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The 10 Best Regular Seasons for a Quarterback in NFL History

Erik FrenzSenior Writer IApril 19, 2013

The 10 Best Regular Seasons for a Quarterback in NFL History

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    As the NFL has geared its rules to favor the passing game, prolific seasons for quarterbacks have become more and more common.

    That being said, not all the best seasons have come in the past decade; in fact, many of the less recent performances are more impressive in their new light: Great quarterbacks like Dan Marino and Joe Montana didn't have the help of the current rules.

    The playoffs are certainly important in measuring a quarterback's overall legacy, but which quarterbacks had the best regular seasons in NFL history? 

    Here, you'll find one man's opinion on that very subject.

10. Bert Jones, 1976

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    With the lofty passing standards that have been set recently, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Bert Jones' 1976 season was unspectacular.

    At the time, though, his performance was almost unprecedented.

    Jones became one of just three post-merger quarterbacks to earn a passer rating of over 100 for a single season, joining Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler. That accolade, as well as a league-leading 3,104 passing yards, helped Jones earn first-team All-Pro and NFL MVP honors.

    His 9.27 adjusted yards-per-pass attempt was the second-highest mark of all time behind only Staubach and still ranks him among the top 10 of all time.

    It was not the best performance of the season, but Jones led a remarkable comeback against the Cincinnati Bengals' top-10 defense after trailing by 10 points in the second quarter.

    He threw a touchdown to give the Colts a third-quarter lead and drove them down the field for the go-ahead game-winning score in the fourth quarter. He also completed 73.9 percent of his passes and compiled a 127.1 passer rating against a New England Patriots defense that ranked 10th in defensive passer rating.

    Passing dominance is not limited to the modern era.

9. Y.A. Tittle, 1963

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    New York Giants Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle was a late bloomer, to say the least, but he burst onto the scene in 1962 with 505 yards and a record-setting seven touchdown passes, a number which has yet to be surpassed.

    He set the record for passing touchdowns in 1962 with 33 and followed that up by beating his own record in 1963 with 36 touchdown tosses. That record stood for 21 years until Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino crushed it in 1984.

    In '63, Tittle also led the league in completion percentage (60.2), yards per pass attempt (8.6) and passer rating (104.8).

    Tittle's Giants fell short in the NFL title game, and as a result, his remarkable accomplishments of passing dominance are often forgotten. At the time, though, Tittle changed the way people thought about the NFL passing game.

8. Joe Montana, 1989

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    Joe Montana didn't light up scoreboards in 1989; his 26 touchdown passes ranked fourth in the NFL that season, while his 3,521 passing yards ranked eighth. Montana's 1989 season was prolific for its efficiency:

    • At the time, his 112.4 passer rating was the best single-season performance for any quarterback and broke Milt Plum's record which had stood for nearly 30 years. 
    • His 70.2 completion percentage was also the second-highest in a single season in NFL history behind only Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson.
    • At the time, he was one of just 14 other quarterbacks to throw for over 9.1 YPA in a season.

    He set career marks in completion percentage (70.2), passer rating (112.4), yards per attempt (9.1) and interception percentage (2.1).

    One interesting side note to this season: Montana played just 13 games, missing three total games during the season.

    He was voted NFL MVP for his dominant performance and later led his team to its fourth Super Bowl victory of the decade on the strength of a 78.3 postseason completion percentage and 11 touchdown passes without an interception in three playoff games.

7. Kurt Warner, 1999

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    Kurt Warner's legendary 1999 season was even more impressive in the context of him coming off the bench to deliver one of the most dominant seasons for a quarterback in NFL history. 

    Leading the St. Louis Rams to over 500 points for the first of three consecutive seasons (an NFL record), Warner led the league in completion percentage (65.7), yards per attempt (8.7), touchdowns (41) and passer rating (109.2) on his way to NFL MVP honors.

    Warner became the first quarterback ever to throw for three or more touchdowns in each of his first four starts. That fourth start was the one that really put Warner on the map, as he threw a season-high five touchdown passes in helping the Rams beat the San Francisco 49ers for only the second time in 19 contests.

    Warner's dominance continued for years following 1999, but his breakout campaign was arguably the best season of his career and definitely belongs on this list.

6. Drew Brees, 2011

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    Passing stats were inflated across the board in 2011, but New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was knocking on the door for years as one of the most prolific passers of our generation.

    He permanently placed himself in that discussion by becoming the first and only quarterback to throw for more than 5,000 yards in two separate seasons, and he set the single-season record for passing yards in a season with 5,476. He also set a record with 13 games of over 300 yards passing in a season.

    Gaudy yardage totals weren't the extent of Brees' dominance—he was also remarkably efficient. After tying the single-season mark for completion percentage in 2009 at 70.6, he officially and fully set the bar in 2011 by completing 71.2 percent of his passes.

    The 2011 season was also the continuation of "the streak" for Brees, in which he threw at least one touchdown pass in 54 consecutive games from 2009 to 2012, using the 2011 season as a bridge in breaking Johnny Unitas' legendary record of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.

    In many ways, Brees defines what the modern quarterback is all about: high efficiency, big yards and aerial dominance.

5. Aaron Rodgers, 2011

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    Like Steve Young to Joe Montana, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers spent his first three years as a starter trying to step out of the gigantic shadow of Brett Favre.

    He did that by delivering a Lombardi Trophy in the 2010 postseason with one of the greatest playoff stretches for any quarterback ever (nine touchdown passes—tied for second-most in one postseason in NFL history).

    He spent the 2011 season building off that prolific performance, throwing 45 touchdowns against just six interceptions and setting an NFL record for passer rating in a single season with 122.5, edging out Peyton Manning for top honors.

    He had two of the best games of his career in back-to-back games against the Minnesota Vikings and the San Diego Chargers, completing over 75 percent of his passes and compiling over a 140 passer rating in all three games while throwing a combined 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.

    Rodgers did not face top competition, piling up his stats while facing just three teams that ranked in the top 10 in defensive passer rating (two games against the Chicago Bears, one against the Kansas City Chiefs). That being said, statistically, very few seasons rivaled Rodgers' 2011.

4. Steve Young, 1994

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    In his first three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Steve Young consistently posted solid numbers. In 1994, though, he proved once and for all that he was every bit as worthy of being the 49ers' starting quarterback as his predecessor was.

    He edged Montana's single-season record for passer rating by four-tenths of a point and barely edged him out for second place on the leader board for completion percentage in a single season.

    At the time, Young was one of just two quarterbacks (the other being Dan Marino) to throw for four or more touchdowns and one or fewer interceptions (per Pro-Football-Reference.com) in four games.

    On top of all that, Young became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 35 touchdowns while having 10 or fewer interceptions in a season. No other quarterback accomplished that achievement until Peyton Manning a decade later.

3. Tom Brady, 2007

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    Before 2007, Tom Brady was a great quarterback, but his numbers made him little more than a game manager. Since then, he has done nothing but light up scoreboards and set record books on fire.

    It all began in that historic season, where Brady threw for an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes and led his team to an undefeated regular season. He also set records for most consecutive games to start a season with three or more passing touchdowns (10) and most games in a season with four or more passing touchdowns and zero interceptions (five).

    Also, Brady was one of only two quarterbacks (along with St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger) at the time to attempt more than 550 passes and throw eight or fewer interceptions; he has since added his name to that list again (2012) and has been joined by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

    Brady's best game of the season—and one of the best of his career—came against the Miami Dolphins when he threw a career-high 14.2 yards per attempt and six touchdown passes without an interception. It was also Brady's first game with a perfect passer rating.

    We all know how the season ended, but Brady's 2007 regular season was undoubtedly one of the best of all time for a quarterback.

2. Dan Marino, 1984

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    In only his second year in the league, Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino set the stage for his career as one of the NFL's most prolific passers by setting records for passing yards (5,084, not broken until 2011) and touchdowns (48, not broken until 2004).

    At the time, his 108.9 passer rating for 1984 was the second-best of all time for a single season.

    Marino stormed out of the gate in 1984 with a huge game against the Washington Redskins, going 21-of-28 passing (75 percent) for 311 yards (11.1 YPA), five touchdowns and a 150.4 passer rating. His yardage and touchdown totals and his passer rating for that game were the highest marks he had all season.

    He even had his way with some of the vaunted defenses from that year, throwing for 340 yards and four touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys in the final game of the season and putting up 34 points against the fourth-ranked Oakland Raiders defense and nearly leading a big comeback in the process.

    All passing superlatives aside, this year will be remembered as the one and only Super Bowl appearance for Marino.

1. Peyton Manning, 2004

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    By 2004, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had already begun staking himself as the most prolific passer of our generation. That year, he solidified that status.

    At the time, his 49 touchdown passes were a single-season record. 

    With Brady throwing for 50 touchdowns three years later, why was Manning's season the best? 

    • Manning's 49 touchdowns came on less than 500 pass attempts; it took Brady 81 more attempts to throw one more touchdown pass. 
    • Manning put up his numbers while playing less than 15 full regular-season games. It took Brady until the fourth quarter of the final game of the 2007 season to throw his 50th touchdown pass. 
    • Around 9.9 percent of Manning's throws went for a touchdown—that's nearly one in every 10 passes. Brady's touchdown percentage was 1.2 points lower.
    • Manning threw for 9.2 yards per pass attempt against Brady's 8.3.

    Manning also set the single-season record for passer rating at 121.1, a record which stood until Aaron Rodgers broke it in 2012. 

    Manning had one of the best games of his career that year when he completed 82.1 percent of his throws and had six touchdown passes against the Detroit Lions.

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