Over the past few years we have seen dramatic changes to the passing game in the NFL. In 2004 the NFL changed its rules on how defensive players could interact with receivers. Because of this, teams have turned away from the run and are now launching the ball way more than they ever did in the past. Last season alone nine quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards. Two actually surpassed the 5,000 yard mark. Prior to 2011, 5,000 passing yards had only been reached once. Since then it has been done seven times.
So which quarterback put together the greatest single season in NFL History? In order to answer this, first we must consider what makes a quarterback’s season great. Obviously having a lot of passing yards and touchdowns are very important. Stats like completion percentage and passer rating also play a big role in deciding. However, since the NFL has changed so much over time, comparing the stats of the quarterbacks of today with the stats of past quarterbacks is unfair. One must compare a player’s stats with other players of the same time period in order fully understand just how spectacular that season was.
Another extremely important factor is how the team performed that year. A quarterback is the leader of a football team. The primary goal of the quarterback is to lead the team to victory. If a team did not make the playoffs, the quarterback did not do his job and therefore his season cannot be considered great regardless of how mind boggling his statistics were.
10. Joe Montana, 1989
Joe Montana is definitely one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He is mostly remembered as a winner. He was the leader of the 49ers’ offense that dominated the 1980s. His best statistical season came in 1989 when Montana threw 3,521 yards, 26 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions. That was good enough to set a record for the highest single season passer rating. He also led the league in completion percentage and rushed for 227 yards and three touchdowns. He helped elevate the 49ers to a 14-2 record in which their two losses came by a combined five points. Montana was named the NFL’s MVP for the 1989 season. His high caliber of play did not stop in the playoffs when he did not throw a single interception. The 49ers then went on to win Super Bowl XXIV and Montana was named the MVP of the game for the third time in his career. He set a Super Bowl record by throwing five touchdowns.
9. Aaron Rodgers, 2011
The Green Bay Packers headed into the 2011 season as the reigning Super Bowl champions. Aaron Rodgers picked up right where he left off by compiling one of the most efficient seasons a quarterback has ever produced. Rodgers led the Packers to thirteen straight wins to start the season. He threw for 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns, and just six interceptions. His passer rating of 122.5 shattered the record that was previously held by Peyton Manning. He also became the first quarterback to have thirteen games in a season with a passer rating of over 100. Rodgers was named the league’s MVP, but unfortunately for him, the Packers were unable to defend their title and were eliminated in their first playoff game.
8. Johnny Unitas, 1959
Johnny Unitas pretty much led the league in every major passing category in the 1959 season. He set a new record for the most touchdown passes in a single season by throwing 32. Remember, this was back before passing was the main way for offenses to move the ball. Unitas led the league and did not even surpass 3,000 yards that season. His dominant performance during the regular season earned him the NFL’s MVP Award. He then led the Baltimore Colts to a 31-16 victory over the New York Giants in the NFL Championship.
7. Peyton Manning, 2004
2004 was the year when we began to see crazy numbers coming from quarterbacks. The rule on illegal contact in the secondary was modified in order to allow for more big plays through the air. Peyton Manning responded by giving everyone something to watch. He went on to break Dan Marino’s record for the most touchdown passes in a single season and set a new league record for the highest passer rating of all time. The Colts became the only team in history to have three wide receivers gain over 1,000 receiving yards and at least 10 touchdowns. What is most amazing about this is that Peyton did not even throw over 500 passes in 2004. It took Tom Brady over 100 more attempted to toss the one touchdown needed to break the record Manning set. Peyton was named the NFL MVP, but could not turn his stellar season into a successful Super Bowl run.
6. Tom Brady, 2007
In 2007, Tom Brady was one step away from putting together the greatest single season any quarterback has ever had. Prior to the season, the Patriots overhauled their wide receivers by adding Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth. The new fire power allowed Brady to become the first quarterback to throw fifty touchdown passes in a single season. He led the Patriots to the first 16-0 regular season in league history. The Pats were heavy favorites to win Super Bowl XLII, but lost to the New York Giants in the final minutes of the game. Had the team won that game, Tom Brady’s 2007 season would have easily been the greatest season a quarterback has ever had.
5. Steve Young, 1994
Steve Young never got the respect he deserved from the 49ers’ faithful until his MVP season in 1994. Following a benching in a week four loss to the Eagles, Young went on to lead the 49ers to ten straight victories. He finished the year with 3,969 passing yards and set a new franchise record with 35 touchdown passes. He also led the team with seven rushing touchdowns, eighth most in the NFL that season. His 70.28 completion percentage was the best from any quarterback of the entire decade. He also broke Joe Montana’s record for the highest single season passer rating in NFL History. The 49ers went on to win Super Bowl XXIX. Young was named the game’s MVP after throwing a record six touchdown passes.
4. Sid Luckman, 1943
This is the best season you have never heard of. Prior to Sid Luckman’s season in 1943 passing did not really even exist in the NFL. He threw for 2,194 yards. Only one other quarterback in the league passed for over 1,000 yards that season. He also set a league record by throwing 28 touchdowns that season. This record was broken four years later, but it was because the schedule was changed from ten to fourteen games. His record for 28 touchdown passes in a ten game period stood for decades. Luckman actually threw a touchdown on 13.3 percent of his passes, a record that still stands to this day. He became the first quarterback to ever throw for 400 yards in a game, as well as the first quarterback to throw seven touchdown passes in a single game. Luckman was named the NFL’s MVP and led the Bears to a championship victory. Most amazing, he did all this and only started three games. He cannot claim the top spots on the list however, because at this point in history defenses only lined up to stop the run, which made the rarely used forward pass highly effective at the time.
3. Peyton Manning, 2013
Just like Tom Brady in 2007, all Peyton Manning had to do last season to have the greatest single season of any quarterback was to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season. Manning shattered the record books in 2013, throwing for 5,477 yard and 55 touchdowns. He also broke the single season record for most games with at least four touchdown passes. Manning won his fifth MVP Award last year, but a horrid performance in the Super Bowl cost him the top spot on this list.
2. Dan Marino, 1984
In 1984, Dan Marino had a season for the ages. He became the first quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in a season and also set an NFL record for the most touchdown passes in a season. His single season passing touchdown record stood for twenty years and the passing yards record stood for 27. Marino led the Dolphins to a 14-2 record and was named the league’s MVP. Unfortunately, Marino could not take the top spot because he failed to complete his amazing season with a Super Bowl victory. The Dolphins lost to the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX. It would be the only Super Bowl Marino would ever compete in.
1. Kurt Warner, 1999
Kurt Warner put together the most complete season of any quarterback in NFL history in 1999. Following a preseason injury to starting quarterback Trent Green, Warner was forced into the Rams’ starting role and never looked back. He led the league with a 65.1 completion percentage and tallied 4,353 passing yards and 41 touchdowns. Only he and Marino ever threw for over forty touchdown passes in a single season prior to the rule changes on illegal contact. With Warner under center the Rams became known as “The Greatest Show on Turf” and ushered in a new era for the passing offense. Warner was named the NFL MVP that season. He led the Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV and was named the game’s MVP. When taking into consideration his mind-blowing stats, the league’s rules at the time, and his Super Bowl ring, Warner’s 1999 season was undoubtedly the greatest season any quarterback has ever had.