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We’re a fan of progressive leaderboards here at Football Perspective, and it’s time to take a look at the all-time single-season leaders in completion percentage.

Officially, Sammy Baugh was the single-season leader in completion percentage from 1945 to 1981, as he completed 70.3% of his passes in 1945. To qualify for the completion percentage crown, a player needs to throw at least 14 passes per team game, or 224 passes in a 16-game season. Baugh threw 182 passes in 1945, during a ten-game schedule for the Redskins, though Baugh himself missed two games. But let’s up the minimum to 224 passes, since completion percentage can be misleading over a small sample size. That’s certainly not “fair” to Baugh, but this is a fun post designed to look at the progressive leaders in history, so omitting everyone from ’45 to ’81 would be pretty boring.

In 1942, Sammy Baugh completed 58.7% of his passes for the Redskins. Washington went 10-1, finishing 3rd in points and 3rd in yards in a 10-team league, and won the NFL championship. As a team, Washington finished 3rd in ANY/A, too.

That record held for five years, until 1947, when Baugh completed 59.3% of his passes.1 But it didn’t come with much success: the team finished 4-8, thanks to a very bad defense. Still, don’t blame Baugh: Washington finished 4th in points and 2nd in yards, and easily led the NFL in ANY/A. But the pass defense was nearly as bad as the pass offense was good, and the team lost 13 more fumbles than it recovered, leading to the bad record.

In 1953, Otto Graham smashed the non-Baugh record, completing 64.7% of his passes for the Browns in one of the greatest passing seasons of all time. The Browns had an unreal +5.0 Relative ANY/A that season, and began the season 11-0 before losing the team’s final two games.

In 1974, Ken Anderson completed 64.9% of his passes as part of a strong season for the Bengals. Cincinnati had a good passing offense — it finished in the top 5 in ANY/A — but the team finished just 7-7, in part because the defense finished last in takeaways.

In 1976, Ken Stabler completed exactly two-thirds of his passes, or 66.7 percent. It was a remarkable season for Stabler all around, as he had a +3.84 Relative ANY/A, one of the best ever. Oakland, of course, went 13-1 and won the Super Bowl, on the back of a great offense.

That record stood for six years, until Ken Anderson broke it during the strike-shortened 1982 season. He completed 70.6 percent of his passes, as part of a great Bengals offense that finished in the top 4 in scoring, yards, and net yards per attempt.

That was the top mark for a very long time: it lasted until Drew Brees completed 70.62 (rather than 70.55) percent of his passes in 2009. That Saints team, as you likely remember, began the year 13-0 and won the Super Bowl. Brees also led the NFL in ANY/A that year, at 8.31.

Two years later, Brees pushed the mark up to 71.2 percent as part of another dominant year. He also broke the single-season passing yardage mark, led the NFL in touchdowns and sack rate, and averaged 8.23 ANYA (third in the NFL that season).

And that brings us to today. Sam Bradford currently is completing 71.6% of his passes this year, but he ranks just 19th in ANY/A. The Vikings are 6-7, but in a change of form, the completion percentage leader is what’s dragging his team down. Minnesota’s defense has been great, but the team ranks just 25th in points (thanks to six non-offensive touchdowns) and 31st in yards.

Despite missing one game, Bradford has completed 20+ passes and 70+ percent of his passes in 10 games this season; that is already tied with Brees 2011 for the record, and the odds are Bradford breaks adds at least one more game to that total. And Bradford has already lost five such games with those marks, also tied for the record.

Assuming Bradford wins the completion percentage crown this season — no guarantee, as Brees is at 71.7% — it would bring back memories of David Carr winning the crown in 2006 with a 68.3% rate. That year, Houston finished 24th in ANY/A, and Carr won the title because he was throwing super short passes (the Texans finished a distant last in yards per completion). Bradford’s Vikings are battling those same Texans for 32nd place in yards per completion this year, too, but if Bradford winds up breaking Brees’ record, it will show just how far completion percentage has fallen.

  1. Over in the AAFC, Otto Graham completed 60.6% of his passes, but I’m going to ignore the AAFC today. []
  • Adam

    In today’s NFL, completion % is essentially worthless. It’s a stat that can be easily gamed by throwing checkdowns, many of which are detrimental toward the offense’s ability to score. Very fitting that Sam Bradford is potentially going to wear this meaningless crown, as his entire career has been smoke-and-mirrors with no real success to show for it. I hope people will finally stop making excuses for this underachiever who has probably stolen more money than any NFL player ever. Cam Newton has taken heat this year for his low completion rate, but he’s still a much better passer than Bradford despite his completion % being 17 points lower.

    When Stabler completed 67% back in 1976, that really meant something. I wasn’t alive to witness it, but I feel pretty certain that The Snake wasn’t throwing two yard passes on third-and-5. The dominance of Oakland’s offense and SB victory are proof that Stabler’s completions were valuable toward the success of his team.

    • sacramento gold miners

      I did see Ken Stabler in 1976, and it was a great year for the HOF bound QB. In addition to the points you made, Stabler did something that was virtually impossible for the era. In the season opener, Oakland trailed Pittsburgh by 14 points in the fourth quarter, and Stabler somehow rallied the Raiders with 17 points for the win. Teams just didn’t do that to the Steelers, but The Snake pulled it off.

      The word “fear” comes to mind when talking about Stabler’s peak years. It’s interesting to note we never did see a Raiders-Cowboys matchup in the Super Bowl during all those years when both organizations were elite.

    • LightsOut85

      To add praise — that season ranks 4th in Cmp% Index (Advanced Passing) since 1960, at a very respectable 14.1ypc (and the 8th best Y/A Index)

    • Grant Christopher

      You feel pretty certain, eh? And Stabler’s team’s success proved Stabler’s skill? I’m sorry that you’ve forgotten about the loss of almost all the Viking’s O-line, the loss of Peterson and the fact that the Viking’s WRs are, well, nothing special. And Dan Marino’s entire career after that first Super Bowl. Stuff like that. If Bradford played for the Cardinals or the Broncos, you would’ve never posted this — because he’d still be leading in % and he’d be leading in a lot of other things, too — such as wins.

  • Grant Christopher

    =] Yes, it’s Bradford — and not the innumerable O-line injuries, the loss of Peterson and having dubious WR talent — that has led to the Viking’s record. He’s 19th in ANY/A?! Gasp…that’s like…average. You’d do well to actually watch all of his games from start to finish and see how little he has to work with from play to play. I cannot believe you’re paid to write such lop-sided sh*t.