As 2011 comes to a close, so too does the “Year of the Quarterback,” ESPN's year-long investigation into the position and all its intricacies. Unlike other manufactured, hype-driven initiatives, this one actually turned out to be quite prescient; it’s been a record-setting year for NFL quarterbacks, who have been heaving the pigskin at an unprecedented rate. Most notably, not one, but two quarterbacks — Tom Brady and Drew Brees — are challenging one of football’s longest-standing records: Dan Marino’s single-season passing mark of 5,084 yards, set in 1984.
Whether it’s Brees (4,780 yards, with two games remaining), Brady (4,897 yards), or both, the record will almost surely fall sometime in Week 17. The two have indeed been outstanding this season, but their assault on the record books is somewhat overshadowed by the excellence of their peers. Six quarterbacks — Brees, Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers — have already broken, or are poised to break, the 4,500 yard threshold, a feat accomplished just 22 times in history, and no more than three times in the same year.
So unless this year’s passing explosion was an anomaly (and I doubt it was), Marino’s mark will soon be no more than a curiosity of history. But as with baseball, it’s impossible to truly understand the significance of such a record without examining the context in which it took place. When Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927, only one other player in baseball hit more than 30. When Roger Maris broke that record in 1961, 12 others joined him with 30 or more homers. In some cases, relative performance can tell us some things that absolute numbers cannot.
Likewise, what distinguishes Marino’s record is the era in which it was set.
Marino did not have the benefit of a rulebook that considered coughing on an open receiver a flag-worthy offense. In 1984, defensive backs could still maul and chuck receivers, particularly near the line of scrimmage. On a related note, Marino was one of only three players to throw for 4,500 yards in a season over the span of his career (Drew Bledsoe and Warren Moon were the other two). If he managed 5,000 yards in 1984, what might he accomplish in 2011?
To adjust for the difference in offensive environments, I’ll rate how the performances of these three quarterbacks — Brees, Brady, and Marino — compare to the league average during their respective (potentially) record-setting seasons. In other words, the question no longer concerns exactly how many yards they amassed, but how much better each quarterback performed than his peers. To better account for injuries, platoons, or other circumstances that caused quarterbacks to play less than a full season, I’ll use team passing yards to calculate the average in each year.
With this approach, Marino’s ’84 season looks even more prolific. His 5,084 passing yards were 2.42 standard deviations (a measure of the extent to which points in a data set differ from the mean) greater than the league average total. Relative to their peers, Brees’ (projected through Week 16) and Brady’s numbers do not look quite as spectacular; their passing yards are, respectively, 2.36 and 2.04 standard deviations above the ’11 league average.
Jargon aside, what this means is that, for his time, Dan Marino in 1984 put up more impressive numbers than those soon to pass him in 2011. Had a quarterback this season exceeded his peers to the degree that Marino did in ‘84 (2.42 standard deviations above the mean), he would have thrown for just over 5,150 yards — with one game still left to play.
This is not a perfect way to compare eras, as it assumes that the average talent level of NFL quarterbacks has remained generally static over the last 25 years, but it highlights the fact that Marino’s record deserves some recognition before it fades into the obscurity of second (or, more likely, third) place. Simply transporting Marino 25 seasons into the future wouldn’t automatically make him a better player, of course, but it’s safe to assume that, in the modern-day NFL, Marino’s ’84 season would look a lot more untouchable.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.