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Most Pick Sixes Thrown in NFL History

To pick six, or not to pick six

To pick six, or not to pick six.

Three years ago to the day, I crunched the numbers to see which quarterbacks had thrown the most pick sixes thrown in NFL history. With three more years of data, a robust play-by-play database, and, ya know, Matt Schaub, I figured it was time for an update. In case you haven’t noticed, Schaub became the first player to ever throw pick sixes (picks six?) in four straight games, and then on Sunday, T.J. Yates got the Texans into the record books as Houston had an interception returned for a touchdown in five straight games. But I thought it would be fun to look at the career leaders in pick sixes (and remind you that I discussed the rising rate of interception scores in the offseason).

Nobody has exact pick six data available, but we can do a reasonably job of answering the question of who has had the most passes returned for touchdowns in league history. That’s because we have:

  • Scoring logs for all scores, showing all interceptions returned for a touchdown, dating back to 1940
  • Play-by-play logs for all players dating back to 1999. So we have all the information we need from that point through week six of the 2013 season.
  • Individual game logs for all players, showing all interceptions thrown dating back to 1960.

For all pick sixes thrown since 1999, we have the precise data.  For any game from 1960 to 1998, we can do a very good job approximating who threw the pick-six. Most of the time, only one quarterback will throw an interception in any given team game. Fifty years from now, if you look at this box score from week six, you will be able to know for sure that Peyton Manning threw the interception that Paul Posluszny returned for a touchdown. The Broncos threw just one interception, and it was by Manning, so Manning must have thrown the pick-six. It doesn’t matter if the team has thrown five interceptions, as long as all were thrown by the same guy, such as Keith Null against the Titans in 2009.

The problem games are the ones where multiple players, usually quarterbacks, threw interceptions. For example, the record for defensive interception returns for touchdowns in a game is four, set by the Seattle Seahawks in 1984 against Kansas City. If you look at the boxscore, you’ll see that Todd Blackledge threw three interceptions, Bill Kenney threw two, and Sandy Osiecki added a sixth. So what do we do? Award Blackledge 2 pick sixes, Kenney 1.33, and Osiecky 0.67; obviously this isn’t perfect, but over the course of a player’s career, I think this will work well as an approximation. Because I’m running low on time, I’m going to just ignore pre-1960 data, although you could piece it together at the old link since obviously nothing has changed.

The table below includes all players who threw at least five pick sixes since 1960. It includes all postseason data, and unsurprisingly, Brett Favre is the career leader. He threw 10,960 career passes (including the playoffs), so he only threw a pick six on 0.32% of his passes (the leader in that category is Chris Redman, who threw a pick six once every 100 passes). Favre threw 366 career interceptions (again, including the playoffs), so he threw a pick six on “only” 9.6% of his interceptions. If you’re curious, Aaron Rodgers has thrown just one pick six in his entire career. That gives him a rate 0.032 pick sixes per pass attempt, the lowest among all passes with 1500 attempts since 1960.

RkNameFirst YrPick SixCar Pass% of AttCar INT% of INT
1Brett Favre199135109600.32%3669.6
2Dan Marino19833090450.33%27610.9
3Joe Namath196525.838790.66%22411.5
4Peyton Manning19982587940.28%23210.8
5Norm Snead196123.343530.54%2579.1
6Vinny Testaverde198722.768900.33%2728.3
7Kerry Collins199520.265020.31%2079.8
8Steve DeBerg197820.250960.4%2079.7
9Carson Palmer20042043680.46%14214.1
10Drew Brees20011967780.28%17410.9
11John Elway19831979010.24%2477.7
12Lynn Dickey197117.131840.54%1829.4
13Ken Stabler19701741440.41%2357.2
14Jon Kitna19971745120.38%16910.1
15Kurt Warner19981745320.38%14212
16Ben Roethlisberger20041743630.39%13013.1
17Babe Parilli195216.833950.5%2227.6
18Warren Moon19841672260.22%2476.5
19Eli Manning20041650420.32%1679.6
20Mark Brunell19941549470.3%11912.6
21Steve McNair19951548550.31%13011.5
22Drew Bledsoe19931569690.22%2186.9
23Sonny Jurgensen195714.442740.34%1927.5
24George Blanda194914.141960.34%2944.8
25Matt Hasselbeck19991454240.26%1569
26Brad Johnson19941445500.31%13410.4
27Joey Harrington20021425380.55%8516.5
28Len Dawson19571439290.36%1917.3
29John Hadl196213.747540.29%2725
30Phil Simms197913.749260.28%1638.4
31Chris Chandler198813.341020.33%1508.9
32Fran Tarkenton196113.367590.2%2834.7
33Jim Kelly198613.353240.25%2036.5
34Craig Morton196513.240130.33%2036.5
35Jim Zorn197613.231770.41%1439.2
36Jake Delhomme19991331580.41%11111.7
37Jim Everett19861350990.25%1867
38Jake Plummer19971345470.29%1717.6
39Don Meredith196012.923860.54%11611.1
40Bob Griese196712.936370.35%1847
41Jim Hart196612.851570.25%2515.1
42Trent Dilfer199412.533070.38%1339.4
43Jim Plunkett197112.539730.31%2106
44Tommy Kramer197712.537910.33%1657.5
45Dan Fouts197312.358900.21%2584.8
46Brian Griese19981227960.43%9912.1
47Johnny Unitas19561254120.22%2634.6
48Troy Aikman19891252170.23%1587.6
49Jeff Blake19921232410.37%9912.1
50Philip Rivers20041240160.30%10711.2
51Matt Schaub20041231450.38%8114.8
52Dave Krieg198011.955930.21%2085.7
53Richard Todd197611.631070.37%1736.7
54Bobby Hebert198511.332230.35%1318.7
55Charley Johnson196111.333920.33%1816.2
56John Brodie195711.246340.24%2314.9
57Jeff George199011.240960.27%1169.6
58Elvis Grbac199411.225780.43%8712.8
59Frank Tripucka194911.117450.64%1249
60Stan Humphries198911.127440.4%9711.4
61Roman Gabriel196211.145610.24%1517.3
62Jeff Garcia19991138930.28%9012.2
63Gus Frerotte19941131810.35%10910.1
64Matthew Stafford20091121450.51%6018.3
65Steve Grogan197510.836880.29%2155
66Chris Miller198710.829540.36%10710
67Boomer Esiason198410.853040.2%1875.7
68Archie Manning197110.736420.29%1736.2
69Wade Wilson198110.726130.41%1089.9
70Rich Gannon198710.144460.23%1138.9
71Donovan McNabb19991059510.17%1347.5
72Terry Bradshaw19701043570.23%2364.2
73Jay Cutler20061032140.31%1079.3
74Tony Romo20041035930.28%9610.4
75Gary Hogeboom19809.613540.71%6215.5
76Scott Mitchell19919.224000.38%8610.7
77Jay Fiedler1995918270.49%7412.2
78Marc Bulger2002932840.27%989.2
79Danny White1976933100.27%1486.1
80Mark Rypien1988928470.32%989.2
81Earl Morrall19568.827920.32%1555.7
82Randy Johnson19668.712860.68%909.7
83Ken Anderson19718.746410.19%1665.2
84Joe Montana19798.661250.14%1605.4
85Bill Nelsen19638.520370.42%1097.8
86Mike Tomczak19858.224800.33%1157.1
87Bert Jones19738.226130.31%1037.9
88Don Majkowski19878.119280.42%6911.8
89Tim Couch1999817140.47%6711.9
90Tom Brady2000870840.11%1495.4
91Steve Walsh1989813760.58%5414.8
92Chad Pennington2000826870.3%7211.1
93Ryan Fitzpatrick2005823270.34%859.4
94Jim McMahon1982827280.29%948.5
95Bubby Brister19867.922740.35%7810.1
96Milt Plum19577.824430.32%1316
97Billy Kilmer19617.531620.24%1534.9
98Joe Kapp19677.510190.74%7010.7
99Neil O'Donnell19917.535040.21%769.9
100Jack Kemp19577.432330.23%1933.8
101Tommy Maddox19927.312960.57%5712.9
102Rudy Bukich19537.311900.61%749.9
103Derek Anderson2006714400.49%5512.7
104Chad Henne2008715100.46%5213.5
105David Carr2002722670.31%719.9
106Daunte Culpepper1999733330.21%1116.3
107Bernie Kosar1985736350.19%977.2
108Tony Banks1996723590.3%739.6
109Kordell Stewart1995725000.28%927.6
110Michael Vick2001731620.22%888
111Joe Ferguson19736.946390.15%2183.2
112Bart Starr19566.833620.2%1414.8
113Eric Hipple19806.815840.43%729.4
114Ed Brown19546.720070.33%1394.8
115Brian Sipe19746.734790.19%1524.4
116Vince Evans19776.713980.48%758.9
117Ty Detmer19936.79670.69%3718
118Steve Bartkowski19756.535670.18%1524.3
119David Woodley19806.513810.47%699.4
120Steve Beuerlein19886.533590.19%1135.8
121Rodney Peete19896.523780.27%927
122Randy Wright19846.411190.57%5711.2
123Pete Beathard19646.313680.46%887.2
124Neil Lomax19816.332040.2%926.9
125Todd Blackledge19836.39020.7%4015.8
126Zeke Bratkowski19546.315240.41%1245.1
127Ryan Leaf19986.36550.96%3617.5
128Erik Kramer19876.324290.26%827.6
129Jeff Hostetler19856.224530.25%718.7
130Dave M. Brown1992616440.36%5910.2
131Jim Harbaugh1987640810.15%1224.9
132Aaron Brooks2000630400.2%956.3
133Kyle Orton2005622140.27%5710.5
134Bill Kenney1980624460.25%867
135Mark Sanchez2009620240.3%728.3
136Josh Freeman2009619670.31%669.1
137Andy Dalton2011613310.45%3915.4
138Trent Green1997637940.16%1165.2
139A.J. Feeley200167620.79%3119.4
140Rex Grossman2003616950.35%649.4
141Joe Flacco2008630970.19%728.3
142Sam Bradford2010617300.35%3716.2
143Blaine Gabbert201167770.77%2425
144Dan Pastorini19715.931710.18%1693.5
145Ken O'Brien19845.836690.16%1025.6
146Randall Cunningham19855.546540.12%1433.8
147Vince Ferragamo19775.418030.3%1025.2
148Billy Joe Tolliver19895.317070.31%648.3
149Jack Trudeau19865.216770.31%707.4
150Frank Reich19855.110360.49%3913.1
151Billy Wade19545.125540.2%1353.8
152Cotton Davidson19545.117520.29%1084.7
153Jacky Lee19605.18380.6%578.9
154Joe Theismann1974538130.13%1453.5
155Steve Young1985546200.11%1204.2
156Chris Weinke200157090.71%2619.2
157Kyle Boller2003515190.33%549.3
158Trent Edwards200759290.54%3016.7
159Scott Brunner1980510970.46%578.8
160Alex Smith2005524610.2%667.6
161Chris Redman200055001%1435.7
162Matt Cassel2005520620.24%608.3
163Mike McMahon200155150.97%2123.8
164Christian Ponder201158740.57%3016.7

Note: the above list includes quarterbacks whose careers began before 1960, but the pick six data is for post-1960 (while all other data is career data).

I can confirm that six quarterbacks have thrown three picks six in the same game, and the number may even be slightly higher. Eli Manning was the most recent, throwing three against the Vikings not long before he would win his first Super Bowl. Rich Gannon threw three against the Bucs in Super Bowl XXXVII, while Favre also once threw three interceptions in a playoff game.

Ed Baker threw three fourth-quarter pick sixes in relief in 1972 for the Oilers against the Bengals. A year earlier, my main man John Hadl threw three interceptions against the Oilers, and all were returned for touchdowns. And in 1968 against the Bills, Joe Namath had three passes returned for touchdowns. That won’t help my case to persuade you that Namath was underrated, I suppose. If someone wants to check and post in the comments, I see three other games since 1960 where a quarterback might have thrown three pick sixes (PFR boxscores are here, here, and here). [Ed. note: According to JWL in the comments, Tommy Wade joins the list due to his work against the Steelers in ’65.]

What about the single-season leaders? Surprisingly, Peyton Manning is the leader there, with six in the 2001 season that earned Jim Mora a pink slip.

YearTeamNamePick Sixes
2001INDPeyton Manning6
1966CHIRudy Bukich5.7
2010CINCarson Palmer5
2006CHIRex Grossman5
2004MIAA.J. Feeley5
2001CARChris Weinke5
2001GNBBrett Favre5
1999MIADan Marino5
1997MIADan Marino5
1985PITDavid Woodley5
1983STLNeil Lomax5
1967NYJJoe Namath5
1967BOSBabe Parilli5
1996BUFJim Kelly4.5
1967STLJim Hart4.5
1964PITEd Brown4.4
1965PITTommy Wade4.3
1984KANTodd Blackledge4.3
1962DENFrank Tripucka4.3
2013HOUMatt Schaub4
2012DETMatthew Stafford4
2012CINAndy Dalton4
2011SDGPhilip Rivers4
2010INDPeyton Manning4
2010NORDrew Brees4
2008NYJBrett Favre4
2005OAKKerry Collins4
2004PITBen Roethlisberger4
2003DETJoey Harrington4
2003TAMBrad Johnson4
2002OAKRich Gannon4
2000STLKurt Warner4
2000TENSteve McNair4
2000NYJVinny Testaverde4
1998ARIJake Plummer4
1997TAMTrent Dilfer4
1997SEAWarren Moon4
1996JAXMark Brunell4
1995ARIDave Krieg4
1993GNBBrett Favre4
1992MIADan Marino4
1988MIADan Marino4
1985TAMSteve DeBerg4
1985NYGPhil Simms4
1983GNBLynn Dickey4
1982MINTommy Kramer4
1968PITDick Shiner4
1967KANLen Dawson4
1965BOSBabe Parilli4
1963DALDon Meredith4
  • JWL

    Wade threw all the interceptions returned for touchdowns in that 1965 Eagles-Steelers game.

    As far as the Ed Brown-Zeke Bratkowski one is concerned, I think Brown threw at least one of the interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. I’m pretty sure I did research on the game at one time several years ago.

    The third “here” link did not bring me to a game.

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks, JWL. I’ve fixed the link — it is to that KC/SEA game.

  • Something I’m going to look at when I have time this off-season will be the depth of target on pick-sixs because for the most part it’s pure luck, except if my hunch is correct. Most pick-sixs (based on very initial testing) take place on attempts less than 10 yards down field, the reason this would be is because interceptions on screens and other short passes take place far enough away from crowded areas of the field and away from the fast receivers who get down field. By picking of a screen the defender really only has to beat the QB whereas if a defender intercepts the ball 10+ yards downfield he’s got most of the receivers, the back and the offensive line to beat to get to the end zone.

    Just my initial thoughts, this off-season I’ll compare interception rates based on distance along with pick-six percentage based on distance.

    Thanks for doing this Chase, good stuff.

    • Chase Stuart

      Glad you like, TD. I hit on a couple of those points in the link in the first paragraph to the rising pick six rate. I think it’s pretty clear that short passes are driving both the decrease in interception rate and the increase in pick six rate.

  • Tom Gower

    KC-SEA 1984: Bill Kenney threw 2, Todd Blackledge 1, Sandy Osiecki 1. Link.

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks Tom!

  • Bowl Game Anomaly

    The single-season leader list is a weird combination of really good QBs and really bad QBs.

  • Surprised our boy Sanchez isn’t higher

  • Ben

    I think you will have yourself an amazing article if you update the info above…in particular for Andy Dalton. He’s off the charts bad with pick sixes in the regular season and the playoffs. What is so amazing is that the Bengals signed him to a MASSIVE contract (albeit with little guaranteed money) and he’s getting all this hype for leading the Bengals to the playoffs for the 4th time in his 4 years in the league (only others to do it are Otto Graham and Joe Flacco). Despite this, I would be willing to bet that at least 10% of all of his TD passes are to the opposing team (fairly confident here considering he threw 4 in 2012 alone and he threw one against the Broncos last week). And I’m not even counting his playoff pick 6’s which amount to 2 in 3 games (compared to 1 TD pass to a Bengal WR). It’s shocking that no one points to any of this.