Tom Brady is having one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. So why will no one remember it?
Perhaps that's an exaggeration. More accurately, few will think of Brady when looking back on 2011.
Quite simply, the New England Patriots' quarterback picked a bad season to be historically good.
Brady is 213 passing yards shy of his single-season Patriots record set in 2007. If form holds, what happens in Week 17 will just be icing on the cake. Brady also will likely hit 5,000 yards in the final week, a milestone previously reached only twice in NFL history. Dan Marino set the record with 5,084 in 1984. Drew Brees provided the only legitimate challenge with 5,069 yards in 2008.
Brady is on track to break Marino's record with room to spare. At his current rate, Brady would finish with 5,249 yards. He has thrown 35 touchdown passes already this season; Brady and Brett Favre are the only two quarterbacks with three 35-touchdown seasons. Brady is on pace for 40, a mark reached only five times prior to 2011.
Historically, 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns would be considered one of the five best quarterbacking seasons ever. That is, until this season.
Brady's historic season isn't the best by a quarterback in 2011. It's probably not even second.
While he will likely pass Marino, the record likely will belong to someone else. New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees needs just 304 yards to tie Marino. He has a big enough cushion to hold of Brady. With a 71.5 completion percentage, Brees is on track to break his own record in that category, as well.
But even Brees may ultimately lose out on the MVP to Aaron Rodgers. In addition to leading the Green Bay Packers to a 13-1 start, Rodgers' 120.1 NFL passer rating is just off Peyton Manning's record (121.1) from 2004. While Brady is on pace for 40 touchdowns, Rodgers is already there and on track for 45.
In nearly every area in which Brady has excelled, Brees and Rodgers have been better. Despite Brady's historic pace, he doesn't lead the NFL in any major category.
Perhaps most ironically, even with 15 touchdowns and one interception in the past six weeks, Brady isn't even having the most memorable season on his own team.
Brady's greatness in 2007 and 2010 makes it easy to look beyond his current excellence and focus on other accomplishments.
If you are a Patriots fan, 2011 will go down as the Year of Gronk. Rob Gronkowski is having the most prolific season for a tight end in league history. With 15 touchdowns, he's already set a new record at the position. In the final two games, Gronkowski needs 149 yards to tie Kellen Winslow's TE record of 1,290 receiving yards in 1980.
Precedent for Clustered Greatness
This won't be the first time that a truly great season has been overshadowed by multiple more memorable seasons.
Some of the best previous instances come from other sports.
In 1968, Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA, the lowest in baseball's live ball era. Over in the AL, Denny McLain won 31 games, the most by a pitcher in the previous 75 years. So it's easy to understand why no one mentions Luis Tiant's year, even though he went 21-9 with a 1.60 ERA.
The 1961-62 NBA season is best remembered for Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game and his gaudy season averages: 50.4 points per game and 25.7 rebounds per game. Yet Bill Russell was named MVP. Meanwhile, Oscar Robertson finished third in the voting. All he did that season was average a triple-double.
In the NHL, the best precedent might be 1988-89, when Steve Yzerman finished with 155 points, the most ever for a player not named Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. Of course, Gretzky still won the Hart Trophy that season and Lemieux set a career high with 199 points.
Tiant, Robertson and Yzerman would have been showered with honors in just about any other season. Instead, their epic production was overshadowed by an even higher level of dominance.
That same fate may await Brady.
Year of the Quarterback
Dan Marino's 1984 season warranted its own section in the NFL record book. His 5,084 passing yards broke Dan Fouts' record by more than 300 yards. The old touchdown record was 36. Marino threw 48. Those were just the big numbers. Marino set countless more obscure marks with his prolific passing. Oh, and he was only 23.
It was the football equivalent of Babe Ruth destroying his own home run record by 25. If Ruth brought on the live ball era in baseball, Marino jump-started the live arm era in the NFL.
Now, Brady holds the touchdown record, and Brees will soon claim Marino's passing-yardage mark.
The 2011 crop of quarterbacks is attacking the record books the same way Marino did all by himself 27 years ago.
Consider that four quarterbacks -- including Eli Manning -- have more yards through 14 games than Marino had in 1984. In fact, we've seen four of the six most-prolific first 14 games to a season. Brees has 440 more yards than Marino had at this point.
There's little doubt that the number of quarterbacks on a historic pace diminishes the significance.
Consider that when Marino set the record, he had almost 400 more yards than the next player, Neil Lomax (4,614). The third-place finisher trailed Marino by 1,000-plus yards. Meanwhile, Marino's 48 touchdowns were 16 more than Dave Krieg, who finished second in that category.
When Marino set these records in '84, each NFL game featured an average of 456.4 passing yards for both teams, at that time an NFL record. By 2010, that record was up to 472.4, a rate of yardage inflation of less than 1 yard per season. The 2011 pace of 488.8 is 16.4 yards ahead of the record. 2011 is also on track to be the highest-scoring season since the merger.
Brady, Brees and Rodgers headline the historic quarterback numbers. From 1984 Marino to 2004 Manning to 2007 Brady, there have been better individual seasons in NFL history. But never before have three quarterbacks performed at such a high level in the same season.
The closest precedent might be 2004. That's when Peyton Manning set records for passer rating (121.1) and touchdowns (49), while Daunte Culpepper went for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Drew Brees had a breakout season for the Chargers and Donovan McNabb had a career year in Philadelphia (104.7 rating).
This season, only 14 of 32 opening-week quarterbacks have started every game. Yet it's not just the big three putting up crazy numbers. Of those 14, seven are on track to set a franchise record in yards. That doesn't even include Cam Newton, who is expected to set the rookie passing record on Saturday.
The year of the quarterback has been so widespread that it will take a Super Bowl win for Brady's season to stand above the rest.
Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.