In order to identify dominant NFL seasons, the context of era is necessary.
A quarterback compiling a 6,000-yard season in 2021 would break the single-season passing record, but it still might not end up the most dominant passing season of all time relative to that player’s peers.
We wanted to examine the most impressive seasons since the AFL-NFL merger while accounting for the time period in which those seasons occurred. To do so, we measured league leaders in a variety of statistical categories and compared their performances to league averages in that same season, using data from Elias Sports Bureau.
For running backs, wide receivers and tight ends, we used the stats of the leader on each team at each position as the “average starter.” For example: Walter Payton ran for 1,852 yards in 1977, while the average starter had 823, so Payton was 124.9% better than the average starter that season.
So let’s dive in and start with the quarterbacks and the most dominant passing-yards performances of the past 50 years.
Best Passing Yardage Seasons
• Younger NFL fans might not have heard of Roman Gabriel, but his 1973 season was the most dominant in terms of pass yards above the average NFL starter. Not only was Gabriel the only QB to reach the 3,000-yard mark that season, but his 3,219 yards were 669 more than the second-place QB, Jim Plunkett. The average starter threw for about 1,661 yards in 1973, just over half as many as Gabriel had with the Eagles that season. — Evan Kaplan
• When considering that Dan Marino is one of the rare pre-21st century names you still see on most passing yardage lists, it shouldn’t be surprising to see him occupy two of the top three spots. Prior to Marino turning pro in 1983, there were five 4,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history. Marino himself had six such seasons in his career — and two other seasons in which he came within 30 yards of that threshold (1989 and 1991). — Sterling Xie
Best Passing TD Seasons
• Before Peyton Manning and Tom Brady came along and rewrote the NFL record books, it was Marino blowing everyone away. His 1984 and 1986 campaigns show up as two of the three most dominant seasons on both of our QB lists. He was putting up 40-TD seasons at a time when throwing 30 TDs would have been enough to lead the NFL most years. It’s also interesting to note that while Brady’s 50-TD season in 2007 came during the NFL’s air attack era, the average starting QB was still throwing fewer than 20 TDs. Brady and Manning helped usher in an era when throwing near the goal line became the norm instead of the exception. — Michael Proia
• Brady’s 2007 season really sticks out in relation to the average starting QB that year, especially when comparing it to Manning’s 2004 season. Even though it was three years later, the average starter had fewer TDs in 2007 than in 2004. Brady had also never thrown even 30 TDs in a season prior to his 50-TD performance. From 2001 to ’06, he averaged 24.5 touchdown passes per season, but starting with 2007 he has thrown at least 30 TDs in eight of his 13 full seasons (excluding 2008 when he suffered a torn ACL). — Kaplan
Best Rushing Yardage Seasons
• Derrick Henry’s 2020 season tops the list of most dominant rushing campaigns, which is even more impressive considering it’s the only season in the top five that happened in the past three decades. Henry finished with the fifth-most rushing yards in a single season in NFL history, and he was 470 yards ahead of the next-closest player in 2020 (Dalvin Cook). Henry only got better late in the season, averaging 177.5 yards per game over the final four weeks. In an era when the running back position has seemingly been devalued, Henry has won back-to-back rushing titles, putting up 3,567 yards in the process. — Kaplan
• O.J. Simpson has two of the five most impressive rushing seasons by this measure. It’s safe to say the all-time single-season rushing yards list would look a lot different had there been 16 games played back in Simpson’s days. If you prorate Simpson’s rushing totals over a 16-game season, he would’ve netted 2,289 yards in 1973 (which would be an NFL record) and 2,076 yards in 1975. Not only would those be two of the four highest marks in league history, he’d also be the only player with multiple 2,000-yard rushing seasons. (Jim Brown could also make this claim if you prorated his totals over 16 games in 1958 and 1963.) — Doug Clawson
Best WR Receiving Yardage Seasons
• How does a 1,032-yard receiving season show up as the most dominant in NFL history? Let’s start with the fact that a players’ strike reduced the 1982 season from 16 to nine games. Wes Chandler’s total was more than double the average No. 1 wide receiver’s production that season. What’s even more impressive is Chandler missed a game in 1982, putting up his total in just eight games. His 129.0 receiving yards per game remains the best in a season in NFL history. Chandler went over 100 yds in six of his eight games, highlighted by a 10-catch, 260-yard, two-TD performance against the Bengals on Dec. 20 in what, interestingly, was his first home game of the season. — Proia
• By raw yardage, no wideout has ever been a bigger outlier than Calvin Johnson was in 2012. Megatron was 896 yards above the average No. 1 WR — for reference, Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez averaged about 890 receiving yards per season for his career. Even the higher passing volume of the modern game couldn’t devalue Johnson’s season. His 2012 campaign is the only performance in the top five that happened within the past 35 seasons. — Xie
Best TE Receiving Yardage Seasons
• Tony Gonzalez set the standard for the modern-day tight end, gaining more than 1,200 yards twice in a five-year span and accounting for two of the five most dominant seasons at the position. In 2000, he led all tight ends with 1,203 yards, and Shannon Sharpe was the only other TE with even 800 yards that season. Later in his career, Gonzalez became the first tight end with four 1,000-yard seasons, and has since been joined by Jason Witten, Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. — Kaplan
• Don’t discount the player who was second on the list above, especially because it was such an outlier for his career. Patriots TE Ben Coates put up 1,174 yards in 1994, and the average starting tight end accounted for fewer than 400 yards that season. It was the only 1,000-yard season of Coates’ career, during which he missed just two games in 10 seasons. — Kaplan
ESPN senior researcher Sterling Xie, ESPN research producers Doug Clawson and Evan Kaplan, and ESPN Stats & Information manager Michael Proia contributed to this story.