brees last fall. He set NFL records for completions (468), passing yards (5,476) and completion rate (71.2 percent) while leading the Saints to a 13-3 record. He then proceeded to throw for 928 yards and seven touchdowns in two playoff games. His defense let him down in the postseason and he contributed two of the team's costly five turnovers in the loss to the 49ers.
8. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis, 2006
Much like Brees, Manning has had many elite seasons, but two stand above the rest. One in which he broke an NFL record and played at unprecedented levels (see 2004 below) and the other ended with a Super Bowl championship. Much like Brees, the ring gives Manning's '06 campaign the slight edge. He threw for 4,397 yards on 65.0 percent passing and a league-leading 31 touchdown passes. It was also the only year in which No. 18 threw fewer than 10 interceptions (9). His 101.0 QB rating also led the NFL that season and he added four rushing scores for good measure. Manning led his Colts to four postseason wins that year (16-4 overall) and the 29-17 Super Bowl XLI win over Chicago in which he claimed the game's MVP trophy.
9. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay, 2011
In a season in which three passers topped 5,000 yards and numerous NFL records were broken, Rodgers' season can get lost in the shuffle. Yet, the Packers passer set every major franchise passing record and led a team that finished 15-1 in the regular season. The year ended with a whimper with Rodgers sitting out the season finale and then losing to the Giants in the first playoff game. But his 4,643 yards, 10.5 yards per attempt and absurd 45:6 TD:INT ratio gave No. 12 the most efficient season in NFL history (122.5 QB rating) — and it earned him the league's MVP trophy. Had he posted Matt Flynn's (480 yards passing, 6 TDs) numbers in the final week of the regular season, he would have hit 50 TDs and topped 5,000 yards. That said, Packers fans will always look at '11 with "what-if" memories.
10. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis, 2004
Many believe this season was Manning's best. Statistically speaking it was as he finished the regular season with an NFL-record 49 touchdown passes and 121.1 QB rating to go with 4,557 yards and a 67.6 percent completion rate. The league's MVP was 12-4 and on a path to his's first Super Bowl title until New England completely dominated the AFC Championship Game 20-3. Manning ended a remarkable season one game shy of his goal, as he managed only 238 yards passing, no touchdowns and one interception in the disheartening loss to the Patriots.
Others to consider:
Dan Fouts, San Diego, 1981 (10-6, Postseason: 1-1)
Stats: 4,802 yds (NFL record), 33 TD, 17 INT, 90.6 QB rating
Warren Moon, Houston, 1990 (8-7, Postseason: None)
Stats: 4,689 yds, 33 TD, 13 INT, 96.8 QB rating, 215 rush yds, 2 TD
Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia, 1990 (10-6, Postseason: 0-1)
Stats: 3,466 yds, 30 TD, 13 INT, 91.6 QB rating, 118 att., 942 yds, 5 TD
Brett Favre, Green Bay, 1996 (13-3, Postseason: 3-0) MVP, Super Bowl
Stats: 3,899 yds, 39 TD, 13 INT, 95.8 QB rating, 136 rush yds, 2 TD
Michael Vick, Atlanta, 2004 (11-4, Postseason: 1-1)
Stats: 2,313 yds, 14 TD, 12 INT, 78.1 QB rating, 120 att., 902 yds, 3 TD
Michael Vick, Atlanta, 2006 (7-9, Postseason: None)
Stats: 2,474 yds, 20 TD, 13 INT, 75.7 QB rating, 123 att., 1,039 yds, 2 TD
Brett Favre, Minnesota, 2009 (12-4, Postseason: 1-1)
Stats: 4,202 yds, 33 TD, 7 INT, 107.2 QB rating
Michael Vick, Philadelphia, 2010 (8-3, Postseason: 0-1)
Stats: 3,018 yds, 21 TD, 6 INT, 100.2 QB rating, 100 att., 675 yds, 9 TD
Eli Manning, NY Giants, 2011 (9-7, Postseason: 4-0) Super Bowl
Stats: 4,933 yds, 29 TD, 16 INT, 92.9 QB rating
Tom Brady, New England, 2011 (13-3, Postseason: 2-1)
Stats: 5,235 yds, 39 TD, 12 INT, 105.6 QB rating, 109 rush yds, 3 TD
Cam Newton, Carolina, 2011 (6-10, Postseason: None)
Stats: 4,051 yds, 21 TD, 17 INT, 84.5 QB rating, 126 att., 706 yds, 14 TD
- by Braden Gall
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