In 1963, Y.A. Title set a then NFL record by throwing 36 touchdown passes at the ripe old age of 37. This record would stand until 1984. Much has changed since the days of Title, especially at the quarterback position.
As the NFL has established rules that favor the passing game, prolific seasons for quarterbacks have become more and more frequent. Quarterback play that used only to be heard of in Madden video games is now the norm. With that being said, some single-season performances trump the competition. These are seasons that can be described as magical.
There is always room for debate when creating a definitive top all-time list in any realm. For this exercise, many factors are weighed when ranking the order. These factors consider the fact that passing numbers have rapidly risen over the past decade. It’s also important to note that a few quarterbacks showed dual stardom (passing/rushing) during these stellar seasons.
The rankings consist of a mixture of statistical analysis that combines both passing and rushing. The eye test also comes into play when evaluating extraordinary seasons, where players transcended the game in style and play. Playoff performances, including the Super Bowl, certainly make a difference in pushing a player up the list.
So before we get to the top 15, let’s take a look at a few quarterback seasons that just missed the cut:
Daunte Culpepper (2004) MIN– 16 games, 4,717 Pass Yards, 39TD/11INT, 406 Rush Yards, 2 Rush TD, 110.9 QB Rating, 8.6 Y/A, 69.2 Comp. % 8-8 Record, Pro Bowl.
Aaron Rodgers (2016) GNB– 16 games, 4,428 Pass Yards, 40TD/7INT, 369 Rush Yards, 4 Rush TD, 104.2 QB Rating, 7.3 Y/A, 65.7 Comp. % 10-6 Record, Pro Bowl.
Russell Wilson (2015) SEA– 16 games, 4,024 Pass Yards, 34TD/8INT, 553 Rush Yards, 1 Rush TD, 110.1 QB Rating, 8.3 Y/A, 68.1 Comp. % 10-6 Record, Pro Bowl.
Aaron Rodgers (2014) GNB– 16 games, 4,381 Pass Yards, 38TD/5INT, 269 Rush Yards, two rush T.D., 112.2 QB Rating, 8.4 Y/A, 65.6 Comp. % 12-4 Record, MVP, Pro Bowl.
Drew Brees (2018) NOR– 15 games, 3,992 Pass Yards, 32TD/5INT, 22 Rush Yards, 4Rush T.D., 115.7 QB Rating, 8.2 Y/A, 74.4 Comp. % 13-2 Record, Pro Bowl.
Ok…now that you have met the honorable mentions…it’s time to see the quarterbacks that made this list. Without further ado…here are the Top 15 Quarterback seasons (post-1980) all-time ranked!
15. Randall Cunningham (1990)
They didn’t call him the “Ultimate Weapon” for nothing. What Randall Cunningham did in 1990 was nothing short of miraculous. While the passing numbers he posted may not be all-worldly, you are now talking special when you add the 942 rushing yards and five scores on the ground to the mix.
The 1990 season saw Randall become one of the most exciting players in the NFL. He was an explosive playmaker that reeled off highlight-reel play after highlight-reel play, most of the time making it look easy. Cunningham most definitely embodied the prototypical quarterback style of today; supremely talented and ultra-athletic.
14. Brett Favre (1996)
How do you follow up an MVP season and career year? Just ask Brett Favre, who replicated his 1995 performance and then some in 1996. Favre not only put up stellar statistics while garnering his second straight MVP award, but he also led the Green Bay Packers to their first super bowl victory in over 28 years.
After setting a Packer’s record by throwing 39 touchdowns, Favre had a playoff run to remember to seal the deal. He threw for 613 yards, 5TD’s, and only 1 INT with three straight 100 % passer rating games.
13. Drew Brees (2011)
Drew Brees is one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, having compiled multiple monster seasons. However, no year that Brees has been an author of quite compares to 2011. During that season, Brees set three NFL records (of course, they were since broken) for pass completions (468), passing yards (5,467), and completion% (71.2%).
Drew Brees led his team to the playoffs, but they were unfortunately eliminated in the playoffs’ divisional round. Rodgers was the only thing holding Brees back from his first MVP award. Nonetheless, an epic year for the token Saint.
12. Matt Ryan (2016)
The 2016 Super Bowl could be described as being cold as ice to Atlanta Falcon’s faithful. However, Matty Ice was hotter than burning coal that year. After shattering multiple passing records in 2016, Ryan raised the bar even higher during the playoffs. He threw for 1,014 yards with 9TD/0INT while compiling a 71.4 completion percentage.
This performance would rank much higher if not for an epic collapse of the Atlanta Falcon’s defense in the Super Bowl. Regardless of the final game gaffe, the total package was as good as it gets for quarterbacks!
11. Cam Newton (2015)
Cam Newton was superman in 2015. He did it all. Newton was a real dual-threat that year as he was responsible for 83% of the Panther’s total scoring. All in all, Cam put up 4,473 yards and 45 TDs. He led the team to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl birth. The team ultimately lost to Manning and the Broncos, but that didn’t dampen the overall greatness of Cam Newton.
While the statistics alone make this season one of the greatest of all time, it is the eye test that indeed emphasizes just how special Cam was. It was magical watching Cam generate multiple comebacks, all the while willing his team to win.
10. Peyton Manning (2004)
Peyton Manning is the epitome of what a star quarterback stands for. There were not too many players in his prime that could compete with the high standard he set. 2004 was a watershed moment as Manning broke Marino’s passing TD record. However, the touchdown milestone was just the tip of the iceberg for Manning.
Peyton set a then-record for passer rating, hitting 121.1%. Once again, it’s not just the numbers that made this season special for Manning. After winning his first MVP, he took the Colts to the playoffs, ultimately stumbling against New England.
9. Kurt Warner (1999)
There may not be any more remarkable story in NFL history than Kurt Warner. One week he was bagging groceries at a supermarket, and the following week he was the architect of the “Greatest Show on Turf.” After beating the upstart Titans, Warner put up massive statistics while leading the Saint Louis Rams to a Super Bowl championship.
Warner set franchise records for just about every passing metric. However, Kurt saved his best performance for last. During the Super Bowl, Warner went 24/45 while throwing for 414 yards and 2 TD’s in-route to his MVP award.
8. Aaron Rodgers (2011)
Aaron Rodgers has quickly catapulted himself into all-time great status. AROD has done so by consistently putting up top tier seasons. In 2011, Aaron found himself in another stratosphere. After quarterbacking the Packers to a 15-1 record, Aaron shattered every franchise passing record there is to be had.
More impressive than that, though, was his NFL record setting 122.5 QB rating. His 84.5 QBR is also the highest single-season total in NFL history. This elite season would have been higher on the list if not for the early exit in playoffs. Just relax.
7. Joe Montana (1989)
Joe Montana made his noise in the playoffs. Part of the reason he’s always at the top of all-time quarterback lists is his four super bowl rings. However, to ignore the total greatness of the 89 seasons would be criminal. Many forget he only played in 13 games, so that in an entire season, he would have indeed surpassed 4,000 yards and 30TD’s.
Joe’s 112.4 passer rating is good for 15th all-time, but at the time (before the juiced numbers) set a high for quarterbacks. Montana took passer rating to another level in the playoffs with a record 146.4 while throwing 5 TD’s in the super bowl victory.
6. Lamar Jackson (2019)
Watching Lamar Jackson is the definition of uncovering a human cheat code. Lamar took what Cunningham did in 1990 and injected it with steroids. If you add his passing/rushing numbers together, it looks like 4,333 Yards and 43 TDs. He also broke Michael Vick’s rushing yard record for quarterbacks.
While everyone knew that Lamar was exceptional on the ground, he flipped the script through the air, torching defenses like a well-oiled machine. These dual-threat gems made him only the second unanimous MVP in NFL history.
5. Peyton Manning (2013)
2013 saw Manning set the all-time passing yardage (5,477) and passing TD (55) records. Many forget that this came after sitting out an entire year due to a career-threatening neck injury. Nonetheless, Manning was able to elevate his play while carrying the Denver Broncos to the super bowl.
No matter what way you spin it, passing era or not, these numbers rake. Manning was one quarterback that did take advantage of the pass-happy style of offenses while padding his stats. Worthy of top five prowess.
4. Pat Mahomes (2018)
What Pat Mahomes did in only his second year is eye-popping. Even though it was considered his second year, he was virtually a rookie. Manning’s numbers may be better but Mahomes doing it at such a young age gives him the edge. Patrick makes some throws that even Peyton could never pull off.
The sky is the limit for this young stud. The 2018 season put Mahomes in generational talent discussion already; however, if this ends up being an outlier, what a stellar high watermark! Breathtaking and elite.
3. Dan Marino (1984)
Marino’s 1984 season is legendary. And to be quite honest, the greatness of what he accomplished is not talked about enough today. Rest aside the passing records that he shattered at the time (yards-5,084) and (TD’s-48). The fact that Marino even approached these numbers in an era where this was unthinkable speaks volumes.
Marino turned the two Marks (Clayton and Duper) into superstars. And what Marino did turning that Dolphins team around was unimaginable. He may also be the unluckiest QB on the list, facing Montana in his only super bowl and losing.
2. Steve Young (1994)
No quarterback embodies the notion of patience more than Steve Young, carving out his legendary niche after playing second fiddle to Joe Montana all those years. 1994 is the cream of the crop in Young’s resume. He saved the best for last after accounting for 4,262 yards and 42 TD’s in the regular season.
During the 1994 playoff run, Young threw for 623 yards and 9 TD’s, including a record 6 in his super bowl championship win against the Chargers. When you witness the entire narrative regular season and Super Bowl, Young’s 1994 year stands alone as one of the greatest ever by a quarterback.
1. Tom Brady (2007)
No stat is more important than wins, and Tom Brady was perfect in 2007. Well, at least during the regular season. Brady led the Patriots to a 16-0 record while setting every franchise passing record in the process. The addition of Randy Moss took Brady from glorified game manager to the top of elite.
A historic season every way you dice it, Brady found himself carrying the Patriots to yet another super bowl. Of course, you all know how that one ended. With that being said, these stellar numbers and the perfect regular season puts him at #1 on the list!