When the greatest quarterback seasons of all time are discussed, these three years dominate the discussion. And with good reason. But if you include the playoffs — and frankly, there’s no reason not to include the playoffs — which quarterback produced the greatest season of all time? I’m going to stipulate that the greatest quarterback season ever has to end in a Lombardi Trophy, because otherwise, I think we’ll end up back in the world of Marino ’84/Brady ’07/Manning ’04. Of course, now another Manning season has entered the mix: and with a Super Bowl win, Manning’s 2013 should and would be remembered as the greatest quarterback season of all time.
So, the question becomes, which season would he knock off the top rung? I think there are six seasons that stand out from the rest, based on regular and postseason performance.
Honorable MentionKen Stabler, 1976: Outstanding regular season (was named Bert Bell Player of the Year, led the NFL in passing touchdowns, completion percentage, yards per attempt, passing yards per game, passer rating, net yards per attempt, fourth quarter comebacks, and game-winning drives), but he was merely very good in the playoffs.
Terry Bradshaw, 1978: Was named AP MVP for his outstanding regular season, although it was not a transcendent year by historic standards. Had a magnificent postseason, culminating in a 300-yard, 4-TD performance against the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII.
Joe Montana, 1984: Marino’s record-setting year and San Francisco’s general dominance en route to a 15-1 regular season obscured how dominant Montana was this year. But his postseason was not stellar — he threw 5 interceptions in wins against the Giants and Bears.
Troy Aikman, 1992: Younger fans may wonder why Aikman was held in such high regard by his peers. By today’s standards, most of his numbers look pedestrian. But no one could say that about his performance in the three playoff games in 1992 that handed Dallas its first Super Bowl title of the ’90s: 61-89, 795 yards, 8 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 126.4 passer rating, 9.50 ANY/A.
Aaron Rodgers, 2010: Rodgers’ magnificent 2010 postseason set the table for his otherworldly 2011 season. Still, he was very good in the 2010 regular season, when he ranked in the top 3 in passer rating, NY/A, ANY/A and also rushed for 356 yards and four scores. In the playoffs, he threw 9 touchdowns and ran for two more, while posting a 109.8 passer rating on 132 passes.
Eli Manning, 2011: Threw for over 6,000 yards including the playoffs, as the Giants ranked last in rushing yards. The 2007 season was fluky, but the 2011 season was full of legitimately great quarterback play from the younger Manning.
Joe Flacco, 2012: Completely uninspiring during the regular season, but arguably one of the top two greatest quarterback postseasons ever.
#6) Mark Rypien, 1991
Rypien led the league in yards per completion, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, and game-winning drives. Washington started 14-1 before losing a meaningless week 17 finale, and that team is widely considered one of the greatest ever. Rypien posted a Relative ANY/A of +3.2 (meaning he averaged 3.2 ANY/A more than league average), although part of the credit goes to a dominant offensive line and some excellent skill-position talent (Gary Clark, Art Monk, Ricky Sanders, and Earnest Byner). The running game and defense handled Atlanta in Washington’s first playoff win, but Rypien starred in an NFC Championship Game blowout by throwing for 228 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 17 pass attempts. In the Super Bowl, Rypien went 18/33 for 292 yards and 2 touchdowns with one pick, and was named Super Bowl MVP. This was a marvelous season that isn’t commonly celebrated for one reason: Rypien isn’t a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback.
#5) Bart Starr, 1966
Remembered by some as a game manager, Starr never posted Johnny Unitas numbers (i.e., Star Wars numbers)…. that is, until 1966. That year, the Packers great was named MVP by the AP, UPI, and NEA after leading the 16-team NFL in completion percentage, interception rate, yards per attempt, and passer rating. At the time, Starr’s 105.0 passer rating was the third best in NFL history. He posted a Relative ANY/A of +3.8, still one of the top 10 averages since 1950. Then, in the NFL title game in Dallas, Starr was magnificent with numbers that would be outstanding in 2014: 19/28 for 304 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs. Then, Starr followed that up with a 16/23 for 250 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT stat line in the first Super Bowl. It’s hard to believe this only ranks 5th.
#4) Drew Brees, 2009
In many ways the anti-Starr, Brees finally shed the “stats star” label by winning Super Bowl XLV. That capped a marvelous season in which he posted an ANY/A of 8.31, the best of his outstanding career. Brees led the NFL in completion percentage, touchdowns, touchdown rate, passer rating, and ANY/A. His Relative ANY/A was “only” +2.7, but Brees had 534 dropbacks (Starr in ’66 had just 275). Few champions have been built almost entirely around the quarterback like the 2009 Saints, which is why I’ve got him at number four. In the playoffs, Brees was flawless: he completed 72 of 102 passes for 732 yards with 8 touchdowns and no interceptions. Brees posted a passer rating of over 100 in each of his three playoff games, all of which came against likely Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning.
#3) Kurt Warner, 1999
Warner remains the last player to win the AP MVP and the Super Bowl in the same season. In 1999, he led the NFL in completion percentage, touchdowns, touchdown rate, yards per attempt, AY/A, NY/A, ANY/A, and passer rating. He very nearly led the league in passing yards, and likely would have if he didn’t sit for much of week 17 (he finished less than 100 yards behind Steve Beuerlein). The Rams All-Pro became just the second player to ever throw 40 touchdowns in a season. The only knock on Warner was a mistake-filled postseason. And while he threw four interceptions in three games, he still managed to post a 100 passer rating over three games, thanks to an 8.8 Y/A average and 8 touchdowns.#2) Steve Young, 1994
Young was absurdly efficient almost every season in the ’90s, but 1994 was his masterpiece: he won the AP MVP and led the NFL in completion percentage, touchdowns, touchdown rate, yards per attempt, AY/A, NY/A, and ANY/A. His 112.8 passer rating set a new NFL record, eclipsing the mark set by his former teammate, Joe Montana. And Young also ran for 7 touchdowns! Close to a perfect season for the 49ers Hall of Famer then turned into a fantastic postseason, where he threw 9 touchdowns (and ran for two more) and no interceptions. It’s hard to top this season, but…
#1) Joe Montana, 1989
Montana had a Relative ANY/A of +3.1 in ’89 (which does edge Young’s +2.9 in ’94), but that only tells part of the story. The 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1988 but were even better in ’89. Montana completed 70.2% of his passes, an absurd number for that (or any) era. The former 49ers star also led the league in touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, AY/A, passing yards per game, passer rating, NY/A, and ANY/A. The only knock was he missed three games, but his stellar postseason performance is enough to overcome that flaw. Compared to the league average ANY/A of 5.24 in 1989, Montana provided 570 Adjusted Net Yards over average, the most ever in a postseason (Flacco 2012 is second at 539). In English? Montana completed 78% of his 83 passes for 800 yards, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions. He went 26/30 for 262 yards and 2 touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game, and that was his worst playoff game. A dominant regular season and the greatest playoff stretch ever is enough to take the top spot. For now.
But, if Manning manages to win the Super Bowl, he’ll move Montana to number two. A good game against one of the greatest pass defenses ever would be the cherry on top of a marvelous season. Manning’s RANY/A was “only” +3.0 this season, but quantity carries the day here. Manning’s Broncos set the record for points scored in a season, while the quarterback broke both the passing yards and passing touchdowns records. So far, Manning has completed 72% of his passes for 630 yards (8.0 Y/A) and 4 touchdowns with one interception in two playoff games. Denver has punted just once in the playoffs.
Manning’s 2013 regular season was brilliant. By adding a Super Bowl trophy, it should be remembered as the greatest quarterback season of all time.