Jul. 27–To some degree football is, like all sports, a numbers game. But those numbers can cause headaches when trying to calculate, and put in context, the explosion of the modern passing game.
Statistics posted by NFL quarterbacks in the mid-20th century seem almost quaint by today’s standards. And any analyst from that era would consider 2018’s passing numbers as being somewhere north of astronomical.
How much have the goalposts been moved? Take the case of Joseph William Namath. Also known as Broadway Joe.
Long before he was roaming sidelines in search of Suzy Kolber, Namath was THE biggest star in all of football. The hero of Super Bowl III had his last big season in 1972, leading the league in both passing yards and touchdowns.
How would his stats hold up today? Not very well.
— His 19 passing touchdowns, while good enough to tie Washington’s Billy Kilmer for the league lead in 1972, would tie him for only 21st in 2018. With Oakland’s Derek Carr and Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winsto, neither of whom will ever be asked to model Beautymist pantyhose in television commercials.
— His 2,816 passing yards would have ranked 24th last season, just ahead of Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles. Yeah, Blake Freaking Bortles.
So this list, again, mostly considers how quarterbacks’ numbers stood in context to that season, not how they would rank in a strictly numerical count. Thus you will not be hearing Mr. Bortles’ name again.
25. DAUNTE CULPEPPER
2004 Minnesota Vikings
39 TD passes, 4,717 passing yards, 2 TD runs, 406 rushing yards
Oh, what might have been. In his last full season before a career-derailing knee injury, the Vikings’ young QB appeared headed on a hall-of-fame track. He led the league in passing yards (126 more than Kansas City’s Trent Green). And his 39 TD tosses were second only to Indy’s Peyton Manning. No one else threw more than 31. Tack on 406 rushing yards and two TD runs and you have a fantasy star. His combined yardage (5,123) broke Dan Marino’s 20-year-old NFL record. But he managed only 20 TD passes in his last five gimpy seasons.
24. STEVE GROGAN
1976 New England Patriots
18 TD passes, 1,903 passing yards, 12 TD runs, 397 rushing yards
Grogan’s passing totals were nothing to write home about, but his record of 12 TD runs by a QB stood until Cam Newton’s rookie season of 2011. Grogan even recovered a fumble for a TD to give him 13, one less than the league leaders (the Vikings’ Chuck Foreman and Pittsburgh’s Franco Harris). His 18 TD passes might not seem like much, but that put him fourth in the league. Grogan lasted 14 more seasons in the NFL, but he never recaptured his spirit of ’76.
23. JOE MONTANA
1989 San Francisco 49ers
26 TD passes, 3,521 passing yards, 3 TD runs
Montana is unquestionably one of the greatest quarterbacks in terms of winning championships, but his fantasy production was not quite as all-worldly. But he was consistently strong. We’ve picked the Niners’ fourth Super Bowl-winning season as his fantasy best because of his career-best three TD runs. He was fourth in the league in TD passes (3 behind the Rams’ Jim Everett) but only eighth in passing yards (793 behind the Packers’ Don Majikowski).
22. AARON RODGERS
2016 Green Bay Packers
40 TD passes, 4,428 passing yards, 4 TD runs
You might be surprised to learn Danica Patrick’s beau only led the NFL in passing TDs during this season (2 more than the Falcons’ Matt Ryan), and he has never led it in passing yards. He was a distant fourth in passing yards (780 behind the Saints’ Drew Brees). But he made up for that with four rushing touchdowns, no doubt capping each with championship-belt theatrics. He’ll still be one of the first three QBs taken off the board when you have your draft next month.
21. Y.A. TITTLE
1963 New York Giants
36 TD passes, 3,143 passing yards, 2 TD runs
We’ve always been partial to bald quarterbacks, and there was none finer than this hall of famer. The guy his mom called Yelberton had his two greatest seasons in the twilight of his 17-year career. His 36 passing TDs in ’63 were eight more than anyone else in football, and he was third in the NFL in passing yards (336 fewer than the Colts’ Johnny Unitas). He even ran for two scores, which is much more than we did as a 37-year-old bald dude.
20. BRETT FAVRE
1995 Green Bay Packers
38 TD passes, 4,413 passing yards, 3 TD runs
Number Four was consistently productive for two decades, but he was truly great in his three MVP seasons in Wisconsin. His first of those years was the best. He had five more TD passes than his nearest rival (the Vikings’ Warren Moon) and 75 yards more than the No. 2 passer (the Lions’ Scott Mitchell). He also added three of his 14 career TD runs in leading the Packers to the NFC title game. Was so good he waited more than a decade before threatening retirement.
19. JOHN BRODIE
1965 San Francisco 49ers
30 TD passes, 3,112 passing yards, 1 TD run
Brodie led the previously-moribund Niners to two NFC title games in the early ’70s and won an MVP award, but his breakout season of 1965 featured his best fantasy numbers. He had seven more TD passes than any pro (the Colts’ Johnny Unitas was second), and he led in passing yards, too (314 more than the Chargers’ John Hadl). And Brodie is the only guy on this list to win a pro golf tournament (the Senior PGA’s Security Pacific Classic in 1991). So there’s that.
18. BOBBY LAYNE
1951 Detroit Lions
26 TD passes, 2,403 passing yards, 1 TD run
This hall of famer would be even more legendary if they had fantasy imbibing leagues back in the day. He was pretty good on the field, too, leading the Lions to three NFL crowns. In his best season, he had nine more TD passes than his nearest rival (the Browns’ Otto Graham) and topped the league in passing yards (198 more than Graham). And he left the world with this immortal line: “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken a lot better care of myself.”
17. DARYLE LAMONICA
1969 Oakland Raiders
34 TD passes, 3,302 passing yards, 1 TD run
You’d think a guy nicknamed “The Mad Bomber” would be quite the fantasy catch, and you’d be right. He was the top passing QB in ’69, throwing 10 more TD passes than any other pro (the Rams’ Roman Gabriel had 24) and 200 more passing yards than anyone (200 more than the Redskins’ Sonny Jurgensen). He actually threw more passes than nine of the 16 NFL teams. But his 12-1-1 Raiders were upset by Kansas City in the final AFL title game, depriving them of a chance to face off against the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters in Super Bowl IV.
16. DREW BREES
2011 New Orleans Saints
43 TD passes, 5,177 passing yards, 1 TD run
It’s hard to pick out just one season for a guy who had 14 consecutive seasons topping 4,000 yards. So let’s go with the season when he posted career-bests in both passing TDs and yardage. Brees edged out the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers by one TD for the league lead and topped runner-up Tom Brady by 241 passing yards. The future hall of famer holds the NFL career record with 74,437 passing yards. And counting …
15. DAN FOUTS
1981 San Diego Chargers
33 TD passes, 4,802 passing yards
Fouts would have won several championships had he gotten to play against the Chargers’ perennially-poor defense. He was on top of his game in ’81, leading the league in passing TDs (3 more than the Falcons’ Steve Bartkowski) and passing yardage (a whopping 890 more than the Vikings’ Tommy Kramer). But the number that proved the Bolts’ undoing that season was -9, the temperature in their AFC championship loss in arctic Cincinnati.
14. KURT WARNER
2001 St. Louis Rams
36 TD passes, 4,830 passing yards
Everyone knows the former Hy-Vee grocery bagger became a superhero in his legendary 1999 season, but his fantasy numbers were actually better two years later with The Greatest Show on Turf. He led the league in both passing touchdowns (4 more than Brett Favre and the 49ers’ Jeff Garcia) and yardage (699 ahead of the Colts’ Peyton Manning). But the Rams’ video-game offense came to a screeching halt in their Super Bowl XXXVI matchup with New England.
13. SONNY JURGENSEN
1961 Philadelphia Eagles
32 TD passes, 3,723 passing yards
This beefy passer is best remembered leading the Washington Redskins of the 1960s. But his best fantasy season, by far, came three years before his blockbuster trade for Norm Snead. Succeeding Norm Van Brocklin as quarterback of the defending NFL champions, Jurgensen tied the league record for TD passes and broke the mark for passing yards. He had 10 more scoring passes than the runner-up (the Bears’ Bill Wade) and 733 more yards than No. 2 (that Unitas fellow in Baltimore).
12. RANDALL CUNNINGHAM
1990 Philadelphia Eagles
30 TD passes, 3,466 passing yards, 5 TD runs, 942 rushing yards
He’ll always be remembered in these parts for his renaissance season of 1998, but his best days were in South Philly as the NFL’s premier dual-threat QB. His 942 yards on the ground are still the third-most ever by a quarterback. Passing-wise, he was just three off the league lead in touchdowns (behind only the Oilers’ Warren Moon), and he was a respectable sixth in yardage (again behind his fellow former Viking).
11. CAM NEWTON
2015 Carolina Panthers
35 TD passes, 3,837 passing yards, 10 TD runs, 636 rushing yards
The former Heisman Trophy winner has perfected the art of hogging goal-line scoring chances for himself, and he was never more adept at that than in his Super Bowl season. He was fifth in the league in touchdowns (4 more than any other QB) and was second in TD passes (trailing only the Patriots’ Tom Brady). But his yardage total was only good for 16th in the league, keeping him just short of our top 10. Even more damaging was his fumbles total (2) in the Panthers’ Super Bowl L showing.
10. STEVE YOUNG
1994 San Francisco 49ers
35 TD passes, 3,969 passing yards, 7 TD runs
The former Brigham Young great found a way out of Joe Montana’s shadow … by statistically topping his teammate and rival’s best seasons. He led the league in passing touchdowns (2 more than Brett Favre) and was tied for seventh in the league in rushing TDs. His passing yardage was 586 behind the league leader (the Patriots’ Drew Bledsoe), and he led all QBs with 293 rushing yards. He famously removed one monkey off of his back at season’s end by throwing six TD passes in the Niners’ Super Bowl rout of San Diego.
9. PATRICK MAHOMES
2018 Kansas City Chiefs
50 TD passes, 5,097 passing yards, 2 TD runs
The son of the former Twins pitcher would no doubt be higher on this list if no-look passes were a certified fantasy category. As it is, he was the dominant player last season with 11 more TD passes than his nearest rival (the Colts’ Andrew Luck) and he was a mere 32 yards from Ben Roethlisberger’s league lead. Landing at No. 9 on the league’s all-time passing yardage list in your first season as a starter, though, isn’t too shabby.
8. JOHNNY UNITAS
1959 Baltimore Colts
32 TD passes, 2,899 passing yards, 2 TD runs
Generally regarded as the greatest quarterback of the NFL’s first half-century, Johnny U had his best statistical season as the Colts successfully defended their first championship. It’s the only season in which the hall of famer topped 25 TD passes. His 32 led the league by a full dozen (ahead of the Steelers’ Bobby Layne). He led, also, in passing yardage (282 more than the Eagles’ Norm Van Brocklin) and added two TD runs.
7. SAMMY BAUGH
1943 Washington Redskins
23 TD passes, 1,754 passing yards
Our next two dominated a single season like few have, and it was the same season. Slingin’ Sammy had 23 TD tosses in a season where only one other passer (See No. 6 ahead) reached double figures. To put the numbers in perspective, the Packers’ Tony Canadeo was third in the NFL in both TD passes (a mere 9) and passing yards (an even more mere 875). Baugh was also, arguably, the greatest punter in NFL history not named Ray Guy. But that wouldn’t have gotten you any fantasy points during World War II, either.
6. SID LUCKMAN
1943 Chicago Bears
28 TD passes, 2,194 passing yards, 1 TD run
The greatest quarterback ever to come out of our hometown of Brooklyn had his best season as the Bears won their third championship in four seasons. It was so long ago that it was the first season in which the league mandated the use of helmets. Luckman surpassed fellow hall of famer Baugh by five TD passes and by 440 passing yards. His totals are even more impressive when you realize he threw only 202 passes during the season. That’s a TD rate of 13.9 percent, which is an NFL record that still stands.
5. DAN MARINO
1986 Miami Dolphins
44 TD passes, 4,746 passing yards
As an NFL sophomore, he posted the greatest passing numbers in history in leading the Dolphins to the AFC championship in 1984. Then two years later, for a much lesser Miami team, he topped himself. He led the league by an astounding 19 TD passes (ahead of the Jets’ Ken O’Brien, who was infamously drafted ahead of Marino). He was 655 passing yards ahead of the runner-up (Washington’s Jay Schroeder). And yet the ’86 Dolphins could manage only an 8-8 record. Marino, sadly, had to get used to being a one-man team.
4. TOBIN ROTE
1956 Green Bay Packers
18 TD passes, 2,203 passing yards, 11 TD runs, 398 rushing yards
The Cheeseheads’ greatest-ever fantasy quarterbacking season was not posted by a Starr, a Favre or a Rodgers. It wasn’t even posted by the most famous Rote (Giants star Kyle Rote). But this seventh-year journeyman had a season for the ages. He had six more TD passes than the runner-up (the Steelers’ Ted Marchibroda), 294 more passing yards than anyone (ahead of Lions’ Bobby Layne) and was one behind league leader Rick Cesares of the Bears in rushing TDs. Rote accounted for 29 of the Packers’ 34 touchdowns. So what did the 4-8 Pack do at season’s end? They traded Rote to Detroit, where he led the Lions to their last NFL title.
3. GEORGE BLANDA
1961 Houston Oilers
36 TD passes, 3,330 passing yards, 112 kicking points
You might remember Blanda as the 1970s Raiders’ geriatric kicker, but that old man was, unquestionably, the greatest QB in American Football League history. He led the pros in passing TDs in the Oilers’ second straight championship season (Sonny Jurgensen was the only other QB to top 22). And Jurgensen was the only passer to top him in yardage. Oh yeah, and Blanda led both leagues in kicking points. We can only guess what rules would have governed kicking QBs back during the Kennedy administration, but Blanda was a first-rounder in any league.
2. TOM BRADY
2007 New England Patriots
50 TD passes, 4,806 passing yards, 2 TD runs
Bill Belichick’s team proved to be not-quite-perfect during their 18-1 campaign, but his quarterback surely was. He was the first QB to hit the half-century mark, with 14 more TD passes than his nearest competitor (Dallas’ Tony Romo). And his passing yardage surpassed Drew Brees’ total by a comfortable 383. Throw in two of his 19 career TD runs and you have the greatest quarterbacking season in NFL history. Until six years later …
1. PEYTON MANNING
2013 Denver Broncos
55 TD passes, 5,477 passing yards, 1 TD run
Two years removed from a severe neck injury, Manning made John Elway’s biggest gamble pay off with a season of legend. He shattered Tom Brady’s TD record by five and led the entire league by 16. He led in passing yards by 315 (with Drew Brees finishing second in both TDs and yards). Manning still holds the NFL record in both categories. He also ran for the last of his 18 career rushing scores. Manning would have to wait two years, though, before bringing a Super Bowl crown to the Rockies in his farewell season.
OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES
Michael Vick (2006 Falcons), Randall Cunningham (1998 Vikings), Dan Marino (1984 Dolphins), Kurt Warner (1999 Rams), Peyton Manning (2004 Colts), Russell Wilson (2014 Seahawks), Tom Brady (2011 Patriots), Cam Newton (2011 Panthers), Aaron Rodgers (2012 Packers), Drew Brees (2012 Saints), Matt Ryan (2016 Falcons), Joe Montana (1990 49ers), Warren Moon (1990 Oilers), Bobby Douglass (1972 Bears).
You can hear Kevin Cusick on Wednesdays on Bob Sansevere’s “BS Show” podcast on iTunes. You can follow Kevin on Twitter — @theloopnow. He can be reached at email@example.com. ___
This article is written by Kevin Cusick from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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