Peyton Manning was being a realist. On the afternoon in 2013 when he broke Tom Brady’s record for most touchdowns in a season, the then-Denver Broncos quarterback seemed resigned to the likelihood that someone, someday would come along and surpass him.
“I personally think all season records are going down,” Manning told reporters, “especially if they go to 18 games.”
More than seven years later, Manning’s record for touchdowns in a season (55) still stands, but with the league going to 17 games this season, the odds are better than ever that someone will pass the Hall of Fame quarterback.
Manning’s record won’t be the only target. There’s Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 rushing yards, Calvin Johnson’s 1,964 receiving yards, Michael Strahan’s 22½ sacks and a slew of other single-season accomplishments that, with an extra game in the mix, could go down.
For someone like Manning, that’s just the way football goes — “There won’t be an asterisk next to them,” he said. But to others like Washington coach Ron Rivera, there should be a distinct distinction between records set in a 17-game season compared to a 16-game season.
“There should be asterisks, in my opinion,” Rivera said. “I don’t want to diminish what somebody will do in a 17-game season, but I also want to acknowledge that in a 16-game season, this is what happened, in a 14-game season, this is what happened. We had a guy rush for over 2000 yards when there were 14 games. We had a guy rushed for over 2000 yards when there were 16 games. And so that’s different because if it’s a 16-game season, it wasn’t accomplished in 14 games, you know?
“So I find that interesting that if we don’t put asterisks to it, it’s going to be different.”
The NFL’s record book doesn’t make an attempt to distinguish season records set in different eras. Rivera, though, argues that it should.
For instance, O.J. Simpson, who once held the record for most rushing yards in a season, averaged 143.1 yards per game to Dickerson’s 131.6. Simpson’s yardage currently ranks eighth all-time — but the seven who surpassed him came under the 16-game format.
There remain a handful of records that still stand from before the NFL expanded to 16 games in 1978. Defensive back Richard “Night Train” Lane recorded a whopping 14 interceptions in 1952 — back when the league only played 12 games per year and had only a dozen teams. Quarterback George Blanda set the record for most interceptions thrown in a season, leading with 42 in 1962.
But those are the exceptions. The NFL continues to evolve — with teams opening up the passing game, leading to more throws, more completions and more yards. To contrast how the game has changed, consider this: Dan Marino’s then-record of 5,084 passing yards from 1984 now ranks 10th in the NFL. The quarterbacks who posted years that topped Marino’s ‘84 season did so over the last decade.
In fact, 22 of the top 25 passing seasons came between 2010 to 2019.
That puts Manning’s yardage record of 5,477 in jeopardy of likely being topped soon. Just look at someone like Dak Prescott. Before the Cowboys quarterback’s season-ending ankle injury last year in Week 5, Prescott averaged 371.2 yards per game — which would have not only shattered Manning’s record in 16 games, but the pace would have topped 6,000 yards in a 17-game season.
Who knows if Prescott can reach those heights again. But other passers like Patrick Mahomes and Jameis Winston have topped 5,000 yards over the past few years. It’s doable, for sure.
Simply put, the extra game lowers the average that someone needs in order to break a record. In a 17-game season, a running back needs to only average roughly 124 yards per contest to now leap Dickerson.
Even in a pass-happy league, that mark was topped last year by Tennesee’s Derrick Henry, whose 2,027 rushing yards equaled out to 126.7 yards per game.
“The era of the game is different,” Rivera said.