Of all the positions in sports, there is none quite like quarterback. While it has undergone massive changes over the years, the quarterback position has only grown in significance, popularity, and scrutiny.
The numbers quarterbacks are able to compile has also gone up, especially since the start of the millennium. While favorable rule changes are a factor, the natural evolution of the position has also played a major role in the video-game like numbers that quarterbacks are able to compile in the modern game.
Of course, individual greatness is the biggest reason for the spike in numbers. Unlike in the ’70s, when the passers of that era looked up to quarterbacks who played in run-heavy offenses, today’s quarterbacks molded their games from quarterbacks who littered the sky with footballs. While they may not have known it at the time, quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler and Dan Fouts provided inspiration for the next generation. The cycle continued with Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, and Michael Vick, who inspired many of the stars who are currently being idolized by tomorrow’s quarterbacks.
Given the growing attention around the position, we decided to look back and rank the top 10 seasons ever by a quarterback. Unlike most all-time rankings, this one wasn’t graded on a curve. Eras weren’t considered, only how each season stacked up against other all-time seasons.
Here’s the official criteria used when making the list.
- One spot permitted per QB
- Individual statistics
- Individual accolades
- Team success
- Individual postseason success
- Enduring legacy
1. Dan Marino: 1984
Marino’s 5,084 yards that season was 282 more yards than the second-highest total in league history at that time. His 48 touchdown throws that year was 16 more than the next-highest total in league annals. Marino saved his best game of the year for his childhood team: the Pittsburgh Steelers. Facing Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game, Marino threw for 421 yards that included two TD strikes to Mark Duper and one each to Mark Clayton and Nat Moore in Miami’s 45-28 win.
2. Peyton Manning: 2013
Manning’s 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdown passes remain the highest single-season totals in history. Named league MVP for a record fifth time that season, Manning took advantage of a Broncos‘ receiving corps that featured Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. The Broncos lost the Super Bowl that year but would win the franchise’s third title in 2015.
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3. Tom Brady: 2007
Not only did he set the then-NFL single-season record with 50 TD passes, Brady led the NFL in completion percentage (68.9%) and passing yards (4,806). Brady’s historic season played a major role in the Patriots becoming the NFL’s first and only team to go undefeated during the 16-game regular season format. Brady’s favorite target, Randy Moss, also made history by catching 23 TD passes, a record that still stands.
4. Kurt Warner: 1999
A story that was recently immortalized on the big screen, Warner seemingly came out of nowhere to post one of the greatest passing seasons in history. In his first season as a starting NFL QB, the former arena league standout won the “triple-crown” after leading the league with 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns while completing 65.1% of his passes.
Warner started the ’99 season strong and finished it even stronger. He was the first QB in NFL history to throw at least three touchdowns in each of his first three starts. Warner capped off his storybook season by throwing the winning TD pass and being named MVP of the Rams‘ thrilling Super Bowl win over the Titans.
5. Joe Montana: 1989
Montana’s best season with the 49ers came a year after he nearly lost his starting job to Steve Young. Montana, however, was able to temporarily keep Young on the sideline after he led the 49ers to a dramatic win over the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. For an encore, Montana won league MVP in 1989 after completing a career and league best 70.2% of his throws. He was simply immaculate in the playoffs, throwing 11 touchdowns and zero picks while completing 78.3% of his passes. Montana punctuated his magical season by throwing five touchdowns and being named MVP of Super Bowl XXIV.
6. Steve Young: 1994
After being largely a backup until age 30, Young quickly made up for lost time. In 1992, his second year as the 49ers’ starting QB, Young was named to his first of seven straight Pro Bowls. He also won the first of his two league MVP awards while leading the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game.
If the ’92 season solidified Young’s status one of the NFL’s best players, the ’94 season cemented his status as an all-time great. The left-handed Young led the NFL in completion percentage and touchdown passes that season while also running for seven touchdowns and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. In the playoffs, Young and his teammates dethroned the Cowboys — who had defeated them in the previous two NFC title games — before dismantling the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. Young’s performance in that game was timeless, as he threw a still-standing Super Bowl record six touchdown passes while also finishing as the game’s leading rusher.
7. Brett Favre: 1996
Statistically, Favre’s stats this season don’t quite match up with the rest of the all-time seasons. But Favre did lead the NFL with 38 touchdowns while winning the second of three consecutive MVP awards. After two solid performances in the NFC playoffs, Favre did something very few quarterbacks were able to accomplish: defeat a Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick coached team in a championship game.
A classic gunslinger, it was two audibles by Favre that helped propel the Packers to a 35-21 win over New England in Super Bowl XXXI. His first audible resulted in the game’s first score, a 54-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison. Favre’s second audible led to an 81-yard TD pass to Antonio Freeman that gave Green Bay the lead for good. He also ran for a score in leading the Packers to their first title in 29 years.
8. Patrick Mahomes: 2018
In his first season as a starter, Mahomes joined Brady and Manning as the only quarterbacks to throw 50 touchdowns in a season. He also joined Manning, Brady, Marino, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matthew Stafford in the 5,000-yard passing club. Mahomes, who had a pair of six-touchdown performances that season, threw at least three TD passes in a game 10 times while nearly leading Kansas City to the Super Bowl. Mahomes and his teammates would finish the job the following season.
9. Lamar Jackson: 2019
Jackson’s MVP season of 2019 is truly unique. Along with leading the NFL in touchdown passes (36), Jackson led the league in yards-per-carry average (6.9 yards) in his first full season as the Ravens‘ starting quarterback. Jackson’s 1,206 rushing yards that season broke Vick’s 13-year-old single-season record for a QB by 167 yards. Jackson won league MVP honors while leading the Ravens to a 14-2 record.
10. Aaron Rodgers: 2020
Throwing a bunch of touchdowns without tossing many picks is one of the key staples of Rodgers’ game. That was certainly the case in 2020, when Rodgers threw 48 touchdowns against just five interceptions. Along with leading the NFL in TD passes, Rodgers also led the league in completion percentage after completing a career-high 70.7% of his throws. Rodgers was rewarded with his first of consecutive league MVP awards.
Honorable Mention: Drew Brees: 2011
During his legendary career, Brees led the NFL in passing yards seven times, completion percentage six times, and touchdowns passes on four occasions. But the 2011 season was the only time he won the “triple-crown” as he led the league in all three categories. Along with throwing 46 touchdowns and completing 71.2% of his passes, Brees’ 5,476 yards that season was 241 more yards than Brady’s total that season, as both players broke Marino’s 27-year record.