The 10 Greatest Quarterback Seasons in NFL History

Bryn SwartzSenior Writer IIIMarch 11, 2009

I have always had a fascination with the quarterback position.

Maybe it's because the position is the single most important position in all of professional sports. Maybe it's because I love leaders, and the quarterback is supposed to be the leader of a football team both on and off the field.

But mostly it's because quarterbacks always have—and probably always will—received the most praise when a team wins...and the most blame when a team loses.

In the history of the NFL, there have been 1,678 cumulative seasons of quarterback play.


The following list includes the most elite of the elite. It's a list so profound, some of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history—John Elway, Brett Favre, Bart Starr, and the immortal Johnny Unitas—didn't make the final cut. Neither did Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Roger Staubach, Jim Kelly, or Terry Bradshaw.


No quarterback appears twice on this list, which includes seven Hall of Famers and two future first ballot Hall of Famers.


I made the difficult decision of not including the postseason as factors in my rankings. I included some of the postseasons in my description, but didn't let them factor into the decision making. For example, a player like Ben Roethlisberger would only be rated on his regular season performances; the playoffs mean nothing.


I also needed a way to compare the statistic of passer rating across different eras. So I created a little formula I call PR+.


It's very similar to the baseball version of ERA+, which is a way to compare earned run averages in different eras by factoring in the pitcher's ballpark and the strength of the league that year. PR+ will factor in the passer rating compared to the league. A score of 100 is considered to be average, meaning above 100 is above average, and below 100 is below average.


For example, in 2004, Donovan McNabb's passer rating was 104.7. The league average for passer rating was 82.8. McNabb's value is 26 percent above the league average, meaning his passer rating plus (PR+) would be 126.



* Honorable Mention*

11) George Blanda, Houston Oilers, 1961.


Average quarterback: 64.7 rating, 202-405, 2906 yards, 21 TD, 26 INT

George Blanda: 91.3 rating, 187-362, 3,330 yards, 36 TD, 22 INT, 141 PR+


The 1961 Houston Oilers are the greatest offensive team in AFL history, and the most prolific scoring machine the league has ever seen, besides the 2007 New England Patriots.


The Oilers scored 513 points in 14 games for an average of 36.64 points per game. They put up 55 points against the Raiders and the Broncos. They scored 49 and 48 points against the New York Titans. They topped 45 points in two other games. In five of these six games, they put up over 500 yards of total offense.


The 34-year-old Blanda made just 11 of the 14 starts in 1961, leading the Oilers to 10 consecutive victories to end the season, including the AFL championship.


Blanda shattered the single-season record for touchdown passes (36). He was the only AFL quarterback to throw for more than 20 touchdowns. He came within two touchdown passes of doubling the runner-up in the league.


His 3,330 passing yards led the league and set a new AFL record. The AFL Player of the Year also topped the league in yards per attempt (9.2), yards per completion (17.8), and touchdown percentage (9.9 percent). He threw seven touchdown passes in a November game against the New York Titans.


Just under 20 percent of Blanda's completions went for scores. His 19.2 percentage ranks as the second greatest percentage in history, and has not been surpassed since.


The only knocks against Blanda?


22 interceptions ranked Blanda fifth out of the eight AFL quarterbacks in interception percentage. He also had pretty impressive supporting talent. Billy Cannon was the best running back in the league that season, while wide receivers Bill Groman (23.5 yards per catch, 17 touchdowns) and Charley Hennigan (82 receptions, 1746 yards, 12 touchdowns) turned in two of the greatest seasons by a wide receiver in history.


Blanda would go on to throw a record 42 interceptions the following season. He led the league in interceptions in each of the next four seasons. He played 15 more seasons of professional football and would never again be an elite quarterback.


For one season, though, he was king.



10) Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams, 1999.


Average quarterback: 77.1 rating, 309-541, 3,653 yards, 21 TD, 18 INT

Kurt Warner: 109.2 rating, 325-499, 4,353 yards, 41 TD, 13 INT, 142 PR+


In Kurt Warner's autobiography, he tells of a time when he and his father were stopped in the airport by Chris Berman of ESPN. This was in May 2000, following the Rams' Super Bowl victory over the Titans.


Berman congratulated Warner on his season and told him that ESPN considered him to be the greatest one-story wonder in the history of the National Football League.


Warner earned the starting job in August, after a season ending injury to Trent Green.


Warner, who had thrown 11 passes in his professional football career, joined Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 40 touchdowns in a single season (Brady and Manning have since joined that list).


Warner's league-leading 109.2 passer rating stands as the seventh highest total in NFL history. He also topped the National Football League in completion percentage (65.1 percent), yards per pass attempt (8.7), and touchdown percentage (8.2 percent). He ranked second in passing yards (4,353).


The Rams won 13 games during the regular season and earned home field advantage in the playoffs. Warner led the Rams to a Super Bowl title, throwing eight touchdown passes in the postseason—five against the Vikings in the divisional round, one against the Buccaneers in the championship game, and two against the Titans in the Super Bowl.


His final pass of the season was a game-winning 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce with under two minutes remaining in the Super Bowl.


I have just two knocks against Warner's storybook season.


He ranked just ninth in the NFL in interception percentage (2.6 percent), and he was surrounded by some of the most unbelievable supporting talent in the history of the NFL—future Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and Orlando Pace.


In fact, in 2008, Whatifsports conducted a test, where they took the 42 Super Bowl champions and played them against each other 100 times. The 1999 St. Louis Rams walked away as the greatest team in NFL history, winning 77.1 percent of their games.


In one season, Kurt Warner was the MVP of the National Football League, the MVP of the Super Bowl, and the quarterback of the greatest Super Bowl champion team in NFL history.



9) Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants, 1963.


Average quarterback: 69.1 rating, 205-407, 2,992 yards, 22 TD, 23 INT

Y.A. Tittle: 104.8 rating, 221-367, 3145 yards, 36 TD, 14 INT , 152 PR+


The 37-year-old Tittle turned in the greatest season ever by a Giants quarterback in 1963, capturing league MVP honors.


Tittle set a new NFL record with 36 touchdown passes. He topped the NFL in completion percentage (60.2 percent), yards per attempt (8.6), touchdown percentage (9.8 percent), and passer rating (104.8). Only one quarterback (Bart Starr in 1966) would surpass Tittle's passer rating over the next 20 years.


Tittle threw just 14 interceptions, which was a 50 percent improvement over the rest of the league.


In leading the Giants to the NFL championship, Tittle set an NFL record by throwing for 22 more touchdown passes than interceptions. He remains the only Hall of Fame quarterback to never win a postseason game (0-4 in NFL championship games).



8) Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers, 1989.


Average quarterback: 75.6 rating, 286-512, 3,659 yards, 21 TD, 20 INT

Joe Montana: 112.4 rating, 271-385, 3521 yards, 26 TD, 8 INT, 149 PR+


Although he only started in 13 of the 16 games that season, Montana absolutely dominated the NFL, earning league Most Valuable Player honors.


He set the single-season record for passer rating (112.4), leading the league by 22 percent. His league-leading 70.2 completion percentage is the third highest single-season total in history. He topped the NFL in yards per attempt (9.1) and touchdown percentage (6.7 percent).


Had Montana played a full season, he would have likely finished with 4,400 passing yards and 32 touchdown passes.


Montana led the 49ers to a 14-2 record (11-2 when he started) and a victory in Super Bowl XXIV. In the Super Bowl, Montana threw for five touchdown passes.



7) Steve Young, San Francisco 49ers, 1994.


Average quarterback: 78.4 rating, 312-538, 3,639 yards, 21 TD, 17 INT

Steve Young: 112.8 rating, 324-461, 3,969 yards, 35 TD, 10 INT, 144 PR+


Steve Young's 1994 season is probably my favorite quarterback season in NFL history.


Young dominated the league in 1994, setting a single-season record in passer rating (112.8). He topped the league with 35 touchdown passes, the fourth highest total in league history at that time. His league-leading 70.3 completion percentage still ranks second in NFL history. He easily led the NFL in yards per attempt (8.6) and touchdown percentage (7.6 percent).


Young also rushed 58 times for 293 yards (5.0 yards per carry), and seven touchdowns, meaning he accounted for 42 scores during the season.


Young earned Most Valuable Player honors for the second time in three seasons, solidifying his status as one of the greatest, if not most unappreciated, quarterbacks to ever play the game.


Young led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, where he broke Joe Montana's Super Bowl record by throwing for six touchdown passes in a 49-26 win over the San Diego Chargers. Young became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to win league MVP and Super Bowl MVP honors in the same season (Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana).



6) Milt Plum, Cleveland Browns, 1960.


Average quarterback: 63.2 rating, 175-355, 2,463 yards, 19 TD, 22 INT

Milt Plum: 110.4 rating, 151-250, 2,297 yards, 21 TD, 5 INT, 175 PR+


Plum's 1960 season is probably the most forgotten season in NFL history. While only diehard fans will even know the name, few could tell you that in 1960, Plum was better than all but five quarterbacks to ever play the game.


Plum set an NFL record in passer rating (110.4), with a PR+ of 175, the third highest among quarterbacks in the top ten seasons.


He averaged 9.2 yards per pass attempt, the fifth highest mark in NFL history at that time. He led the NFL in completion percentage (60.4 percent) and interception percentage (2.0). The next best quarterback in the NFL threw more than twice as many interceptions as Plum.


For Plum to throw less than one-fourth as many interceptions as the average NFL quarterback would be the equivalent of a quarterback today throwing for approximately four interceptions in a full season. One interception every 50 pass attempts is a record setting pace nowadays. In 1960, it was simply a mind-boggling statistic.


Brown did have the luxury of playing with the greatest running back in NFL history (Jim Brown), and a Hall of Fame fullback (Bobby Mitchell).


He led the Browns to an 8-3-1 record and a second-place finish in the NFL East.



5) Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts, 2004.


Average quarterback: 82.8 rating, 305-511, 3,604 yards, 23 TD, 16 INT

Peyton Manning: 121.4 rating, 336-497, 4,557 yards, 49 TD, 10 INT, 147 PR+


Manning's finest season came in 2004, as the NFL's Most Valuable Player led the Colts to a 12-4 record and a franchise record 522 points.


Manning shattered pro football's most famous record, as he threw his 49th touchdown pass in the season's 15th game to break Dan Marino's 20-year-old NFL record.


His touchdown-to-interception ratio (4.9-to-1) set an NFL record for quarterbacks with at least 25 touchdown passes. He became the first quarterback to throw 10 touchdown passes to three different wide receivers.


In one five-game stretch, Manning threw 24 touchdown passes. He could have easily hit 50 touchdown passes if he had played in the last game of the season. He threw more than twice as many touchdown passes as the average quarterback.


Manning also shattered the single-season record for passer rating (121.4). He posted a 100+ passer rating 11 times, including nine games in a row. He not only broke the single-season record for passer rating, he obliterated it. His mark will probably never be broken.


Manning topped the NFL in yards per attempt (9.2) and touchdown percentage (9.9 percent).


The only knock against Manning's brilliance?


He didn't dominate the league quite as much as some may remember. 2004 was a record-setting season in scoring, as four quarterbacks posted a passer rating above 104. Twelve different teams scored more than 370 points.



4) Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins, 1984.


Average quarterback: 76.1 rating, 288-512, 3,651 yards, 22 TD, 21 INT

Dan Marino: 108.9 rating, 362-584, 5,084 yards, 48 TD, 17 INT, 143 PR+


Marino's 1984 season might be the most popular and well-known of any quarterback in NFL history.


Marino shattered the single-season record for passing touchdowns (48). He broke George Blanda's 23-year-old NFL record by a full 33 percent—the equivalent of a quarterback throwing for 66 touchdowns today.


He also broke the single-season record for passing yards (5084), a record that has been challenged many times, but has withstood the test of time.


Marino led the league in completions (362), attempts (564), yards per attempt (9.0), touchdown percentage (8.5 percent), and passer rating (108.9). His completion percentage ranked third (64.2 percent) and he posted the sixth lowest interception percentage (3.0 percent).


He turned Mark Clayton (1,389 yards, 18 touchdowns) and Mark Duper (1,306 yards, 8 touchdowns) into superstars. He did all of this despite having a leading rusher (Woody Bennett) who failed to average 40 yards per game.


Marino led the Dolphins to a 14-2 record and an appearance in Super Bowl XIX, where he threw for 318 yards with a then-record 29 completions.



3) Sammy Baugh, Washington Redskins, 1945.


Average quarterback: 47.5 rating, 96-211, 1,438 yards, 11 TD, 19 INT

Sammy Baugh: 109.9 rating, 128-182, 1,669 yards, 11 TD, 4 INT, 231 PR+


I believe that PR+ is the most important statistic when judging a quarterback. In 1945, Sammy Baugh turned in the highest single-season PR+ total in NFL history: 231.


Baugh's season was record-setting in three extremely important statistics: passer rating, completion percentage, and interception percentage.


Baugh's passer rating of 109.9 ranks as the seventh highest total in NFL history—unofficially.


Officially, because Baugh played in just eight of the 12 games and threw just 182 total passes, his season is not recognized by the NFL record book. Sid Luckman ranked second in the league with an 82.5 passer rating, meaning Baugh bettered Luckman's mark by 33 percent.


The average quarterback completed 45.5 percent of his passes in 1945. Baugh completed 70.3 percent of his passes, setting an NFL record that would be broken by Ken Anderson (70.6 percent) in 1981.


It could be argued that no quarterback in the history of the National Football League has ever dominated a single statistic the way Baugh dominated completion percentage in 1945. Baugh's completion percentage was 55 percent better than the league average, which would be the equivalent of a quarterback completing 97 percent of his passes in today's game.


Baugh set an NFL record in interception percentage (2.2 percent). His four interceptions in 182 pass attempts looks extremely impressive based on today's standards.


Projected over a full season, Baugh would have thrown about 12 interceptions. Factoring in the difference in eras,  Baugh would have tossed approximately 30 and 32 touchdowns, and either four or five interceptions.


Baugh also led the team in interceptions, as usual, and led the entire NFL in punting, as usual. His Redskins finished 8-2 and advanced to the NFL championship game.



2) Tom Brady, New England Patriots, 2007.


Average quarterback: 82.7 rating, 326-533, 3,652 yards, 23 TD, 17 INT

Tom Brady: 117.2 rating, 398-578, 4,806 yards, 50 TD, 8 INT, 142 PR+


This should come as no surprise to anyone.


In 2007, Tom Brady turned in the greatest season by any quarterback in the last six-plus decades.


Brady led the New England Patriots to the first 16-0 season in NFL history.


The Patriots shattered the NFL single-season record for points scored with 589.


Brady led the charge on a scoring attack that topped 50 points twice, 40 points four times, and 30 points 12 times. The Patriots averaged 41.4 points per game in the first half of the season. In the second half, they 'cooled' off, averaging 32.3 points per game. Most importantly, they did not lose. Not once.


Brady's numbers were astronomical. His 50 touchdown passes broke the most famous single-season record in all of the NFL, and with the advent of the steroid era in baseball, possibly in all of professional sports.


He led the NFL with a passer rating of 117.2, the second highest total in NFL history.


His fairly-low PR+ of 142 (compared to the rest of the quarterbacks on this list) can be attributed to the fact that the league passer rating was 82.7, one of the highest marks in history. Brady could have posted a 158.3 passer rating and his PR+ would have been 191, 'only' third all time.


Brady topped the NFL in passing yards (4806), yards per attempt (8.3), completion percentage (68.9), and touchdown percentage (8.7 percent). He became just one of four quarterbacks to average a touchdown pass per 100 yards passing. He posted the greatest touchdown-to-interception ratio in NFL history (6.25 to 1).


It didn't matter who Brady played. He threw for 23 touchdowns and three interceptions in seven games against playoff teams. He threw for three or more touchdowns in the first 10 games of the season. He posted a triple-digit passer rating 11 times. He threw for 20 touchdown passes in October. At one point in the season, Brady had thrown 39 touchdown passes and four interceptions.


The 2007 Most Valuable Player threw more than twice as many touchdowns as the average quarterback.


He joined Donovan McNabb on the short list of quarterbacks who have thrown more than 30 touchdown passes and fewer than 10 interceptions in a season. He joined Montana, Elway, and Bradshaw on the list of quarterbacks to lead their team to four Super Bowls.



1) Sid Luckman, Chicago Bears, 1943.


Average quarterback: 96-217, 1,414 yards, 14 touchdowns, 23 interceptions, 48.6 rating

Sid Luckman: 110-202, 2,194 yards, 28 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 107.5 rating, 221 PR+


What? You never heard of him? You barely heard of him but don't know too much about him? You have heard of him but didn't realize how great he was?


Get ready to learn.


Sid Luckman's season in 1943 stands as the single greatest season by any quarterback in the league's history.


In 1943, the average quarterback completed 44 percent of his passes. Quarterbacks averaged 14 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions.


Luckman threw twice as many touchdowns as the average quarterback. He threw half as many interceptions.


His 28 touchdowns broke the previous NFL record of 24 set by Green Bay Packers' quarterback Cecil Isbell the year before. His 2,194 passing yards and 219.4 passing yards per game set new records. His 107.5 passer rating was 20 points higher than the previous single-season record holder (Cecil Isbell of 1942).


One out of every four Luckman completions went for a touchdown. By comparison, one out of every seven Manning completions in 2004 went for a touchdown. One out of every seven Luckman attempts went for a touchdown. His 13.5 touchdown percentage is a record that will never be seriously challenged, let alone broken.


He averaged 10.94 yards per pass attempt, another NFL record. Some quarterbacks struggle to average that per completion.


Luckman even set NFL records in statistics that don't exist. His PR+ was 221, the second highest mark in NFL history. He averaged one touchdown pass per 78 passing yards, another record.


Were it not for a career year by Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh, Luckman would have finished first—and not second—in completions, attempts, and completion percentage.


Watch what happens when I take Luckman's stats away from the league's statistics:



Average quarterback: 94-219, 1302 yards, 12 touchdowns, 24 interceptions, 41.9 rating

Sid Luckman: 110-202, 2194 yards, 28 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 107.5 rating, 257 PR+


Take away Sammy Baugh—the only other legit quarterback in the league—and the numbers are even more extreme:



Average quarterback: 88-217, 1227 yards, 10 touchdowns, 25 interceptions, 35.8 rating

Sid Luckman: 110-202, 2194 yards, 28 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 107.5 rating, 300 PR+


Even more amazingly, Luckman achieved these stats with little to no protection. Defenders were allowed to practically decapitate the quarterback, and many tried to do so.


Luckman also had the 'luxury' of playing virtually every single snap that season—on both sides of the ball. He played all ten games at quarterback. He intercepted four passes as a defensive back. He served as the team's punter. He even returned a few punts and kickoffs.


For Luckman to play the way he did is unbelievable and shows how superior he was to the rest of the NFL.


His season in 1943 will likely stand as the greatest season by a quarterback until the end of time.