So which records have staying power? What are the most impressive individual marks in league history? Here's my list.
Most Points, Game: 40, Ernie Nevers, 1929
The longest-standing record in league history. Nevers scored six touchdowns and kicked four extra points. One day, someone will probably score seven touchdowns in a game and this record will finally fall. Then again, last year no one tallied more than four TDs in a game. Nevers' record is one of the most impressive in any sport.
Most Consecutive Games With a Touchdown Pass: 47, John Unitas
Everyone knows about Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, but sports fans who know find this one more impressive. Brett Favre has come closest, with a 36-game TD streak (now over), but until last season, Marino's 30 was next up. That's less than 2/3 of Johnny U's total. This record may never fall.
Most Rushing Yards, 14-Game Season: 2003, O.J. Simpson, 1973
Eric Dickerson, of course, holds the record for rushing yards in a season. But Simpson holds the record for rushing yards per game (143.1) by a wide margin (Dickerson's 131.6 isn't even top-three). No one has ever come within 10 yards per game of Simpson's record.
Most Interceptions, Season: 14, Night Train Lane, 1952
Lane's record for interceptions in a season has stood for more than 50 years. That's impressive by itself. But what's most remarkable is that 1952 was a 12-game season: Lane's 16-game pace would have given him 19 interceptions.
Most Consecutive Games Played: 282, Jim Marshall
Marshall was the NFL's iron man. Jeff Feagles is starting to approach this record, with 272 consecutive games over 17 seasons, but Feagles is a punter. Marshall was a defensive end, and an undersized (235 pounds) defensive end at that. He mostly played 14-game seasons, with a streak extended over 20 years.
Most Passing Yards, Career: 61,361, Dan Marino
It's fashionable to dismiss Marino's accomplishments as those of someone who just threw a lot. But Marino's average yardage per attempt (7.34) was well ahead of John Elway and Brett Favre (both 7.10), his closest competitors — each of whom is about 10,000 yards behind.
Best Rushing Average, Season: 6.40, Jim Brown, 1963
This is with a minimum of 150 carries, and no one else is close. Barry Sanders, with 6.13 in 1997, is next. For context, Emmitt Smith's career best was 5.25 (1993) and Walter Payton's highest was 5.46 (1977).
Best Rushing Average, Career: 5.22, Jim Brown
This is with a minimum of 1,000 carries, and no one else is close. Barry Sanders, at 5.00, is next. Emmitt Smith averaged 4.16 and Walter Payton 4.36.
Best Passer Rating, Season: 121.1, Peyton Manning, 2004
The focus was on his touchdown record, but with Marino only one behind and given Manning's much stronger supporting cast than his predecessor, I don't find Manning's TD mark to be one of the NFL's greatest records. His record for passer rating, however, shattered Steve Young's record of 112.8.
Most Receptions, Season: 143, Marvin Harrison, 2002
Receiving records aren't what they used to be, but this one really stands out. The closest mark is Herman Moore's 123 in 1995, which was a banner season for receiving records (Cris Carter and Jerry Rice both had 122 the same year). In '02, Harrison led the NFL by 31 receptions and broke the old record by 20.
He holds the NFL's career records for receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895), and receiving touchdowns (197), among many others. No one is close to any of those, or most of the others.
Consecutive Postseason Wins: 9, Bill Belichick
The competition is stiffest in the postseason, and Belichick has put together a remarkable winning streak. Purists may complain that the older, shorter postseasons were harder to win in, since you got to the difficult championship game more quickly, but I'll still go with Belichick's record.
Most Passing Yards, Game: 554, Norm Van Brocklin, 1951
The third-oldest mark on my list. The 1951 Rams had perhaps the greatest offense ever assembled, including a pair of Hall of Fame receivers (Tom Fears and Crazylegs Hirsch), but this record, set in a run-oriented era and still standing half a century later, is one of the NFL's most legendary numbers.
Most Interception Returns For Touchdowns, Career: 12, Rod Woodson
This is such a specific category that I hesitate to include it here, but Woodson obliterated Ken Houston's long-standing record of nine and now holds a 33% lead on this category. Woodson also holds the NFL's record interception return yardage (1,483) by over 200 yards.
Most Receiving Touchdowns, Season: 22, Jerry Rice, 1987
Rice is all alone with this record (Mark Clayton's 18 is closest). What makes this a truly extraordinary record, though, is that 1987 was a strike season — Rice played only 12 games. He also scored a rushing touchdown in 1987, giving him 23 TDs in fewer games than any other player in any other season.
Longest Rush: 99 yards, Tony Dorsett, 1983
In theory, a 99-yard run isn't much more impressive than a 97- or 98-yarder. But 97 was the record from 1939 to 1983, and Dorsett is still the only player to take a handoff from his own one-yard line and keep running until he hit the endzone. Dorsett's run wasn't just unlikely, it was a thing of beauty. And of course, it's an unbreakable record. I'm sure it will be tied one day, but Dorsett's original was perfection on a football field.
Most Points in a Season: 176, Paul Hornung, 1960
I wasn't going to put this one on the list. Hornung scored 15 touchdowns, 41 PATs, and 15 field goals in 1960. It's great that he was multi-dimensional, but I'm more impressed by Don Hutson's 17 TDs almost 20 years earlier. Hornung's record, though, still stands 45 years later, with 12 points to spare. Even that wouldn't be enough for me, except that Hornung only needed 12 games for all this. His 16-game pace was 235 points.
Sammy Baugh's Triple Crown, 1943
In 1943, Sammy Baugh led the NFL in passing (as a quarterback on offense), interceptions (as a safety on defense), and punting (as a punter on special teams). Chuck Bednarik may embody the classic two-way player, but Baugh was a remarkably successful three-way player.
Most Consecutive Championship Appearances: 10, Paul Brown
This is kind of cheating, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it includes four seasons in the AAFC and six in the NFL. Second of all, the league was smaller and it was easier for the Browns than, say, Bill Walsh's 49ers. And perhaps most importantly, this record is usually identified with Brown's quarterback, Otto Graham, who led the team to a championship appearance every year of his career. The team went 5-7 after Graham's retirement. Regardless, this is a record that will never be seriously challenged.
Most Rushing Touchdowns, Career: 164, Emmitt Smith
Jerry Rice's record for touchdowns (208) is far ahead of Smith, and receiving touchdowns are harder to come by than those on the ground. But Rice, like Don Hutson and Jim Brown and maybe Dan Marino, plays by a different set of rules, and it's unfair to hold anyone else to his standard. Smith leads second-place Marcus Allen by 41, or 33%. His closest active competition is Marshall Faulk, trailing by 64 and on his last legs. Next up is Curtis Martin, who at 85 TDs is barely halfway to Smith's total. This record will stand for a very long time.
There are a lot of other records I would have liked to include. More special teams would have been nice, but I was limited by qualifying numbers (Gale Sayers, for instance, only returned 91 kickoffs, and many other standout returners stopped returning to focus on scrimmage plays), changing eras (today's kickers are far better than in the past, and all meaningful records have been set within the last decade), and quality of personnel (is Brian Mitchell worthy of a spot on this list, when Walter Payton and Tim Brown are not?).
I faced the same challenges with many records related to receiving and yards from scrimmage, a category I value immensely, but that does not translate well from season to season. There are no Super Bowl records on this list (too few games). There are no sack records (the stat has only been kept since 1982). There's no Hutson or Steve Van Buren, not much Marino or Jim Brown. Only two coaching records. But even with all that, I'm satisfied with this list. I don't think I'm leaving out anything I meant to put in. I welcome your comments and additions, but this is my list of the NFL's 20 greatest records.
I'll be back before the season starts with preseason power rankings and postseason predictions. Enjoy the preseason!