Brett Favre was the NFL's all-time passing leader for 7 years, 10 months and 29 days. Peyton Manning now holds that title. So in an era of inflated passing totals, it's fair to ask: How long until someone overtakes Manning -- and who will it be?
There are several ways to answer that question. The easiest is to say no one. The two active quarterbacks closest to Manning are 36 (Drew Brees) and 38 years old (Tom Brady), and neither is within 10,000 yards of him. This record represents durability and consistent production more than it does aptitude at the position, after all, and some of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history aren't within the top 20 in career passing yardage because they played in the wrong era, in bad-weather cities and/or in offenses with more limited throwing opportunities.
But I wanted this column to go longer than two paragraphs, so I enlisted Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information to project just what it would take for Brees, Brady or -- perhaps more likely -- someone else to surpass Manning. For the purposes of nailing down a benchmark, we assumed that Manning will retire after this season.
Nitzberg built a model incorporating a modest annual inflation of passing yardage using historical year-over-year growth to create a baseline, while also accounting for an age-related decline in availability and production. Each quarterback's average passing yards per game from 2010 to '15 was used as a starting point.
The model indicated Brees would need three years to surpass Manning. Brady would need to play five more years -- until he is 43 -- to do it. In fact, based on realistic age levels, the quarterback whose career suggests he has the best chance is the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford, who became an NFL starter at 21 and thus would be 38 when he gets into the Favre/Manning stratosphere.
Let's take a closer look at the five active quarterbacks who project to be in contention by the time they are 41, the age at which Favre threw his final pass. (I'm also including Brady given his fanatical conditioning and expressed desire to play well into his 40s.) Assuming Manning starts all 16 games this season, the number to hit will be about 74,000 yards.
Years played: 15
Career yardage entering Week 9: 58,796
Career games missed after becoming starter: 7
Projected age and year at 74,000 yards: 38 in 2018
Analysis: A bruised rotator cuff cost Brees a start in Week 3, halting his streak of 82 consecutive starts and sparking at least some concern that the inevitable physical decline has begun. Since then, however, Brees has been the NFL's most accurate passer (71.9 percent completions) and has its third-best QBR. He has thrown for 892 yards in his past two games, including a 505-yard performance in Week 8 that confirmed he can still produce at a historic rate. Assuming he remains in New Orleans, he'll get at least nine starts per season at quarterback-friendly indoor stadiums (Superdome and in Atlanta).
Years played: 16
Career yardage entering Week 9: 55,967
Career games missed after becoming starter: 15
Projected age and year at 74,000 yards: 43 in 2020
Analysis: Like Brees, Brady is producing at a level that approaches his career best. His 2,410 yards is slightly ahead of the seven-game pace he set in 2011, when he finished with 5,235 passing yards, and he hasn't missed a start since returning from a torn ACL in Week 1 of the 2009 season. Brady's investment in nutrition and health supplements suggests he will leave no stone unturned in trying to extend his career horizon.
Years played: 12
Career yardage entering Week 9: 40,565
Career games missed after becoming starter: 19
Projected age and year at 74,000 yards: 41 in 2023
Analysis: Roethlisberger got a relatively late start to big-yardage performances, and at age 33, he is only a little more than halfway there. He threw for less than 3,600 yards in seven of his first nine seasons before totaling 9,213 yards in 2013-14. Roethlisberger's size (he is listed at 240 pounds) and injury history provide reason to pause. Knee and foot injuries this season mean he'll play fewer than 16 games in nine of his first 12 seasons. But who knows? His career-long improvement as a passer might not have topped out yet.
Years played: 8
Career yardage entering Week 9: 30,868
Career games missed after becoming starter: 2
Projected age and year at 74,000 yards: 41 in 2026
Analysis: Since entering the league in 2008, Ryan has thrown for more yards than everyone but Brees and Philip Rivers. His career average of 259.4 yards per game is higher than that of Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning, among others. Because of that strong start, Ryan doesn't have to produce at a materially better rate as he ages in order to remain in contention.
Years played: 7
Career yardage entering Week 9: 23,797
Career games missed after becoming starter: 20
Projected age and year at 74,000 yards: 38 in 2026
Analysis: Popular opinion suggests Stafford has regressed in his seventh season, which might be true. But after years of throwing to Calvin Johnson, and far too often in second-half comeback mode, he is tied with Brees for the highest average yards per game (280.0) among qualified quarterbacks in history. Stafford missed 19 of his first 32 possible games because of injury but has thrown for at least 4,200 yards in all four of his 16-game seasons, including 5,038 in 2011 and 4,967 in 2012. His contract and salary-cap structure mean the Lions aren't likely to part ways with him anytime soon. Even if they did, his strong arm and the game's relative dearth of pocket prospects mean Stafford will be gainfully employed for a long time.
Years played: 4
Career yardage entering Week 9: 14,838
Career games missed after becoming starter: 2
Projected age and year at 74,000 yards: 40 in 2029
Analysis: Luck has the lowest production levels on this list, and an unexpected hiccup in his fourth season is worth considering. Given the physical beating he has taken this season, it's difficult to imagine Luck playing another 14 years. But this season could be a blip in the larger context of his career. (In his fourth season, Manning took a career-high 29 sacks and also threw 23 interceptions for a 6-10 Colts team.) Ultimately, Luck's career average of 269.7 yards per game is less than yards off the pace Manning has set and is the fourth highest in league history.
Note: The model projected the following ages to reach 74,000 yards for these quarterbacks:
42: Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers
43: Joe Flacco, Eli Manning
45: Carson Palmer