Thursday, January 16, 2014

AFC Championship Primer: The Best Quarterback Seasons in NFL History

Tom Brady has gotten the better of Peyton Manning head to head, including a 24-point comeback earlier this year. The two will face off again Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, but which future Hall of Famer has had the best single season?
By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

Yesterday, in honor of the NFC Championship's impending defensive struggle, we brought you the 10 best defensive seasons in NFL history. That was great and all, but maybe you've heard about the somewhat relevant quarterback rivalry that will take center stage during the AFC Championship Game?

Oh yeah, it's that Peyton Manning guy trying to beat that Tom Brady guy. Those two dudes are pretty good.

In fact, both of them found their way onto today's list of the 10 greatest quarterback seasons ever. We all know that Brady has gotten the best of Manning, going 10-4 against his old rival, including 2-1 in the playoffs, but it is Manning that is in the midst of a historic 2013 season, setting the single season record for both touchdowns thrown and passing yards.

Where do Manning's current season and the best of Brady rank on our list? Find out below.

Honorable Mentions: 1981 Dan Fouts, 2010 Tom Brady, 1995 Brett Favre, 2004 Daunte Culpepper and 1967 Fran Tarkenton.

Fouts threw for over 4,800 yards when nobody even thought that was possible, while many (Including SuiteSports editor Jeremy Conlin) would argue that Brady was even better in 2010 than he was in his record-setting 2007 campaign.

Favre was at his MVP best while leading the Packers back to championship contention in '95, and Culpepper's amazing 2004 is often forgotten, simply because Manning was even better that season.

Rounding out our honorable mentions is the dual-threat Tarkenton who, in his first season in New York, turned the Giants from a 1-15 loser with the third-worst offense in football, to a respectable 7-7 team with the third-best offense in football. Between passing and rushing, Tarkenton accounted for a league-high 31 in touchdowns.

10. 2011 Drew Brees

Brees set the NFL's single season passing yardage record in 2011, and did so while leading the Saints to the NFC Championship Game and a 13-3 record. But Brees wasn't just a yardage machine, he also threw for 46 touchdowns and led four game-winning touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.

His 110.6 QB Rating was the best of his career, and his 71.2% completion percentage set a record that still stands as well… Breaking his own record from 2009.

9. 1999 Kurt Warner

When St. Louis quarterback Trent Green went down in the '99 preseason nobody, not even Rams coach Dick Vermeil, could have imagined what was about to be unleashed.

That would be "The Greatest Show on Turf."

In stepped backup Kurt Warner, a Northern Iowa alum who briefly made a living stocking grocery shelves before returning to football in the Arena League, and eventually catching on with the Rams. Warner quickly went from unknown to fantasy football legend, throwing for over 4,350 yards, and 41 touchdowns, while leading the Rams to their first playoff berth since '89, their first division title since '85, and first Super Bowl victory in franchise history.

Warner would take home both the regular season and Super Bowl MVP, and an offensive machine was created.

8. 1989 Joe Montana

Montana was always a model of efficiency and accuracy, but he was great even by his own lofty standards in his final Super Bowl season. Montana captured the regular season and Super Bowl MVP, while setting a new 49er single season completion percentage record (70.2%) and posting a 26/8 touchdown to interception ratio.

It would prove to be the beginning of the end for Montana in San Francisco, as he never started another full season in a 49er uniform, and was throwing passes for the Chiefs just three years later.

7. 1994 Steve Young

But as good as Montana was, it wasn't even the best QB season in Niner history. Five years after Montana last electrified the Bay Area, Steve Young stepped out from beneath his shadow and broke Montana's franchise completion percentage record, then led San Francisco to its first championship without Joe under center.

Young's absurd 112.8 QB rating powered the Niners to a 13-3 regular season and Super Bowl championship. Not only did Young get the championship monkey off his back, he did it in record-setting fashion, setting a new standard with six touchdowns passes in a Super Bowl, a record that still stands.

6. 2011 Aaron Rodgers

Fresh off a Super Bowl win in 2010, Rodgers was far better in 2011. While he posted an impressive 30/7 touchdown to interception ratio in 2010, he threw for 45 touchdowns and only six interceptions in 2011, leading the Packers to a 15-1 record and the top seed in the NFC.

His 9% touchdown percentage led the league, and he added another 260 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

The Packers were upset by the  eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, but Rodgers put up a season for the ages.

5. 2004 Peyton Manning

But Rodgers' 9% touchdown percentage came in second to Manning in 2004. Peyton posted an NFL record 9.9% touchdown percentage while leading the Colts to the top seed in the AFC. Oh yeah, and he broke Dan Marino's single season touchdown record that stood for two decades with 49.

His 4,557 passing yards and only 10 interceptions were impressive as well, and only a divisional round loss to New England keeps this from being even higher on the list.

4. 1959 Johnny Unitas

One of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history enjoyed his best season in 1959, as Unitas threw a career-high 32 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards to lead the league in both categories. Not only did Unitas lead the league in passing touchdowns, he blew away the competition, besting second place Bobby Layne by 12, and doubling up third place Norm Van Brocklin.

Unitas' Baltimore Colts would finish the season 9-3, and eventually win the NFL championship game against the New York Giants. The man who redefined the quarterback position captured the league's MVP award and his touchdown percentage of 8.7% would go down as the best in league history until the advent of the West Coast offense.

3. 2007 Tom Brady

I know we're not supposed to let championships cloud our judgement, and team success doesn't equal individual greatness, but this season was one fluke David Tyree catch away from being No. 1 in my book. As it stands, Tom Brady's 50 touchdown (A record until this season) year will go down as No.3, after his 18-0 Patriots were upset in the Super Bowl by Eli Manning, an excellent pass rush and, seemingly, some voodoo magic.

But it was about more than simply throwing a bunch of touchdowns. Brady also tallied over 4,800 yards, while limiting his interceptions to a paltry eight, good for an excellent interception percentage of only 1.4%. His 117.2 passer rating led the league, and his 87.08 QBR is the second best season recorded. Yep, it was a dominant season throughout, as he utilized great weapons like Randy Moss (Who set the receiving touchdown record that year) and Wes Welker to their full potential.

2. 2013 Peyton Manning

And finally we have it, our representative from the current season! Manning did something no quarterback has done since 1984 this season: Set the touchdown pass and yardage record in the same year.

In a year where offensive numbers ballooned ever further, Manning was still head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Other than yards and touchdowns, he led quarterbacks that started all season in passer rating at 115.1 (Nick Foles led the league at 119.2 in 13 starts), and led the league in Net Yards per attempt at 7.91.

He also took only 18 sacks (12 less than Tom Brady this year) and finished third in completion percentage at 68.3, all while leading the league in attempts.

Basically, if he wins the Super Bowl, this is the best quarterback season ever. If not, there will be some debate with 2007 Brady and the man I have ranked just ahead of him… For now.

1. 1984 Dan Marino

For two decades, Marino's passing touchdowns and yardage records held as the standard, and did so in a year where only two other players passed for more than 4,000 yards (Neil Lomax from the Cardinals and Phil Simms from the Giants). To put that into perspective, nine quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards this past season, then another two (Ryan Tannehill and Joe Flacco) were within 100 yards of that mark. After those three guys in '84, the great Dan Fouts was over 250 yards shy of 4,000, and things fell off even further after that.

The point is, Marino was putting up video game numbers before it was cool. Think of him as the NFL's passing game hipster. Marino's 48 touchdowns were also an astounding 16 TOUCHDOWNS BETTER THAN SECOND PLACE! While he did throw 17 interceptions, Marino did what he had to do for his team to win. The Dolphins had the Marks at receiver (Clayton and Duper), but lacked elite talent throughout the offense. Sorry Woody Bennett, you're not a very memorable back.

So, the Dolphins needed to throw it, and throw it deep, pretty much every play (Marino set a then-record with 14 yards per completion). Prime example: Marino threw for 421 yards on only 21 completions against a good Pittsburgh defense in the AFC title game.

I mean, just watch this video below. Screw "dink and dunk," Marino was chucking that thing deep every play. He was like Rex Grossman, only not terrible.

Given this, and the fact that Miami's defense ranked in the bottom-10 of the league in total yards and yards per play, it makes a little sense that Marino would force some throws, but his completion percentage (64.2) was still just .4 points behind Joe Montana for best in the league.
Along with big numbers, Marino's ability to avoid sacks in '84 puts him over the top.
Another interesting stat: Despite his league-high 564 attempts, Marino was only sacked 13 times. In fact, over 30 other quarterbacks (In a 28 team league) were sacked more often than Dan the Man. Despite slow developing plays, Marino was still incredibly accurate, and didn't cost his team lost yardage on sacks. All those numbers combined for Marino to lead the Dolphins to a 14-2 finish that saw them blow out the Seahawks and Steelers in the playoffs, before coming up short to Montana in the Super Bowl.

Why is this number one? Well, compared to his peers, Marino was just on a completely different level, and he led his team to the Super Bowl despite an inept defense and total lack of a ground game. He was also just better than anything to come before him. The record, before he threw 48, was 36, held by Y.A. Tittle and George Blanda. He destroyed it.

You'll notice that none of the top-three seasons on this list end with a championship, and maybe that should tell us something: Great quarterbacks don't win championships, great teams do. Sometimes, they are led by a Johnny Unitas or a Tom Brady, and sometimes they are led by a Trent Dilfer or a Joe Flacco.

All that being said, championships definitely had a bearing on my list, as four of the above QBs did win the title in their selected seasons (Warner, Young, Montana and Unitas). So, if Peyton Manning can take care of business Sunday, and again two weeks from then, it's hard to see him not occupying the top spot.

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