How do you choose the best fantasy seasons of all time?
It's easy to say that Tom Brady was better than Tony Romo in 2007. There's simply no disputing that 50 touchdown passes are better than 36. But how do 50 touchdown passes compare to 73 home runs? How do 4.2 blocks per game compare to a 1.87 goals-against average? There's no easy way to compare Randy Moss to Alex Rodriguez. They're about as similar as Kate Moss and Michelle Rodriguez (even less so, when you think about it).
So what did we do? We gathered some of the best minds in the business and gave them the following criteria: First, we limited the scope of the assignment to the fantasy era; essentially 1980 through today. Second, we determined that only the best season of each individual player could be considered partly to make certain that Pete Becker wouldn't argue all 10 spots for different Wayne Gretzky seasons. Finally, we decided that players would be rated based on best pure fantasy numbers, with some consideration given to production relative to their peers.
After considerable debate and something far short of a consensus, we came to the following list of the top 10 fantasy seasons of all time. One could argue that our system is more BCS than tournament, but it's the one we've got.
1. Wayne Gretzky, 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers
The biggest challenge in putting Gretzky at the top of this list wasn't justifying it. Few athletes have ever dominated their sport as thoroughly as the Great One. In hockey pools across Canada in the '80s, the "Gretzky Rule" stated that No. 99's goals and assists were to be drafted separately, in the interest of competition. No, the hardest part was finding the right fantasy season to represent him. His 92-goal campaign? His 215-point performance? Both record-setting seasons, but nope. In 1984-85, Wayne Gretzky scored 73 goals, added 135 assists for 208 points, was a career-best plus-98 and chipped in 52 penalty minutes. It may not be a season for the NHL record book, but it stands above all others in fantasy.
2. LaDainian Tomlinson, 2006 San Diego Chargers
The past 10 years have seen some extraordinary seasons from running backs, with Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes and Shaun Alexander setting a variety of records for yards and touchdowns. Still, Tomlinson's 2006 campaign was a clear cut above the rest. In rushing for 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns, LT essentially matched Alexander's numbers from a year earlier. The key difference was that Tomlinson added 508 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver. His 2,323 total yards are within sniffing distance of Faulk's best campaign. He scored three or more touchdowns in a game six times and tallied at least 100 yards of total offense in 15 of 16 games.
3. Pedro Martinez, 1999 Boston Red Sox
Matthew Berry spent a lot of time this spring arguing that a pitcher, Johan Santana, should be the top pick in fantasy leagues, and a lot of people looked at him like he had two heads. Well, after the '99 season, Martinez was the consensus top player in fantasy baseball, and there really wasn't a close second. In his second year with the Red Sox, Martinez was 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 313 strikeouts. Those numbers narrowly edged his third season in Boston, when he was 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and 284 K's. Martinez was so dominant that drafting him practically assured a top-three finish in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, and many staffs were built around a "Pedro and the eight dwarfs" strategy.
4. Jerry Rice, 1987 San Francisco 49ers
You think Randy Moss had a great season? Well, he did, of course. Moss scored 23 touchdowns to break Rice's single-season record. But the great equalizer is this: Rice's 22 touchdowns in 1987 came in only 12 games in a strike-shortened season. So Rice essentially played at a pace that would have seen him score 29 touchdowns in a full season. Beyond that, Moss scored "only" seven more touchdowns than second-place receiver Braylon Edwards; Rice doubled the 11 touchdowns scored by Philadelphia wide receiver Mike Quick, and he also doubled the 11 touchdowns scored, respectively, by the two most prolific scorers at running back, Charles White and Johnny Hector.
5. Larry Walker, 1997 Colorado Rockies
The greatest offensive fantasy season came at the height of the juiced ball (or is that juiced, period?) era, but even in a season full of gaudy numbers, one Canadian ruled them all. Walker hit .366 with 49 home runs, 130 RBIs, 143 runs and 33 stolen bases, a five-category tour de force which puts to shame any Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, or, well, you name him, he shamed him. While it is true that Coors Field had a part to play in this accomplishment, the stadium didn't help Walker hit .346 on the road where, by the way, he also launched 29 of his home runs in 266 at-bats. If he'd been on the road all season, it could well have been his record, not Roger Maris', that Mark McGwire would break one year later.
6. Michael Jordan, 1988-89 Chicago Bulls
It's fun to look back at the silly numbers MJ put up back in the day, but the 1988-89 campaign easily takes the cake. While his 32.5 points per game was only his fifth-best single-season performance, it is the 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists that stand out. Jordan never grabbed as many as seven rebounds per game in any other season in his career, nor did he average more than 6.3 assists in any other season. Throw in his superb shooting numbers (53.8 percent on field goals, 85.0 on free throws) and nearly three steals per game and you have yourself one of the greatest seasons in the fantasy era, regardless of sport.
7. Dwight Gooden, 1985 New York Mets
Before Pedro Martinez, before Randy Johnson, there was Dwight Gooden. In 1985, his sophomore season, Gooden put together a performance that wouldn't look out of place on either of their resumes: A 24-win season with 268 strikeouts, a 1.53 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP is already fairly impressive, but when you consider those ratios weighed in at 276 2/3 innings, they're all the more impressive. Gooden's ERA bested NL runner-up John Tudor's by 0.40, and AL leader Dave Stieb's by 0.95. The strikeout numbers, while short of a Pedro or Big Unit career best, were nonetheless dominating. Gooden struck out 54 batters more than any NL pitcher and 62 more than the AL-leading Bert Blyleven.
8. Tom Brady, 2007 New England Patriots
Yes, we have indeed witnessed the best fantasy quarterbacking season of all time, but it wasn't the runaway you might think. Dan Marino's 1984 campaign was an even more impressive display of passing prowess, a 5,084-yard, 48-touchdown statistical monster that Brady's 4,806 passing yards and 50 touchdowns fall just short of. However, while Marino lost 7 yards on the ground and never scored with his legs, Tom Terrific rushed for 98 yards and twice hit paydirt. So for the record, Marino has now lost the career touchdown and passing records to Brett Favre, the greatest quarterbacking season to Brady, and all in the same season as the 1972 Dolphins might become bridesmaids to the 2007 Patriots. Some year.
9. Dominik Hasek, 1998-99 Buffalo Sabres
Although Hasek failed to win his third consecutive Hart trophy, and a controversial Brett Hull goal denied him the Stanley Cup, the 1998-99 season was Hasek's best personal effort. If you owned Hasek in that season, you owned your league's goaltending categories. Period. He posted a career-best 1.87 goals-against average and an unheard-of .937 save percentage. His 30 wins and 14 ties -- this was before the advent of the shootout and the "overtime loss" -- were as hard-earned as they were spectacular, and in December of that season, Hasek set the NHL record for shutouts in a month, with six. There may never be another season like it.
10. Hakeem Olajuwon, 1992-93 Houston Rockets
It was hard deciding which season was Hakeem's best, between 1989-90 and 1992-93, but ultimately the latter won out due to better shooting percentages. The Dream averaged 26.1 points and 3.5 assists, which were then career highs, added 13.0 rebounds and shot 53 percent from the field and 78 percent from the stripe. While these numbers are outstanding, they alone wouldn't make Olajuwon's season worthy of top-10 consideration. So how do 4.2 blocks and 1.8 steals per game from a center grab you? Works for us. After all, he had 55 more blocks than any other player that season and was one of two non-guards in the top 12 in steals (Scottie Pippen was the other).
So tell us, fantasy fans, who did we miss? Does Ellis Burks deserve to be on this list more than Dwight Gooden? Was Magic's best season better than Hakeem's? Would you rather have had Gretzky's 215-point season? Should the fact that Mike Piazza is a catcher have made his 1997 season better than Walker's? We could easily have made a top 10 list of our most difficult decisions, but where would the fun be in that? Hit us up in ESPN's Conversation (Beta!) and have your say on who you think had the greatest fantasy season of all time.