Which quarterbacks have had the greatest single-seasons in NFL history?
You probably have a short list of the seasons you think stand above the rest. Dating back to the dawn of modern professional football, we looked at the single-seasons from all of the best quarterbacks in NFL.
Many people have their opinions, but what if we moved beyond opinions?
We already dove headfirst into the “Greatest Quarterbacks of All-Time” debate (which, if you haven’t already, you should check it out), so we figured we’d try our hand at analyzing and ranking the greatest single-seasons in NFL quarterbacking history. To do this, we came up with a new formula.
We promise to update this article promptly following the 2020 NFL season and every NFL season moving forward. That way we can see NFL, and quarterback, history update in real time.
Yes, we understand the potential bias claim against us, PackersHistory.com, writing about the entire NFL. But all we can do is promise our sincerity. Our research, and the creating of this formula, was done with immense care and respect to the whole league. We think you’ll find that the results mirror that ethos. It took months of contemplation to create a formula that is as honest, fair and practical as possible. We stand by it, whole-heartedly.
For this exercise, we wanted to compare every all-time great quarterback at their absolute single-season peak against all other all-time greats at their peak.
We wanted to know, once and for all, which quarterback seasons really are the best in league history. People tend to lean toward their favorite quarterback’s best season, while others stick with ancient narratives that “X’s season will always be the gold-standard.” And while we try to respect that, we think it’s more fair to NFL fans to come up with an objective way to rank these all-time greatest seasons.
Usually fans stick with the quarterback they watched growing up as the “best” ever, or having the best season ever. We sought to end that understandable bias, because we believe objectivity breeds more fruitful conversations and debate, even if it’s just about football.
Since we stayed focused on purely at a quarterback’s literal peak, we included just the single best season from each legendary quarterback. Obviously quarterbacks like Peyton Manning or Joe Montana for example would have multiple seasons on this list, but again, we want to compare guys at their absolute best rather than have a top 35 list dominated by just a few transcendent names listed over and over.
If you’re wondering, “phcQBR” is a shorthand derived from “PackersHistory.com’s Quarterback Rating” — which is our unique formula.
What “phcQBR” is:
It is a very simple, proprietary, formula evaluating quarterback play in terms of efficiency and per-play greatness. Typically, a very high score from this formula means a quarterback had one of their most celebrated seasons.
Our formula, phcQBR, is notable because it is era-adjusted to evaluate quarterbacks across generations. It uses many quarterback statistics (like total yards, touchdowns and completion percentage), but is weighted most heavily toward TD%, Yards Per Attempt and INT%.
We’ve found that those stats are the biggest indicators of whether a quarterback is elite or not.
Legend For How The Formula Is Calculated:
Start with a quarterback’s end of season stats (must have started at least 85% of games to be considered, as durability counts for something) and take the following steps.
Completion Percentage: Decimal point moved one point to the right (Example: 67.8% becomes 6.78 Points).
Touchdown Percentage: Number is tripled (Example: 8.2% becomes 24.6 points).
Yards Per Attempt: Number is doubled (Example: 7.0 becomes 14 points).
Total Yards: Add passing yards to rushing yards and move decimal point three points to the left, for a total of three digits (Example: 4750 total passing and rushing yards becomes 4.75 points).
Total Touchdowns: Add passing touchdowns to rushing touchdowns and move decimal point one point to the left (Example: 42 total passing and rushing touchdowns become 4.2 points).
Fourth Quarter Comebacks: 1/2 Point is awarded for each fourth quarter comeback (Example: 3 fourth quarter comebacks equals 1.5 points).
Interception Percentage: Number is tripled and then subtracted (Example: 5.5% becomes a -16.5 points).
Raw Final Score: Add all points together and then subtract Interception percentage, which gives you a quarterback’s raw score for their season.
Adjust By Era: Take the quarterback’s raw score and then apply the era adjustment. The year 2000 is the inflection point in the era adjustment. For every year before 2000 you add 0.2 points per year (Example: A quarterback’s season from 1975 would add 5 points to the raw total to give a final score). For every year after 2000 you subtract 0.2 points per year (Example: A quarterback’s season from 2019 you would subtract 3.8 points from the raw total to give a final score).
Final Score Ranking: Every significant quarterback season in NFL history is then ranked against all other quarterback seasons, in context of it’s actual raw numerical score, adjusted by era.
Look At The Best Quarterback Seasons Ever: That’s it, check out the results!
The simple ‘Era-Adjustment’ tool we use helps keep quarterbacks on a level playing field (as level as possible) to account for different regular season lengths, change in rules, change in temperament of play, change in coaching philosophies and technologies. Therefore, we can compare a quarterback’s single-season from 1955 to one from a quarterback in 2015, better than anyone else in the world.
This is where the traditional quarterback rating fails, as you cannot compare a season from decades ago to a current day season. Almost all mediocre quarterbacks today have better end-of-season ratings than an All-Pro quarterback from decades ago. With our formula you can compare all seasons fairly.
Trust us, this formula is incredibly straight forward. You just have to understand why we value some stats much more than others. For example, rather than overly valuing raw yardage totals (which go up across the league every year) we value yards per attempt because any quarterback from any era can be specifically dominant in that stat. It makes much more sense to put more weight into per-pay stats than simple totals. The same goes for touchdowns and interceptions.
You can argue the formula all you want, that is completely fair game, but you cannot argue the results of the formula as they simply display the facts in an unbiased view (according to the formula).
My favorite quarterback of all-time, Brett Favre, is incredibly hurt by the nature of this formula, despite his dominance in the 1990s. So keep that in mind as you peruse this ranking. But our personal feelings don’t matter here, no matter what our (and maybe your) protests may be. And don’t worry, we dive into the case of Favre near the end of this piece.
Note: This formula is for single-season use only. That is an important distinction. You cannot apply this formula to a quarterback’s entire career because of the era adjustments, it would be an incredibly tedious task that we’re, frankly, not up to at the moment. Plus, it’s meant to judge a quarterback’s statistical peak (meaning, a single-season).
Era Disclaimer: The only seasons eligible to be run through this formula, and properly era-adjusted for, are from 1950 to the Present Day. This is because of a couple issues regarding the changing of playing style in the NFL, among other things. We wanted to go back further, but 1950 is as far back as we could possibly go with our formula (which the year 1950 would add 10 points to a raw total).
Looking Forward: Based on our forecasting, we anticipate that this formula will be accurate and usable until about the 2050 season, when -10 points will be subtracted from a quarterback’s raw total. So, we’ll have delivered about 100 years of NFL quarterback single-season era-adjusted analysis and ranking. By then, we’ll see how the formula holds up. Who knows?
These aren’t necessarily the 50 greatest quarterbacking seasons in NFL history. Obviously quarterbacks from before 1950 are left out, such as Paddy Driscoll, Arnie Herber, Sid Luckman, Sammy Baugh, Bob Waterfield, the list goes on and on. Also, there are many quarterbacks on this list that would have numerous seasons in the top 35 all-time, but again, we went just for each player’s peak season (one season per quarterback).
It will be interesting to see which current quarterbacks crack into this top 35, or even top five, in the coming years. Will Mahomes or Jackson replace their score with a better one? Or have they already peaked? Who is the next great quarterback to make a run at the all-time greatest single-seasons in NFL quarterbacking history? These are the questions that give us the energy to create these formulas and articles for football fans to enjoy.
We love the mystery just as much as we love the history.
Finally, we obviously did not run all quarterbacks that have ever played through this system, we just picked the quarterbacks that have had great and memorable individual seasons (or even just careers that cannot be ignored). Which means there are some players, perhaps some active quarterbacks, that haven’t had a single-season run through this system yet.
If you’d like a specific quarterback run through this system, just let me know and I’ll do it. We’ll update the piece and let you know where they landed. That said, we definitely don’t see any quarterback that we didn’t run through this formula landing specifically high on this list.
To be very clear: This is very much not a list of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. It’s instead, according to our formula, the list of the best individual statistical quarterback seasons in NFL history. Legendary quarterbacks had careers that far exceeded their statistical peak, according to our formula. To see how we rank all NFL quarterbacks all-time according to their entire careers, see the top 50 quarterbacks in NFL history here.
Unlike the all-time great quarterback ranking we released earlier this year, linked above, this formula doesn’t take into account individual awards, wins or playoff success. The “phcQBR” is purely a narrow statistical analysis. It’s strictly about on-field statistical play.
We have also created a formula that ranks quarterbacks by their “prime” or best five-year stretches. We are publishing that piece soon, so check back for that. The results are obviously different from what we have compiled here.
AP MVP Award Winners:
Every time a quarterback on this list won the AP MVP Award for the season listed, we put “Won AP MVP Award” at the end of their blurb. It’s interesting to see how much crossover there is between having a high phcQBR score and winning the AP MVP. We believe it just further adds to the legitimacy of the formula.
The AP MVP has been given out since 1957, for the years 1950 to 1956 we use UPI MVP Award winners instead.
How confident are we in this formula accurately diagnosing elite quarterback play? Of the top 42 best individual seasons listed here, 25 of them were MVP Award winning seasons, including every one of the top 15 seasons this formula came up with.
Yes, this formula went 15 for 15 as it ranked the top quarterback seasons in NFL history, “predicting” that all 15 seasons were rewarded with League MVP Awards.
Here are some of the best statistical quarterback seasons, or statistical career peaks, in NFL history:
Before we dive into the top 35 quarterback seasons in NFL history, here are a handful of notable seasons with some legendary names. These are some of the best individual seasons in NFL history, but we didn’t officially rank them because surely there are a few other seasons by quarterbacks over the years that would slot into this group. Again, we didn’t run every single quarterback in NFL history through the formula, but we think we accounted for the most impactful.
Lets call the 19 seasons below the “honorable mentions”
Drew Bledsoe, 1997, New England Patriots: 34.88 phcQBR
Following a loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI, Drew Bledsoe followed up that successful season with another one. This was the best season of his career.
Colin Kaepernick, 2013, San Fransisco 49ers: 35.16 phcQBR
Love him or hate him, he made a massive impact on the game during his short career. He was impactful both passing and running and he absolutely shredded the Packers in the playoffs on multiple occasions. However his best regular season came in 2013, which landed him on this list.
Joe Flacco, 2010, Baltimore Ravens: 35.66 phcQBR
No, Joe Flacco was never elite, but he did have a few really good seasons. His best regular season came in 2010 and he should be remembered for it.
Troy Aikman, 1994, Dallas Cowboys: 35.73 phcQBR
Troy Aikman never had to carry the Cowboys, but was the steady hand the team needed to become a dynasty. His 1994 season was his best individual season, according to our formula.
Don Majkowski, 1989, Green Bay Packers: 36.46 phcQBR
The ‘Magic Man’ was the quarterback in Green Bay before Favre and although his career as a whole wasn’t great, his 1989 season was a welcome sight for Packers fans.
Tobin Rote, 1956, Green Bay Packers: 37.14 phcQBR
As you can see, the Packers quarterback legacy goes far beyond the ‘big three’ and Rote is another one of those guys that made a big impact. His 1956 season was legendary through the air and on the ground.
John Elway, 1993, Denver Broncos: 37.48 phcQBR
Surprised John Elway isn’t ranked higher? Well, the stats don’t lie. Elway’s legend is inflated due to his final two Super Bowl seasons, including a win over the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Although gifted with an incredibly strong arm, he was never as great as his myth supposes.
Rich Gannon, 2002, Oakland Raiders: 37.60 phcQBR
This season is memorable for many Packers fans because Rich Gannon “stole” a potential fourth AP MVP Award from Brett Favre. We’re kidding, Gannon definitely deserved the award when he had the best season of his career. Won AP MVP Award.
Donovan McNabb, 2006, Philadelphia Eagles: 37.65 phcQBR
Donovan McNabb says he should be in the Hall of Fame. Our all-time quarterback ranking formula suggests he shouldn’t be. But he did have a good career and no season was better than his 2006 campaign.
Lynn Dickey, 1983, Green Bay Packers: 39.04 phcQBR
This may be shocking to many NFL fans, but to some OG Packers fans it’ll just make sense. He had an incredible 1983 season and he could really throw the ball.
Terry Bradshaw, 1978, Pittsburgh Steelers: 39.33 phcQBR
The quarterback of one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history, Terry Bradshaw, doesn’t get as much credit he deserves as a passer. Was his 1978 season the best ever? No, but it was the best in the NFL that year. His 1970s Steelers will live on in football lore. Won AP MVP Award.
Andrew Luck, 2014, Indianapolis Colts: 40.30 phcQBR
It’s too bad we didn’t get more seasons from Andrew Luck, but at least we got 2014. That year he put together an impressive stat-line. He was more athletic than most people realize. We wish him the best in retirement.
Fran Tarkenton, 1975, Minnesota Vikings: 40.60 phcQBR
Fran Tarkenton is the best quarterback in Vikings history, but he’s not the highest ranked Vikings quarterback on this list (surprisingly, to some). The mad scrambler has some of the best highlights of all-time; this was his best regular season. Won AP MVP Award.
Steve McNair, 2003, Tennessee Titans: 40.90 phcQBR
Perhaps the most beloved player in Titans history is Steve McNair. His career had some ups and downs, but his 2003 season was a major upswing. Obviously. Won AP MVP Award, shared with Peyton Manning.
Ben Roethlisberger, 2014, Pittsburgh Steelers: 40.68 phcQBR
The second Pittsburgh Steeler on this list, Ben Roethlisberger is perhaps not as high on this list as many would have assumed. Still, his 2014 season was dynamic. Big arm, big body, will eventually make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Matthew Stafford, 2011, Detroit Lions: 41.46 phcQBR
Is Matthew Stafford a fantastic quarterback on a bad team or an overrated quarterback that can’t lead his team over the top? Either way, he’s got a hell of an arm and has had a few statistically-impressive seasons — none better than in 2011.
Norm Van Brocklin, 1953, Los Angeles Rams: 41.55 phcQBR
“The Dutchman” Norm Van Brocklin is one of those old school names from the NFL’s wild days. Still, his skill was evident and his 1953 season lives on as one of the best ever. This is true even though he won the AP MVP later in 1960.
Boomer Esiason, 1985, Cincinnati Bengals: 42.14 phcQBR
The second-highest ranked Bengal on this list is none other than former quarterback turned CBS Radio personality Boomer Esiason. His career as a whole wasn’t exactly legendary but 1985 was his best season, even though he won the AP MVP Award in 1988. That’s a better couple seasons than most.
Brian Sipe, 1980, Cleveland Browns: 42.36 phcQBR
Yep, you may be saying “who?” But Brian Sipe had a short-lived, very impressive peak. He was the best quarterback in the NFL in 1980, but he’s not the highest Cleveland Brown on this list. Won AP MVP Award.
Alright, now that we got our “honorable mentions” out of the way, we can now get to the best of the best all-time. Remember, limit one season per quarterback.
Without a doubt we can say that these are the top 35 quarterback single-seasons in NFL history:
35. Dan Fouts, 1981, San Diego Chargers: 42.96 phcQBR
Dan Fouts is the quarterback some people consider the best statistical passer in NFL history. However his placement on this list feels about right to us. He was a great, but he wasn’t actually in the all-time great category.
34. Roman Gabriel, 1969, Los Angeles Rams: 43.14 phcQBR
Following Norm Van Brocklin for the Rams was Roman Gabriel and he kept the success at quarterback going. Unlike his predecessor, he’s not in the Hall of Fame. However he had the higher “peak” when he put together his 1969 season. Won AP MVP Award.
33. Jim Kelly, 1991, Buffalo Bills: 43.39 phcQBR
Few quarterbacks have ever been more likable than Jim Kelly. He’s known for leading his Bills to four straight Super Bowls, while his team came up just short each time. Still, his best season (1991) was one no one should forget.
32. Warren Moon, 1990, Houston Oilers: 43.61 phcQBR
An enigmatic quarterback that spent a good portion of his prime in the Canadian Football League showed immense talent when in the NFL. He peaked in 1990 with this incredible season.
31. Cam Newton, 2015, Carolina Panthers: 44.35 phcQBR
One of the most incredible seasons in modern NFL history. Newton passed and ran with mastery for the entirety of his 2015 season. He brought his team all the way to the Super Bowl, but fell short. Won AP MVP Award.
30. Roger Staubach, 1979, Dallas Cowboys: 44.54 phcQBR
One of the most beloved quarterbacks in NFL history comes in at No. 30 on this countdown. Roger Staubach, despite a short career due to military service in the Navy, was great when he was on the field. Never was he better than in 1979.
29. Brett Favre, 1995, Green Bay Packers: 44.59 phcQBR
Many would be shocked he isn’t ranked higher here, but efficiency was never Favre’s strength as a quarterback, fearlessness was. Unfortunately for him, his style of play doesn’t translate to efficiency-focused statistical formulas. It doesn’t take anything away from him though. His statistical ‘peak’ was sustained for an incredibly long time, but just never dramatically spiked. Won AP MVP Award.
28. Sonny Jurgensen, 1967, Washington: 45.16 phcQBR
The first of two straight notable Washington quarterbacks, Sonny Jurgensen. He finds himself in the Hall of Fame and although he wasn’t the premier quarterback of the 1960s, he did carry on Sammy Baugh’s legacy well for this franchise. Johnny Unitas took home the AP MVP Award in 1967.
27. Joe Theismann, 1983, Washington: 45.25 phcQBR
Joe Theismann’s 1983 season is the stuff of legend, including that famous Monday Night Football matchup with Lynn Dickey and the Green Bay Packers. He deserves his spot on this list for his status as a football icon. Won AP MVP Award.
26. Philip Rivers, 2008, San Diego Chargers: 45.42 phcQBR
A player that many consider one of the best statistical quarterbacks in NFL history is Philip Rivers. We kind of agree, but regardless of what we think, he had quite an impressive statistical peak in 2008.
25. Earl Morrall, 1968, Baltimore Colts: 45.56 phcQBR
The list of Colts to win the AP MVP Award is long, it’s incredible. Earl Morrall was just one of four to accomplish the feat. His 1968 season was his best, which interestingly came one year after Johnny Unitas won the award. Won AP MVP Award.
24. Ken Anderson, 1981, Cincinnati Bengals: 45.73 phcQBR
We consider Ken Anderson one of the most underrated players in NFL history. In fact, he didn’t just have this great of a peak, he put together an impressive career. We think he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Won AP MVP Award.
23. Frank Ryan, 1966, Cleveland Browns: 45.87 phcQBR
This is a quarterback where most people would say, “uh, sure” if you told them he was a great player. But Frank Ryan was clearly an impressive talent for the Browns.
22. Tony Romo, 2014, Dallas Cowboys: 46.95 phcQBR
Tony Romo’s peak was short, but impressive. He wasn’t able to sustain this level of statistical success however. His 2014 season was his top of the mountain.
21. Russell Wilson, 2018, Seattle Seahawks: 47.28 phcQBR
Russell Wilson may be the most underrated player in the NFL today. He gets talked about as a star, but not often as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play. Sure, he’s got a long way to go to reach all-time great status, but his peak (so far) is already up there with the best to ever play.
20. John Brodie, 1965, San Fransisco 49ers: 47.76 phcQBR
Most NFL fans are like, who? But John Brodie had an incredibly high peak as a passer. He’s the forgotten man of San Fransisco quarterbacks, which is a shame. He didn’t win the AP MVP Award for this season, but he did win it in 1970.
19. Ken Stabler, 1976, Oakland Raiders: 47.80 phcQBR
The ‘Snake’ Ken Stabler had an incredible 1976 season. In our eyes he really earned his Hall of Fame status based on this season. Somehow he wasn’t even the best quarterback in the league this year. You’ll find that man below.
18. Drew Brees, 2011, New Orleans Saints: 47.98 phcQBR
You knew that, perhaps, the most dominant statistical quarterback in NFL history Drew Brees had to be on this all-time list. His accuracy and consistency are a staple of his career; this season was his best of the (impressively large) bunch. However he had many seasons of this caliber unlike some of the guys in front of him that only have one or two great seasons.
17. Randall Cunningham, 1998, Minnesota Vikings: 48.02 phcQBR
This was one of the most dynamic offenses in NFL history. Randy Moss, as a rookie, and Cris Carter combined with Cunningham to put up historic numbers. It’s reflected in Cunningham’s ranking on this list.
16. Daunte Culpepper, 2004, Minnesota Vikings: 48.34 phcQBRC
Culpepper is the highest-ranked retired and Hall of Fame eligible quarterback on this list that is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is, perhaps, the most shocking name and position on this list. But if you think it’s out of place, go back and look at his 2004 season, it’s amazing. As you can see, Randy Moss has greatly impacted multiple quarterbacks on this list (and he’s not done yet).
On the next page you’ll see the top 15 quarterback seasons in NFL history, all of which are AP MVP Award winning seasons. You’ll also find our observations of the results