First we need to define what a great season is for a quarterback in the NFL. I have defined a great season in three ways
- Having a passer rating of 108 or better
- Having a 4-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio
- Accounting for 40 or more total touchdowns - this is the only one which is era dependent since the first time this happened was 1984 (Dan Marino).
Passer rating of 108 or better
With the minimum passing attempts requirement met (this varies depending on era), there have been 34 seasons where a starting QB has had a passer rating of 108 or better. You may not like passer rating, but it’s free and transparent (the formula is known and anyone can use it) making it much more useful for comparisons than QBR, IQR or DVOA (or any other of a host of pass rating tools).
There will not be a quiz after this.
The two biggest knocks on passer rating is that it is not situational (it does not weight completions for a first down more highly than other completions) and that it does not factor in a quarterbacks running ability and/or ability to avoid sacks - more on this later.
While we might think of great QB seasons as a recent phenomenon, the earliest season on this list of 34 is Sammy Baugh’s 1945 season. Otto Graham has two right after that in 1946 and 1947.
|1||Aaron Rodgers (27)||122.5||2011||GNB||45||6||39||7.50|
|2||Aaron Rodgers (36)||121.5||2020||GNB||48||5||43||9.60|
|3||Peyton Manning+ (28)||121.1||2004||IND||49||10||39||4.90|
|4||Nick Foles (24)||119.2||2013||PHI||27||2||25||13.50|
|5||Ryan Tannehill (31)||117.5||2019||TEN||22||6||16||3.67|
|6||Tom Brady (30)||117.2||2007||NWE||50||8||42||6.25|
|7||Matt Ryan (31)||117.1||2016||ATL||38||7||31||5.43|
|8||Drew Brees (40)||116.3||2019||NOR||27||4||23||6.75|
|9||Drew Brees (39)||115.7||2018||NOR||32||5||27||6.40|
|10||Peyton Manning+ (37)||115.1||2013||DEN||55||10||45||5.50|
|11||Patrick Mahomes (22)||113.8||2018||KAN||50||12||38||4.17|
|12||Lamar Jackson (22)||113.3||2019||BAL||36||6||30||6.00|
|13||Tony Romo (34)||113.2||2014||DAL||34||9||25||3.78|
|14||Steve Young+ (32)||112.8||1994||SFO||35||10||25||3.50|
|Deshaun Watson (24)||112.4||2020||HOU||33||7||26||4.71|
|15||Joe Montana+ (33)||112.4||1989||SFO||26||8||18||3.25|
|Aaron Rodgers (30)||112.2||2014||GNB||38||5||33||7.60|
|17||Tom Brady (39)||112.2||2016||NWE||28||2||26||14.00|
|19||Otto Graham+ (24)||112.1||1946||CLE||17||5||12||3.40|
|20||Tom Brady (33)||111||2010||NWE||36||4||32||9.00|
|21||Daunte Culpepper (27)||110.9||2004||MIN||39||11||28||3.55|
|Russell Wilson (29)||110.9||2018||SEA||35||7||28||5.00|
|23||Drew Brees (32)||110.6||2011||NOR||46||14||32||3.29|
|24||Milt Plum (25)||110.4||1960||CLE||21||5||16||4.20|
|25||Russell Wilson (26)||110.1||2015||SEA||34||8||26||4.25|
|26||Sammy Baugh+ (31)||109.9||1945||WAS||11||4||7||2.75|
|27||Drew Brees (30)||109.6||2009||NOR||34||11||23||3.09|
|Kurt Warner+ (28)||109.2||1999||STL||41||13||28||3.15|
|28||Otto Graham+ (25)||109.2||1947||CLE||25||11||14||2.27|
|30||Josh McCown (34)||109||2013||CHI||13||1||12||13.00|
|31||Dan Marino+ (22)||108.9||1984||MIA||48||17||31||2.82|
|32||Patrick Mahomes (24)||108.2||2020||KAN||38||6||32||6.33|
|33||Matt Ryan (33)||108.1||2018||ATL||35||7||28||5.00|
|34||Aaron Rodgers (28)||108||2012||GNB||39||8||31||4.88|
If we look at this by decade, we find three seasons in the 40s, one in the 60s, two in the 80s, two in the 90s, four in the aughts and the remaining 22 occurring between 2010 and 2020. So it’s safe to say that this needs to be era adjusted with more than half of the “great” seasons from NFL QBs happening in the last decade.
Another way to look at greatness is to look at TD passes minus interceptions (shown as TD-INT) or by TD-to-INT ratio. TD/INT ratio is better for comparing stats across eras, but it’s still needs to be ear adjusted. For example 5.34 percent of all passes were intercepted in 1971, but that is about half the interception rate in 40s and 50s.
The numerator was much smaller 50 years ago as well. In 1945 there were 109 total touchdown passes in the NFL and one QB accounted for eleven of them. That same year there were 193 interceptions. There was a grand total of 2107 passing attempts league-wide in 1945; that is about what the top four starting QBs combine to throw in one season in the modern NFL. Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Justin Herbert combined to 2439 passes in 2020. Those were the top four in passing attempts in 2020.
In 1945 when slinging Sammy Baugh threw those eleven TD passes and only four interceptions the league TD/INT ratio was 0.56, meaning that there were almost two interceptions for every single TD pass. That has been completely flipped now. Baugh also threw 182 passes in 1945 (in 10 games).
In 2020 there were 2.21 touchdown passes for every interception. The league has essentially been at 2-to-1 since 2015 or 2014.
So let us look at the list of QB seasons where a QB had a 4-to-1 ratio of passing touchdowns to interceptions. We’ll get into rushing touchdowns later. Again, this list shows quarterbacks with the minimum number of passes to qualify (which is adjusted by era). There have been 51 seasons in the NFL where a QB has had a 4-to-1 ratio of passing TDs to interceptions. But how do we compare players across eras? Should Milt Plum’s 21/5 in 1960 count the same as Steve Bartkowski’s 22/5 in 1983 or Robert Griffin’s 20/5 in 2012?
To correct for this I normalized by year. For example Plums ratio of 4.2:1.0 was amazing relative to league in 1960 which had a ratio of 0.8:1.0. So normalizing relative to league average Plum’s ratio gets bumped all the way to 17.7:1.0. By the same token, Sam Bradford’s 4.0:1.0 (20/5) in 2016 only gets bumped to 4.5:1.0 because the league as a whole was so much better at passing the ball in 2016 relative to 1960.
But back to those 51 seasons where a QB was better than 4-to-1, there are seven QBs who show up on the list multiple times.
- Aaron Rodgers (8)
- Tom Brady (6)
- Russell Wilson (3)
- Drew Brees (3)
- Patrick Mahomes (3)
- Matt Ryan (2)
- Peyton Manning (2)
I was surprised that Manning only has two spots on this list, but he threw plenty of interceptions in his career. In fact Manning only had three seasons in which he had a ratio of 3-to-1 or better .
Here is the entire list of 51 seasons sorted by year with the normalized TD/INT shown. I found this data here.
|QB||Year||Tm||Att||Cmp||CMP%||YDS||TD||INT||TD/INT||Lg TD:INT avg||Normalized TD/INT|
|Robert Griffin III||2012||Was||393||258||65.6||3,200||20||5||4||1.62||5.9|
So there were 24 instances where a QB had a great TD/INT ratio (4-to-1 or better) and they were not able to duplicate that feat (at least not yet). Of those 24, I count 19 that have not been replicated and most likely will not be replicated. One of those 19 belongs to Brian Griese who did it with the Broncos in 2000.
The recent ones that are debatable (but will not be debated in this text) are Dak Prescott (in 2016), and Carson Wentz and Jared Goff (both in 2017). Feel free to make a case in the comments if you think that any of those three will be able to duplicate or improve upon their 4-to-1 or better seasons.
There are five other recent instances of a QB having a great season (by TD/INT ratio) for which I will go into depth here. Do you think any or all of these five will be able to duplicate/replicate their amazing season?
Derek Carr 2016
In 2016 Carr threw 28 touchdown passes and only 6 picks. That was good for an interception rate of 1.1 percent. His career interception rate is 1.9 percent so that year was a big outlier for him both in terms of throwing picks, but also in terms of tossing TDs. His TD percent (percentage of throws that resulted in a touchdown) that season was 5.0 percent which is a little better than his career average of 4.4.
But wait, what’s that you say? Quarterbacks who can run the ball should have that factored in. Ok, sure, but Derek Carr is not one of them. He has six rushing touchdowns in seven seasons, or one less than Ryan Tannehill had in 2020 alone. Carr also has a grand total of 635 career rushing yards in seven full seasons — or less than our next quarterback has had in every one of his three NFL seasons.
My verdict - No, Carr will not have another 4-to-1 TD-to-INT season.
Lamar Jackson 2019
Lamar Jackson’s 2019 seasons is one of the best seasons ever had by an NFL QB. In terms of total touchdowns, it ranks 16th (tied) all-time. Jackson threw for 36 TDs and ran for another 7, giving him 43 total touchdowns. Here is where we will discuss the third measure of great QB play - total touchdowns in a regular season.
Below is a list of every season in which a QB had accounted for 40 total touchdowns or more - there have been 31 seasons where a QB has accounted for 40 or more TDs (passing, rushing and occasionally receiving)
|Rank||Player||Year||Passing TDs||Rushing TDs (& rec)||Total TDs|
|1||Peyton Manning+ (37)||2013||55||1||56|
|2||Patrick Mahomes (22)||2018||50||2||52|
|3||Tom Brady (30)||2007||50||2||52|
|4||Aaron Rodgers (36)||2020||48||3||51|
|5||Peyton Manning+ (28)||2004||49||0||49|
|6||Aaron Rodgers (27)||2011||45||3||48|
|7||Dan Marino+ (22)||1984||48||0||48|
|8||Drew Brees (32)||2011||46||1||47|
|9||Josh Allen (24)||2020||37||9||46|
|10||Cam Newton (26)||2015||35||10||45|
|11||Aaron Rodgers (32)||2016||40||4||44|
|12||Dan Marino+ (24)||1986||44||0||44|
|13||Drew Brees (33)||2012||43||1||44|
|14||Andrew Luck (24)||2014||40||3||43|
|15||Lamar Jackson (22)||2019||36||7||43|
|16||Tom Brady (43)||2020||40||3||43|
|17||Drew Brees (34)||2013||39||3||42|
|18||Kurt Warner+ (28)||1999||41||1||42|
|19||Russell Wilson (31)||2020||40||2||42|
|20||Steve Young+ (32)||1994||35||7||42|
|21||Steve Young+ (36)||1998||36||6||42|
|22||Tom Brady (34)||2011||39||3||42|
|23||Aaron Rodgers (28)||2012||39||2||41|
|24||Brett Favre+ (25)||1995||38||3||41|
|25||Brett Favre+ (26)||1996||39||2||41|
|26||Daunte Culpepper (27)||2004||39||2||41|
|27||Matthew Stafford (23)||2011||41||0||41|
|28||Aaron Rodgers (30)||2014||38||2||40|
|30||Patrick Mahomes (24)||2020||38||2||40|
|31||Daunte Culppepper (23)||2000||33||7||40|
To the best of knowledge, you will not find this list anywhere else. Eight of these seasons happened last century (with 1984 being the earliest) and the other 23 have happened this century. Six happened LAST YEAR: Aaron Rodgers (51), Josh Allen (46 - one rec), Tom Brady (43), Russell Wilson (42), Ryan Tannehill and Patrick Mahomes (40).
The NFL still thinks of QBs as passers only despite the recent QBs who have run for seven or more TDs in a season (Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Ryan Tannehill and Josh Allen). Newton set the NFL record for QB rushing TDs in a regular season with 14 in 2011. Newton also holds the career mark with 70 total rushing TDs in his career. Yet if you look at career TDs by QBs in the NFL, the league seems to only count passing TDs. Which I guess makes sense, because otherwise you “double count” a passing TD from a QB, but whatever.
There were exactly 10 players with 10 or more rushing touchdowns in 2020 and two of them were QBs - Cam Newton and Kyler Murray. To put this another way, there were 532 rushing TDs in the NFL in 2020 and 114 of them were from QBs running the ball (21.4 percent). More than one fifth of all rushing TDs in 2020 were by QBs. Eight QBs accounted for 60 of the 114:
- Cam Newton (12)
- Kyler Murray (11)
- Josh Allen (8)
- Lamar Jackson (7)
- Ryan Tannehill (7)
- Justin Herbert (5)
- Teddy Bridgewater (5)
- Carson Wentz (5)
For comparison there were 379 rushing TDs in 1998 and 45 of them were from QBs (11.8%).
If you look at career touchdowns, Jerry Rice has the NFL record with 208, but that is rushing and receiving touchdowns NOT passing touchdowns. This hurts “dual-threat” QBs like Jackson and Newton. Newton is currently in the top 100 all-time in terms of career touchdowns (with 70 rushing TDs and 1 receiving TD), but he is the only QB in the top 100 since his passing TDs are counted separately. He has accounted for 261 total touchdowns, but only 190 of those are passing TDs.
Only eight NFL QBs have ever run for 10 or more TDs in a season, but the three who did it this century are Newton (twice, 2011 and 2020), Daunte Culpepper (2002) and Kyler Murray (2020).
Back to Jackson, for his career he has 68 passing TDs and 19 rushing TDs (no receiving TDs - yet) for a total of 87 total touchdowns. In 2019 he threw 36 touchdown passes with only six picks. His interception percent that season was 1.5 percent which is quite low, but not that far off of his career mark of 1.9 percent. So I would expect Lamar Jackson to be able to reproduce his low INT mark. What about matching that 36 passing TD mark?
Well in 2019 he had the best TD percent in the league at 9.0 percent and while his number was still really good in 2020, it was not quite as good as his MVP season (6.9 percent). Jackson’s 2020 TD percent was tied for 4th among starting QBs. I would expect Lamar Jackson to have at least one more season where he puts up passing numbers similar to what he did in 2019. 2020 was only his second full season as a starting QB in the NFL. He could still be improving.
The QB was the best career TD percentage (min 1500 attempts) is Sid Luckman with a value of 7.9 percent. Only three modern QBs are in the top 10: Mahomes (6.8), Rodgers (6.4) and Wilson (6.2). Luckman, who played twelve NFL seasons for the Bears in the 40s, started 61 games but only threw 1744 career passes, or what modern starting QBs throw in three years. Jackson does not have enough attempts yet to qualify for the career list. If he did, he would be 3rd all-time.
My verdict - yes, Jackson will replicate his 2019 season.
Kirk Cousins 2019
Cousins, like Carr, is a pocket passer - although Cousins is fairly adept at the QB sneak (like Tom Brady - more on this later). Cousins has a total of 721 career rushing yards, but has 16 career rushing TDs. Only 29 of Cousins 230 career rushing attempts have gone for 10 or more yards and his longest career run is 19 yards. Of course counted in those 230 are his kneel-downs, which the NFL stupidly still counts as a run for negative one yard.
In 2019 Cousins threw 26 TD passes and only six picks. Of those six picks, three came in his two games against the Packers. In his other 14 starts he would only throw three picks (one each against the Eagles, Chargers and Seahawks). While his interception rate in 2019 of 1.4 percent was low for him, it was not too far off from his career value of 2.3 percent. He has also been much better at NOT throwing picks since becoming a full-time starter in 2015.
In 2012 through 2014 he had and interception rate of 4.7 percent. Since then he has had a rate of 2.0 percent. What about his TD rate in 2019? 5.9 percent of his throws in 2019 resulted in a TD, but this was not too far off of his career mark of 5.2 (5.3 since becoming a full-time starter in 2015). I would expect Cousins to have another season with a 4-to-1 or better TD/INT ratio.
Verdict - yes
Cousins fails in an area that I will explore in depth in the follow-up to this - clutch QB play. The easiest way to track this is by looking at fourth quarter comebacks (4QC) and game-winning drives (GWD). Truly great QBs succeed in when they have a chance to win a game on the final drive or when they have the opportunity to bring their team back from a deficit in the fourth quarter. Cousins has eleven fourth quarter comebacks and sixteen game-winning drives in his 104 starts. Next week I’ll explore whether his “clutch” play is good, average or bad.
While QBs on really good teams don’t have too many opportunities to lead a game-winning drive or a fourth quarter comeback, they tend to succeed in those opportunities when they have them.
Deshaun Watson 2020
Watson just completed his third full season as the main starting QB for the Texans. 2020 was his best season so far in his career. He led the league in passing yards and he threw 33 TDs while only throwing seven picks. Watson also ran for 444 yards and three touchdowns in 2020.
Relative to Cousins, Watson is much more “clutch”. Despite having zero 4QC and GWD in 2020, Watson already has eight 4QC and ten GWD in 53 career starts.
Watson’s career TD percent is 5.9 so the 6.1 that he posted in 2020 is pretty close to his “usual” level of performance. His career interception rate is 2.1 percent. His 1.3 in 2020 is low for him, but like Lamar Jackson, he could get better. His 2020 interception rate might be closer to what he does going forward.
My verdict - yes, unless his legal troubles sink his career.
Ryan Tannehill 2020
Much like Cousins, Tannehill has gotten better at playing QB in the NFL “late” in his career. Unlike Cousins, though, Ryan was his team’s starting QB from the get-go. Tannehill has found a perfect fit for his skills in the Titan’s run-heavy offense - much like the fit that Ben Roethlisberger had with the Steeler’s offense at the beginning of his career.
Tannehill threw for 33 TDs with only seven picks in 2020. He also ran for another 7. His 40 total TDs in 2020 is tied for 31st for all-time. His interception rate was 2.6 percent while playing QB for the Dolphins, but he has lowered that to 1.7 percent with the Titans. His career touchdown rate in 4.8 percent, but he has been much better with the Titans where his TD rate has been 7.2 percent. Remember that Luckman’s league best for a career is 7.9 percent.
Tannehill has been playing at an extremely high level over the past two years, but while he is a seasoned veteran now he will only be 33 this coming season. He realistically could play at this level for four or five more years.
My verdict - yes, barring injury. I actually expect Tannehill to have another season in 2021 similar to his 2020 season.
The specter of injury
With the discussion of dual-threat QBs, I have to bring up the historic precedent that most “running QBs” in the NFL don’t stay running QBs for long.
Michael Vick might have broken that mold if legal problems had not derailed his career. Cam Newton, who is built like a tank, has proven than you can have a long career as a running QB, but it’s really hard to look at his play and not think that all of the hits he has absorbed have NOT hurt his ability to throw the ball.
One of three things happens to QBs who gain yards and score touchdowns on the ground. They either get injured which stops their running (or curtails it) or they get told by their team and coaches that the risk of injury is too great so they need to stop running with the ball. The third thing is Father Time happens and they lose their ability to run with the ball.
Below are the top 10 (by rushing yards) QBs in NFL history
|Rank||Quarterback||Carries||Rushing yards||YPC||Rushing TDs|
Note that John Elway is fifth in carries, but ninth in yards. I should also note that some of the top 10 in QB rushing TDs are not on the list above. Jack Kemp had 40 rushing TDs, Kordell Stewart had 38, former Bronco Tobin Rote had 37, Steve Grogan had 35, and Culpepper had 34.
But when do running QBs really stop their running? In part two of this I’ll go into each of the top 10 by yards and look at how far into their careers they got before they really stopped using their legs to gain yards and score touchdowns.
I’ll finish this by saying that at his current rate, Lamar Jackson will move into the top 10 all-time in QB rushing attempts in one more season. He is averaging 161 carries per year through his first three NFL seasons. He currently has 482 carries and is 154 behind Tom Brady (#10 with 636) and Aaron Rodgers (#9 with 652). Because of how Tom Brady runs (QB sneaks), he continues to get about 30 carries per year. He had exactly 30 in 2020. For his career he averages 1.6 yards per carry. He also has four times as many kneel-downs (125) during his career as he has carries for 10 or more yards (30).
Which topic should I cover next?
This poll is closed
The career arc of QBs who run the ball frequently in the NFL
How often NFL QBs lead fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives
A study of year by year QB rushing TDs in the NFL as a percentage of total rushing TDs