By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts all-time passing gas leader

A bit of trivial history unfolds Thursday night when the New England Patriots host the New Orleans Saints in the first full week of preseason football.
It will be the first and probably only time a pair of 5,000-yard quarterbacks take the field together this year. Granted, it’s only an exhibition game and won’t count by any official standard. And, of course, superstar Saints QB Drew Brees and elite Patriots passer Tom Brady are likely to see limited action.
But it’s a first just the same.

And it won't happen again anytime soon. In fact, the next opportunity to see a pair of 5,000-yard passers take the field together will unfold only if the Saints and Lions meet in the NFC playoffs or the Saints and Patriots meet in Super Bowl XLVII. The odds are we're looking at 2013 at the earliest.
The rare meeting of two of the four 5,000-yard passers in NFL history offers a chance to examine history's most prolific passing seasons (note we didn't say greatest passing seasons).

Here’s a quick look at the top 10 seasons in NFL history, based upon total passing yards.

Top 10 Passing Seasons, NFL History (Passing Yards)
  Player Year/Team Passing Yards
1 Drew Brees 2011 Saints 5,476
2 Tom Brady 2011 Patriots 5,235
3 Dan Marino 1984 Dolphins 5,084
4 Drew Brees 2008 Saints 5,069
5 Matthew Stafford 2011 Lions 5,038
6 Eli Manning 2011 Giants 4,933
7 Kurt Warner 2001 Rams 4,830
8 Tom Brady 2007 Patriots 4,806
9 Dan Fouts 1981 Chargers 4,802
10 Matt Schaub 2009 Texans 4,770

Pro football fans know that 2011 was a historic season for total passing yards. Three of history's five 5,000-yard seasons unfolded last year, as did four of the top six passing seasons and, of course, the all-time top two by Brees and Brady. That tandem actually owns four of the eight most prolific passing seasons in history.

But Cold, Hard Football Fact fans also know that total passing yards is a largely fruitless measure of championship success. As we so often note, the last quarterback to lead the NFL in passing yards AND win a championship was Johnny Unitas way back in 1959. That was more than a half century ago, for those of you keeping score at home.
Interestingly, Eli Manning last season became the most prolific passer to also win a championship. His 4,933 yards in 2011 put him at No. 6 on the all time list. Keep in mind that he beat the No. 2 man on the list (Brady) in the Super Bowl to get it done.
After that, the leaderboard provides a long, long list of big seasons filled by gallons of empty passing yards that failed to achieve a championship.
In fact, the First Family of Football owns the two most prolific passing seasons to also end with a championship:  But Peyton Manning’s 4,397 yards in 2006 is merely No. 40 on the list of most productive championship seasons.

Put another way: of the 40 most prolific passing seasons in history, only two ended with a Super Bowl title. That's just 5 percent, for those of you keeping score at home. And only one family got it done.

Like we often say, those big-volume passing seasons are great to look at and certainly excite fans of imaginary fake football. But they rarely lead to championship success.

The road to 5,000

Statistical evolution in the NFL often happens in great big chunks. Once the statistical floodgates are busted upon, the big numbers start pouring through the hole.

The amazing thing about 5,000 passing yards, though, is that it first happened so long ago, when Dan Marino passed for 5,084 yards in 1984. But it took nearly a quarter century for Drew Brees to become the second passer to top the 5,000-yard plateau.

It's pretty amazing that Marino was so far ahead of the statistical curve. Look at it this way: those 24 years between 5,000-yard performances represented a full 27 percent of all of NFL history. That's a long, long time between passing efforts of equal magnitude. It also serves to drive home just how Ruthian Marino's performance was in that watershed 1984 season.

Here's a look at key statistical plateaus in the evolution of the passing game.

1,000 passing yards -- 1936

Green Bay's original prolific passer, Hall of Famer Arnie Herber, became the NFL's first 1,000-yard man with 1,239 passing yards. Playing 12 games, he produced better than 100 yards per game.

2,000 passing yards -- 1942

The Packers were again passing pace setters when Cecil Isbell became the first 2,000-yard man. In fact, his performance in the 11-game war season of 1942 looks downright modern in everything but volume: 146 of 268, 54.5%, 2,021 yards, 7.54 YPA, 24 TD, 14 INT, 87.0 rating.

Pretty impressive.

Keep in mind Herber and Isbell had a not-so-secret weapon at their disposal: both were throwing the ball to Don Hutson, still the most dominant receiver in NFL history and the player named by NFL Films the No. 1 Packer of all time (in an episode in which CHFF participated).

Hutson became the NFL's first 1,000-yard receiver in this 1942 campaign (1,211 yards).

3,000 passing yards -- 1960

The 1960 season was much like the 2011 season: one in which passing barriers were broken with great vengeance and furious anger. Three passers topped 3,000 yards in this landmark campaign: one in the NFL and two in the AFL.

Baltimore's Johnny Unitas topped all pro passers with 3,099 yards. Denver's Frank Tripucka led the shiny-new AFL with 3,038 passing yards, followed by Jack Kemp of the Los Angeles Chargers with 3,018 yards.

Unitas' effort was clealry the most impressive of the three: he led pro football in passing yards despite playing just 12 games. The AFL played 14 games, a number adopted by the NFL in 1961.

Unitas also passed for 25 TDs with jut 24 INTs.

The AFL, meanwhile, was defined by a sloppy, poorly played brand of football that was common throughout the history of the league. This style was evident by the fact that Tripucka threw for 24 TDs and 34 INTs and Kemp 20 TDs and 25 INTs.

AFL quarterbacks had a terrible habit of just heaving the ball up anywhere, and it was often caught by defenders. Interception rates in the AFL were ridiculously high.

4,000 passing yards -- 1967

Joe Namath's trascendent nature was evidenced by his 1967 season, when he passed for 4,007 yards for the AFL's New York Jets. Sonny Jurgensen was No. 2 that year among all pro football passers, with 3,747 yards for the NFL's Washington Redskins. Both played 14 games.

The reckless style of AFL play was evident once again in 1967: Namath topped 4,000 yards, but also threw more picks (28) than touchdowns (26), a signature of his career, in fact (which ended with 173 TD and 220 INT).

Jurgensen led all pro passers with 31 TDs, while throwing just 16 INTs. The nearly 2-to-1 TD-INT ratio was extremely rare for its time, even in the NFL, which boasted more accurate and more highly rated passers than the AFL throughout the 1960s.

5,000 passing yards -- 1984

Dan Marino in 1984 utterly shattered everything that had come before or since, with both his 5,084 yards and his 48 TD passes. It's hard for football fans too young to remember to understand what an eye-popping season it was by the standards of the time.

Granted, the NFL had only recently gone to a 16-game season just a few years earlier (1978). So Marino did have the advantage of playing more games than most of the passers who had come before him.

But that's not the best way to measure his Ruthian impact. Here's the way to best wrap your fragile little eggshell mind around Marino's performance:
  • Pro football produced its first 3,000-yard passers in 1960, 24 long years before Marino produced the first 5,000-yard season.
  • It took 24 long years before Drew Brees became the second 5,000-yard passer (5,069 in 2008).
  • It took 27 long years (29% of NFL history) before somebody finally surpassed Marino's 5,084 yards.
The only two guys to do it take the field together Thursday night.