Records are made to be broken. Some just take more effort than others.
Fans love records, and they love to watch the pursuit that takes place. But it is important to understand the context behind them, why certain people own certain records and the degree of difficulty associated with them.
Some records have an incomplete past, such as sacks only being officially recorded since 1982. Some have a sordid history of inconsistency. Do not even get Captain Comeback started on fourth-quarter comebacks. Some records walk the line on whether or not to include the postseason. Some are rate stats with specific requirements in order to qualify.
As we get closer to the 2012 season, there are a few notable records that could be broken in the first month of the season alone.
Drew Brees has thrown a touchdown pass in 43 consecutive games (regular season). The record is still held by Johnny Unitas, who did it in 47 consecutive games for the Baltimore Colts from 1956 to 1960. Including the postseason, Brees has already tied Unitas at 49 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
It is one of the most famous records in NFL history, equivalent to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, but it did not even crack my top 10 due to Brees being so close. If you are a Unitas fan, you can always root for Brees to have a slow start. That is assuming the Saints pay up, and he plays this year.
The first time Peyton Manning leads the Denver Broncos to a victory via an offensive scoring drive while trailing in the fourth quarter, it will be the 36th such win of his career. That will tie Dan Marino for the most in NFL history, and this is what you call the record for fourth-quarter comeback wins. Expect to hear more on that one this year.
For now, soak in the 10 records unlikely to be broken in our lifetime.
I would be remiss not to recognize the misleading article title here, as there are other NFL records not listed in the top 10 that will truly never be broken.
So the top 10 you are going to see is a list of records that actually have a realistic chance to be broken one day, but the chances are one in a million.
But I’m telling you there’s a chance…
Records based on single plays (longest play, which can technically only be tied now) or single games (most receiving yards) should nearly all be fair game. For as much as football has drastically changed in the 93-year history of the NFL, anything can happen in that small of a sample.
The main reasons for these other unbreakable records are the schedule and number of teams in the league.
The 1932 Chicago Bears still hold NFL records for fewest points (44) and touchdowns (six) allowed in a season.
These records will never be broken. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens allowed 165 points, which is the record for a 16-game season. That is nearly four times greater than what the 1932 Bears allowed.
Likewise, no team will ever score just three touchdowns in an entire season like the 1933 Cincinnati Reds (and one of those was from a punt return).
The first significant factor is the length of schedule. For counting stat records, the older teams are going to dominate ones based on “fewest,” while today’s teams will dominate ones based on “most.” For rate stats, it is easier for older teams to maintain superior averages over a smaller number of games.
It is no surprise the single-season records for completion percentage (Ken Anderson) and passing yards per game (Dan Fouts) were both set in the nine-game strike season of 1982. Drew Brees holds both records now.
Tommy O’Connell (1957 Browns) holds the unbreakable record for highest passing yards per attempt in a season at 11.17. He only attempted 110 passes, but a minimum of 100 was all he needed in 1957 to qualify. Only Sid Luckman (10.86 in 1943), Otto Graham (10.55 in 1953), and Norm Van Brocklin (10.14 in 1954) have exceeded 10.0 YPA.
The closest a player has been in today’s era was Kurt Warner’s 9.88 YPA in 2000. He missed five games and attempted 347 passes. Through five games, Warner was at 11.80 YPA on 165 attempts, proving that O’Connell’s mark can be beaten, but the problem is maintaining that average for the rest of the season.
Today’s passers must attempt at least 14 passes per team game (224 in a 16-game season) to qualify. Two games later Warner was down to 10.63 YPA on 230 attempts and injured. That is the closest anyone has come to O’Connell, who was largely a one-year wonder. But no one is going to take his name out of the record books.
The other significant factor has been expansion increasing the difficulty for several records. The once-smaller league helped that era’s dominant players put records out of reach in the “most seasons leading the league in [category]” section It is much easier to lead the league when there are only nine other teams compared to 31.
For example, Don Hutson was the dominant receiver of his era (and that’s putting it lightly). He holds records for most scoring titles (five; tied with Gino Cappelletti), most consecutive scoring titles (five; 1940-44), most seasons leading league in touchdowns (eight) and most consecutive seasons leading the league in touchdowns (four; done twice by him).
The eight seasons leading the league in touchdowns are especially out of reach, as the next closest three players did it just three times.
- Jim Brown also took advantage of a smaller league on his way to a record eight rushing titles. No other player has won more than four rushing titles. There were 12-14 teams in the NFL during Brown’s career.
- Lance Alworth was the AFL-equivalent of Hutson, and he dominated the mid-60’s AFL (eight-nine teams).
- Emmitt Smith managed a very respectable three seasons leading the league in touchdowns for the dominant team of the early 90’s in Dallas.
For just receiving touchdowns, Hutson led the league a record nine times. Jerry Rice managed six, but if you gave him the smaller league that Hutson and AFL players had to compete with, he would have added these records to his enormous list.
Combine “league-leading stats” in a smaller league with rate stats over a shorter schedule, and you get more records that will never be broken just because of the league’s setup:
- Sid Luckman led the league in passing yards per attempt seven times in Chicago (also a record five consecutive seasons). Steve Young managed to do it an outstanding five times in the 1990’s despite expansion, longer seasons and more passing.
- Len Dawson led the league in completion percentage eight times (record six consecutive seasons) with the Chiefs. Most of this damage was done in the AFL (8-10 teams). Sammy Baugh did it seven times in Washington.
- Baugh also holds the record for most seasons leading the league in lowest interception percentage (five). The next closest is three, with Ken O’Brien amazingly being the only 16-game era quarterback to do it.
Some older records have shockingly stood the test of time in spite of them holding no distinct era advantages:
- Norm Van Brocklin (RAM) passed for 554 yards against the New York Yanks on September 28, 1951. It is still the highest single-game passing total in NFL history.
- Bill Groman (HOU) had 1,473 receiving yards as a rookie in 1960 (a 14-game season). Anquan Boldin came the closest with 1,377 yards in 2003 for Arizona.
- While five quarterbacks have passed for a single-game record seven touchdowns, none have done it since 1969.
Despite the fact no one has surpassed these records after many decades of trying, you can see them still being broken in today’s passing league. It is really just a matter of time. That is why none of them were included in the top 10.
Before we get to that list, let’s knock out a few more records that just missed the cut.
George Blanda’s incredible 26 seasons of service spanning four decades are legendary, but kicker Morten Andersen put in 25 seasons, last playing in 2007. He would have tied Blanda at 26 but did not make a roster in 2005 before returning to Atlanta for the 2006-07 seasons. Some kickers seem able to play forever, so watch out for this one.
Speaking of 26, the beginning of football in Tampa Bay began with a record 26-game losing streak for the Buccaneers in 1976-77. The most recent challenger was the Detroit Lions, losers of 19 straight from 2007-09.
However, Detroit went 1-25 in a 26-game stretch, and the 2008-10 St. Louis Rams managed to go 1-27. What was the only win for the Rams? Over those Lions of course. So you can see the plausibility of this record being broken even in an era of proposed parity.
Likewise, while the 1972 Miami Dolphins (17-0) remain the only perfect team in the Super Bowl era, we know the 2007 New England Patriots (18-1) were one stop away from 19-0. They just couldn’t end the greatest drive in NFL history by New York. It seems as though someone challenges the perfect season every year these days. One team may finally pull it off.
Now for the records that did make the top 10…
Emmitt Smith surpasses Walter Payton's rushing total in a 2002 game.
In 2002, Emmitt Smith surpassed Chicago’s legendary Walter Payton (16,726 rushing yards) as the all-time leading rusher in NFL history. After leaving Dallas, Emmitt added 1,193 more yards to his total in Arizona, finishing with 18,355 yards. It has also taken a NFL record 4,409 carries, or 571 more than Payton.
The “Unbreakable” Factors
While few fans outside of Dallas would say Emmitt is the greatest running back ever, the truth is he didn’t have to be to set the record. He was the most durable and played with some of the best offensive lines in the league.
Most running backs begin to wear down in their 30s. The same was true for Smith, but he still managed to rush for 5,789 yards in his thirties, which is another record. After a great prime that included four rushing titles, Smith’s ability to add on the yardage later in his career puts him on a very high pedestal.
When you consider the league currently throwing the ball at its highest rate, and the increase in running back by committees, the days of the workhorse back could be numbered.
Just two running backs had at least 300 carries in 2011. In 1995, Emmitt’s best season and one that was extremely heavy on the pass, there were still nine backs to carry it at least 300 times. This also bodes well for a record like Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 rushing yards in 1984.
No one is going to be able to break the all-time rushing record without a large, steady diet of carries year after year. In a league that is moving away from that offensive philosophy, Emmitt Smith’s 18,355 yards will look more daunting with each passing season.
The player with the best chance to break the record was Barry Sanders, but he retired abruptly after the 1998 season, leaving him 3,087 yards shy of surpassing Emmitt’s total. Many feel Sanders could have reached 20,000 yards had he kept playing, but that’s in the past.
LaDainian Tomlinson was once thought to be the player who would break Smith’s rushing records, but after quickly tailing off and being practically retired, LT finishes 4,671 yards short. The best three-year stretch of his career was 4,751 yards (2005-07).
Adrian Peterson may be a consensus choice for best active running back, but at age 27 and coming off a major knee injury, Peterson would have to rush for 11,604 yards to break Smith’s record. That is about the equivalent of Fred Taylor’s entire career.
Who holds the record for rushing after age 27? It is Emmitt Smith, of course, with 9,399 yards. Maurice Jones-Drew is also 27, but even if he rushed for what Emmitt did (post-27) the rest of his career, he would finish with 16,253 yards, or 2,102 fewer yards than the record.
He may not be as good as Jim Brown, Walter Payton or Barry Sanders, but Emmitt Smith came into the league at the right time (nothing but 16-game seasons) and was the most durable back, and he should be able to go to his grave as the NFL’s all-time rushing leader.
Starting a new decade in NFL history with changes to the playoff format (12 teams now qualified), the Bills did the unthinkable and reached four consecutive Super Bowls. But the incredible part is that they managed to lose all four games, and the best opportunity they had came in the first one. It is one of the greatest achievements of resiliency (and heartbreak) in NFL history.
The “Unbreakable” Factors
While reaching one Super Bowl is tough enough (ask Cleveland and Detroit), going to an unprecedented four straight is hard to fathom. Then, how does a great team like that fail to win a single one of these games?
Maybe they were meant to win the first one. Buffalo lost Super Bowl XXV by a score of 20-19 to the New York Giants after kicker Scott Norwood failed on a 47-yard field goal attempt with four seconds remaining. It was the first of only two do-or-die field goal misses in an NFL Championship game. It never got any better than that moment for Buffalo in the Super Bowl.
Their run also concluded as free agency was just beginning in the NFL. Since Buffalo’s four-peat, no team has appeared in more than two consecutive Super Bowls. No team has repeated as Super Bowl loser in those 18 seasons.
There has even been a supposed curse of the Super Bowl loser. Starting in 2001 with the New York Giants, seven of the 11 Super Bowl losers failed to return to the postseason the following year. None of the four teams that did make the playoffs made it past the Divisional Round.
There have been some past challengers to Buffalo’s four-peat. The closest were the 1973-76 Minnesota Vikings, losing three out of four Super Bowls. The one year they missed out, 1975, looked to be another appearance. But a Hail Mary by Roger Staubach put a shocking end to that season in the NFC Divisional playoffs.
The 1986-89 Denver Broncos also lost three out of four Super Bowls but did not even make the playoffs in 1988. The 1971-73 Miami Dolphins were the first team to ever play in three consecutive Super Bowls, losing the first before a repeat performance in 1972-73.
The 1992-95 Dallas Cowboys and 2001-04 New England Patriots each won three out of four Super Bowls. In 1994, the Cowboys lost the NFC Championship to San Francisco, while the 2002 Patriots failed to make the playoffs.
You have to be a great team to pull off such a feat, and that’s what Buffalo had. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, James Lofton and coach Marv Levy are all in the Hall of Fame (with Andre Reed likely to follow).
They failed to win a Super Bowl ring, but the record-setting legacy they left behind is permanently carved into NFL history.
Sticking with Buffalo, here’s the scoop on their most famous playoff win. In the 1992 AFC Wild Card game, the Buffalo Bills fell behind the Houston Oilers 35-3 with 13:19 remaining in the third quarter. What took place next was the largest comeback in NFL history. Buffalo scored four quick touchdowns to pull within four points as the game went to the fourth quarter. They would finally take the lead with 3:08 remaining in the game after Andre Reed’s third touchdown catch of the half. But after Houston forced overtime, it took a Warren Moon interception to set up the game-winning field goal by Steve Christie.
Amazingly, the Bills accomplished this with backup quarterback Frank Reich, who just so happened to be the same quarterback who led Maryland to a then-record 31-point comeback over the Miami Hurricanes. The fact that it was 32 points, happened in the postseason and with a backup quarterback makes this the greatest comeback in NFL history.
The “Unbreakable” Factors
Not a record you would want to gain a lot of experience in trying to break—what makes it so impressive for Buffalo is that the first four touchdowns all happened very quickly. By the fourth quarter, it was simply a one-score game, which is common in the NFL. A lot of things had to go right for Buffalo (and very wrong for Houston), and they did.
Right now 32 points would be a four-score game, though the plan of four touchdowns and four two-point conversions has never come close to being executed. A larger deficit would mean five scores. The average team is going to get 10-12 drives in an entire game. Assuming you have blown nearly half your drives after the other team got up 32+ points, you have to be near flawless the rest of the way.
A high-powered passing game would be the best way to get back into such a game, but you likely will need to steal a possession via special teams or getting a quick turnover on defense.
The Bills were involved in the other largest deficit erased in NFL history. It happened in a little-known game back in 1960, the inaugural year of the AFL. Buffalo led 38-7 in the third quarter before Denver scored 31 unanswered points to force a 38-38 tie. The fact that it ended tied is likely why you haven’t heard about it.
One more Buffalo: The 1997 Bills erased a 26-0 deficit for a 37-35 win against the Colts in 1997.
The second largest comeback win in NFL history happened in 1980, when a young Joe Montana led a 28-point comeback against the New Orleans Saints. Trailing 35-7 at halftime, the 49ers scored four touchdowns in the second half before winning the game on a field goal in overtime.
The largest fourth quarter comeback win (25 points) just so happens to be the fourth largest comeback win in NFL history. The St. Louis Cardinals trailed Tampa Bay 28-3 to start the fourth quarter, but three Neil Lomax touchdown passes and a fumble return score gave the Cardinals a 31-28 victory.
Thirteen other teams have come back from a 24-point deficit to win, including one postseason comeback by San Francisco against the New York Giants. That makes for just 17 comeback wins in NFL history when trailing by at least 24 points.
There were a single-season record six comebacks from at least a 20-point deficit in 2011, so perhaps bigger comebacks are on the rise.
Some teams have made good attempts at large comebacks but ultimately fell short in the end. There’s just something about that range of 25-32 points…
- After trailing 31-0 to the Cardinals in a 1998 game, the Redskins scored 36 second-half points to pull within a field goal in the fourth quarter on two occasions. They lost 45-42.
- Both the 1980 Colts and 2007 Texans trailed by 25 points in the fourth quarter, rallied back to take the lead, but lost on a last-second field goal by the Bengals and Titans, respectively.
- Down 28-0 to Minnesota in 1994, Dan Marino led the Dolphins back to a 28-28 tie, but the Vikings pulled away for a 38-35 victory.
- Trailing Kansas City 35-3 in the second quarter, the 1985 Chargers rallied in the second half, pulling within 38-34 with 2:48 remaining. However, they were unable to get the ball back as the Chiefs ran out the clock.
But the most interesting comeback attempt I have found to date happened exactly three months, 21 days before Buffalo’s Wild Card win.
On September 13, 1992, the Dallas Cowboys took a 34-0 lead over the New York Giants with 13:30 left in the third quarter. After a lethargic first half with just 53 yards of offense, fans had every right to leave the stadium. But that’s when the comeback attempt started.
Behind Phil Simms, the Giants started moving the ball with ease. A pair of 80-yard touchdown drives closed the gap to 34-14 as they moved to the fourth quarter. After a Dallas punt, it was a 62-yard touchdown for the Giants. Feeling the pressure, Dallas went three and out. Five plays later, Simms ended a third straight drive with a touchdown pass, and the Giants were only down 34-28 with 6:52 left.
Dallas punted, and the stage was set. After four straight touchdown drives covering 277 yards, the Giants had 3:42 left to drive 81 yards for the game-winning touchdown, capping off a 34-point comeback.
New York went three and out.
So much for momentum. Simms completed two passes on the drive for a net of one yard. After punting the ball back to Dallas with 2:07 left, it only took a few runs by Emmitt Smith and a first-down pass to Michael Irvin before the clock expired. Dallas held on for the win.
You never know when history can be made.
Let’s just say I am not being picky on this one. There are several fascinating records involving interceptions, making it too hard to only “pick “one. So here is a list:
Most Interceptions, Season: Night Train Lane, 14, 1952 (also most by a rookie)
Most Interceptions, Career: Paul Krause (1964-79), 81
Most Interceptions Thrown, Game: Jim Hardy, 8, 9/24/1950 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Most Interceptions Thrown, Season: George Blanda, 42, 1962
Most Interceptions Thrown, Career: Brett Favre (1991-2010), 336
The “Unbreakable” Factors
For each of these records, the same theme persists. Interceptions are less frequent in today’s game. That makes it harder for quarterbacks to throw a lot of them, and it is harder for defenders to come up with a lot of them.
The data in the picture is based on statistics from the NFL only (no AFL).
Interceptions were more than twice as common on a pass play during Night Train Lane’s career. Still, his record of 14, done as a rookie in 12 games, is one of the all-time great records in NFL history.
The more dubious records of interceptions thrown by quarterbacks are still gaudy in their own “make you want to puke” kind of way. Any quarterback would likely get tossed from the game before tossing eight interceptions like Jim Hardy did that day.
It’s the same way with Blanda and the statistical marvel that is his 1962 season for the Houston Oilers. Blanda threw 42 interceptions in 14 games, the Oilers had 57 turnovers as a team yet they still finished 11-3. It does help to have a defense that had 52 takeaways and allowed the second fewest points in the league.
The Oilers won an absurd six games with at least five turnovers (four in a row at one point). Those are “records” as well. They almost won the AFL Championship game with Blanda throwing five interceptions.
Only four teams in NFL history have thrown at least 40 interceptions in a season. Three of them played in the AFL (1962 Oilers, 1961-62 Broncos).
Needless to say, the early days of the AFL were unique. That’s just another reason why we’ll never see 42 interceptions again in a season.
We also won’t see another “gunslinger” like Brett Favre. He had six seasons with at least 21 interceptions.
Night Train’s mark should be here to stay, as no player since Lester Hayes in 1980 has had 13 interceptions in a season. Ever since moving to a 16-game schedule in 1978, no player has had at least 11 interceptions since Everson Walls in 1981. While some recent players like Champ Bailey, Asante Samuel and Antonio Cromartie have had a season with 10 interceptions, they are still four behind the legendary Lane.
Likewise, Paul Krause’s 81 interceptions appear safe. Emlen Tunnell is second with 79, but he retired before Krause even debuted. The great Rod Woodson finished with 71, and he managed to play 238 games but still finished 10 short (Krause played 226 games). Darren Sharper recently finished with 63.
Ed Reed is the active leader at 57, but he has talked about retirement and would need at least three great seasons to catch Krause. Reed had three interceptions while playing in all 16 games in 2011.
Charles Woodson has 54 interceptions, but he will be 36 years old this season. After that, you would have to look at Asante Samuel (45 interceptions at age 31), but his new role is unclear in Atlanta.
When it comes to Hardy’s eight interceptions in a game, Ty Detmer was the last to throw seven in a 2001 game against the Browns. Even Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have thrown six in a game in the last decade. But I’ll bet anything no one ever throws nine in one game to break Hardy’s record.
Blanda’s 42 interceptions are seven more than runner-up Vinny Testaverde (35 with the 1988 Buccaneers in 15 games). That was the last time anyone exceeded 30 interceptions. Any quarterback would be benched in today’s game before throwing 42 interceptions. No team had more turnovers in 2011 than Tampa Bay, and they had 40. That is for the entire team; not just the quarterback. Blanda is safe.
At retirement, Blanda held the record with 277 career interceptions, but Favre was able to extend that to 336. Favre has also thrown more passes than any player in NFL history (10,169), so it’s not as though he was terrible in the interception department. He just threw more than his fair share.
As quarterbacks continue to throw more short passes, the gunslingers are a dying breed. There may never be another Favre: a quarterback who was as durable as they come and played with reckless abandon.
Peyton Manning is now the active leader with 198 interceptions, but even if his tenure in Denver is long and disastrous, he will not sniff the 138 interceptions required to match Favre. That would be nearly 28 per season if Manning played five more years.
Drew Brees is actually next in line with 146 interceptions. Only 190 away from Favre.
As you can see, the interception records speak to an older era of just letting it rip. There’s not much room in today’s efficient game for that sort of “fun.”
On November 28, 1929, the Cardinals’ Ernie Nevers had himself a historic day that may very well be the main reason he is in the Hall of Fame. Against the Chicago Bears, Nevers scored a record 40 points in the game. It is just about the oldest record in league history. Nevers also rushed for a record six touchdowns and made four extra points.
The “Unbreakable” Factors
When you can set a record in 1929 and still hold it in 2012, that alone says something about the unbreakable nature of it. What makes it so hard is that today’s players are not going to kick extra points like in the past. That is an essential part of the argument I used against Paul Hornung being in the Hall of Fame. Hornung once had a 33-point game, which ranks fourth all time.
The kicking duties make up a big difference. To break Nevers' record, a player would have to score seven touchdowns in one game (42 points). 49-point outbursts are rare enough to begin with, but to get that many scores on the ground with the same player sounds impossible.
When you talk about records involving a lot of points being scored in today’s game, there is the concept of running up the score, which is something the New England Patriots have been accused of often in the last five years.
Most teams take the air out of the ball after a certain lead is established late in the game, and that makes it harder to add on to the score. Grinding out the game on the ground is also one of the smartest strategies in football.
But even with a grinding philosophy, those carries can be going to backup running backs, as you would probably need a star player to be able to score this many touchdowns in one game.
Dub Jones managed to score six touchdowns in one game (36 points) for the Browns in 1951, but Lou Groza kicked all six extra points. As a rookie, Gale Sayers had a mesmerizing 36-point performance against the 49ers in 1965, scoring six touchdowns (four rush, one receiving, one punt return).
Five players have scored five rushing touchdowns in a game (last: Clinton Portis in 2003), but only Nevers had six. Only three receivers have caught five touchdown passes in a game. Jerry Rice was the last to do it in 1990.
Basically, a player would have to play in the shootout of all shootouts, and maybe get to score a pair of two-point conversions just to hit 40 points. It’s not happening.
Bill Walsh’s 49ers did a lot of great things in the 1980s, but at their peak they went on one of the league’s all-time winning streaks. Starting in 1988, the 49ers managed to win 18 consecutive road games in the regular season, a streak that did not end until the season opener in 1991. As a West Coast team, they even won 10 of these games that started with their body clocks set to 10 a.m. PST at kickoff.
In addition to the 18 games, they also won the 1988 NFC Championship on the road in Chicago and won two Super Bowls played on neutral fields. Add it all up, and that’s 21 consecutive wins away from Candlestick.
The “Unbreakable” Factors
There is a home-field advantage in the NFL, so any long streak of road wins is going to be hard to come by. Some teams are better suited for different elements, whether it be the fast track often found in a dome or the superior playing surface often not found at Heinz Field.
This is one of the records that should generate discussion on why postseason games are selectively not included for certain records. At the very least, true playoff road games should count, putting the record at 19 games for the 49ers, making it even more difficult to break.
It will take one really great team to beat this record, which has to take place over the course of three seasons. Few in history were as consistent or dominant as the 49ers from that era.
The 2006-08 New England Patriots are in second place with 12 consecutive regular-season road wins. The streak ended with a 30-10 defeat in San Diego, one of the games without Tom Brady in 2008. But their streak does feel hollow given the 2006 AFC Championship loss at Indianapolis and the neutral-field loss in Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants.
Tom Coughlin’s Giants have picked up a bit of a reputation for being road warriors thanks to their two championship wins in the last five years. After dropping their season opener in Dallas, the 2007 Giants won their next 10 road games. They also won Super Bowl XLII on a neutral field, ending New England’s perfect season. But they would lose to the Cleveland Browns in 2008, ending their streak at 11 games (12 if you count the Super Bowl).
Four other teams have won 11 consecutive road games in the regular season: 1960-61 Chargers, 1987-88 49ers, 2004-05 Steelers and 2008-09 Colts.
Before the 2011 season even began, I made note of the way Mike McCarthy’s Packers rarely won close games via a late score. Little did I know they would set off on the greatest front-running streak in NFL history: 19 consecutive wins without trailing in the fourth quarter.
It blew away the previous record of 13, held by the 1942-43 Washington Redskins. Amazingly, the Packers spent just three minutes and 16 seconds tied in the fourth quarter during the streak.
The “Unbreakable” Factors
I have already written all that needs to be said about this streak. It is the most unique winning streak in NFL history. The 2003-04 New England Patriots may have won a record 21 consecutive games, but they needed four fourth quarter comebacks and eight game-winning drives in the process.
Most games are close in the NFL. Last season, 59.2 percent of all games saw a team trail in the fourth quarter by one score with possession of the ball. It’s not that Green Bay didn’t play close games during the streak. They had to protect a one-score lead in the fourth quarter 11 times.
The Packers jumped out on opponents in a way that we are just not accustomed to seeing. In 10 of the 19 games, they opened with a 14-0 lead. It speaks to the type of special, competitive team they have had under McCarthy. The Packers had a streak of 43 games from 2009-11 where they held at least a fourth-quarter tie with their opponent.
There has not been much. The only other team with a streak longer than 11 games was the 1942-43 Redskins (13 games). A total of 16 teams have managed at least 10 consecutive wins without trailing in the fourth quarter.
The 1947-48 Cleveland Browns won 18 straight games without trailing in the fourth quarter, but that was in the AAFC and still one short of the Packers.
Since the streak ended, Green Bay has gone 2-2 and trailed in the fourth quarter of three of the four games, so maybe they will return to something normal in 2012.
But for a 19-game stretch, they really were the hardest team in NFL history to get ahead of late.
Simply the best. Rice launched an all-out assault on the NFL record books in San Francisco, and he continued it all the way through 20 seasons and 303 games. The career totals are staggering: 1,549 receptions for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns.
The “Unbreakable” Factors
Last season I wrote about Rice’s records being unbreakable. A year later, they look even more unbreakable.
Like Emmitt Smith did with the rushing numbers, Rice has put the receiving totals out of reach, which is even more impressive given the passing numbers being put up today.
Rice owns so many of the NFL’s receiving records, but I am just focusing on his career receiving totals.
While Rice’s prime is one of the greatest ever by a wide receiver, where he really separated himself was the production he had as an older player. After turning 34, Rice still managed to put up 607 receptions for 7,772 yards and 51 touchdowns. At age 40, he had 92 catches for 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns in Oakland.
The only other player to even catch a pass in their 40s was Brett Favre: one he threw to himself for a loss of two yards.
It is daunting enough to keep up with what Rice did in his prime, but to continue producing at such a high level at an age when most receivers are retired? Impossible.
Andre Johnson was a receiver I looked at last season, but after going through multiple hamstring injuries in 2011 (he played in seven games), Johnson is all but out of the race. He will be 31 next month. You can double his career totals of 706 receptions, 9,656 yards, 52 touchdowns, and he’d still finish short of Rice in all three categories.
Larry Fitzgerald (29 in August) had a good year in 2011 (80 receptions for 1,411 yards, eight TD), but he is still in need of monster numbers. Should Fitzgerald play 12 more seasons up through age 40, he would have to average 71.3 receptions, 1,106.7 yards and 10.3 touchdowns a season to match Rice.
Calvin Johnson (27 in September) has taken over as the best wide receiver in the league and cashed in this offseason with a huge $132 million contract. But even if Johnson had eight straight seasons with 2,000 receiving yards (keep in mind Rice holds the record with 1,848), he would still finish 1,023 yards shy of Rice’s total.
He’s great, but even "Megatron" is not going to have the greatest receiving season in NFL history eight times over.
If any of the records were to fall, it would be the receptions, due to the nature of short passes in today’s game. The second leading receiver in NFL history, Tony Gonzalez, sits exactly 400 catches behind Rice with 1,149 in his career. He’s 36, and it has taken him five seasons to exceed his last 400 catches. Gonzalez does not have five years left in him. In fact, he has already said 2012 will be the final year of his career.
Wes Welker is a receptions machine (554 of them in New England since 2007), but at age 31, does he have 900 catches left in him to pass Rice? Not a chance.
Hines Ward retired this offseason. Derrick Mason retired this week. Two more bite the dust. Chad Ochocinco is in Miami, but he might get more airtime on HBO for Hard Knocks than he will in NFL games this season.
Will Randy Moss, 45 touchdowns away from surpassing Rice, even make the roster in San Francisco this season? After you get past Moss and Gonzalez, the next closest player in receiving touchdowns is Antonio Gates with 76. He turns 32 next week and has missed nine games the last two seasons.
With no active players in sight, Rice is exactly where he belongs: high up on the pedestal of greatness.
It is the iron-man streak in NFL lore. After taking over for an injured Don Majkowski to lead the Green Bay Packers to a win, a week later Brett Favre made his first start on September 27, 1992. After multiple retirements and stints with the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings, Favre started in 297 consecutive games up until December 5, 2010. Including the playoffs, Favre started 321 consecutive games.
The “Unbreakable” Factors
Well, you have to start every single game for nearly 19 seasons. If that’s not a reason to doubt the break-ability of this record, then I don’t know what is.
Anything can happen, from a lineman stepping on your foot, to a broken thumb, to a death in the family or a concussion. Many of these things happened to Favre, but the streak still went on.
You have to have some luck, whether it’s the placement of a bye week, the start time of a game or just luck with general good health that keeps you out of those nasty plays quarterbacks are injured on.
Like Emmitt Smith, Favre came into the league at a time when there were non-stop 16-game seasons, which helped him achieve his record. Dan Marino once started 145 consecutive games (154 including playoffs), but because of the 1987 strike when games were played with replacement players, Marino’s streak is not officially recognized.
Drew Brees would have an active streak of 131 consecutive starts (140 including playoffs), but his coaches decided to rest starters for the playoffs in Week 17 for both the 2004 and 2009 seasons.
Not any ordinary player can pull this off. You have to actually want to be there for your teammates every single week no matter what’s going on in your life. It does speak to leadership and commitment to your craft.
You also have to be pretty damn good to remain a starter that long in this league. Had Favre’s level of play continued to slip like the funk he was in during the 2005-06 seasons, this record may be about 60 games shorter.
Even then, it might still be unbreakable.
For any position player, Jim Marshall once held the record with 270 consecutive starts (289 including playoffs). That was at defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings. Since Favre’s streak is more closely related with his position, the competition has been weaker.
Peyton Manning was the last great hope in beating Favre’s record, and he really appeared like a lock to do it. Manning started the first 208 games of his career (227 including playoffs) and had only missed one snap due to injury.
But after multiple neck procedures, Manning shockingly missed the entire 2011 season, ending his streak 90 games short of surpassing Favre.
Including the playoffs, only seven quarterbacks have had streaks of more than 100 consecutive starts. That includes one of 103 by Philip Rivers. After that, it’s just Joe Flacco at 73 for active streaks.
Interestingly enough, it is another Manning (good genes) in position to perhaps one day beat Favre’s iron-man streak. Eli Manning is third all time with 119 consecutive starts (130 including playoffs). Assuming 16-game seasons, Eli would still have to start every game up until the early portion of the 2023 season. He will be 42 years old
While a Manning may still end up breaking some of Favre’s records, this is one that will be his to keep. Fitting, in that it’s a record made for someone who has a great love for the game and an unwillingness to stay away from it.
While Brett Favre just had to take the first snap on offense each week, Don Shula coached teams in Baltimore and Miami for 33 years and won 347 games. Shula was 328-156-6 (.678) in the regular season and 19-17 (.528) in the playoffs. His 526 games as a head coach are another record.
The “Unbreakable” Factors
First, let’s imagine you are lucky to be hired as a head coach at age 33, just like Shula was. Unlike Shula, let’s assume you get to coach your whole career with 16-game seasons (it may even be more in the future).
Now let’s assume you still think retiring after age 65 sounds like the (fading) American Dream. You coach 33 seasons in the NFL. Your teams average 10 wins a season, which is good enough for you to keep your job through this whole process.
Guess what? You are still 17 wins short of Shula’s 347. Now you have to come back another year, in which you are very unlikely to win 17 games. So then you come back yet another year, and now you are coaching at age 67. How likely is that?
That’s the difficulty involved with this record.
You have to coach a very long time, and you have to be consistently successful so that you keep your job. Even some of the greatest coaches in NFL history have been let go by their teams. Some coaches just burn out from the insane work week associated with the job.
Consistently winning 62.5 percent of your games is no easy task. Just 24 coaches have done it (minimum 50 games), and only half of them coached more than 100 regular-season games.
Also, does anyone find it interesting that Shula’s record is widely known as 347 because it includes postseason wins, while Favre’s consecutive starts record is better known as 297, excluding his postseason starts? Just another shoddy case of semantics with records.
But one thing’s for sure, this record is the real deal.
In second place, George Halas won 324 games with the Chicago Bears after a long career. Halas never got to coach in 16-game seasons or play under a true playoff format, but how many coaches would start at age 25 and coach until they were 72?
Tom Landry comes in third with 270 wins in his 29 seasons in Dallas. Only seven coaches have managed at least 200 wins.
There are several active coaches with strong winning percentages, but none of them will ever get to Shula’s 347 wins.
- Baltimore’s John Harbaugh got off to a late start at age 46.
- His brother Jim Harbaugh went 14-4 with San Francisco last year but was already 48.
- Mike Smith was even older at 49 when he took the job in Atlanta in 2008.
- Sean Payton was poised for great things in New Orleans, but he won’t even coach this year and will turn 50 in 2013.
- Just like Payton, Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy got his start in 2006 at the age 43. He would have to average 12.7 wins per season until he was 70 to reach Shula.
New England’s Bill Belichick is widely considered the best coach in the league. But with 192 wins at age 60, Belichick would have to average 15.5 wins per season for the next decade to match Shula. With many expecting him to retire the same time Tom Brady does, this simply is never going to happen.
The active coach seemingly in the best position is Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin. With just three head coaches since 1969, the Rooney’s have shown great loyalty for the coach’s job. The Steelers are always competing, never in a rebuilding phase.
But with 60 wins at age 40, does anyone see Tomlin averaging 10 wins per season over the next 29 years, when he will be 68 years old in the 2040 season?
No one even knows how he will handle future departures of key pieces like defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, and Ben Roethlisberger. Tomlin may easily not be in Pittsburgh by 2020, let alone 2040. Dr. Foreman watched House come to an end this year. Nothing lasts forever.
Saving on repetition, I did not mention that for practically all of these individual records, the best candidate to break them is likely not in the league yet. He may not even be born yet.
While the future is uncertain, hopefully this exercise has helped in explaining the past, and defining where we are at in the present. When someone breaks a record this year, stop to think about how he did it too.
Records are history, and the history of the record is important.
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