Ranking the Best Sophomore QB Seasons in NFL History

Scott KacsmarContributor IJuly 10, 2013

Ranking the Best Sophomore QB Seasons in NFL History

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    So much of the discussion about a second-year quarterback revolves around the mythical sophomore slump. Rather than talk about that player taking a step forward in the NFL, we expect them to decline after experiencing rookie success.

    Including Cam Newton and Andy Dalton last year, 17 of the last 22 quarterbacks in position to have a sophomore slump did not have one. That means 77.3 percent either stayed at the same level or improved.

    Last year’s most successful rookie class ever puts huge expectations on Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson to be great (or greater) in 2013. There’s also no reason players like Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden cannot have a breakout year.

    Some of the greatest sophomore quarterback seasons in NFL history came from the players with the least expectations at the start of the year. Did you know who Kurt Warner was in 1999?

    The following is a look at the 10 greatest seasons by a sophomore quarterback in NFL history.

Honorable Mentions

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    Prolific sophomore quarterbacks are still a rarity. Only 28 have thrown for 3,000 yards in their second regular season. Only five have eclipsed 4,000 yards. Only 21 have thrown 20 touchdown passes. Only nine have reached 25 touchdown passes.

    Only 14 quarterbacks have thrown for at least 3,000 yards and 20 touchdown passes in their second season.

    Much weight was placed on the regular season, but postseason performance also factored into the rankings.

    While the NFL has strict guidelines for what counts as a true rookie season, those restrictions have been lifted here. Your sophomore season is your second season regardless of past professional experience in other leagues.

    However, that past experience did leave Otto Graham’s 1951 season off the list. It was a strong year, though at age 30 with six seasons under his belt in Cleveland, it didn’t feel like it belonged with these other players.

    A special mention to Frank Filchock’s 1939 season with the Redskins. He only threw 89 passes, but outplayed teammate Sammy Baugh with 11 touchdowns and a 111.6 passer rating.

    The rating formula was not created until 1973, but if The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia is correct, quarterbacks only needed five attempts per team game to qualify for rate stats. Filchock then arguably held the highest single-season passer rating until he was passed by Joe Montana (112.4) in 1989.

    Other honorable mentions include quarterbacks who were not very efficient, but did lead their teams to the playoffs in year two, usually with double-digit wins: Jack Kemp (1960 Chargers), Steve Grogan (1976 Patriots), Doug Williams (1979 Buccaneers), John Elway (1984 Broncos), Drew Bledsoe (1994 Patriots), Donovan McNabb (2000 Eagles), Eli Manning (2005 Giants) and Mark Sanchez (2010 Jets).

    Jake Plummer had one of the more exciting seasons in NFL history when he led the 1998 Cardinals into the playoffs on the strength of five fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives. He knocked off Dallas in the NFC Wild Card, which was the first franchise playoff win since 1947.

    Marc Bulger came out of nowhere for the 2002 Rams to go 6-1 as a starter with 14 touchdowns and a 101.5 passer rating. He did not have enough attempts to officially qualify with his rate stats.

    Other quarterbacks with solid stats but no playoff appearance or not a notable postseason include: Johnny Lujack (1949 Bears), Norm Van Brocklin (1950 Rams), Tony Eason (1984 Patriots), Boomer Esiason (1985 Bengals), Brett Favre (1992 Packers), Michael Vick (2002 Falcons), Jay Cutler (2007 Broncos), Matt Ryan (2009 Falcons), Joe Flacco (2009 Ravens), Josh Freeman (2010 Buccaneers), Cam Newton (2012 Panthers) and Andy Dalton (2012 Bengals).

    All but two players in the top 10 reached the postseason.

10. Bernie Kosar, 1986 Cleveland Browns

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    Season Stats: 12-4 record (1-1 postseason), lost AFC championship, 310-of-531 (58.4 percent) for 3,854 yards, 17 TD, 10 INT, 83.8 passer rating

     

    When you are a defensive stop away from leading the Cleveland Browns to the Super Bowl, you deserve to make such a list.

    Bernie Kosar was merely a game manager in his rookie season with coach Marty Schottenheimer. Though he was third in the league in pass attempts and led the offense to the fifth-most points, Kosar’s 1.88 interception percentage led the NFL in 1986.

    The Browns claimed the best record (12-4) in the AFC thanks to Kosar leading four comebacks and six game-winning drives in the regular season.

    In the AFC divisional matchup, Kosar led one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history against the New York Jets. Down 20-10 with 4:08 to play, Kosar took advantage of a roughing-the-passer penalty on New York’s Mark Gastineau to lead a touchdown drive with 1:57 left. With 0:51 left at his own 33-yard line, Kosar again drove the Browns into scoring position to tie the game.

    It went to double overtime, but the Browns prevailed 23-20 with Kosar’s seventh game-winning drive of the season. He threw for 489 yards in the game, which is still a postseason record.

    In the AFC championship against Denver, Kosar threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Brian Brenna to put Cleveland ahead 20-13 with 5:43 to play. NFL fans know what happened next. John Elway, starting at his own 2-yard line, led the Broncos 98 yards on “The Drive” to tie the game.

    Despite having the first possession of overtime, Cleveland went three-and-out after the running game was stopped on 3rd-and-2. Elway led the Broncos to the game-winning field goal.

    Kosar’s clutch season ended prematurely. He would get two more cracks at the Broncos in the AFC championship in his career, but he never came closer to a win than he did before “The Drive” happened.

9. Tom Brady, 2001 New England Patriots

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    Season Stats: 11-3 as a starter (3-0 postseason), won Super Bowl XXXVI, 264-of-413 (63.9 percent) for 2,843 yards, 18 TD, 12 INT, 86.5 passer rating

     

    When Drew Bledsoe took a vicious hit by New York’s Mo Lewis on September 23, 2001, NFL history changed forever. Tom Brady got his opportunity as a little-known sixth-round pick out of Michigan to be coach Bill Belichick’s new starting quarterback for the New England Patriots.

    After a 0-2 start, the team adapted to Brady with offensive coordinator Charlie Weis moving to an offense that spread the field with receivers and let Brady pick out the open guy.

    The defense played bend-but-don’t-break, and the special teams stepped up as well. Without Adam Vinatieri delivering the greatest field goal in NFL history against Oakland in the playoffs, there is no list referencing the 2001 Patriots.

    This was very much a team effort in New England in 2001, which is why Brady, one of three sophomore quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl, only ranks ninth.

    Statistically, he doesn’t measure up to anyone else on the list or most of the honorable mentions.

    Brady’s adjusted net yards per attempt was just 5.39. Most quarterbacks on the list are well above 7.0. This is partly due to a young Brady taking 41 sacks. His 9.0 sack percentage in 2001 is well above his next-worst season (5.7 percent in 2003). That’s just proof of inexperience.

    At Football Outsiders, Brady ranked 13th in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) and 12th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) in 2001. At Advanced NFL Stats, Brady ranked 10th in Win Probability Added and 14th in Expected Points Added. His Success Rate was ranked 13th.

    Basically, New England had about the 12th-best quarterback in football in 2001. What the Patriots did was manage situations well for Brady, and he limited mistakes and rarely let the team down when he had to make some plays.

    Including the playoffs, the Patriots won their final nine games. They never allowed more than 17 points in any of those games. Behind Brady, the offense never scored more than 20 points in any of the last eight games on that run. It was a lot of nip and tuck (Tuck Rule?) for this team to complete their journey.

    Brady’s impact in the 2001 postseason is one of the more overstated stories in NFL history. Keeping in mind his injury in Pittsburgh in the AFC championship, Brady finished the postseason leading his offense to 29 points in 2.5 games. This puts him in company with Trent Dilfer at the bottom of Super Bowl runs by quarterbacks.

    Even in the Super Bowl win against St. Louis, Brady passed for just 63 air yards and converted zero third downs. He did not deserve to win MVP in that game.

    While he would have many more days to shine as an individual great in the NFL, Brady only makes the list out of courtesy for coming out of nowhere to win a Super Bowl. Keep that number of 29 points in mind, as our next quarterback just led his offense to that many in a Super Bowl loss.

8. Colin Kaepernick, 2012 San Francisco 49ers

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    Season Stats: 5-2 as a starter (2-1 postseason), lost Super Bowl XLVII, 136-of-218 (62.4 percent) for 1,814 yards, 10 TD, 3 INT, 98.3 passer rating,, 415 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns.

     

    Too high for someone playing essentially half a season on a very good team? Perhaps, but consider some of the things Colin Kaepernick, an unexpected starter with no prior NFL starting experience, did after replacing the concussed Alex Smith in Week 10 for the San Francisco 49ers.

    Kaepernick’s 98.3 passer rating would be the fourth-highest ever by a sophomore quarterback, but he does not officially qualify since he had 218 attempts. You must average 14 passes per team game, so he came up six attempts short.

    Only nine qualified quarterbacks have ever had a 90.0 passer rating in their sophomore season. Including the playoffs, Kaepernick had at least a 90.0 passer rating in eight of his 10 starts.

    Kaepernick’s 76.8 QBR (ESPN) ranked third in 2012 behind only Peyton Manning (84.1) and Tom Brady (77.1). He was at 86.5 in the postseason.

    He became the fifth sophomore quarterback to start the Super Bowl, joining Dan Marino (1984), Kurt Warner (1999), Tom Brady (2001) and Ben Roethlisberger (2005).

    In his first playoff game, Kaepernick embarrassed Green Bay with 16 carries for 181 yards and two scores. The yardage is an NFL record by a quarterback in any game ever played.

    In Atlanta, Kaepernick led the biggest comeback ever by a road team in a championship game, wiping out a 17-0 deficit for a 28-24 win.

    Kaepernick came up perhaps five yards short of more history in the Super Bowl. After trailing 28-6 in the third quarter, he led the 49ers into the red zone with a 34-29 deficit in the final minutes. Baltimore made the goal-line stand, ending Kaepernick’s season with a career-high 302 passing yards.

    The no-call on that fourth-down pass to Michael Crabtree will stick with Kaepernick and San Francisco fans for years to come. It was the first time their team reached the Super Bowl without a victory.

    When you include the playoffs, Kaepernick threw for 2,612 yards, averaged 8.77 yards per attempt, threw 14 touchdowns to five interceptions, had a 99.0 passer rating and also rushed for 679 yards (8.75 yards per carry excluding kneel downs) and eight scores.

    This is why his 2013 season is one of the most anticipated ever for a young quarterback. We should get to see what he can do in a full season. That “half season” as a sophomore was special in its own right.

7. Johnny Unitas, 1957 Baltimore Colts

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    Season Stats: 7-5 record, no postseason, 172-of-301 (57.1 percent) for 2,550 yards, 24 TD, 17 INT, 88.0 passer rating

     

    While Johnny Unitas would go on to have greater seasons, let’s not overlook what he did in 1957. As a ninth-round pick with no expectations, he took over the job in Baltimore from No. 1 overall pick George Shaw, who was injured in 1956.

    With Shaw still on the roster, Unitas was the team’s starter in 1957. He led the league in attempts, passing yards and touchdown passes. He was second in touchdown percentage and passer rating.

    It was not common in this era to see a quarterback throw efficiently and with a high volume, but Unitas was doing that as a second-year player while calling his own plays as well.

    The Colts did get off to a 3-0 start, but they suffered a heartbreaking loss to eventual champion Detroit. Unitas was masterful in the game with 16-of-21 passing for 239 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. The Colts led 27-3 in the third quarter, but Detroit threw four touchdown passes (three in the fourth quarter by Bobby Layne) to win 31-27.

    Starting in November, Unitas had four consecutive games with a passer rating over 100.0, which is a real rarity for the era. He also led the Colts to three straight wins after trailing in the fourth quarter of each game.

    The Colts scored the second-most points in the league but allowed the eighth most in a 12-team league. They would finish 7-5 and miss the playoffs.

    Unitas did win the league’s MVP award as voted on by the Newspaper Enterprise Association (Jim Brown won the AP’s MVP).

    Some could see the greatness that was building in Baltimore. Unitas would win the league’s next two championships in 1958 and '59.

6. Jeff Garcia, 2000 San Francisco 49ers

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    Season Stats: 6-10 record, no postseason, 355-of-561 (63.3 percent) for 4,278 yards, 31 TD, 10 INT, 97.6 passer rating, 414 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns

     

    A full season of Colin Kaepernick may look something like what Jeff Garcia came out of nowhere to do for the 49ers in 2000.

    Actually, in 1999 Garcia came over as a standout from the Canadian Football League. With Steve Young’s retirement, that great lineage of quarterbacks in San Francisco appeared to be broken—but Garcia shocked everyone with a monster Pro Bowl season in 2000.

    Garcia was a threat to run and throw. His 4,278 passing yards remain a franchise record. He had no problem developing chemistry with Jerry Rice (his final season as a 49er) and the rising star that was Terrell Owens. On “Jerry Rice Day” in San Francisco, Garcia completed 20 passes for 283 yards to Owens in a win.

    San Francisco’s big problem was defense, ranking 29th in yards per drive (33.02) and points per drive (2.30), according to Football Outsiders. That best explains the 6-10 record.

    Garcia played well enough to have a winning record in 2000.

    Against the Raiders, Garcia led a 14-point comeback in the fourth quarter. With the game in overtime, Wade Richey had his 29-yard field goal blocked. Oakland then scored the winning touchdown.

    In Green Bay, Garcia twice threw game-tying touchdown passes to Owens in the fourth quarter, but the defense allowed another go-ahead score in the final minute.

    Against the Saints, Garcia threw touchdown passes to give the 49ers a 27-17 lead, but the Saints took the lead with just 0:41 to play. Garcia could not drive 76 yards in that time for yet another loss.

    The 2000 49ers were 6-0 when allowing fewer than 30 points; 0-10 when allowing more than 30 points. When the defense improved, Garcia led the 49ers to the playoffs the next two seasons, but probably still never played better as an individual than he did in 2000.

    Chase Stuart of Football Perspective developed a quarterback ranking system that, as of a year ago, ranks Garcia’s 2000 season as the 16th best of all time.

    It might be the best season ever by a quarterback that did not result in a postseason appearance.

5. Daunte Culpepper, 2000 Minnesota Vikings

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    Season Stats: 11-5 record (1-1 postseason), lost NFC Championship, 297-of-474 (62.7 percent) for 3,937 yards, 33 TD, 16 INT, 98.0 passer rating, 470 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns

     

    Daunte Culpepper and Jeff Garcia had very similar seasons in 2000. They were both threats to run and pass, both had at least 35 total touchdowns and both were throwing to some amazing weapons with Culpepper having Randy Moss and Cris Carter on the outside.

    I am going with Culpepper for a few reasons:

    • Culpepper made one brief appearance in his rookie season while Garcia started 10 games and had the experience of throwing 375 passes in 1999.
    • Culpepper’s defense was also very bad (last in yards per drive and 27th in points per drive), but he still went 11-5 and reached the NFC Championship.
    • Culpepper led three comebacks and four game-winning drives. Garcia had none.
    • Culpepper (4.46) edged out Garcia (3.16) and everyone else for the league’s lead in Win Probability Added in 2000, according to Advanced NFL Stats.

    It was a stellar debut for Culpepper, who was relatively unknown at the time. In his first game, he led an 11-point comeback against Chicago, rushing for three scores in the second half. We immediately got to see this unique physical specimen at work. People think Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton are big quarterbacks today, but Culpepper was first.

    He accounted for 40 total touchdowns, even after sitting out most of a Week 17 loss in Indianapolis. That’s the third most by a sophomore quarterback. His 98.0 passer rating is officially the fourth highest for a sophomore quarterback.

    It certainly helps to have a young Moss (15 touchdown catches), but this was not a deep receiving corps at all. After Moss and Carter, running back Robert Smith was the Vikings’ third-leading receiver with 36 catches for 348 yards. There was no Jake Reed on this team. Tight end John Davis was fourth on the team with 202 receiving yards.

    Culpepper was running and chucking it to his two studs all year long with great success. The Vikings easily took care of the Saints in the divisional round. Culpepper threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns in his first playoff game.

    However, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line against the Giants on the road, the offense imploded. New York won 41-0, outgaining the Vikings 518 to 114 in yards.

    Culpepper was 13-of-28 for 78 yards and three interceptions. The 13.7 passer rating is the lowest of his 109-game career. Moss was held to two catches for 18 yards.

    It was a complete disaster, giving Culpepper the worst season-ending game of anyone on the list. That still should not diminish his overall season, which was historically great. It made Vikings fans forget about 1998 for a little while.

4. Peyton Manning, 1999 Indianapolis Colts

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    Season Stats: 13-3 record (0-1 postseason), 331-of-533 (62.1 percent) for 4,135 yards, 26 TD, 15 INT, 90.7 passer rating

     

    While most people think of Peyton Manning leading the Colts to a nearly perfect season in 2005 and later successes, his first great season came in his sophomore year of 1999.

    That year he had Jim Mora as his head coach, a rookie rushing champion Edgerrin James (1,553 yards) in the backfield and wide receiver Marvin Harrison setting the NFL on fire (115 receptions for 1,663 yards). There was no Reggie Wayne yet. Center Jeff Saturday was a backup at the time. This was all about the triplets.

    After 28 interceptions and many late-game errors as a rookie, Manning turned it around in 1999 with a very efficient, clutch season.

    Manning led seven game-winning drives to tie what was the NFL record at the time. Six came during an 11-game winning streak before a dud of a loss in Week 17 to Buffalo (31-6 final).

    No one realizes just how close those young Colts came to starting 15-0 that year.

    In Week 2, the Colts led New England 28-7 at halftime with Manning almost perfect (14-of-17 for 209 yards, three touchdowns and an interception). The Patriots would make a comeback to tie the game. With the Colts trying to drive, Tedy Bruschi forced James to fumble and the Patriots scored the go-ahead field goal.

    With just 0:29 left and no timeouts, Manning mounted a fruitless attempt to tie the game, culminating in his fourth interception with five seconds left on the clock. The Colts had blown a 21-point lead for the third consecutive season. They would do it again in 2000 as well.

    In Week 5 against the Dolphins, the Colts led for most of the game, including a 31-22 lead with 8:14 left in the game. Dan Marino had another great comeback in him, putting Miami up 34-31.

    Like in New England, Manning was down to only 0:22 and ended the game with a desperate throw that was intercepted. Close those two games out properly, and 15-0 (along with two fewer interceptions for Manning) was easily in reach for this team.

    In the playoffs the Colts lost at home, 19-16, to the Titans, who were fresh off the Music City Miracle win. Manning did not have a great game, but his receivers never gave him a chance for a record-setting eighth game-winning drive with drops like this on 3rd-and-22.

    For his season, Manning received eight MVP votes, finishing in a second-place tie with Marshall Faulk behind winner Kurt Warner (33 votes).

    Though Warner had much flashier numbers, Manning compares very favorably in Football Outsiders’ metrics, which adjust for defense and game situation. Manning’s DYAR was 1,581 compared to Warner’s 1,586. Manning’s DVOA was 34.0 percent, which ranked second to only Warner (36.9 percent).

    It would be the first, but hardly the last time Manning had a season that put him in MVP consideration.

3. Ben Roethlisberger, 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Season Stats: 9-3 record (4-0 postseason), won Super Bowl XL, 168-of-268 (62.7 percent) for 2,385 yards, 17 TD, 9 INT, 98.6 passer rating

     

    Ben Roethlisberger is the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, doing so at age 23. That fact is hardly the only thing worth knowing about his 2005 season, which does not get the respect it deserves due to the four games he missed from injury and how he played in Super Bowl XL.

    Add it all up and it’s the third-best sophomore quarterback season in NFL history.

    After his record-breaking rookie season in 2004, there was some concern about a sophomore slump. It was reasonable to expect given the huge passing average, rookie-record completion percentage and 14-0 start with the only loss as a starter coming against the Patriots in the AFC Championship.

    Sure enough, Roethlisberger’s first regular-season loss also came at the hands of the Patriots, who won 23-20 on a last-second field goal after Roethlisberger threw a game-tying touchdown pass.

    Statistically, Roethlisberger stayed very close to his rookie season. He threw 17 touchdowns in both years and led the league in touchdown percentage (6.3 percent) in 2005. He went from 8.88 yards per attempt to 8.90 yards per attempt; the latter led the NFL in 2005. Roethlisberger also increased his passer rating from 98.1 to 98.6.

    Pittsburgh led the league in first-quarter scoring in both 2004 and 2005. Roethlisberger led a team with the talent to dominate, but injuries cost him four starts in 2005. The Steelers lost twice in overtime with backup Tommy Maddox playing terrible football in his place.

    That’s why the Steelers were only 11-5 and the No. 6 seed in the AFC that year. With Roethlisberger back healthy, the Steelers ended the season on an eight-game winning streak through the Super Bowl.

    In the playoffs he was excellent on the road, throwing three touchdown passes in Cincinnati to open the playoffs. Roethlisberger then led the first win by a No. 6 seed over a No. 1 seed by knocking off the Colts in Indianapolis. He threw for 147 yards in the first quarter alone. When the Colts nearly came back to win, Roethlisberger made one of the all-time best tackles by a quarterback, saving Jerome Bettis’ legacy after his fumble was recovered by Colts defensive back Nick Harper late.

    In Denver, Roethlisberger was at his most efficient with a 21-of-29 passing performance, throwing for 275 yards, two touchdowns and running for another score in a 34-17 win.

    Through three road playoff games against the top three seeds in the AFC, Roethlisberger had seven touchdowns, one interception and a 124.8 passer rating.

    He couldn't maintain that form in Super Bowl XL against Seattle, though. The young quarterback was 9-of-21 for 123 yards, two interceptions and a 22.6 passer rating, which is the lowest for any Super Bowl winner. Throw in the fact that it was a ugly game with questionable officiating, and a sour taste is left, despite the fact that the Steelers earned another Lombardi Trophy.

    However, even with those bad numbers Roethlisberger still had an impact on the game. He converted eight third downs, including the longest in Super Bowl history: a 37-yard pass to Hines Ward on 3rd-and-28. He scored a rushing touchdown on third down. He helped run out the clock with the lead in the fourth quarter.

    He contributed to the win more than he gets credit for. It should not diminish what was still an outstanding playoff run to get to the big game.

    When you add the playoffs to his regular season numbers, Roethlisberger’s 2005 results in: a 13-3 record, 3,188 yards, 8.83 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 99.4 passer rating and five rushing touchdowns.

    For a sophomore quarterback, only two people can beat that.

2. Kurt Warner, 1999 St. Louis Rams

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    Season Stats: 13-3 record (3-0 postseason), won Super Bowl XXXIV, 325-of-499 (65.1 percent) for 4,353 yards, 41 TD, 13 INT, 109.2 passer rating

     

    Everyone knows the Kurt Warner story, but it’s still the greatest rags-to-riches tale in NFL history, going from an unknown at the grocery store to the top of the league.

    He had a tryout with the Green Bay Packers in 1994. He played in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe. He bagged groceries, but stuck with football and earned a spot on the Rams in 1998.

    An unfortunate injury to starting quarterback Trent Green in the 1999 preseason led to coach Dick Vermeil’s famous line: “We will rally around Kurt Warner and we’ll play good football.”

    The Rams played stunningly great football, led by Warner’s monster season. Over night, the offense transformed with the trade for Marshall Faulk and the drafting of Torry Holt in the first round. They were weapons to go along with veteran Isaac Bruce now, and he emerged as the quarterback to lead the attack.

    Four games into the season and Warner had already thrown 14 touchdown passes. There were three teams last season that could not reach that total in a full 16-game season.

    Warner threw at least one touchdown pass in all 16 games, which was the first time a quarterback accomplished that feat since Dan Marino in 1986. It has already happened seven times since 2010 alone. Warner also joined Marino as just the second quarterback to eclipse 40 touchdown passes in a season at that point.

    In the playoffs, Warner kept his magical season going. His first postseason pass was a 77-yard touchdown to Bruce. Against Minnesota Warner completed 27-of-33 passes for 391 yards and five scores.

    However, Warner needed a lot of help to get past Tampa Bay’s stingy defense in the NFC Championship. The offense would only score nine total points. Warner threw three interceptions, but did throw his first game-winning touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with 4:44 left. That’s not a bad time for the first game-winning drive of your career.

    In the Super Bowl against Tennessee, Warner marched his offense up and down the field, but stalled in the red zone. He still holds the Super Bowl record with 414 passing yards. With the game tied 16-16, Warner’s deep pass to Bruce resulted in the 73-yard game-winning touchdown with 1:54 to play. That’s not bad timing for your second game-winning drive either.

    It was tied for the longest game-winning touchdown pass in postseason history before Demaryius Thomas went 80 yards on a pass from some guy named Tim Tebow.

    The 1999 Rams certainly had an unorthodox postseason. Dome teams are not known for playoff success, but they had home-field advantage and played the Super Bowl in the Georgia Dome.

    Warner became the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl in a postseason in which he had two games with 40-plus pass attempts. Out of the 149 games it has taken teams to win the 47 Super Bowls, only 10 times has a quarterback had 40-plus pass attempts. Warner has two of those 10 games.

    Despite a strong running game in the regular season, the Rams produced 45 handoffs for 108 yards (2.40 yards per carry) on the ground in the playoffs. Warner won in spite of the weakest rushing output ever by a Super Bowl winner.

    Warner's selection makes him the fifth quarterback on this top 10 to have his sophomore season happen in 1999-2001. It was a strange era for quarterbacks.

    If there’s a knock on Warner’s season, it would be that he played a very easy schedule. The 49ers and Falcons were expected to be contenders, which made up a quarter of the Rams’ schedule, but both teams lost double-digit games with key injuries to players like Steve Young and Jamal Anderson. The Saints were also in the NFC West and went 3-13.

    Warner amazingly played just one team in the regular season with a winning record: the 13-3 Titans, which was a loss, but of course he got the revenge win in the Super Bowl.  

    Warner is the last player to win the league’s MVP award and still win the Super Bowl, for which he was also the MVP.

    While he would play at a high level in St. Louis following this season, things never got better for Warner than they did in 1999. That was the St. Louis team with the best defense and the fewest giveaways on offense. They got a bit sloppy afterwards, which can explain why this is the team to go the distance for the championship.

    Warner not only had one of the greatest sophomore quarterback seasons in NFL history, but his 1999 season is one of the greatest ever by a quarterback.

1. Dan Marino, 1984 Miami Dolphins

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    Season Stats: 14-2 record (2-1 postseason), lost Super Bowl XIX, 362-of-564 (64.2 percent) for 5,084 yards, 48 TD, 17 INT, 108.9 passer rating

     

    Though most of his records have been broken, Dan Marino’s 1984 season should still be the gold standard for quarterback excellence by a sophomore.

    We saw him in 1983 as a very efficient rookie, but he ripped the league apart in 1984. The 48 touchdown passes blew away the previous record of 36. It would not be surpassed until Peyton Manning first broke it in 2004 under relaxed passing conditions.

    The 5,084 passing yards were not surpassed until a pass-happy Drew Brees did it in 2011. Thanks to the new kickoff rule, the last two seasons have seen defenses hemorrhaging passing yards at a record pace.

    It’s like Marino was putting up today’s video-game numbers on a old Nintendo Entertainment System he stole from Japan in 1984. He didn’t even have to steal it. They just gave it to him out of Godzilla-esque fear.

    There is the “yeah, but” of not winning the Super Bowl. Still, Marino gets the top spot over Warner here for several reasons.

    Marino’s running game was inferior to Warner’s. The 1984 Dolphins were one of the most pass-dependent offenses since 1970. Warner’s “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams had three of the five most efficient, balanced offenses with Marshall Faulk’s dominance.

    Warner played a much easier schedule as detailed on the previous slide. Marino played tougher teams with better defenses. If you adjust their passing stats for opponents, Marino increased his opponent’s defensive passer rating by 34.02 points. Warner only increased his by 24.46 points in 1999.

    While Warner won a Super Bowl, let’s not pretend the 1999 Titans are on the same level as the 1984 49ers, who went 18-1 and were elite on both sides of the ball. Had Marino’s defense held Joe Montana’s offense to 16 points, he almost surely pulls out the win that day. Instead it was a 38-16 loss.

    Warner was 1-9 in his career when his team allowed 38-plus points. The lone win came after Aaron Rodgers fumbled the ball for a game-losing touchdown in overtime in the 2009 playoffs.

    Warner had better weapons with Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce all being Hall of Fame caliber. Marino had weapons, but he maximized the careers of Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, the latter with 18 touchdown catches in 1984. Bruce and Faulk were already Pro Bowl players before playing with Warner.

    There’s no doubt Warner wins the “came out of nowhere to do this” contest, but fair or not, there’s just something about a 23-year-old Marino tearing up a league that wasn’t pass-happy yet compared to a 28-year-old Warner doing his thing under a different passing climate.

    Not only did Marino star in the regular season, but few people realize he was the first quarterback to throw for 1,000 yards in a single postseason as well. He threw for 1,001 yards in three playoff games. A quarterback has surpassed 1,000 yards in a postseason six times since. Only Warner in 1999 (1,063 yards on five more pass attempts than what Marino had) did it in three games. Everyone else played four.

    Marino also had eight touchdown passes in the playoffs, which tied the record at the time. It has since been raised to 11, first done by Joe Montana in 1989.

    Marino’s 1984 season should always stand the test of time on lists of greatest quarterback seasons. He not only had the record production, efficiency, but he was doing it to win games and reach the Super Bowl.

    Marino was the first sophomore quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. He’s the only one to win 14 regular-season games.

    It’s hard to imagine someone will set the league on fire in year two the way Marino, the most natural of pocket passers, did.

    Andrew Luck might throw for 5,000 yards this season, but we haven’t seen the efficiency to think he could match Marino’s season. Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III may play efficiently, but there’s no reason to think they still won’t be in a balanced offense.

    Who knows? Maybe Mike Wallace going to Miami will introduce the deadliest deep-ball duo in the league with Ryan Tannehill’s sophomore season. He can break Marino’s franchise records.

    Not a chance?

    Yeah, Marino’s 1984 season is probably safe at No. 1 for another year, but young quarterbacks keep getting better. We’ll be watching 2013’s sophomores with heavy expectations.

    At least one probably ends up on this list come January (or February).

     

    Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.