Each new season comes with the promise of new and exciting statistical achievements. A single-season record chase is always something fans enjoy tracking. Despite often downplaying personal success, players no doubt want to make an imprint on NFL history by breaking a record if given the chance.
Peyton Manning half-jokingly expressed this sentiment in his recorded congratulations to Drew Brees when he stated, “Drew, for 1,000 days I’ve held the record for all-time passing yards in the NFL. I’ve gotta tell ya, it’s been the greatest 1,000 days of my life.”
With the regular season increasing to 17 games last year, single-season records that seemed out of reach are more likely to be broken now with a 6% increase in opportunities. The last time the NFL added games was in 1978, when it went from 14 to 16 games. One year later, Dan Fouts passed for 4,082 yards and broke the single-season passing yards record of 4,007 previously set by Joe Namath. In the first year of the new 17-game schedule, T.J. Watt tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5.
In this article, we explore some common single-season records, how long they have stood and how often they were challenged. We examine which records are most likely and least likely to be broken, starting with the least likely first and ending with the most likely.
These Records Are Safe…
Player: Dick “Night Train” Lane
Dick “Night Train” Lane intercepted six passes in the final two games of the 1952 season to set a new interception record that has stood for 70 years. His record being set in the 12-game era makes it even more astounding. Although teams from that era threw less, passing wasn’t nearly as efficient, with completion percentages hovering around 50% and interception rates three times the present rate.
Last year, Trevon Diggs captured our imagination with his hot start, leading to a record pace that lasted through mid-season. Predictably, he couldn’t keep that pace and ended up with 11 picks, tied for the most since 1981 (Everson Walls), but still four shy of breaking the record.
The difficult part about breaking the interception record is any player on a record pace tends to see fewer balls thrown his way as quarterbacks shy away from him. This creates a greater chance for a player’s record pace to drop off in the second half of the season. The most recent player to come within one of tying the record was Lester Hayes in 1980. It’s been 42 years, and not a single player has had more than 11 picks.
Interceptions aren’t a sticky stat from year-to-year, so Diggs’ 11 interceptions could be his career high. Diggs (11 interceptions in 2021), J.C. Jackson (9 in 2020, 8 in 2021) and Xavien Howard (led the league in 2020 and 2018) are likely to lead the NFL in interceptions, but will probably fall short of the record.
While it’s true teams pass more today, the rules have made it harder for defensive backs to defend, and offenses have become more efficient in the passing game. In 1962, Geroge Blanda threw 42 interceptions and went to the Pro Bowl. Last year’s interception leader threw 17. Interceptions just don’t happen enough for this record to be at risk.
Player: LaDainian Tomlinson
Since LaDainian Tomlinson set the current single-season record of 28 rushing touchdowns fifteen years ago, no one has come within ten touchdowns of breaking the record. Four players have scored 18 rushing touchdowns since 2006. One was Jonathan Taylor, last year. The other three — LeGarrette Blount, Adrian Peterson and DeAngelo Williams — had their career best of 18, which isn’t close to the record. Tomlinson’s record is so far out of reach, even his personal second-best was ten TDs short of his 28 in 2006.
Teams are averaging 15.8 rushing touchdowns per season, which puts 2021 as the seventh-highest season in rushing touchdowns per team. Much of that increase is due to having extra games during the 16-, 14-, and 12-game eras. But the 17th game won’t be much help here. Every record has a non-zero chance of being broken, so we need to delve into the players with the best chance to reach 28 rushing touchdowns.
We don’t know what an outlier season looks like for Jonathan Taylor because he is only going into his third year. His 18 rushing touchdowns last season may end up a career-high, or perhaps his ability will allow for heavy touchdown volume on a regular basis.
Taylor has a good mix of goal line touchdowns (12 from inside the five-yard line) and longer touchdown runs (six from 10+ yards). Derrick Henry led the league in rushing touchdowns in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, Henry was on a red-hot pace with ten touchdowns through eight games before getting injured and missing the rest of the season. James Conner has the potential to score a lot of touchdowns on the ground. He is a 230+ pound battering ram and was second in the NFL in goal line carries last season, scoring eight touchdowns from the one-yard line and 15 rushing touchdowns overall.
Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara are both turning 27 this year, and both have more than 1,200 touches in their careers. They’ve been steady and reliable forces for their teams, but they may be approaching the end of their primes. Perhaps Ezekiel Elliott or Christian McCaffrey have bounce-back years. All these players could have a career year, and the record may still be out of reach. Taylor and Henry are the front-runners to challenge the nearly insurmountable 28 rushing touchdowns.
So, You’re Saying There’s a Chance…
Player: Randy Moss
A year after LaDainian Tomlinson broke the rushing touchdown record with 28, Randy Moss set the bar for receiving touchdowns with 23. That record hasn’t been closely challenged during the past 14 seasons.
Since the record was set in 2007, the closest anyone came to tying or breaking the record was Davante Adams with 18 touchdowns in 2020. Rob Gronkowski scored 17 in 2011. Last year, the leader in receiving touchdowns was Cooper Kupp with 16.
Mike Evans has shown enough scoring consistency throughout the years that projecting double-digit touchdowns out of him is a safe bet. However, that consistency suggests his peak is probably no higher than 14 or 15. Evans is a dark horse to have a chance at the record, but in 2021 he was only third on his own team in red zone targets.
Tyreek Hill and Jamar Chase have both shown a propensity to score a lot of touchdowns. Chase’s 13 touchdowns in only his first season may continue to climb as he improves. Hill has scored 12 touchdowns twice in his career; however, 38% of his touchdowns have been from 40 yards or longer (the league average is 12%).
With more than one-third of his touchdowns coming from 40+ yards, year-to-year consistency is going to be less than a player who racks up touchdowns from red zone receptions. Each of these two receivers can make Randy Moss a little nervous about his record, but ultimately there won’t be enough touchdowns to go around as these two will share the scoring attempts.
If anyone can reach the high bar of 23 receiving touchdowns, Cooper Kupp and Davante Adams are the most likely to do so. In five of Adams’ eight seasons he’s had double-digit touchdowns, and he is already tied for the sixth-most seasons with 10+ touchdowns. His 18 touchdowns in 2020 are an indicator he is capable of approaching the record.
Cooper Kupp has not shown consistency in this category, with ten, three and sixteen touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. Both are strong receivers, who are great red zone options. Kupp led the NFL with 37 red zone targets last year, and Adams was third with 27. The touchdown reception record, while extremely difficult to break, seems like an easier reach than the rushing touchdown record.
Player: Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning obliterated the previous passing touchdown record of 50 by tossing 55 touchdowns in his 2013 MVP season. To provide some perspective, this record was previously broken in increments of one when Manning threw for 49 in 2004, breaking Dan Marino’s record of 48. Then, Brady threw for 50 in 2007, breaking Manning’s record.
Since 2013, when Manning set the current record, only two players have come within 15% of it. Those were Patrick Mahomes throwing 50 touchdowns in 2018 and Aaron Rodgers throwing 48 in 2020. Even with the extra game last season, the closest anyone came to Manning’s 55 touchdowns was Tom Brady with a league-leading 43. The 55 touchdowns were anomalous even for Manning, who broke 40 touchdowns only twice in his 17-year career.
It’s unlikely we see a player throw for 55 touchdowns in 2022, but like all statistics with a boost from the 17th game, it’s possible. Last season had the fourth most passing touchdowns in history. Passing volume is high, as is QB talent, but it will take an outlier season where all the stars align for the record to be broken.
Many of the same players with the potential to break the single-season passing yards record are candidates to break the passing touchdown record. Rodgers is capable but usually lacks the volume of pass attempts; he also lacks arguably the top wide receiver in the game, Davante Adams, who left for Las Vegas.
Tom Brady previously held the record with 50 touchdowns, and he should never be counted out until his age catches up with him. Mahomes came within five of the record in 2018, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be near the top of the league for quite a while.
Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert haven’t come close yet, but they are ascending fast, and their best seasons have yet to come. In Matthew Stafford’s first season outside of Detroit, he tied his career high with 41 touchdowns; he should be among the league leaders. Although, any slim chance he had of reaching 55 probably went away when Odell Beckham Jr. got injured. Beckham Jr. won’t be back until mid-season, and that’s only if the free agent re-signs with the Rams. This record is extremely hard to reach, but there are enough quarterbacks in the league with the talent to challenge it if everything breaks right.
It’s Just a Matter of Time…
Player: Peyton Manning
The NFL is in the midst of a passing boom, and it has been trending this way for a while. 2021 took a slight downward turn with 228 passing yards per game, but it was still the 10th-highest per game total in history. More importantly, in the context of breaking records, last year saw the second-most total passing yards as a result of the 10th-best per-game average combined with the extra 17th game on the schedule.
Manning set the record in 2013 in the final game of the season at Oakland on a first-half touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. He surpassed Drew Brees by one yard, giving him a season total of 5,477. Once he had the record, he took the second half off to stay healthy for the playoffs.
The closest anyone has come to breaking the record since Manning set it in 2013 was Brady with a career-high 5,316 yards last season. In 2022, Brady will be the first quarterback to start an NFL game at age 45. Typically, you wouldn’t give a 45-year-old player a reasonable chance of breaking a major single-season record, but until he stops defying logic, the expectations will remain high.
Since the record was set in 2013, players have come within 10% of the record nine separate times. Four of those seasons came from Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, who are now retired. Jameis Winston threw for 5,109 yards in 2019, but that was a package deal that came with 30 interceptions. Mahomes and Herbert also came within striking distance of the record with seasons of more than 5,000 yards (Mahomes in 2018, Herbert in 2021).
Mahomes is undoubtedly in the group of quarterbacks who can break the record, although his chances took a hit when Hill was traded to Miami. Herbert may be the quarterback with the best shot. He’s only the third player in history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in one of his first two seasons.
Assuming he stays healthy, his game should only improve this season. Like Herbert, Joe Burrow is another young star going into his third season. Burrow didn’t have the passing volume Herbert did last year, but he’s on the cusp of becoming a household name in the NFL.
Derek Carr may see a career-high in passing yards, improving on his 4,804 from last season, with the addition of All-Pro WR Davante Adams. Stafford, who has thrown more than 5,000 yards before, and Josh Allen entering his prime both deserve consideration. With the abundance of young passing talent in the NFL today, Peyton Manning may want that second half against the Raiders back.
Player: Eric Dickerson
A record that has stood for thirty-eight years is not easy to break. The evolution of passing has caused teams to shift their strategies away from running. In 1984, when Eric Dickerson ran for 2,105 yards, breaking O.J. Simpson’s record, teams were averaging 30.8 attempts per game. Today that number is 26.6; during the course of a 17-game season, this is 71 fewer attempts per team on average. We also see more teams opt for multiple backs over having one bell cow back getting all the carries. In 1984, there were 12 running backs with 250+ carries; last season had four.
Despite the league’s transformation into a pass-heavy league, five players have come within 99 yards of the record since 1984. Adrian Peterson ended the 2012 season just eight yards shy of the record as the clock ticked down in the final regular season game. Barry Sanders (1997), Terrell Davis (1998), Jamal Lewis (2003), Chris Johnson (2009) and most recently Derrick Henry (2020) all ran for more than 2,000 yards and needed…just one more game. Starting last year, we have that one more game.
As tempting as it may be to believe Henry is a potential candidate to break the record, there’s a reason no running back has ever had two seasons with 2,000+ rushing yards. The number of carries and hits a player takes to amass that many yards take their toll.
Henry followed up his 2,000-yard season by playing only eight games before breaking his foot. He will be 28 years old this season; still quite capable of playing at a high level, but his peak may be behind him. If any player has the talent to approach the record, it’s Nick Chubb. Chubb is extremely efficient, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 3.0 yards after contact (second-highest in the NFL).
What’s likely going to prevent Chubb from approaching the record is he shares carries with Kareem Hunt, who gets double-digit touches per game. The Steelers will have no problem giving their second-year back Najee Harris plenty of carries, but he is running behind an offensive line where only one projected starter has a run block rank higher than 29th, according to Pro Football Focus.
Taylor’s 1,811 rushing yards last year were the most in a single season for a player age 22 or younger. Taylor is the reigning rushing yards leader, he’s young, healthy, and runs behind All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson. If the record does go down, Taylor is the most likely player to break it.
Michael Thomas and Calvin Johnson, Don’t Get Too Comfortable…
Player: Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas’ reception record (149) was set just three years ago. A few players in recent history haven’t been too far from this number, with Julio Jones and Antonio Brown both catching 136 balls in 2015. Cooper Kupp came ever so close to breaking the record with 145 receptions last year.
With league-wide completion percentages at all-time highs (65% in 2020-21), and league-wide passing attempts increasing for the fourth straight year to an all-time high of 585 per team, there are enough completions out there for the record to be broken.
Stefon Diggs is just two years removed from the seventh-most catches in history with 127 receptions in a 16-game season. That is a slightly better per-game rate, and the extra game could put him within reach of the record. You can’t talk about breaking Thomas’ record without mentioning Thomas himself, who will be back this season. However, he no longer has Brees and missed a year and a half with an injury, muting expectations.
DeAndre Hopkins, who has the fifth most receptions in history through a player’s first nine seasons, saw any chance he had fritter away when he was handed a six-game suspension for testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance.
Our top three candidates to break the record are Kupp, Jaylen Waddle and Adams. By virtue of nearly breaking the record last season with the second most receptions in history, Kupp is the favorite to approach the record again.
Odell Beckham Jr. being out for a while, or possibly gone for good if he signs with another team, may factor into Kupp’s production. Kupp might see more balls thrown his way, or defenses could throw more bodies at him. Last year, Kupp averaged 8.9 receptions per game with Beckham, and 8.2 without him. Pro-rated over 17 games equals the difference between 151 receptions and 139 receptions.
As a rookie last season, Waddle caught 104 passes, setting a new rookie record. This year, with Hill drawing most of the attention from opposing defenses, Waddle could see his reception numbers skyrocket.
Adams’ 123 receptions last season were the ninth-most in NFL history. With his move to Las Vegas, he no longer has Rodgers throwing to him, but the Raiders’ offense that finished with the seventh-most passing attempts in 2021 will generate a lot of opportunities for reception volume.
This receptions record was set only three years ago, and it was nearly broken last season. This record could be at risk every year for the near future.
Player: Calvin Johnson
Of all the records listed here, this is one of the most likely to be broken. When Jerry Rice set the record in 1995, it stood for 17 years. Calvin Johnson finally broke the record with 1,964 yards in 2012. Since Johnson set the record, two other players passed Rice’s former record, pushing it down to fourth place. Nine of the top-20 seasons for receiving yards have come in the last 10 years. Signs are pointing to a new record being set, and the 2,000-yard barrier being broken in the near future.
Before his injury, Thomas was on a path toward challenging the record. He had 1,137 yards in his rookie season and increased each year, ending with 1,725 in his fourth year. In his fifth season, he got injured, and we haven’t seen him since. His historical statistics are strong, but there are too many unknowns after being away from the game for so long to project a lot of receiving yards this year.
Heavy consideration must be given to the young guys—Justin Jefferson and Chase. In Jefferson’s first two years, hes averaged 1,500 receiving yards per season; a better year one and two than anyone in NFL history. Chase’s 1,455 yards last year are the most by a rookie since Bill Groman had 1,473 yards in the AFL in 1960. These two players are only beginning to show us what they can accomplish in this league.
Veterans Adams, Diggs and Hill have all had multiple seasons with high receiving yard totals. It’s feasible that if everything falls into place, one of the three can break the record. Hill might be the least likely as he is more dependent on long receptions rather than a steady flow of targets and catches.
Kupp was only the fourth receiver since 1970 to achieve the receiving triple crown by leading the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He came excruciatingly close to the receiving yards record, missing it by just seventeen yards. One holding call, one tackle not broken or one errant throw is all that stood between Kupp and history. Kupp will have another go at it this year, and he has the quarterback to do it. After all, Stafford was the quarterback hurling the ball to Calvin Johnson when he set the receiving record in 2012.
Buckle up! We Are Going to See a Record Chase…
Player: Michael Strahan, T.J. Watt
Year: 2001, 2021
Since sacks have only been an official stat since 1982, this record is very breakable. Thanks to years of dedicated research by John Turney and Nick Webster, we now have unofficial sack data going back to 1960. The bar would be a little bit higher if we used Al “Bubba” Baker’s 23 unofficial sacks in 1978.
The official record of 22.5 has been challenged a few times since first being set more than 20 years ago. Since Michael Strahan set this record in 2001, Jared Allen (2011) and Justin Houston (2014) both came within a half-sack of tying it.
In 2021, with two weeks remaining in the season and T.J. Watt being five sacks shy of tying the record, Strahan seemed to have a comfortable hold. But in week 16, Watt racked up four sacks against Cleveland. In the final game of the season, he brought down Baltimore QB Tyler Huntley for his record-tying sack.
In the 20 years since Strahan broke the record, seven players have had 20 or more sacks in a season, with three players only a half-sack from tying or breaking the record. If this record is going to be broken in 2022, Watt is one of the front-runners to do so.
However, only one player in history has ever recorded back-to-back seasons with 20+ sacks. Going back to 1967-68, before sacks were an official stat, Deacon Jones accomplished this in the 14-game era. Sacks do not have a lot of consistency from season to season.
In Houston’s career, the closest he ever came to his 22-sack season was 11. Jared Allen’s 22-sack season was sandwiched between 11- and 12-sack seasons. An analysis of sacks relative to quarterback pressures suggests Watt, along with Robert Quinn, who had 18.5 sacks last year, may experience some regression in 2022.
Myles Garrett, who is in his prime, has seen his sack totals climb from 10 to 12 to 16 during the past three seasons, and he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. 2021 rookie phenom Micah Parsons (13 sacks in 2021) has the ability to challenge the record if everything falls into place. However, because he’s equally exceptional in pass coverage, he will have fewer opportunities than pure pass rushers.
Nick Bosa, now two seasons removed from a season-ending injury, is on an upward trajectory and could be primed to build on the 15.5 sacks he had last year. Aaron Donald is probably past his prime at 31, but he is still considered by many as the best defensive player in the league. If he can find the fountain of youth perhaps, he can get close as he did in 2018. No record has a high probability to be broken, but if any record goes down in 2022, the sack record is the most likely to fall.
The ever-changing game makes some records increasingly likely, while others become nearly impossible. Records are not likely to be broken at any given moment, game, or year, but it’s almost inevitable that every record will be broken at some point in the future. If we see a new record set in 2022, the players we mentioned are the most likely to etch their name in the record books.
Jason Pauley contributed to this report.