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Thursday, October 3, 2013
Top 10 greatest quarterback seasons

By Kevin Seifert

If he continues at his current pace for a full 16 games, Peyton Manning will throw for 100 billion yards. He'll throw a million touchdown passes and account for billions and billions of fantasy points before the end of the 2013 season.

Tortured Austin Powers and Carl Sagan references aside, I think we can all agree that we are in the silly season of projecting the numbers Manning will compile for the Denver Broncos this season. If you want to indulge, however, at the moment Manning is on pace to: With three-fourths of the season remaining, those projections are as valuable as the price you paid to click on this link. What we can do, of course, is establish some context.

Manning might be off to the best start for a quarterback in NFL history, having set records for yards and touchdown passes through four games. But what would it take to finish with the best season ever?

We convened a star-studded panel from ESPN Stats & Information to rank the 10 best year-long quarterback performances in NFL history. The league's current passing era skews toward the present time, but statistical analysis allowed for inclusion over a period of more than 50 years.

Herewith, then, are the 100 billion -- er, 10 -- best quarterback performances in NFL history (with comments by John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Info):

Tom Brady, 2007
New England Patriots
CMP: 398
ATT: 578
PCT: 68.9
Y/A: 8.3
YDS: 4,806
TD: 50
INT: 8

Tom Brady's 2007 season was the panel's unanimous selection for the best season by a quarterback in NFL history. Brady set an NFL record with 50 touchdown passes (averaging more than three per game), and top wideout Randy Moss' 23 touchdown receptions also set a record. Brady's play was the driving force behind the only 16-win regular season.

Just as impressive as Brady's productivity was the way he limited turnovers. Brady's plus-42 touchdown-to-interception differential is not only the best mark in league history, but only four different quarterbacks have even thrown 42 touchdown passes alone in a season (six seasons total). Brady not only threw one more touchdown with two fewer interceptions than Peyton Manning did in 2004, he had less than half as many interceptions as Dan Marino threw (17) during his record-setting 1984 season.

Peyton Manning, 2004
Indianapolis Colts
CMP: 336
ATT: 497
PCT: 67.6
Y/A: 9.2
YDS: 4,557
TD: 49
INT: 10

Peyton Manning's 49 touchdowns were a clinic in scoring efficiency. Manning's 9.9 touchdown percentage is the best in history among quarterbacks with as many attempts as he had (497). Though Manning finished the season three attempts shy of 500, only one of the 242 quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts has reached even 9.0 percent (Aaron Rodgers, 2011).

Manning's weapons were incredible. The Colts were the only team that year with three 1,000-yard receivers (Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Brandon Stokely). Manning's season stats were almost hurt by the productivity of Edgerrin James, who rushed for 1,548 yards (fourth most in 2004). No other quarterback in the top seven had even a 900-yard rusher.

Aaron Rodgers, 2011
Green Bay Packers
CMP: 343
ATT: 502
PCT: 68.3
Y/A: 9.2
YDS: 4,643
TD: 45
INT: 6

Aaron Rodgers' 2011 MVP campaign may have been the most efficient season in NFL history. None of the 242 quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts in a season have touched Rodgers' touchdown percentage (9.9) or yards-per-attempt average (9.25). The only other quarterback to average more than 9.0 yards per attempt was Dan Marino (9.01), who Rodgers beat by a quarter-yard per throw.

Rodgers' six interceptions were an astonishingly low total. The only quarterback with at least 500 attempts and a lower interception percentage than Rodgers' 1.2 was Jason Campbell in 2008 (six interceptions in 506 attempts). Then again, Rodgers threw more than three times as many TDs in 2011 as the 13 Campbell threw in 2008.

Drew Brees, 2011
New Orleans Saints
CMP: 468
ATT: 657
PCT: 71.2
Y/A: 8.3
YDS: 5,476
TD: 46
INT: 14

For sheer volume, it's tough to beat Drew Brees in 2011. Brees set NFL records in passing yards and completion percentage, leading the league with 46 touchdown passes. 2011 was the most impressive statistical season for Brees, who owns half of the six 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history. No one else has more than one.

Brees eclipsed Marino's 27-year-old passing yardage record with a game to spare but did not win the 2011 MVP trophy. That honor went to Rodgers.

Dan Marino, 1984
Miami Dolphins
CMP: 362
ATT: 564
PCT: 64.2
Y/A: 9.0
YDS: 5,084
TD: 48
INT: 17

Simply put, Dan Marino rewrote everything in 1984. He shattered records for passing yards (by 282) and touchdowns (by 12), and his 362 completions bested Dan Fouts' 1981 mark by two.

One underrated part of Marino's historic season is that he was sacked only 13 times in 16 games. In 1984, 36 quarterbacks were sacked more times than Marino, whose 564 pass attempts led the league and were the ninth-most in history at the time.

Steve Young, 1994
San Francisco 49ers
CMP: 324
ATT: 461
PCT: 70.3
Y/A: 8.6
YDS: 3,969
TD: 35
INT: 10

Steve Young completed 70.3 percent of his 461 passes, continuing a remarkable streak. Young broke Joe Montana's completion percentage record (minimum 400 passes) by completing 66.7 percent of his passes in 1992. Young broke his own record the next year and finally cracked the 70 percent mark in 1994. Young is still the only quarterback not named Brees to complete more than 70 percent of at least 400 throws in a season.

Johnny Unitas, 1959
Baltimore Colts
CMP: 193
ATT: 367
PCT: 52.6
Y/A: 7.9
YDS: 2,899
TD: 32
INT: 14

In 1959, Johnny Unitas set the record for touchdown passes with 32, three more than anyone else at the time. In Unitas' record-breaking season, only Bobby Layne (20) and Norm Van Brocklin (16) threw at least half as many touchdown passes as Unitas. Unitas became the first quarterback (or player that was not Jim Brown) to win the AP NFL MVP award, which was first handed out in 1957.

Joe Montana, 1989
San Francisco 49ers
CMP: 271
ATT: 386
PCT: 70.2
Y/A: 9.1
YDS: 3,521
TD: 26
INT: 8

Joe Montana's 70.2 completion percentage out of 386 attempts was the best mark of his career and led the league, along with his 6.7 touchdown percentage and 270.8 yards-per-game average (he played 13 of 16 games). Montana's 1989 season is best remembered for his postseason performance (11 touchdown passes, zero interceptions, Super Bowl victory and MVP trophy), but his MVP regular-season campaign wasn't bad either.

Kurt Warner, 1999
St. Louis Rams
CMP: 325
ATT: 499
PCT: 65.1
Y/A: 8.7
YDS: 4,353
TD: 41
INT: 13

Kurt Warner's Cinderella story culminated in his MVP 1999 season. Warner led the league in completion percentage and touchdown passes. He and Marino were the only quarterbacks to throw for at least 40 touchdowns in a season before the NFL cracked down on illegal contact penalties prior to the 2004 season.

Peyton Manning, 2006
Indianapolis Colts
CMP: 362
ATT: 557
PCT: 65.0
Y/A: 7.9
YDS: 4,397
TD: 31
INT: 9

Peyton Manning is the only quarterback to make this list twice. His 2006 season was a display of how to play the position. That season was one of three since 1982 (when sacks became official) with a quarterback posting at least 3,500 yards and 30 touchdown passes with fewer than 10 interceptions and 20 sacks (he had nine interceptions and was sacked 14 times). The other two were Randall Cunningham in 1998 and Manning, again, in 2004.


Top 10 seasons voting panel (ESPN Stats & Info): Micah Adams, Hank Gargiulo, Jon Kramer, Allison Loucks, Jason McCallum, John McTigue, John Parolin and Jason Vida.