The debate over the best quarterbacks in history will never end, but there are some single season performances that simply stand above the rest. The post-merger NFL is rich with stories of passers who led their teams to victory while shattering records along the way, but few quarterbacks defined the standard for their position with a single season performance.
What follows is a list of the best post-merger NFL regular seasons for quarterbacks in history.
Drawing heavily on historical accounts, databases like Pro-Football-Reference, and individual narratives, this list ranks quarterbacks by their performance relative to year.
Some quarterbacks transcended their era, while others epitomized it. Many quarterbacks had a fantastic run for one or two years and then faded away, and even fewer had consistently strong careers.
Regardless of their lasting impact on the game, every single season performance after the NFL-AFL merger has been evaluated, graded and boiled down.
We'll kick off with quarterbacks who barely missed cracking the top ten.
While these seasons were all impressive in their own right, the play of these quarterbacks didn't quite dominate the league like the other ten performances that made the list.
Roger Staubach: 1971—While perhaps the best quarterback of the 1970s, Staubach put in several solid years of performance but never quite matched his Super Bowl-winning 1971 season, a season he wasn't even slated to start.
Captain Comeback's 1971 season doesn't qualify because he and Craig Morton would start different games, and even traded snaps in a disastrous Week 7 game against the Chicago Bears. Staubach wasn't installed as the starter until after that game, and won every game after that.
His extraordinarily low interception rate—1.9 percent of all passes thrown—would have been impressive in today's NFL, much less in the 1970s, where quarterbacks gave the ball away over 5 percent of the time.
Coupled with his prodigious running (343 yards, two touchdowns), a full season of these numbers would have catapulted him to nearly the top of the rankings.
Mark Rypien: 1991—One of two great seasons for the Redskins' Rypien, he led the league in 1991 in adjusted net yards per attempt, which gives penalties and bonuses for touchdowns and interceptions while also adjusting for the strength of opposing defenses. It is the statistic most highly correlated with predicting future wins.
Mostly on the strength of longer passes, Rypien's relatively average completion rate puts him on the wrong side of history for what makes quarterbacks effective. While a powerful force for one of the better teams to have won a Super Bowl, the Redskins defense contributed more to their run than many give them credit for.
Kurt Warner: 1999—Warner performed at a high level for many years, but turned in his top performance in his first full year for the Rams. Earning that year's MVP and winning the Super Bowl, Warner's Rams scored 30 or more points in 12 games that year.
Warner misses not because of any deficiency of his play that year, but because his dominance was not as established against the rest of the league in most statistical categories. The season is excellent, but not great.
Randall Cunningham: 1998—Perhaps one of the best offenses in history, the Vikings were a threat to score whenever they took the field. He converted eight percent of his throws into touchdowns, the second highest total of the decade, after Warner.
While some may have penalized him for having a good receiving corps, he is instead hurt for having a relatively average yardage total relative to the league (a result of the fact that he started 14 of 16 games), average completion rates and average interception rates.
Chris Chandler: 1998—The quarterback who led the Falcons team to their only Super Bowl turned 33 before putting in a good season's work. It was quite the season; he turned in the second highest unadjusted yards per attempt in post-merger history, and has the highest such rate relative to his peers.
Unfortunately, he just misses this list for three reasons: First, he posted an average interception rate. Second, he had the misfortune to play behind an offensive line that gave up 45 sacks and 283 yards, limiting his potential net yards when dropping back to pass. Finally, much of his yardage came against bad defenses. Chandler's season was very good, but not good enough.
Bert Jones is somewhat of a forgotten hero in Colts lore. Having been drafted to replace the inestimable Johnny Unitas in 1973, Bert had his first full season in 1975. It wasn't until a year later, however, that Jones came into his own.
Throwing for 3,104 yards, Jones held the league's passing title. He was one of only three quarterbacks in the 1970s to exceed a passer rating of 100, the others being Ken Stabler and Roger Staubach.
He controlled Baltimore's fate, and it was one of the only teams in the early '70s who won on the strength of their offense instead of their defense.
Many contemporary fans roll their eyes when they hear that "defense wins championships," but in the 1970s, defenses really were much more likely to win games for their teams.
Despite this, there have been some incredible quarterback performances coming from an era best known for its strong defenses and bruising runners.
The 1970s truly were a "dead ball era" for the NFL. Passing styles were radically different, and what was important to winning games has changed. In the early 2000s, yards per completion and completion percentage correlated with winning relatively equally. In the 1970s, yards per completion was king.
When weighting completion percentage and yards per completion to win likelihood, Bert Jones comes out second overall for '70s quarterbacks. After adjusting for his era, he set a record for net yards per attempt—one that wouldn't be broken until 1984 by Dan Marino.
He finished the 1976 regular season as the MVP, having thrown only 9 interceptions to 24 touchdowns.
Belichick called him the "best pure passer" he ever saw, and if his career hadn't ended due to shoulder injury in the 1978 preseason, he may have ended up as one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
One of the greatest left-handed quarterbacks of all time, Boomer quarterbacked one of the best teams not to have won a Super Bowl.
The Bengals were undefeated at home, in no small part because of Esiason's skill at running the "no-huddle" offense that he and coach Sam Wyche pioneered.
Boomer and his team executed this offense well, and Boomer ended the regular season with an astounding 9.2 yards per attempt, separating him from the league average of 6.4 YPA by 47 percent—the second highest difference in league history.
In a league with Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly and Warren Moon, Esiason captured the MVP award while running an offense that outscored everyone else.
While his completion rating was relatively average, he threw long passes; his receivers caught the ball for an average gain of 16 yards. Esiason was fantastic at exploiting matchups, and gashed opposing defenses for 28 touchdowns—36 percent higher per pass than league average.
People will often criticize quarterbacks who advance in new systems, but Boomer is somewhat of an exception because of the obvious difficulty of running the no-huddle offense.
Esiason excelled at reading opposing defenses, calling plays at the line, and using the tired defensive personnel on the field as an asset whenever possible, a necessary set of skills for the complex offense.
Beyond paving the way for the K-Gun system in Buffalo and variations used by today's top quarterbacks, Boomer's intelligent reads and long gains also gave the rushing game extra room to play in. The Bengals led the NFL in total yards gained as well as in total rushing yards, with mediocre backs like Ickey Woods and James Brooks gaining most of the yards.
The cherry on the cake was Boomer's running, who is one of the few quarterbacks who was able to make up for lost sack yardage with positive rushing yards, netting 3 yards.
If Boomer had been able to keep up this performance for longer or had won Super Bowl rings, he would have a great argument for the Hall.
Steve Young is inarguably one of the best quarterbacks to grace the football field and has produced a number of stellar seasons to that effect. Young's 1992 season was not just characterized by an efficient West Coast passing game, but also by effective scrambling.
Young passed for nearly 3,500 yards and ran for another 537 while only throwing 7 interceptions. Coupled with 25 touchdowns in the air and another 4 on the ground, Young's 1992 season is one of the most efficient on record.
Despite playing in a short passing game, Young's completion percentage—while league leading—was not notable in any particular way. This combined with a low yards per completion (12.9) meant that his yards per attempt was relatively low for elite quarterbacks.
Still, his productiveness is notable, and he ended the year with a passer rating of 107.0, third highest in post-merger history at the time.
In 1992, Steve Young threw 3.6 touchdowns for every interception, a historically high mark.
The defining statistic for Young's 1992 season, however, was his adjusted net yards per attempt. Otherwise known as ANY/A, adjusted net yards measures how many yards an average pass will provide, after penalizing sack yardage and interceptions, while adding bonuses for touchdowns. The statistic is then adjusted for the strength of opposing defenses.
Astonishingly, despite his low total yardage, Young's ANY/A was 39 percent higher than league average.
This is not just a result of his excellent interception and touchdown rates (26 percent and 30 percent better than league average per pass attempt), but also his ability to reduce sack yardage. He took the second lowest yards per sack of any quarterback in 1992, with an average of 5.2 yards lost; Aikman's 4.9 barely beat it out.
Young's 1992 season was excellent in nearly every aspect, from his touchdown rate to his passer rating, and was only helped by his excellent running ability.
Gathering Pro Bowl, All-Pro, and MVP honors, Steve Young had one of the finest seasons in quarterbacking history.
The only quarterback with two seasons on the list, Steve Young undoubtedly had a hot career. The two seasons fall consecutively on the list, and are indeed difficult to separate.
Young's 1994 season was different in a number of ways, however.
Not only did Young "take the monkey off of his back," by winning his first Super Bowl, he was much more constrained. Young scrambled less and took advantage of his time in the pocket by taking 20 fewer runs and passing 60 more times.
That year, Steve Young threw for nearly 4,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 461 attempts. Relative to era, that gives him the fifth highest touchdown passing rate in post-merger history while still rushing for an additional 7 touchdowns.
He once again finished with a passer rating over 40 percent of the NFL average and set a league record at 112.8. In addition, he had an even higher ANY/A than before.
While he didn't prevent nearly as many interceptions as before, his completion percentage was the second best in history, behind only Ken Anderson's great (but strike-shortened) 1982 season. In fact, the only players with better completion percentages relative to their era were Ken Anderson, Ken Stabler, and Joe Montana.
Responsible for over 40 touchdowns, Steve Young was one of the first quarterbacks to produce over 250 points in a season.
Once again finishing with the MVP award, All-Pro and Pro Bowl considerations, Young was able to add to his accolades by grabbing a Super Bowl MVP and a Super Bowl ring as well. 1994 was another dominant season from a Bill Walsh protege.
Ken Stabler may have been one of the most underappreciated players of the 1970s, and the Snake has quite the resume to argue for inclusion into the Hall of Fame.
With several seasons as the passing touchdown leader, the passer rating leader, the completion leader, and the yardage leader, Stabler has both the statistics and accolades—4 Pro Bowls, 2 All-Pros, an MVP and a ring—to argue for the honor of Hall recognition.
While many might argue that Stabler's 1974 MVP season should take precedence over his 1976 season, the comparisons aren't all that close.
Stabler's 1976 season was historic. Not only did it set a single-season record for quarterback completion percentage, Stabler did it with an astonishing 14.1 yards per completion.
His 9.4 yards per attempt would only be matched twice since then—by Chris Chandler in 1998 and Kurt Warner in 2000, and only matched once when correcting for era, by Boomer Esiason in 1988.
If one weights completions and yardage gains by their coefficients for winning, Stabler's high-percentage, high-yardage offense wouldn't be matched by anyone in history.
By comparison, his 1974 season was marked by barely better than average interception and completion rates, with good but not great net yards per attempt. While he did throw for touchdowns 37 percent more often than the average quarterback in 1974, his statistics don't bear out the type of dominance that he possessed in 1976.
While not earning the MVP award in what turned out to be a good year, Stabler has a good argument for having a top season regardless. Tied for first with Joe Montana for relative yards per attempt (45 percent above the average), Stabler threw for nearly 230 yards per game, most in the league. He would have led the league in passing yardage if had played in the Week 3 game against the Steelers or the Week 14 game against the Cowboys.
Even though interceptions were not nearly as relevant in the 70s, his average interception rate keeps him at number six on the list along with the fact that he only started 12 of his 14 games.
Montana played at a consistently high level for eight or nine years before posting his best season. At age 33, Montana only played 13 of 16 games, but still performed well enough to grab nearly every individual accolade possible: MVP awards from three organizations (AP, Pro Football Writers Associaton and the Newspaper Entertainment Association), Offensive Player of the Year, Bert Bell Player of the Year, and Super Bowl MVP.
Joe Montana played an astounding 8 out of 13 games with a passer rating above 100, including five games above 130 and one game with a perfect passer rating.
His 112.4 passer rating set a record that hadn't been broken for 29 years, and would only be broken again 5 years later by Steve Young. It is the second highest quarterback rating relative to the league average in history, and the best completion percentage—70.2 percent—relative to his era by a near insurmountable margin.
At no other point in NFL history has a quarterback's completion percentage been 50 percent higher than the average of his peers, but Montana did it with relative ease at 52 percent. The closest era-adjusted quarterback was Ken Stabler in 1976, whose approach was ten points lower.
Only 2.1 percent of his passes were thrown for interceptions, which was second best in the league (behind a less-than-productive Chris Miller), and he had the highest percentage of his throws converted into touchdowns, a phenomenal combination of statistics.
His yards per completion was only 0.2 yards larger than league average and his adjusted net yards per attempt is relatively average among the members of this list, beating the league average by 41 percentage points (good for about 7th place among quarterbacks in history).
Joe Montana's 1989 season is in the conversation for having the best rate statistics of any year, but having only played 13 games penalizes him, both because he had fewer opportunities to regress in his performance and because his totals are still relatively low: 3,521 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 271 completions.
Montana is clearly one of the best quarterbacks of all time, and performances like this make it clear as to why.
Marino's place as an elite quarterback has been contested by fans and pundits, but his record-setting 1984 season should unquestionably be considered as one of history's best.
Those who dismiss volumetric records might be hesitant to consider Marino's 1984 campaign as one of the best of all time, but Marino dominated at a time when quarterback play wasn't nearly as important as it is today.
His rate statistics are as impressive as his totals were—he led the league in the percentage of dropbacks that ended in sacks (2.3 percent), total sacks, total sack yardage lost, yards per attempt, defense-adjusted yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, passer rating, and touchdown rate (8.5 percent of his passes resulted in touchdowns).
Further, he ranked third in completion percentage, fifth in yards per completion, sixth in interception rate, and fourth in fourth quarter comebacks.
More well known are the records he set: 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns, records that stood for 27 years and 20 years, respectively. Marino played so beyond his era, that teams wouldn't regularly reach his statistics until the mid-2000s.
After adjusting for league average, Marino finished second overall in yards per attempt, and adjusted net yards per attempt. There is no question that this is one of the best seasons in history.
Not many things hold him back on this list. The most important two are a relatively low completion percentages and yards per completion when run through era adjustments. He also could have improved his interception rate or his touchdown rate. His relatively low passer rating (8th overall) reflects this, even though the rest of the quarterbacks on this list all appear 20 years later.
Marino ran quarterbacking clinics again and again in the 1980s, and it is a real pity that he finished his career without a ring. He is definitively one of the finest quarterbacks of all time.
The Patriots' near perfect season will haunt New England fans for decades to come, but the team's performance over the course of the season is still something to be admired.
Brady beat the record set by Manning by throwing 50 touchdowns, and joins Rodgers in having an extraordinarily low interception total, with eight.
Out of all of the seasons evaluated for the list, Brady places second overall in touchdown-interception ratio (25:4). His efficient season earned him a passer rating of 117.2, which was the second highest in history at the time.
Brady led the league in nearly every rate statistic: completion percentage, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, and adjusted net yards per attempt. He also led the league in yards per game, and led the most prolific offense in history.
Beyond that, he led the league in touchdowns per pass and was third in the league in interceptions per pass. Aided by the best deep threat and slot receiver in the league, Brady took advantage of his tools to gash defenses for 4,806 total yards and led his team to four fourth-quarter comebacks.
While marred in the eyes of many for rule violations by the Patriots organization, it is impossible to deny that Brady played at a level that some didn't expect to see again.
The beauty of the Patriots game can't be denied, and Brady could complete nearly every throw. He threw to receivers whose skills were so complete and varied that opponents struggled to account for every possibility.
Belichick's playbook included three or four route options per receiver on each play and Brady knew all of them. Certainly, that offense signaled a shift in quarterback play—afterwards, successful teams focused on offensive playmakers and maximized their passing statistics.
More importantly, the conversation moved from offensive and defensive balance to merely the importance of powerful point-scoring teams.
Once adjusted for his league year, Brady ranks fourth in adjusted net yards per attempt, second in passer rating, and second in touchdown rate. His interception rate is fourth among his elite peers, and fourth in ANY/A.
His relatively low yards per catch and completion percentage to other elite quarterbacks in their prime drops him to number three on the list, and there is no denying that there were weaknesses in the Patriots' armor. In addition, Brady does not rank first in any era-adjusted rate stats.
This was still a season to remember, even for Patriots fans.
Aaron Rodgers is probably the best quarterback currently in the NFL, and he's only had 4 seasons under his belt. His 2011 campaign was a lesson in efficiency and offensive prowess.
Not only did the Green Bay product set the record for passer rating in a single season at 122.5, he had the best touchdown-interception ratio of quarterbacks on this list, and probably out of all regularly starting quarterbacks in history. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine that there are many other quarterbacks out there who could throw 15 touchdowns for every interception.
Throwing for 4,643 yards, his season was defined by ruthless performance on every play more than by volumetric statistics—9.0 percent of his passes resulted in touchdowns and only 1.2 percent of his passes were turned over for an interception.
If Rodgers had played the last game against the Lions there is a distinct possibility he could have also surpassed the 5,000 yard mark, given that he was throwing for over 300 yards a game on average.
In 2011, Rodgers led the league in yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, touchdown rate, net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt and placed second in both the total number of touchdowns thrown and completion percentage.
He does suffer, however, from passing in a pass-happy era. When adjusted for league average, Rodgers falls to sixth in yards per attempt, third in adjusted net yards per attempt, third in touchdown rate, fourth in passer rating, and fourth in interception rate.
His completion percentage is also historically low, and his defense did not allow him onto the field often enough for him to accrue additional total yardage. His sack rate (6.7 percent) and total sack yardage (219) limited his net yardage, but he does make up for the last with excellent rushing—257 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground.
Nevertheless, he ranks second overall when weighting his yards per completion and completion percentage to the likelihood of winning.
There's no reason to expect Rodgers to regress too much, and we should expect him to join Steve Young in having two seasons worthy of being called "one of the greatest ever" in the coming years.
Peyton Manning's 2004 season was the best regular season performance the NFL has ever seen, and perhaps may never be replicated.
Manning broke Marino's twenty year record of 48 touchdowns, and only threw 10 interceptions. More importantly, his 49 touchdowns came in under 500 attempts, giving him the NFL record for touchdown rate in the post-merger era, with 9.9 percent of his passes ending in the endzone.
He threw for 4,557 yards and led the league in the four most important rate statistics: yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, and adjusted net yards per attempt.
Peyton placed second in he league in sack percentage and was only sacked for 101 yards. He ranked fourth in interception rate and ranked third in the league in game-winning drives.
Despite an ahistoric spike in passer rating in 2004, Peyton's rating is the only one in history that surpassed his peers by over 50 percent.
Interestingly, in spite of a poor defense, the Colts had the second highest point differential in the league.
The biggest knock on Peyton's season is that his team lost four games in the regular season, and in the second round of the playoffs. He unfortunately was victim to a coaching staff willing to lose late games once the playoff spot had been secured (substituting in Jim Sorgi after three plays in the last game) and a defense that could best be described as "anti-clutch," which gave up two game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.
Manning's team never scored under 20 points in the regular when he played the full game, and scored over 30 points on ten different occasions.
Where he really stands out, however, is in era-adjusted statistics. He had the best league adjusted passer rating, touchdown rate and adjusted net yards per attempt of every quarterback in history. He had the third best touchdown-interception ratio at 5:1 and ranks second out of all quarterbacks on the list when weighting completion percentage and yards per completion for winning.
No other quarterback on the list led others in league adjusted ratings in more than one category, and Manning's 2004 season led in three. In particular, his touchdown rate may never be matched again. He beat the league average by 68 percent, and only two quarterback seasons exceeded their league averages by 50 percent—second place (Brady) was a full 15 percent lower, a nearly unfathomable distance.
Manning was efficient and prolific in 2004, and his MVP, Pro Bowl, and All-Pro were all well-deserved.
Peyton Manning had the best season in post-merger quarterback history, and he ran away with it.