Era-Adjusted Passing Leaders
Have you ever wondered how Dan Marino would have compared to Tom Brady if Marino had been a player in this era? What about how Steve Young would have compared to Aaron Rodgers? Offensive and defensive systems were so different 20 and 30 years ago that football was basically a different game. It seems to be an annual tradition to see various records fall, but so much of that progress is the result of the changing environment of the game rather than the arrival of definitively superior players.
There is no time machine to help us watch the best players of all time compete with each other in their respective primes, but we can compare those great seasons statistically with an adjustment to compensate for the era they were played in. Previously, I calculated the number of passing and rushing yards of every season since 1970 pro-rated as if there were 32 teams each season. I’ll use those to adjust individual player seasons.
First, I divided the 2013 statistical totals by the totals from 1970-2013 to create passing, rushing, and receiving multipliers. For example, in 1970, there was a pro-rated 12,057 yards passing. The 18,136 actual passing yards in 2013 divided by 12,057 is 1.50. With that, I multiplied each quarterback’s actual passing yards from 1970 by 1.50 to create an adjusted passing yards (aYards) total that is meant to conform their numbers to the 2013 environment.
Here are those multipliers for every passing statistic:
|Passing Multipliers to Conform to 2013|
The 1970s had relatively little passing compared to today’s game, but by the time the 1980s rolled around—and excluding the 1982 strike season that breaks the continuity—passing attempts and yards stabilized for nearly three decades. From there, you can really see the sharp increase that started in 2007 and became consistent from 2010-2013. Meanwhile, interceptions decreased suddenly in 1990 and have remained fairly stable since.
Now, the players:
|Best Era-Adjusted Fantasy Seasons, Quarterbacks, 1970-2013|
The listed fantasy point totals are based on standard scoring with four points for passing touchdowns and minus-two for interceptions.
Brady and Peyton Manning in their 50-touchdown seasons remain on top of the list, but with the era-adjustment, Marino vaults to third with his incredible 1984 season. Even with the adjustment, Marino still stands out from his contemporaries. Only three quarterback seasons in the 1980s and two in the 1970s make the top 25 seasons. The 1990s and 2000s are more evenly split, however, with nine and 11 top 25 seasons, respectively.
With players like Young and Randall Cunningham, rushing is a major component of their fantasy value. I used the same method I did with their passing statistics to adjust their rushing numbers to the 2013 environment. To keep the table readable, I did not show those numbers. However, they are part of the adjusted fantasy point calculations.
It is often portrayed that rushing quarterbacks are new to the game with the likes of Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and others. At least among the elite seasons of the last half century, that is not the case. Really, it makes it more amazing to see five seasons from Brady, Manning, and Drew Bees on the list when so many of those top 25 seasons are from dual threat quarterbacks.
Next up: running backs.
Scott Spratt was named Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He also writes for RotoGraphs and contributes to ESPN Insider as a research analyst for Baseball Info Solutions. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @PFF_ScottSpratt
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