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Passing Kings, From Friedman to Manning

Friend-of-the-program Bryan Frye has contributed a fantastic guest post for us today. Bryan lives in Yorktown, Virginia, and operates his own great site at http://www.thegridfe.com/, where he focuses on NFL stats and history. Be sure to check out Bryan’s site, and let him know your thoughts on today’s posts in the comments.


Last Sunday, Peyton Manning broke the record for career touchdown passes. You may have heard about it. Rather than add more flotsam and jetsam to the vast sea of internet articles dedicated to Manning, I thought I would instead focus on the rich history of the record itself.

Looking back at the previous record holders not only gives you an appreciation for the rich history of the NFL, but it also gives you great understanding of the evolution of the passing game. With rules changes, schematic evolution, sophisticated diet and workout regimens, and passing camps allowing kids to hone their skills before they can even do long division, modern quarterbacks are able to put up stats that dwarf those of their predecessors.1

In all of the ado surrounding five-oh-nine, there was not a great deal of attention given to the legends who held the prestigious record in bygone eras. The explosion of the passing game likely has much to do with football becoming America’s most popular sport. But let us not lose sight of an era when 230 pound linemen with names like Bulldog played their hearts out for a sport that didn’t even pay the bills. In an age when controversies are ubiquitous, there is something beautiful about that kind of purity.

The Record Holders

The original passing king

The original passing king

Benny Friedman

Given the inconsistencies in the statistics of the league’s Paleolithic Era, the trip down memory lane will begin with Friedman.2 He played for the Bulldogs, Wolverines, Giants, and Dodgers between 1927 and 1934. During that time, he is credited with throwing 66 touchdown passes. As a testament to statistical irregularities, that number is often presented as 67, depending on the writer. The most contention is over his total in 1929, when he threw either 20 or 21 touchdowns (either of which is incredible for 1929). I’m going with 66 based on research by Joel Bussert.3 Using Bussert’s number, Friedman threw his 66th and final touchdown pass on October 10, 1933. He would be the sole record holder for seven seasons.

Arnie Herber

On November 11, 1940, Green Bay’s Arnie Herber threw his 66th touchdown pass to tie the record. The emergence of Cecil Isbell kept Herber from breaking the record, as Isbell and Hal Van Every threw the Packers’ only touchdowns for the remainder of the season. Herber retired following the 1940 season, but he came out of retirement to play for the Giants from 1944-1945. Unfortunately for the Green Bay legend, another icon had already run away with the record by that point.

Sammy Baugh

Slingin’ Sammy may have been the first genuine superstar quarterback. Along with Sid Luckman, Baugh used the T-formation to lead the league’s first great passing revolution.4 Not only was he a champion, but he also was the first passer to eclipse the century mark for touchdowns. He broke the previous record on October 31, 1943 — on a day when he threw six touchdowns — and didn’t stop until he reached 187 in 1952. Sixty-two years have passed, and he remains Washington’s career touchdown leader.5 To date, Baugh is the second-longest reigning touchdown king, holding the record for nearly 19 years.

Bobby Layne

Layne’s last touchdown pass of the 1961 season tied him for the record with 187, but he would not have the record to himself until September 23, 1962. He added eight more touchdowns to his total, retiring with 196. Despite once owning the record, Layne is best known for winning three titles and being the original master of the two-minute drill. This is likely due to the brevity of his place in the record books; he only wore the crown for a little over a year, giving him the distinction of having the shortest reign of any touchdown king.

Can you spot 4 of the men to be the career passing touchdown leaders?

Four of the men to be the career passing touchdown leaders?

Y.A. Tittle

On December 1, 1963, Tittle became the second Giants quarterback to own the passing touchdown record.6 Even after a great decade with the 49ers, Tittle did not appear anywhere close to breaking the record. However, he broke the NFL’s single-season touchdown record with 33 in 19627 and then broke his own record by throwing 36 the following year. Adjusting for era, these have to be considered two of the best “old man” seasons in league history.8 With his late career resurgence, Tittle ended with 212 NFL touchdown passes and held the record for three seasons.

Johnny Unitas

In much the same way Baugh obliterated the previous touchdown record, Unitas took the existing record to an almost mythical level. After breaking the record on September 18, 1966, the original Johnny Football didn’t rest until he reached 290 touchdown passes. When you consider the passing environment of his era, the fact that his 290 scoring passes still ranks ninth all-time is a testament to his greatness. Unitas went on to hold the record for nine years.

Fran Tarkenton

Perhaps the most underrated quarterback in the Hall of Fame, Tarkenton put up incredible numbers for the Vikings, Giants, and Vikings again. He broke Unitas’ record on the last day of the 1975 regular season; he then went on to become the first quarterback ever to throw for more than 300 touchdowns, finishing with 342. Not bad for a guy known as a diminutive Scrambler. Despite playing half his career in the NFL’s dead-ball era, he held the record for an astonishing 19 years, 11 months.9

Dan Marino

Marino waged his greatest assault on the record books early in his career, throwing an incredible 122 touchdowns between his second and fourth seasons. Marino became the co-owner of the record in front of a home crowd on Monday Night Football, November 20, 1995. The following Sunday, he threw four touchdowns in the RCA Dome to claim the record as his own. After that, he threw 74 more before retiring with 420 – a mark that looked untouchable until a certain Green Bay iron man bested it twelve seasons later.

Passing the torch

Passing the torch

Brett Favre

With the media circus that seemed to surround him near the end(s) of his career, it is easy to forget just how great Favre was in his prime. He threw for more than 30 touchdowns five years in a row in the ’90s, earning three MVP awards along the way. His nine seasons with 30+ touchdowns is also a record (one which Manning is very likely to tie this season). Favre tied Marino’s mark on September 23, 2007 at Lambeau Field. The next week at Minnesota, he threw touchdown passes 421 and 422 to gain sole possession of the record. Doing so meant starting every game and averaging 27.6 touchdowns per season from age 23 till age 37. As you’ve surely heard, he retired with 508 touchdown passes, making him the record-holder for seven seasons.

Peyton Manning

As I alluded to in the intro, the volume of articles on Manning’s run to the record has been nothing short of astonishing. Regardless of what you think of the record or of the stats versus rings argument, nothing I say in this short paragraph is going to change your mind on Peyton’s legacy. So instead, I’ll keep it short and sweet. Manning broke the record on October 19, 2014, and he shows no real signs of slowing down. He’s quietly on pace for 50 touchdowns this season, which would give him 541. Two more years of his season average of 30 touchdowns would put him over 600. Barring injury or retirement, he could end up putting the record so far out of reach that no one reading this will see it broken in his or her lifetime.10

Then again, I’m sure they said that about Baugh, Unitas, Tarkenton, and Marino too.

  1. Not to mention the fact that modern players don’t also have to work full-time jobs to support their families and can devote real attention to the game. My grandfather lived in Baltimore as a young man, and he mentioned to me that he used to work in a factory with almost half the players on the Colts. []
  2. With all due respect to Pudge Wyman, who was the original record-holder when he threw the NFL’s first-ever touchdown pass on October 10, 1920. []
  3. Note that Pro Football Reference lists 20 on Friedman’s main page and 21 on his touchdown log page. []
  4. Similar to the innovative offenses of Bill Walsh and Don Coryell, Clark Shaughnessy’s version of this offense led to increases in both volume and efficiency of the passing game. []
  5. The reason for this basically is one part Baugh’s greatness, one part Washington’s inability to find a good quarterback, and one part Lawrence Taylor. []
  6. Note that this excludes 30 touchdown passes he threw for the AAFC’s Baltimore Colts. []
  7. This excludes the 36 touchdowns George Blanda threw for the 1961 Houston Oilers. Including later AFL stats is not a problem, but including early AFL stats doesn’t feel right to me. []
  8. And they’re pretty good even if you ignore age, too. []
  9. When you consider Dan Fouts under Coryell and Joe Montana under Walsh, among other Eighties passing attacks, Tarkenton’s numbers are even more impressive. []
  10. Aaron Rodgers has thrown touchdowns at an historically high rate, but you have to account for the fact that he got a late start and has missed several games due to injury. To break a record like this, one must have an astonishing combination of talent and injury luck. Rodgers has 206 touchdowns, but is 31; Manning threw his 206th touchdown at age 28, and we know Manning’s already far exceeded what can be expected of a quarterback in his later years.

    Andrew Luck currently has 65 touchdown passes, and he just turned 25 in September. Assuming he finishes this year with 40 touchdowns, he’ll have 86 for his career. If Peyton Manning reaches a conservative projection of 530 this year, wins a title, and retires, Luck would have to throw 444 touchdowns just to tie. That would mean averaging over 34 TDs a year and playing till he’s 38. []

  • Horse

    In 1943, let that sink in for a moment.
    In 1943 Sid Luckman threw a passer rating of 107.5. The Chicago Bears haven’t had a QB come close till the McCown fluke last season. And they let him go.

    • When I did my equivalency rating post for Chase a while ago, Luckman’s 1943 rated as the most efficient season in NFL history. The man was amazing.

  • Clark

    Actually the current active quarterback most likely to break the record is Matthew Stafford. He’s only one year older than Luck and should be in the 130’s by the end of the season. It’s still very unlikely.

    • I considered putting Stafford and Drew Brees on the list of maybes, but I decided not to based on mostly subjective determinations. For Stafford, I simply don’t believe he is a good enough player to break the record. I think his injury history is overblown and irrelevant (he had unrelated injuries his first two years and has been fine since). I think that if you throw over 700 attempts and turn it into less than 30 touchdowns, that is a problem. He has not reached the high level of play that either Favre or Manning reached in their primes prior to owning the record.

      As for Brees: I don’t think he will sustain a high level of play long enough to break the record either. Given that we don’t know how high the number will be when Manning retires, it may not even be realistic for Brees at all. If Manning retired without throwing another touchdown pass, I still don’t think Brees would come close to the mark. He is trending downward.

      • RustyHilgerReborn

        As much as it pains me to admit this as a Lions fan, I think you’re right about Stafford. Barring a major leap forward, he’ll always been in the Ken O’Brien/Neil Lomax/Drew Bledsoe/Carson Palmer category. He can put up volume stats, and win with a good enough supporting cast, but not good enough to carry a weaker team on his own, and not consistently good enough to be counted among the game’s best.

        Despite that, he’s still the best pick of the dumpster fire known as the 1st round of the 2009 NFL Draft, and will still be the 2nd best quarterback in Lions history after Bobby Layne.

        • I’d argue that Stafford has been the most valuable pick from the dumpster fire, but that is mostly by virtue of him being a quarterback. I think the first round was bad for fantasy positions, but there were some pretty good defenders and o-linemen picked up (in my meaningless opinion). I’d say Orakpo, Cushing, Mack, and Matthews are better players; but the value of a QB trumps that. For instance, I believe J.J. Watt is the best player in the league at any position. He led his team to two wins last year. If a QB were the best player at any position, his team would probably make the playoffs.

          • RustyHilgerReborn

            All good points. And like you point out, I was speaking in the context of what team coming off the only 0-16 season in NFL history really needed: a franchise quarterback.

            It’s mindboggling in retrospect, but the majority of Lions fans at the time didn’t want take Stafford because he was felt to be too much of a gamble. Burned by years of Matt Millen gambles flaming out, they wanted the “safe pick”: Aaron Curry. Even if Aaron Curry turned out to be good, think about how mind-numbingly stupid it would have been to take an OLB first overall and him $50 million guaranteed. I may have sworn off the NFL and started watching soccer if that happened.

            • I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the Lions then, so I wasn’t aware that people were so low on Stafford and high on Curry. I think a guy would have to be some sort of Bobby Bell/Lawrence Taylor hybrid to merit going number one overall. Von Miller is the only guy in recent years that even comes close to that (again, in my opinion), and I still think Cam Newton was a better top pick just because of how important QBs are.

              Also, I know I name drop Bobby Bell a lot. I’m not a Chiefs fan, I swear. I just think he is one of the most unappreciated players ever to play the game we all love.

            • JWL

              Yeah, this was a thing. I remember a coworker saying Aaron Curry should go #1? My response was something like, “Who? Why?” I watched college football and had thought Curry was a decent prospect, nothing more.

  • Chase Stuart

    Great post, Bryan. Thanks!

    • As always, thanks for letting me contribute. Any time I can shout out to Pudge Wyman is a win for me. Perhaps the best thing to come from all of this is the progressive leaderboards at PFR. A beautiful unintended consequence!

  • Richie

    I think Barnwell posted something where after the 2012 season, Manning only had about a 25% chance of setting the record. When a guy starts putting up some 50+ TD seasons, things can change quickly. With more and more emphasis on the passing game, it wouldn’t surprise me if Manning’s record falls eventually. Marino had the only 5,000-yard passing season up until Brees did it in 2008. And Brees has done it 3 more times since then! Wild things have been happening.

    A QB has to be good early, stay healthy, and play a long time to ever catch Manning. I was curious how other players compare to Manning at various ages.
    – Andrew Luck has been good at an early age, but through age 24 he’s way behind Manning. Newton and Big Ben were better positioned.
    – Manning had 111 TD’s at age 25. (Marino had 142) Stafford had the most of active QB’s with 109.
    – At age 26, Manning was well behind Marino 168-138. Stafford 118, Roethlisberger 101.
    – At age 27, Manning only made up 1 TD on Marino. Ryan and Big Ben are the best active players, but 40 behind.
    – Age 28 was Manning’s monster 2004 season. He almost caught Marino. (220-216) Ryan and Big Ben are falling behind.
    – Manning took the lead at age 29. No active players are within 60 TD.
    – Manning still had a lead over Marino at age 30. He leads Brees 275-202. Brees hasn’t peaked yet.
    – Age 31, Manning and Marino still close. Brees made up ground by 2 TDs.
    – Age 32, Manning pulls away from Marino when Dan ruptures his achilles. Brees throws 46 TD’s and makes up ground. Trails 333-281.
    – Age 33. Manning 366, Brees 324.
    – Age 34 – Manning 399, Brees 363. This was last year for Brees. Manning still has a lost season in his future. Brady is at 300. No other active players over 250.

    I wouldn’t count Brees out. Through similar ages, he’s not far behind. He’s been very durable. He also plays in a dome. None of the other active QB’s have enough TD passes under their belts to be threats yet.

    Stafford had the promising 41 TD’s during age 23 season, but only 20 and 29 in the two years after.

    • One of the things I wonder is…just how much easier can it get to pass. It is hard for me to imagine it getting much better for offenses than it is today, but I imagine they also thought that in every era that saw any significant regulatory or schematic shift. I mean, just look at how briefly most of those guys held the record. Baugh and Tarkenton almost made it to 20 years, but no one else came close. And almost every person to break the record was active when the previous record holder retired.

      As far as I know, Brees has the record for most consecutive 30+ TD seasons, and he will probably continue to play in a pass-heavy offense as long as Payton is around. I see your point about him having a good shot, and I admit that my assessment on his odds are almost purely subjective. I could try to make some argument based on the fact that over the last four years he has seen a steady decrease in TDs, TD%, Y/G, and NY/A – with this year being by far the worst; but my conclusions are based on my personal belief that his career will follow an arc more similar to Brady’s than to Manning’s.

      Off topic, but if you disregard W-L and #RINGZ and just look at Brees’ and Brady’s career totals side by side, they look like the same guy. Brees might even look a little better.

      • Richie

        I’m not making judgment on whether anybody will ever catch Manning or not. I was just curious if anybody even looked like they had a shot.

        As for passing getting easier, I could foresee a situation where the NFL has to make more rule changes to improve the safety of the game, that would make it easier for receivers to get open, and encourage even more passing.

        • A coworker said he can see a future where the NFL basically turns into the arena league, and throwing for 5 touchdowns in a game would be considered a bad day. I hope it doesn’t get to that.

          • Richie

            Yeah, not good.

            I’ve heard the idea proposed of limiting in-game substitutions. This might make it so that there is less advantage to having 300+ pound players, and maybe fewer huge dudes means less head trauma.

            I’m not sure if all the specialization makes for a better or worse NFL.

    • Great article, Bryan. I love the intro, in particular.

      Given how things have consistently gone over time, I’d be surprised if the record wasn’t broken and broken by a lot in the next 30 years or so. The most recent jumps (skipping Favre for simplicity):
      Tarkenton-to-Marino (342-420): Jump of 23% over 19 years
      Marino-to-Manning: (420-560?): Jump of 33% over about 18 years

      Being conservative a little there with Manning. But maybe the idea is becoming clear. If you’d asked if we’d get to the mid-500s in about 20 years when Marino retired, people would not have believed that. It’s been a pretty consistent growth rate over time and while there is some upper bound, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s higher than one might think. Pace is one place where TDs may go up. Fourth-down strategy is another. QBs haven’t played entire careers under the new rules protecting receivers. Bold prediction: The record is over 700 and maybe over 750 by 2040. Of course, I’m pretty bad at predicting things.

      • Thanks man. I tried to channel my inner Sabol when writing that part. I’ve always enjoyed the way NFL films has been able to capture not only the sights and sounds, but the feelings of particular eras. I was thinking about the early NFL in an almost idyllic sense, and I found myself mentally juxtaposing the evolution of the game with the evolution of American itself. I didn’t write any of that down because it seems almost pretentious to say (even in this explanatory comment, I feel like a tool for having written it).

        I can foresee the record reaching the heights you submitted, but I think it would take a remarkable confluence of events to make it happen. The game would have to change enough that passing was so easy that we all lamented how hard quarterbacks had it back in 2014. A guy would have to become a starter at a young age, and he would have to play well basically from the onset of his career. He would also have to play a relatively long career. Essentially, he would have to be Peyton Manning or Brett Favre, but in an easier era for passing achievement. This is, of course, assuming the NFL as we know it will still be around in 2040.

        I also definitely think you’re being conservative with Manning’s projection. The old man is on pace for 50 touchdowns again, but he is somehow getting very little attention for that. I really think 600+ is realistic. Personally, I want him to win the next 3 titles and retire with something like 620 touchdowns. That way people can finally say “okay, fine…he’s the best.” (That’s just one of my many ridiculous football wishes).

        • On the other hand, I think Favre’s interception record is probably safe. To break it, a quarterback would have to throw a lot of picks in a passing environment more conducive to avoiding picks, while maintaining a high enough level of play that the interceptions are overlooked. He’d also have to do it for a really, really long time. Between that and Shula’s wins, I don’t know which career record is more likely to last forever. I think coaching stuff is more in your wheelhouse, but I think 328 is pretty safe too. Considering the sustained success Belichick has had, the fact that he is still 124 wins behind Shula speaks volumes to Don’s prowess. All those wins over all that time means he overcame both roster turnover and era changes. Nuts.

        • Pete Davies

          Great article; record progression, particularly passing records are my nerd-out moments when it comes to stats…
          Will it be broken – almost inevitably and for all the reasons stated here; but add to the mix the fact the rules now protect QB’s better than ever therefore leading to guys playing to a Blanda-like age (could Luck play to 41? 43? 46?). Also, while 50 TD’s a season will take a very long time to be commonplace; what happens if the league expands the schedule? We’ve gone from 12 to 14 to 16; we’ve got to be ready for 18 soon…..
          Just a thought – loving the site!

          • Thanks for the comment, Pete. I somehow just saw this, so I apologize for my tardy reply. I agree that looking back at the progression of records is a super fun way to nerd out on football. It just tells us so much about how the game has changed, particularly in regards to passing. Rushing numbers don’t seem to have changed too much on a per game basis, aside from decreased fumbles, but passing stats have changed so much that it is almost impossible to realistically compare guys like Luckman and Baugh with Manning and Brady. One of my many “dreams” is that one day I will die and go to heaven, and God will be waiting for me with a list of who really was the best. A boy can dream.

            • welshpete

              ….and as God is giving you the list, Otto will walk over and whisper to him….”I think you’re in my seat”…

              (Just a joke…!)

              • I suppose Norm Van Brocklin would then tell Otto “I did what you did against better competition.”

  • JOEL

    where can i get a copy of that poster

  • Trepur

    I do think Manning is going to be passed surprisingly quickly, given the modern passing game. When Manning first entered the league, the average QB was getting 1.3 passing TDs per game. Today the average QB is getting 1.5. It’s also skyrocketted recently:

    Passing touchdowns per team:
    98: 21.9
    99: 21.5
    ’00: 20.5
    01: 20.5
    02: 21.7
    03: 20.3
    04: 22.9
    05: 20.1
    06: 20.3
    07: 22.5
    08: 20.2
    09: 22.2
    ’10: 23.3
    11: 23.3
    12: 23.7
    13: 25.1
    14: 23.7

    Especially since 2006, you can see a massive jump and it just staying there. Before 2006, only twice had there been more then a 22 passing touchdowns per team average (1984 and 2004, the record setting years by Marino and Manning, and if you ignore the 84 Dolphins, the season was 20.9 rather then 22.0, 2004 was 21.9 rather than 22.9 ignoring the Colts. In other words it was the record breakers that got the average above 22), only once since then has it been below 22, and each of the last four seasons have been above 23, the only four seasons of the Super Bowl era to be so.

    The last few seasons have been by far the most pass happy in NFL history. Given Peyton Mannings career (98-14), to get to 600 touchdowns in 17 seasons, you’d have to score 60% more than the average quarterback. But if you extend the scoring rate over the last three seasons, you’d have to score 46% more than the average quarterback.

    As long as the league remains pass happy as it is now, its only a matter of time before a quarterback will get to 600.

  • Arthur Jackson

    Unless Brees has a career ender he is passing up Manning. Brady thinks he can play well, well into his forties. I think not so while he may pass Manning he is going to fall behind Brees before then. Other than that the comment about the NFL making more rule changes to turn it into Arena League is the only way I see the record being extended much if at all in the near future. Look at it this way. As of right now a QB would have to average 30 TD passes a season, something that has happen only 106 times in NFL history, for 17.5+ seasons. Granted 87 of those times are since 1983 and 20 are in the last two years, but a single season versus decades of being beat on with a far clearer idea of the damage that is accruing, making more money than ever to take away incentive playing longer and just realizing that the record is farther away at the start of a career than ever.

  • Man, looking back on this is interesting. I especially love how foolish it looks in retrospect for me to write that Manning shows no signs of slowing down…right before he got hurt and never recovered as an elite player. This is why I don’t gamble.

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