Had Peyton Manning not sat out the last game of the 2004 season — except for the first three snaps, that is — he might have done something last year that hadn’t been done in two decades: break his own NFL season record.
Manning, you may recall, had 49 touchdown passes going into the ’04 finale at Denver. He’d topped Dan Marino’s mark of 48 the week before, so there was no compelling reason for him to run up the score, so to speak — especially since the Colts had already clinched their division and had no shot at a first-round bye. So after the first series against the Broncos, coach Tony Dungy played it safe and replaced him with Jim Sorgi.
Three years later, the Patriots’ Tom Brady threw for 50 TDs to edge past Manning. And last season Manning threw for 55 to take the record back. But had Peyton gone the distance in the ’04 closer, he might well have thrown for several scores. Indeed, the following week in the playoffs, in a rematch with Denver, he threw for four in a 49-24 blowout. Could Brady have gotten to 52 or 53 – or more? I wouldn’t count on it.
Ah, what might have been. The last time a player broke his own NFL season record, according to my research, was in 1993, when the Packers’ Sterling Sharpe caught 112 passes, surpassing his own mark of 108 set in ’92. (The next year, the Vikings’ Cris Carter topped Sharpe by hauling in 122. So it goes in the receiving game.)
I’m not talking about any old records, by the way. I’m talking about records that fans care about (at least a little). We seem to be at the point in pro football history where this sort of thing – self-erasure – is getting incredibly hard to do.
It wasn’t always thus. In the ’30s and ’40s, another Packers receiver – the iconic Don Hutson – upped his own record nine times in various categories (receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, points scored). Of course, the passing game was still in its infancy then, and Green Bay was one of the few teams that made effective use of it.
Nowadays, though, one record-breaking season appears to be all a player has in him. Take the Saints’ Drew Brees, for instance. Three years ago he threw for 5,476 yards to blow by Marino’s longstanding mark of 5,084. In 2012, however, despite a fabulous effort with a 7-9 team, he fell 299 yards short of his record. Now that he’s 35, he might never get that close again.
Maybe this is another way we can measure greatness: Was a guy good enough to break his own season mark? The list of players who’ve done it since — World War II — is fairly short:
● RB Steve Van Buren*, Eagles (rushing yards) — 1,008 in 1946 (old mark: 1,004), 1,146 in ’49.
● E Tom Fears*, Rams (receptions) — 77 in 1949 (old mark: 74), 84 in ’50.
● K Lou Groza*, Browns (field goals) — 13 in 1950 (old mark: 12 by drop-kicker Paddy Driscoll of the Bears in ’26), 19 in ’52, 23 in ’53. (Yes, he broke his own record twice.)
● RB Jim Brown*, Browns (rushing yards) — 1,527 in 1958 (old mark: 1,146), 1,863 in ’63.
● QB Y.A. Tittle*, Giants (touchdown passes) — 33 in ’62 (old mark: 32), 36 in ’63.
Note: George Blanda tossed 36 TD passes for the Houston Oilers in 1961. But I’m excluding the pre-merger (1960-66) AFL from this discussion, even though the NFL includes the league’s statistics in its record book. It just wasn’t as good a league in the early years (much as I enjoyed it).
● QB Dan Fouts*, Chargers (passing yards) — 4,082 in 1979 (old mark: 4,007), 4,715 in ’80, 4,802 in ’81.
Note: The record Fouts broke in ’79 was set by the Jets’ Joe Namath in a 14-game season. So he didn’t really break it, not if you go by per-game average (255.1 for Dan vs. 286.2 for Broadway Joe). But his ’80 (294.7) and ’81 (300.1) averages were better than Namath’s.
● WR Sterling Sharpe, Packers (receptions) — 108 in 1992 (old mark: 106), 112 in ’93.
* Hall of Fame
As you can see, the only one of the Select Seven who isn’t in the Hall is Sharpe, whose career was cut short by injury. He may yet make it as a Veterans Candidate, though. After all, he did put up some impressive numbers in just seven seasons (595 catches, 8,134 yards, 65 TDs, 5 Pro Bowls).
Anyway, it’s something for the Lions’ Calvin Johnson to think about as he attempts to climb Mount 2,000.
Sources: The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia, pro-football-reference.com