Passing Yards: The NFL’s Milestone seasons

Passing Yards: The NFL’s Milestone seasons
Reading Time: 7 minutes.

Passing Yards: The NFL’s Milestone seasons

The 2022/3 NFL regular season is in the books and the playoffs await. At the end of the season Patrick Mahomes led the league with 5,250 yards passing. The 10th 5,000 yard passing season in league history. Nine of which have come since 2008. The outlier being Dan Marinos’s remarkable 1984 season.

All of which got me to thinking. What are the milestone passing yardage seasons in NFL history? To be clear, I don’t mean every time the passing yardage record was broken. Rather, each time a milestone was breached – like the first recorded yardage leader, the first 1000 yard season, 2000 yard season and so on.

I thought it might be fun to take a look back and to do that we have to start in Green Bay.

Arnier Herber (1932) – 639 yards

37 of 101 for 639 yards 9 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Yards per game 45.6.

The NFL did not start keeping official statistics until 1932. When they did it was Herber who was the first ever single season passing yardage leader. He ‘slung it’ for 639 yards and 9 touchdowns having started 8 games in a 14 game season but played in every game.

His Packers finsihed 10-3-1 and following a playoff between Chicago and Portsmouth finished second in the eight team league.

Arnie Herber (1936) – 1,239 yards

77 of 173 for 1,239 yards 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Yards per game 103.3.

After being the league’s yardage leader in 1932, Herber did the same thing twice more in the next four years. His best season coming in 1936 when he became the games first 1000 yard passer.

His Packers finished 10-1-1 in the West Division and won the championship with a 21-6 title game win over Boston.

During his decade with Green Bay (1930-1940), the Packers were annual challengers for the league championship.

They won title in 1930, 1931, 1936 and 1939 and came close in 1932, 1935, 1938
and 1940. Although he had not led the attack in those first two years.

Overall, Herber passed for 8,041 yards, 81 touchdowns, and 106 interceptions. He led his teams to four NFL championships. 

You can see how different the game was so long ago when you consider Herber had the league best quarterback ratings with 45.1 (1934), 58.9 (1936), & 61.6 (1939).

He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Career Passing: 481 completions on 1,175 attempts 8,041 yards and 81 touchdowns.

Cecil Isbell (1942) – 2,021 yards

146 of 248 for 2,021 yards, 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Yards per game 183.7.

Isbell played five years in the NFL – all of them with the Green Bay Packers. He played left halfback in Curly Lambeau’s Notre Dame Box offense. Which meant passing responsibilty came his way.

In 1939, his second season, Isbell was a major factor as Green Bay won their fifth NFL championship. He led them in rushing with 407 yards and was second to Herber in passing with 749 yards.

Isbell would replace Herber as the lead passer and that equated to leading the league in passing two straight seasons.

The year prior to his 2000 yard season (1941), Isbell had set a new NFL record for passing yards with 1,479. He had also led the league in completion percentage (56.8%) and touchdown passes with 15. More records were to come in this 1942 season.

As Isbell threw his way to 2000 yards in 1942 the Packers finished 8-2-1, second in the West Division.

With the Packers, Isbell played in 54 games, starting 24, including 20 at left halfback. He played his last pro game at age 27 and was named backfield coach at Purdue in 1943.

Career Passing: 411 completions on 818 attempts 5,945 yards and 61 touchdowns.

Johnny Unitas (1960) – 3,099 yards

190 of 378 for 3,099 yards, 25 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. Yards per game 258.3.

Unitas features in the NFL’s 1960s All decaed team, the 50th anniversary team, 75th anniversary team and 100th anniversary team. It is fair to say he has remained a respected player down the years.

The 3 time NFL MVP led the league in passing on four occasions  (1957, 1959, 1960, & 1963). It is the 1960 season we are focused on here though as that is when, starting 12 games in a 12 game season he broke the 3000 yard barrier on a 6-6 Baltimore Colts team.

Between 1957 and 1960 he was the most dominant passer in the NFL. Over that span he led the league in completions twice, attempts 3 times, yardage 3 times and touchdowns for four consecutive seasons.

During the 1960 season an injury to back Alan Ameche seemed to derail the Colts and the two time defending champions were relagated to a fourth place finish in the West Division.

Unitas spent the bulk of his career in Baltimore (1956-1972). He would only exceed 3000 yards twice more in his career. Throwing for 3,481 yards and 3,428 yards in 14 game seasons in 1963 and 1967 respectively.

He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Career Passing: 2,830 completions on 5,186 attempts 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns.

Joe Namath (1967) – 4,007 yards & why it sort of doesn’t count

258 of 491 for 4,007 yards, 26 touchdowns and 28 interceptions. Yards per game 286.2.

Joe Namath threw for over 4000 yards in 1967. But this kind of doesn’t count for the NFL. At that time Namath was playing for the Jets in the AFL. A merger had been agreed between the NFL & AFL. Part of which involved an end of season AFL-NFL World Championhsip game where the winners of each league would play.

This catchily dubbed contest would later be called the Super Bowl. But the two leagues did not officially merge until the 1970 season.

If you accept however that NFL history now encapsulates those first four ‘Super Bowl’ seasons then this would be the first 4000 yard season.

That year Namath’s Jets would finish 8-5-1 and second in the AFL East. The following year Namath would throw for 3,147 yards and helm an 11-3 team that won Super Bowl III.

A lot of books & sites will tell you that Namath was the first pro QB to throw for 4000 yards. Which is a disservice to Sam ‘The Rifle’ Etcheverry. In a 14 game season with the Montreal Alouettes in 1956 he cracked the barrier.

His stat line read: 276 of 446 for 4,723 yards, 32 touchdowns & 23 interceptions. That’s a remarkable 338 yards per game and was incredible for the era.

Namath is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Career Passing: 1,886 completions on 3,762 attempts 27,663 yards and 173 touchdowns.

Dan Fouts (1979) – 4,082 yards

332 of 530 for 4,082 yards, 24 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. Yards per game 255.1.

According to Wikipedia then Dan Fouts is the first 4000 yard passer in NFL history. Clearly they stand by the NFL and AFL being seperate leagues in 1967. Which is historically accurate. But let’s be honest most people will think of Namath first for that 4000 yard season.

That being said, Fouts had quite the run. Between 1979 and the strike shortened 1982 season he led the league in passing yardage 4 times in a row. From 1979 to 1983 he threw for 13,599 yards and 87 touchdowns.

In a 16 game season in 1979 the 4000 yard barrier was broken as the San Diego Chargers finished the season 12-4. For this season head Coach Dan Coryell had future Super Bowl winning coach with Washington Joe Gibbs as his offensive coordinator. Gibbs oversaw a passing game considered state-of-the-art at the time.

From Week 6 to Week 9 of the 1979 season Fouts set a then NFL record with four consecutive 300-yard games.

The Chargers and Fouts were one and done in the playoffs however. The AFC top seeds were toppled 17-14 by the wild card Oilers. It was later revealed the Oilers had “managed to crack the code San Diego used to signal their offensive plays to Fouts” which would explain why he had such a poor game throwing no TDs and five picks!

He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Career Passing: 3,297 completions on 5,604 attempts 43,040 yards and 254 touchdowns.

Dan Marino (1984) – 5,084 yards

362 of 564 for 5,084 yards, 48 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Yards per game 317.8.

Dan the man got off to an incredible start to his NFL career. He had looked promising as a rookie in 1983. But when the Miami Dolphins handed him the starting job the following season few expected him to rack up the level of production that he did.

That year the Dolphins finished 14-2, won the AFC East and cruised into the Super Bowl. Where they were met by Joe Montana and a great 49ers D that proved to be a step too far.

How dominant was this season? Consider these numbers. 362 completions (Led NFL), 564 attempts (Led NFL), 5,084 yards (Led NFL), 48 TD’s (Led NFL), 8.5 TD% (Led NFL), 9.0 yards/attempt (Led NFL), 317.8 yards/game (Led NFL), 108.9 QB rating (Led NFL). Not too shabby!

Not to mention 48 touchdowns was 16 ahead of second placed man Dave Krieg. Whilst only Neil Lomax (4,614) and Phil Simms (4,044) breached the 4000 yard barrier behind Marino’s 5000+ effort.

He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Career Passing: 4,967 completions on 8,358 attempts 61,361 yards and 420 touchdowns.

The first 6000 yard season?

As we can see from this short list the passing game has evolved over time. Quantity has increased as the league season has developed. Now we have a 17 game season you could easily imagine someone breaking the single season record of 5,477 yards set by Peyton Manning in 2013.

Which leads to the eternal debates of quantity versus quality. The NFL records book is very quantity focused. Which is a way of highlighting long careers. But it also dismisses past records from different eras when the game was very different. This is why we should, in my opinion, look for the GOTE (greatest of their era) rather than the GOAT (greatest of all time). For instance, Tom Brady is arguably the greatest QB ever – but that’s in the modern game. How would he have done as a QB/DB/Punter who played about every down like a Sammy Baugh for instance?

The CFL, which has an 18 game season, has seen five 6000 yard passing seasons so far. It will be interesting to see if the NFL adds any of its own.

Banner Image: Dan Marino breaching 5000 yards in 1984 was the last great milestone. When will we see the next? Image from miaminewtimes.com

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