Comparing NFL Players Across Eras: Quarterback Passing Yards

Quarterbacks are without doubt the most central players in the current NFL era. Every team is either looking for their franchise quarterback, or already has one and considers them nigh on untouchable. This is largely due to the historic increase of passing in today's game. The 2015 season broke the record for most total passing yards in the league, as every season has since 2009. Just how consistent is this rise? Let's take a look.

Clearly, the current passing volume in the NFL today is beyond that of any previous era. This makes comparisons between quarterbacks of previous decades and the present a tricky proposition. Here at The Stats Zone, we previously looked at how we could compare pass-rushers across eras. Let's apply this concept to passing yards and see which quarterback comes out on top. As in the previous article, we'll look at three different time frames for each quarterback: their best three-year streak, their best overall five years, and their career average. We'll begin with the best streaks.

Topping our list is Dan Fouts, the NFL's premier passer in the late 1970's and early 80's. This streak is 1979-1981, a stretch where Fouts broke the NFL single-season passing record in three consecutive years. While his raw yards seem small compared to many of today's gaudy numbers, he played during a time where teams averaged about 20% less passing yards per game then in the present day. A similar concept holds true for Dan Marino, who topped 5,000 yards in 1984 – a record that stood for 27 years until Drew Brees (second on our list) shattered it by almost 400 yards in 2011. Brees is actually the only active quarterback in the top five, after which the next three spots are taken up by current players. This includes a surprise appearance by Matthew Stafford at number six due to his (or Calvin Johnson's) 2011-2013 run. We'll see that Brees' strong performance here isn't an anomaly, as we look at each quarterback's strongest five years.

Brees, Marino, and Fouts all remain in the top four, joined by Peyton Manning as Warren Moon slips down a few places. It's interesting to note how three out of the top five players played in the most recent NFL season. Regardless of inflated passing yards, this goes to show how high the standard quarterback play has been lately. Whilst Manning is retired, it's not totally unreasonable to believe that Brees or Brady will turn in a few more sterling performances and cement their positions on this list. Stafford slips out of the top 10, but just barely. Whilst we can probably give Johnson some credit for this, it's still an impressive showing given that Stafford has only had five healthy seasons (he's played in seven seasons, but missed significant time due to injury in his first two).

Finally, we come to the career averages. We edited out all currently active players, as often a player's decline will adversely affect these numbers. Peyton Manning definitely illustrated this trend last season, but still manages to top the list with an eye-popping adjusted average of 299 yards per game, 30 yards ahead of Marino in second place. Whilst Manning obviously didn't perform to his usual high standard last season, his adjusted average would have been good for fourth among all passers this year (slotting in between Brady and Rivers at 298.1 and 299.5 respectively). That would have been an average performance for Manning, despite having an extremely lengthy career. If we didn't have enough reasons to miss one of the all-time-greats, this certainly gives us another.

To summarize – Dan Fouts unexpectedly claims the best streak by re-writing the record books in a relatively poor passing era; Drew Brees has put together five of the finest years by a quarterback on record (and is still going strong); and Peyton Manning may not have gone out with the best statistical season (despite the Superbowl), but he had the most consistently remarkable career on record, and it isn't even that close.