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There have been four passing touchdown kings in the last 40 years: Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning.  I thought it would be fun to plot the number of career touchdown passes each player had on the Y-Axis after each game of their career (shown on the X-Axis):

td pass leaders

As you can see, Tarkenton lags quite a bit behind the other three, but of course he played in a much tougher era. He also held the touchdown crown for a record 19 years and 11 months.  And he finished strong: he threw 110 touchdowns in the last 80 games of his career (games 164-243), which is even more than Marino had (105) during games 164-263 of his career.

Marino’s incredible early start really stands out: by game 63, he was at 156 touchdowns, far ahead of Manning (109), Favre (102), and Tarkenton (91) through 63 games. It isn’t until game 179 that Manning finally passes him (340-338), while it takes Favre until game 213 (385-384) to move ahead.  Marino would also jump back ahead of Favre, ultimately finishing with 420 in 242 games; at that point, Favre was still at 414.

Manning’s trajectory is of course impressive. But it’s the shape of his career that really stands out. Consider:

  • Manning played in 266 games: he threw 252 touchdowns in his first 133 games, and 287 in his final 133.
  • By comparison, Favre threw 269 in his first 151 games, and 239 in his final 151, and Favre was known for his longevity!
  • Marino had 245 in his first 121 games, and 175 in his final 121 games.
  • Tarkenton had 182 touchdowns in his first 121 games, 3 in his 122nd game, and 157 in his final 121 games, and he was a fast finisher!

Even with his bad finish in 2015, Manning still had a remarkable run in his 30s. At the halfway mark of his career, he was a Hall of Famer, and then he was arguably better on his back nine. That’s how you go about having two HOF careers.

Finally, let’s reproduce this chart, but include Tom Brady and Drew Brees:

td pass leaders brady brees

The most incredible part of this chart? That would be the intersection, where you can’t even see three of the quarterbacks. At game 175, Brees was at 334 touchdown passes, Marino was at 333, Manning 332, and Brady 330. That’s unreal!1. Brees is actually still ahead of Manning’s pace, with 428 passes in 217 career games. Through 217 games, Manning was at 420, Brady 414, Favre 391, Marino 387, and Tarkenton 305. Brees was 36 years and 353 days old in game 217; Manning was 36-232 (game 9 of the 2012 season) when he had his 217th game. He ended that season with 436 touchdowns and turned 37 the following March. Brees ended last year with 428 touchdowns and turned 37 the following January.

So, given that backdrop, we could make the case that Brees is on pace to break the record, although Manning set the single-season touchdown record in his next year. Still, given the way Manning fell off at age 39, it’s within reason to think that Brees could set the record with another 110 touchdowns. He’s also a year and a half younger than Brady, so he is the bigger threat to Manning’s record. He’ll need 112 more touchdowns, which would likely require four more seasons. He has shown no dropoff in play, but neither did Manning until December 2014.

  1. Favre was at 312; Tarkenton 247 []
  • I tweeted this a few months ago (and again to you this morning), but I wanted to post it here too. I think this graph is a pretty good visual of just how much the league has evolved since its early years. Can’t remember why I included Luck. You can probably just ignore him.

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CjEVAoHUgAEzwm3.jpg

  • WR

    My prediction: Brady passes Favre for career TDs, but falls short of Manning. But I think Brees can break Manning’s records for yards and TDs before he’s done. The fact that Brady and Brees have already surpassed Marino is amazing. And of course, Brady has paired a high rate of TDs with a historically low rate of interceptions. That’s one of the key reasons why he has won so many games.

    I bet you didn’t know that if you count their playoff totals, Brady has already surpassed Manning in career TD/INT differential. When you think about how many TDs Manning has thrown, that’s actually quite staggering.

  • Josh Sanford

    This probably doesn’t matter to anyone, but here is what my VERY haphazard review of TD passers revealed: Manning in 2014 broke Tarkenton’s very, very old record for most TD passes for a QB’s second highest team total. (Tarkenton had 103 TD passes for the Giants, while Manning finished with 140 for Denver.) Kurt Warner has got to be the most evenly split of multi-team QBs–he got 102 TDs for the Rams and an even 100 for the Cardinals. Other notables: Brees had 80 for San Diego, and Sonny Jurgenson had 76 for Philadelphia.* Jurgenson, however, is also on the very short list of QBs who led the league in TD passes in a season for different teams: Manning led 3 times with Indy and once with Denver, while Jurgenson had a single league-leading season for each of his two franchises. Throw in Roman Gabriel (Philadelphia and L.A. Rams) and Y.A. Tittle (49ers and Giants) and then I think you have the complete list of QBs who topped the league for multiple teams. Only Manning and Tittle managed multiple league-leading seasons for the same franchise, and no one has ever had multiple league leading seasons for two teams.

    It seems likely that even in the era of free agency, these two lists of QBs is not likely to ever grow at a meaningful rate. A quarterback who can lead the NFL in touchdown passes is not someone whose team will let him go elsewhere if they can help it. It’s well known (even if it might not be entirely true) that Manning was abandoned by Colts because of old age and infirmities. Kurt Warner was too beat up to stay in St. Louis–he even had a one year layover in New York on his trip to Arizona. Jurgenson was 29 and injured in his last season in Philadelphia. Carson Palmer was injured a few times for the Bengals and by most accounts seemed to have orchestrated his trade from that team–but not to the team for which he may eclipse 100 TDs this next season. Brees was injured and left unprotected by the Chargers. Tittle was 35 when he switched to his last team, and he only started 4 games in the last year for his prior team. Gabriel was 33 in his first season for the Eagles, and he led the NFL in TDs that first season, after 4 straight years of declining success in L.A. Perhaps one of you can explain why Tarkenton left Minnesota for five years at the peak of his athletic years, made 4 pro bowls with the Giants, and then went back to Minnesota, lost a bunch of Superbowls, and then led the NFL in yards at age 38 and immediately retired?

    * Carson Palmer is charging hard up this list, but unless he has two more good seasons and then goes back to Cincinnati for another year, he won’t be able to move past fourth place–he got 100 in Cincinnati, and he has 70 for his current team.

    • Tarkenton was part of a huge trade with the Giants. New York was really, really bad back then and desperate for a QB; meanwhile, Tarkenton and NVB — the coach of the Vikings — clashed significantly. Van Brocklin wanted a QB that played more like him, while Tarkenton was a scrambler/improviser. The Vikings stunk in ’66, and NVB even benched Tarkenton. That was the last straw, and he demanded a trade.

      So the Vikings sent him to the Giants for what turned out to be the #2 pick in ’67 (Clint Jones), the 28th pick in ’67 (Bob Grim), the first pick in ’68 (Ron Yary) and the 39th pick in ’69 (Ed White).

      You might wonder how the Giants had the 1st pick in ’68, since Tarkenton led New York to a 7-7 record that year. Well, it was part of a sweetheart deal the NFL gave NY: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=8302

    • Richie

      If the Colts didn’t get lucky and earn the first pick in a year where a “can’t miss” QB prospect was coming out of college, would they have still dumped Manning?

      If the best QB that year was Robert Griffin, Jameis Winston or Jared Goff, would they have kept Manning?

      • Josh Sanford

        I would love for ESPN to do an oral history of that transaction/decision process as a part of Peyton’s HOF induction coverage. Surely the answer is that it has more to do with where they were in the draft (first overall) rather than the quality of the prospect available. (Because it seems to me that most teams picking first tend to fall in love with the best available QB in the draft.) If they were drafting 24th, they keep him, right?

        • Richie

          They definitely only let him go because a younger (and potentially very good) option was available. I forget the exact timeline of officially letting Manning go, but I don’t think they let him go if they aren’t guaranteed to get a QB they want by drafting in the top 2.

          But that’s why I mentioned the names of the next few QB’s who were drafted in the top 2. Were they considered as much of a lock as Luck was? Enough to boot Manning? At the time, fans had no idea if Manning could still play. We didn’t know if the neck injury would ruin him. Did the Colts have a better idea of his likelihood to remain at a Pro Bowl level?