The Greatest Single-Season Performance in Every NFL Team's History
Dan Marino's 1984 assault on the record books. Barry Sanders juking his way to a NFL MVP award. Reggie White's short-circuited season of glory.
These are some of the NFL's best season-long performances. What are each team's best individual seasons? Here is my take, in team alphabetical order.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
Arizona / St. Louis Cardinals
Ottis Anderson, RB—1979
It was quite the impressive season for the rookie out of Miami.
He was third in the league with 1,605 rushing yards, especially impressive considering Earl Campbell and Walter Payton were the only two running backs ahead of him. He easily won the rookie of the year award in one of the few truly great performances by an Arizona Cardinal.
Jamal Anderson, RB—1998
Fitting that the inventor of the Dirty Bird would have the Falcons' best season. But that is not why. Mostly.
The 1998 Falcons were a flash in the pan, and Jamal Anderson was at the core. He rushed for 1,846 yards, which was still not good enough for the rushing title—Terrell Davis had 2,008 yards that year. He also had 16 total touchdowns and helped lead the Falcons to an ill-fated Super Bowl appearance.
Unfortunately, Atlanta ran him into the ground with 410 carries; Anderson was never the same, and neither was that team.
Ray Lews, ILB—2000
This one is a bit tricky considering the Ravens are the Cleveland Browns of yesteryear. Being that the Dawg Pound was revived in Cleveland a scant few years after Art Modell ripped the hearts out of Browns fans in 1995, we can consider the Ravens to be a distinctly different franchise.
That means we have relatively few seasons from which to cull their best performances when comparing them to most other franchises. Who else would be here but Ray Lewis, forever the face of the franchise?
A cloud hung over Lewis when he came back to football in 2000. He had just been indicted for capital murder, eventually escaping with a guilty plea on charges obstruction of justice. The media and fans were all over him heading into the season as a result.
How did he respond? By winning the 2000 Defensive Player of the Year Award, of course. It was not his best statistical season, but it was his most important one.
He led a frighteningly good Ravens defense that all but won Super Bowl XXXIV on their own.
Bruce Smith, DE—1990
Apologies to O.J. Simpson, who broke the 2,000-yard barrier in 1973. Bruce Smith edges him out here.
Having already established himself as a dominant pass-rusher, Smith took things to another level in 1990. Going toe-to-toe with Derrick Thomas, Smith wound up with 19 sacks, one shy of the league-leading Thomas.
He really set himself apart with 101 tackles, however, helping him win the first of two Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Smith helped lead his team to the first of three consecutive Super Bowl appearances—and losses—that season, but the defense could not match New York's in Super Bowl XXV.
Cam Newton, QB—2011
There are relatively few seasons to discuss for the Panthers, and how could we pick any other?
Newton might be going through a major sophomore slump, but there is little competition here. Indeed, Newton played some weak competition and was not able to bring his team from behind to win many games, but he had the best rookie season in the history of the NFL.
Over 4,000 yards passing and 14 rushing touchdowns—an all-time record at the position—would be difficult for any other Panther to overcome in this discussion.
Sweetness had a magnificent career, but no season was statistically sweeter than his 1977 campaign.
The Chicago legend had 2,121 total yards and 16 total touchdowns, earning NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year honors along the way.
His 1985 campaign might have been sweeter because the Bears won it all, but few running backs have matched his '77 season.
Where do we go with the Bengals? Known as the "Bungles" for many seasons—with a few competent years sprinkled in—there are not too many great season-long performances from which to draw.
Ickey Woods? Carson Palmer? Corey Dillon?
They all had fine seasons. But one stood above the rest: Ken Anderson's 1982 campaign.
It was a strike-shortened season, and the Bengals were coming off a narrow loss to the 49ers in Super Bowl XVI. There was no hangover for Cincinnati that season, though as they stormed to a 7-2 record and another playoff berth.
Anderson threw for 2,945 yards and 12 touchdowns in that span, rushing for 85 yards and four touchdowns as well. Prorated to 16 games, that is 4,435 yards and 21 passing touchdowns as well as seven rushing touchdowns.
Jim Brown, FB—1963
Did you think there was anyone else?
Out of all the years he led the league in rushing, 1963 was his finest. He had 1,863 yards rushing and 2,131 total yards to go along with 15 total touchdowns that year. The big fullback won several MVP awards that season, but that was commonplace for the best back in the league.
Emmitt Smith, RB—1995
The height of the Cowboys glory came in the mid-'90s, and no player was more central to their success than Emmitt Smith.
The all-time rushing leader had the best season of his career that year, totaling 2,148 yards and 25 touchdowns. He far outdid his 1993 MVP campaign, but did not win any honors outside All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections.
The Cowboys would go on to win their last Super Bowl that year, thanks in no small part to Smith's contribution.
Terrell Davis, RB—1998
John Elway had so many great seasons for the Broncos, but he could not get over the championship hump. Much like his draft classmate, Dan Marino, he seemed destined to be one of the game's greats without a ring.
Then Terrell Davis came to town.
It is not quite that simple, but Davis gave the Broncos a legitimate running threat that helped Elway win two championships in the twilight of his career. The second one came at the expense of the Falcons in 1998, a season that saw Davis one-up upstart Atlanta's Jamal Anderson and rush for 2,008 yards.
Much like Anderson, Davis was never the same after 392 rushing attempts.
Barry Sanders, RB—1997
Best running back in history. (Assuming you leave Jim Brown in the fullback category.)
Barry Sanders was an amazing player to watch, and no more awesome to witness than in 1997. The dynamic Hall of Famer rushed for 2,053 yards—third-best total of all time—and 11 touchdowns, leading the Lions to their last playoff berth for a while in the process.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers, QB—2011
Brett Favre or Bart Starr might have a bone to pick with this, but there is little doubt who had Green Bay's best season-long performance of all time.
Favre never cracked 40 touchdowns or 4,500 yards passing or a 100-plus NFL rating with the Packers, though, and he never came close to Rodgers' efficiency from just a year ago.
The Discount Double Check was simply lethal, leading the league with a record-breaking 122.5 rating while lapping the league by throwing for 9.2 yards per attempt. His raw numbers might not have stacked up to Drew Brees, who shattered Dan Marino's yardage record, but Rodgers would have thrown for 6,000 yards had he he thrown the number of passes Brees threw.
Rodgers rightfully won the NFL MVP award after nearly leading his team to an undefeated season with ruthless efficiency. The Packers could not repeat their championship success of the prior season, though, but that was mostly because of a porous defense.
Arian Foster, RB—2010
Another young club, the Texans have a few good choices for this honor. None are better than Foster, however.
Undrafted out of Tennessee, Foster took the league by storm in his second season. He led the league with 1,616 rushing yards, 2,220 total yards and 16 rushing touchdowns.
While Peyton Manning has had some fantastic seasons in his illustrious career, we mustn't forget his Indianapolis ancestor.
Unitas had, perhaps, a better all-around season in 1959, but the 1960 season was special for one particular reason: The Golden Arm was the first NFL quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season.
(Frank Tripucka was technically the first professional to reach 3,000 yards, but he only beat Unitas by one day and did so on the 14th game of the AFL season.)
Unitas did it in 12.
In today's NFL, Unitas' numbers would translate to 4,132 yards and 33 touchdowns. These are monstrous numbers by 1960 standards.
Of course, we can easily take his 1959 season as well, when he threw for 2,899 yards and 32 touchdowns—3,865 yards and 43 touchdowns over a 16-game schedule—and led the Colts to a 9-3 record.
Mark Brunell had a fantastic 1996 campaign, leading the league with 4,287 yards passing in just his third season in the league. But that was not nearly as impressive as what MJD did last season.
You see, the Jaguars were horrific on offense in 2011. That is largely in part to a rookie quarterback who looked like a confused deer on a highway. That Jones-Drew was able to lead the league with 1,616 yards rushing with a bone-on-bone condition in his knee was just short of miraculous.
Kansas City Chiefs
Derrick Thomas, OLB—1990
Never mind that Thomas the league with 20 sacks, missing out on a chance to break the all-time record because he played in just 15 games. Forget that he keyed a Top-5 Kansas City defense that helped get the team to the playoffs.
He did it all as a rookie.
Dan Marino, QB—1984
It might seem incredible that Dan Marino's best season was his first full season as a starter considering his career accomplishments, but the fact that it was his second season only enhances how special this year was.
Marino opened up the season by throwing five touchdowns against the Redskins, and he never looked back. The quick-draw out of Pittsburgh wound up setting the single-season yardage and touchdown records at quarterback, both marks that would not fall for over 20 years despite the dramatic rise of the passing game through the years.
He led the Dolphins to a Super Bowl berth, but they were trampled by Bill Walsh's juggernaut 49ers.
Randy Moss, WR—1998
The Vikings took a bit of a chance on Moss, who had scared off 31 other teams during the draft process with off-field issues and an attitude.
The chip on his shoulder grew to the size of Minneapolis, and he made them regret avoiding him in the draft.
Despite not being a starter for the entire season, Moss tallied 1,313 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns, unexpectedly opening up the offense and leading the Vikings to an improbable berth in the NFC Championship game.
New England Patriots
Tom Brady, QB—2007
Randy Moss had a huge hand in Brady's fantastic season, breaking the record for touchdown receptions in the process.
The Patriots were reeling from Spygate, and Bill Belichick seemed intent on making his opponents pay. Tom Brady gladly obliged, leading a shock-and-awe offense that rarely took its foot off the gas.
Brady threw for 4,808 yards and a record 50 touchdown passes that year, 22 of them going to Moss.
New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees, QB—2011
As record-breaking seasons go, few are more impressive than Drew Brees' campaign from a year ago. While Rodgers had a more impressive season by way of efficiency, Brees annihilated a longstanding record.
Dan Marino's yardage record finally fell after 27 years as Brees threw for 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns while completing an eye-popping 71.2 percent of his passes. The Saints did not have the defense to make a deep playoff run, but they would have been in the cellar without Brees.
He had a legitimate claim to the MVP award, but Brees had to settle for Offensive Player of the Year.
New York Giants
Lawrence Taylor, OLB—1986
Considered by some to be the best defensive player in history, it is no wonder his best season would be the Giants' best performance.
New York Jets
Mark Gastineau, DE—1984
Joe Namath did have a fantastic 1967 campaign, throwing for over 4,000 yards in just 14 games. Few have come close to the rarified air Gastineau reached in 1984, however.
Think back to the 2001 season. Michael Strahan was sitting at 21.5 sacks on the final day of the season, needing one more to break the all-time record.
Brett Favre obliged, sitting down and allowing Strahan to gain what some consider to be an illegitimate record. Whose record did he break? Mark Gastineau's.
The Jets defensive end had a briefly illustrious career. The season before his 22-sack campaign he nabbed 19, leading the league in both years. He set the record in 1984, which might still stand among purists.
Rich Gannon, QB—2002
It was a brief run of brilliance for Gannon with the Raiders, one that saw them come within a blowout loss of winning a championship.
Gannon had a few good seasons with the Raiders, but he had a career year with them in 2002. At age 37, the old-timer threw for 4,689 yards and 26 touchdowns. It earned him NFL MVP honors.
Father time teamed up with a Super Bowl hangover to caught up with Gannon rather quickly the next season, and he was out of the league two years later.
Reggie White, DE—1987
The strike in 1987 robbed White of the all-time sack record.
At his most dominant, the big defensive end recorded 21 sacks in just 12 games. Perhaps the strike gave him an advantage, but it was a dominant display nonetheless.
Had he played all 16 games, we might have an unreachable sack record. Alas, the strike and the replacements are an enduring legacy from that season, one that robbed White of all-time greatness in the record books.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB—2012
A curious trend pops out when you start digging for Pittsburgh's best single season performance. Despite the franchise's storied history, there are not many performances that pop out.
Franco Harris? He has some good seasons, but Jerome Bettis, Rashard Mendenhall and even Willie Parker have had better.
Terry Bradshaw? Roethlisberger has already had a few seasons better than his.
The defense? This is where the Steelers truly shine as a team; there are some great players, but none with outrageous seasons.
This is a bit of a funny choice mid-season, but Roethlisberger is having quite a year. Despite a terrible offensive line and running game and a substandard defense, the Steelers are 4-3 and Roethlisberger is on pace to have one of his best statistical seasons.
If he can keep it up and get the Steelers into the playoffs, it will have been a magnificent performance in Steelers history.
San Diego Chargers
Dan Fouts, QB—1982
This was a close call considering LaDainian Tomlinson's 31-touchdown season, but Fouts edges him out here.
In the nine-game, strike-shortened season, Fouts threw for 2,882 yards and 17 touchdowns, winning the NFL MVP award in the process. The Chargers made it to the AFC Championship game, but lost.
Ken Anderson had a fantastic season for the Bengals, but Fouts was better.
San Francisco 49ers
Steve Young, QB—1994
It was difficult to pick just one season-long performance with all the offensive firepower the 49ers have seen over the years.
Ronnie Lott could have snuck in here with his 10-interception season of 1986, but it was Steve Young's MVP campaign of 1994 that took the cake.
Young completed 70.3 percent of his passes for nearly 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns, rushing for 243 more yards and seven touchdowns to boot.
He also led the 49ers to yet another Super Bowl victory. Joe Montana had many fine years for the 49ers, but he never had the statistical output Young had in 1994.
Shaun Alexander, RB—2005
Alexander worked his way up to his 2005 season, finishing in the top 10 among running backs in rushing yards and attempts in the seasons leading up to his explosion.
He did indeed explode with 1,880 rushing yards and 28 total touchdowns, a record until LaDainian Tomlinson smashed it the following season.
St. Louis Rams
Dick "Night Train" Lane—1952
There were an awful lot of good choices for this. Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk in the Greatest Show on Turf are a couple
But nothing they did on offense could compare to the Night Train's rookie season.
The Army veteran was a manufacturing grunt when he decided to try out for the Los Angeles Rams in 1952. He walked into training camp and ran into the history books, scoring 14 interceptions in 12 games as the ultimate undrafted rookie.
That record still stands, despite more games and more passing in the NFL.
Tennessee Titans / Houston Oilers
Warren Moon, QB—1990
Master of the run and shoot offense, Moon brought the Houston offense to new heights in the late '80s and early '90s.
None of his seasons were better than 1990, when he threw for 4,689 yards and 33 touchdowns, adding 215 yards on the ground with two touchdowns.
Those Oilers fizzled in the playoffs, but Moon sizzled during the regular season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Warren Sapp, DT—2000
The big man in the middle was a huge part of the rise of the Buccaneers in the early oughts. He may have had the finest season in history at his position in 2000.
Sapp recorded 16.5 sacks and 43 tackles that year. As a defensive tackle.
Dexter Manley, DE—1986
John Riggins had a fantastic 1983 season, scoring 24 touchdowns at 34. He deserves to be in this conversation, but Dexter Manley edges him out.
The Secretary of Defense had the best season of his career, tallying 18.5 sacks for the Redskins and garnering a Pro Bowl nod as the NFL's best defensive lineman on the year.
Manley would flush out of the league with drug problems soon after that great season, unfortunately.