We count down the greatest ever seasons by an NFL quarterback
Finally, we can dig into the results of our QB ranking system. Be sure to check out my Methodologies Part I and II first to understand the results here. These are objective rankings, not based on anything but statistics.
By comparing Cmp%, TD:INT ratio, Y/A, AY/A and QB Rate to all other quarterbacks in an era of 10 years, we can finally uncover the best QB season of all time.
We will begin with the 10 best seasons, in reverse order:
Without further ado…
10. Daunte Culpepper, Minnesota Vikings, 2004
379/548 for 69.2% completion | 4717 yards | 39 TDs, 11 Interceptions | 8.6 Y/A | 9.1 AY/A | 110.9 Rating
Selected only as a Pro Bowler, as Peyton Manning was MVP and unanimous 1st-team All-Pro (More on that later), Culpepper inspired hope that he had finally overcome his injuries, only to be injured once again the following season. In an overall above-average career, Culpepper transcended the curve, setting the all-time, all-purpose yard record for QBs with 5123 and leading the league in passing yards with 4717. His completion percentage of 69.2% unsurprisingly led the league, which is particularly impressive given that he was sacked a whopping 46 times, tied for 2nd in the league (P. Manning was sacked 13 times). Not to mention, his use as a mobile quarterback, which generally leads to decreased %.
Speaking of which, Culpepper ran 88 times, amassing 406 yards and 2 TDs. But even without this dual-threat accounted for in my calculations, Culpepper was a force to be reckoned with. He brought the 8-8 Vikings to the playoffs and cemented himself in Vikings history. This season tends to get overshadowed because of Peyton Manning’s season, but in most other years, Culpepper was an easy MVP candidate.
9. Milt Plum, Cleveland Browns, 1960
151/250 for 60.4% completion | 2297 yards | 21 TDs, 5 Interceptions | 9.2 Y/A | 10.0 AY/A | 110.4 Rating
Surprised? No kidding. Milt Plum is a 2-time Pro Bowler, who really didn’t amount to anything in the NFL. The Penn State alumnus was drafted in the second round of the 1957 NFL Draft to the Cleveland Browns, who had selected Fullback Jim Brown in the first round. While Plum’s career didn’t come close to Brown’s, he had his moment in the sun as well in 1960, as he set the all-time QB Rating record with 110.4, a record which would stand until a very special QB season in 1989.
Hitting the 95th percentile in all 5 era-adjusted categories, Plum set a new precedent for what a QB could do. His 1960 season is the only top-10 season before 1984, cementing his place in history, at least in my judgment.
His completion percentage was 6th all-time.
His TD/INT ratio of 4.2 easily set the record, crushing the previous 3.5 TDs to INTs by Charlie Conerly a year before, while also scoring 7 more Touchdowns. His 9.2 Y/A was 34% better than the average, while his 10 AY/A absolutely demolished the competition, doubling the 5.02 average among qualifying QBs.
Finally, as mentioned before, his 110.4 Rating was unheard of and was untouched for 39 years.
I think Milt Plum’s addition here really illustrates the value of this system of ranking. Based on the stats, Plum’s season was at the very least an all-time great, but his legacy is completely forgotten in most rankings that go by reputation above objective fact. He is by no means an all-time great quarterback, but in 1960, he played like a GOAT.
8. Tom Brady, New England Patriots, 2007
398/578 for 68.9% | 4806 yards | 50 TDs, 8 Interceptions | 8.3 Y/A | 9.4 AY/A | 117.2 Rating
From the generally unknown Milt Plum to the Greatest of all Time, Tom Brady. While Plum fans would be ecstatic to see him at number 9, Patriots fans would likely be furious to see Brady’s 2007 MVP season at number 8. If you are reading this, you very likely remember or at least know of New England’s magical season. Brady led the Patriots to a 16-0 record, losing in the Super Bowl to Eli Manning‘s New York Football Giants.
Despite an extremely successful season and a legendary career, there is nothing wrong with only being ranked 8th in this list.
Brady’s TD:INT ratio of 6.25 is 8th in history, after a group which includes ’16 and ’10 Brady, and was 3rd all-time in 2007. His 68.9 completion % is 19th all time and was 8th all-time in 2007.
In pure stats, Brady was incredible. 50 TDs (2nd all-time) and 4806 Yards (20th all-time). He led the league in Completions, Attempts, Yards, TDs, Y/A, AY/A, and Rating. Among Quarterback who played all 16 games, Brady also had the fewest Interceptions. His rating of 117.2 remains at 4th all-time and was 2nd in 2007.
Despite all this, his ranking in all-time seasons remains firm. His 8.3 Y/A rank as only 137th, and in a competition where elite is not good enough, an 8th place finish (among 1,985 QB seasons) will have to do.
7. Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins, 1984
362/564 for 64.2% | 5084 yards | 48 TDs, 17 Interceptions | 9 Y/A | 9.4 AY/A | 108.9 Rating
From one AFC East legend to the next, nobody should be surprised to see Marino’s 1984 season on this list. Most notable for breaking the 5000 yard barrier for the first time in history, a record untouched until the 2011 season, 27 years later, Marino also set the record for most TD passes en route to an NFL MVP season. As a matter of fact, in his sophomore season, Marino led the league in almost every statistical category (3rd in Comp. %).
He led his Dolphins to a spectacular 14-2 record, bulldozing through the playoffs to what would be his sole Super Bowl appearance, a loss to Montana’s 49ers.
While his future playoff failure often is cited as the reason he can’t be the GOAT, in 1984, Dan Marino had all the makings of the all-time greatest. The Pittsburgh alumnus remains a legend among all circles and his ’84 season is his crowning achievement.
6. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons, 2016
373/534 for 69.9% | 4944 yards | 38 TDs, 7 Interceptions | 9.3 Y/A | 10.1 AY/A | 117.1 Rating
As a Cardinals fan, I was livid when Ryan beat David Johnson in the OPOY race. Of course, he deserved MVP, but shouldn’t DJ at least get some recognition. I forgot about that when I reviewed Ryan’s stats through the lens of this project. Ryan did not set any records, nor did he even lead the league in every category, but he was more than elite in every category. According to PFF, Ryan did not throw a single deep interception. His 10.1 AY/A was 41% better than the average, and his QB Rate of 117.1 was good for 5th all time.
The rest of his career has been solid, but I don’t think anybody expected Ryan to set the league on fire, easily getting a playoff spot and pushing his team to the big game, despite a defense that was seriously lacking in the regular season. His playoffs were also spectacular all the way up to the last quarter of Super Bowl LI.
It remains to be seen if 2016 Ryan was a one-hit wonder, but when I do career rankings, Ryan’s score will certainly be catapulted by this dominant year.
Be sure to stay tuned for All-Time QB seasons 5-3 coming out soon!