When Peyton Manning retired following the 2015-16 season, he held numerous passing records.
Some of them were achieved just a couple of years before his retirement, when he stunned the NFL universe with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013, both NFL records. When he called it quits a little later, he was the league's all-time leader in passing touchdowns (539) and passing yards (71,490), among others. Additionally, he was named MVP five times throughout his career, whereas no one else has earned more than three.
Impressive records, yes. But unbreakable records? We found out part of that answer last season, when Drew Brees eclipsed both his career passing yards and touchdowns records. And while Manning's single-season records still stand, Patrick Mahomes came awfully close on both fronts in just his first full-time year, recording 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns in 2018. Neither of those can be considered unbreakable, especially considering some of the unprecedented, high-powered offensive output we see in today's NFL. After all, when Jameis Winston comes within 400 yards of breaking the single-season passing yards record, it becomes increasingly clear that these records are meant to be broken. Guys like Mahomes and Matt Stafford are well underway at making a serious run at some of the all-time records.
That rule doesn't apply to all NFL records, however. Though the new wave of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson is capable of wreaking some serious havoc on the record books - the latter did that last year when he broke Michael Vick's long-standing single-season rushing record -- there are some records that are just so far outside the realm of what seems possible that we can officially deem them unbreakable.
That is, until they're broken, and we make fools out of ourselves.
Without further ado, here are the 15 most unbreakable records in NFL history. Because some of the records that occurred before the merger in 1970 apply to a completely different game than what we see today, only records that were achieved after the merger are on this list.
All stats retrieved from Pro Football Reference.
Before diving into our official list, there are some fun honorable mentions that were too good to completely exclude.
Emmanuel Sanders: Most games with at least one reception in a single season (17)
Sanders was traded from the Denver Broncos to the San Francisco 49ers after Week 7 of the regular season. The Broncos had not yet come across their bye week, but the 49ers' was in Week 4. Thus, Sanders played in 17 games in 2019, and if that isn't weird enough, he also recorded a catch in all 17.
Nathan Peterman: Most passes intercepted in a half (5)
For Peterman, this game... wasn't the best. I'm not sure what's more miraculous: that he was able to put up such a lousy display in just one half, or that he's still employed on an NFL roster. The internet, as expected, had a field day.
Leo Araguz: Most punts in a game (16)
Araguz and the Raiders took on the Chargers in a 1998 game, and based on the above stat, it's not hard to guess that Jon Gruden's guys struggled on offense. They were only able to muster seven points, six first downs and a grand total of 18 rushing yards, meaning Araguz' leg was plenty busy. But what's more incredible about this stat is that it came in a Raiders victory! The Chargers were even worse than the Raiders, scoring just six points and taking the loss even after their defense forced 16 punts.
15. Adam Vinatieri: 599 career field goals made
It's already an unbreakable record, and yet there may be more to come. Vinatieri says he wants to return to play in 2020, when he'll be 48 years old, though the pandemic has reportedly slowed down his rehab. It may be a tough sell, considering he's coming off serious knee surgery and had a rough 2019, going 17-25 for a career-low 68% clip.
If he's unable to continue, though, his record should remain secure. In second place is Morten Andersen, who is 34 field goals behind Vinatieri despite having played in an NFL-record 382 games. Matt Bryant, the Falcons kicker, is the next active player on the list, but is over 200 field goals shy of Vinatieri and has played for nearly 20 years himself. If there's anyone to keep an eye on, it's Justin Tucker, who has drilled 265 with record accuracy in eight years.
14. Ray Lewis: 1,568 career tackles (solo)
Every label Lewis was given over the years -- unstoppable, a beast, a machine, etc. -- is completely warranted given just how dominant he was throughout his entire career. It wasn't like he had a short stint on top. He was a perennial Pro Bowler and All-Pro threat for the duration of his NFL career, and for that reason, his cumulative stats are just so impressive.
The one that jumps out the most is his total tackle figure. Though he's on top with 2,059 combined tackles, the separation between Lewis and the runners up in just solo tackles is insane. He has nearly 200 more tackles than second-place London Fletcher and is more than 250 higher than third-place Derrick Brooks.
Who could potentially catch him? There are not too many immediately obvious suitors. Though Lavonte David seems to be on a good trajectory, with 724 tackles through eight seasons, it's Lewis' aforementioned longevity that gives him such an edge over guys like David. David had over 100 solo tackles in each of his first three seasons, but has 85 or fewer in four of his last five. Bobby Wagner may have more consistency, with 645 in his career over eight years and at least 65 in every season, but has never achieved 100 solo tackles in one year. Lewis, on the other hand had over 100 tackles in eight seasons, including a career-high 156 in 1997 and another 102 much later in 2010.
13. Anquan Boldin: Most receiving yards in NFL debut (217)
Anquan Boldin had nearly 14,000 yards throughout his massively successful NFL career. The most he ever recorded in a single game was 217 against the Lions, a showing in which he caught 10 balls on 14 targets and scored twice.
It was also the second-round pick's NFL debut. How's that for making an entrance?
Even in this year's extremely talented rookie crop, I can't imagine anyone will be able to replicate the success that Boldin had in his professional debut. The next best showing on the list post-merger belongs to Rick Upchurch, who caught three balls for 153 yards, still significantly behind Boldin's output. The Ravens' Marquise Brown had an amazing debut, recording 147 yards and two touchdowns, but was still well short of Boldin's production.
12. Randy Moss: Most receiving touchdowns in a single season (23)
Among Jerry Rice's many records was his single-season touchdown total of 22, set in 1987. All it took to beat it was pairing up arguably the greatest quarterback of all time with arguably the best wide receiver, other than Rice, under arguably the greatest coach of all time in New England.
It's crazy to think that when Moss led the league in receiving touchdowns two years later with 13, he was still double-digit scores away from the record he had previously set. Since 2000, there have been a handful of receivers who have come close... kind of. No one has come within five scores, though Gronk put up 17 and Jimmy Graham, Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and a handful more had seasons of 16 scores.
11. Tony Gonzalez: Pro Bowl selections at tight end (14)
Tight ends should consider themselves lucky if they even play for 14 years. For Gonzalez to not only play for that long but to be so productive each and every season, to the point where he became an almost-automatic Pro Bowler, is mind-blowing.
While this record may not have the same prestige as some of the others on the list, it's worth noting that 14 Pro Bowls is tied with names like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for the most selections regardless of position. Jason Witten, one of the best TEs of all time, had 11 Pro Bowl selections. Antonio Gates and Shannon Sharpe, one a Hall of Famer and the other seemingly destined for Canton, are tied at third with only eight. The active leaders, Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce, both have five and are both 30 or older.
No tight end is going to unseat Gonzalez in fan and league-wide recognition for his accomplishments.
10. 1984 Bears: Most sacks in a single season (72)
The 1984 Chicago defense recorded so many sacks that they doubled how often opposing defenses were able to sack quarterback Jim McMahon and co. Richard Dent, Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael all had double-digit sack totals, with Dent leading the way at 17.5. An additional 10 players joined the fun in recording a sack on the season.
The 1989 Minnesota Vikings are second on the list with 71, meaning that the record was breakable in the past. But none of today's teams have ever really been able to come within striking distance. The 2013 Panthers, led by Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, were able to sack their opponents 60 times on the season. Last season's leaders, the Pittsburgh Steelers, recorded 54 sacks.
9. Devin Hester: Most career punt return TDs (14)
The Bears' 26-0 shutout over the Packers marked the start of Devin Hester's NFL career and demonstrated what the athletic rookie was capable of. At the end of the blowout, when Chicago was already up 19-0, Hester returned a punt to the house after 84 yards of outstanding vision, agility and burst.
The "nineteen more" that the tweet refers to includes his kick return touchdowns, but his punt numbers alone are more impressive. Eric Metcalf is closest to Hester with 10 punt return touchdowns before a slowly dwindling list starts to unravel, featuring players like Brian Mitchell, Darren Sproles and Deion Sanders with nine, seven and six, respectively.
8. LaDainian Tomlinson: Most touchdowns in a single season (31)
Tomlinson led the league in rushing touchdowns three times throughout his career, but two of those three years pale in comparison to his 2006 campaign. In order to become one of the rare non-QB MVP winners in the NFL, you have to do something truly special. We're okay with calling 28 rushing touchdowns, combined with three more through the air, pretty darn special.
Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes come in behind LT at 28 and 27, respectively, but the closest that we've seen in the last 10 years was Todd Gurley. Gurley's 21 was well short of the record, and with the way running backs rotate through a cycle and experience so many injuries in today's NFL, it will be hard to find someone who can carry the load that Tomlinson did for so many seasons.
7. 1986 49ers: Most interceptions in a single season (39)
2019's most fearsome defenses, the Patriots and the Steelers, recorded 25 and 20 interceptions, respectively. That helps to show just how ridiculous this statistic is in context of the modern NFL.
Only one team in the past 10 seasons has recorded over 30 interceptions -- the 2011 Packers, with 31 -- and the next best example in that timeframe was the 2013 "Legion of Boom" Seahawks with 28. If the Legion of Boom came up more than 10 picks short, how is anyone else going to surpass what the 1986 Niners were capable of?
Seven different 49ers had at least three interceptions, including Ronnie Lott (10) and Jim McKyer (6).
6. Brett Favre: Most career interceptions (336)
He's a Hall of Famer, an 11-time Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl champion, a three-time MVP and one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. He's also the owner of perhaps the least-prestigious record in the QB record book.
With 336 career interceptions, Favre is well ahead the next post-merger QB on the list. Vinny Testaverde is second with 267 interceptions, followed by Dan Marino at 252 and Peyton Manning at 251. Obviously, being a part of this list doesn't mean you're a bad quarterback, considering the names there. The current active leader is Drew Brees with 237.
Jameis Winston, with 88 in only five years, would have been an interesting name to watch had he retained a starting role with a team. But seeing as how he was benched given his high interception output, it becomes clear that anyone in today's NFL that tosses this many picks is going to be benched before they have a real chance to get that high.
5. Emmitt Smith: Most career rushing yards (18,355) and attempts (4,409)
While the total yardage is undeniably impressive, the total number of times that Smith toted the ball throughout his career is the number that really jumps out. 4,409 carries over a 15-year career means that Smith was averaging 293 carries per year, and he was getting 250+ carries regularly all the way until his very last season at age 35.
When you look at several star running backs of the 2010s, you'll see that their career trajectory doesn't exactly suggest that this record will ever be broken. Sure, you have anomalous players like Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson, who have remained great running backs throughout their whole careers. But even Gore, who has been the epitome of longevity and durability at his position, is still over 800 carries short of Smith's mark, and he's near the very end of the road.
LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch, two running backs with some of the longest tenures in the league, are around 2,000 carries short of Smith and are near the ends of their careers. Running backs who were once thought of as budding stars, including Arian Foster and DeMarco Murray, saw their careers cut short from overuse and injuries.
Will the same fate fall upon studs like Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry? Regardless of the answer, it doesn't seem likely that they'll catch Smith.
4. Paul Krause: Most career interceptions (81)
Though technically I'm breaking my own rule a little bit here, Krause did record more than half of his interceptions after the AFL-NFL merger. With a career-high 12 in his rookie season, Krause set the tone for what would be an amazing defensive career. The Hall of Famer picked off opposing QBs at least five times in nine separate seasons on his way to eight Pro Bowl selections.
The closest post-merger player we've seen is Rod Woodson, whose 71 ranks second all-time. Charles Woodson wasn't far behind with 65, and had Ed Reed played for a solid four or five more seasons, he may have been able to improve upon his total of 64 and seriously challenge Krause. In terms of active guys the closest contenders are Richard Sherman and Aqib Talib, tied with 35 interceptions. That's not going to cut it.
3. Tom Brady: Career playoff completions (1,025), passing yards (11,388) and touchdowns (73)
It's hard to imagine that anyone will have the same stretch of success as Brady did with the 2000-2010s Patriots. From 2001 to 2019, the Patriots had double-digit wins in all but one season -- in 2002, they went 9-7 -- and Brady was at the helm for every one but 2008. The 19-season streak of winning seasons is the best in NFL history, and though the 49ers went on a 16-season streak from 1983-1998, they had two quarterbacks at the helm. Three teams are tied for third place, at nine consecutive winning seasons.
In short, being the lone quarterback to lead the best franchise in NFL history for nearly two decades practically ensures that Brady will never be caught. All that success means a ton of postseason experience, and his passing stats are so incredibly far ahead the rest of the pack that it doesn't seem possible that he'll ever be caught. The runners up in completions, yards, and touchdowns are Payton Manning (649), Manning again (7,339) and Joe Montana (45), respectively.
They're not even close.
2. Bill Belichick: Most career playoff wins (31)
Tom Landry is the runner-up in this category with 20 playoff wins. Andy Reid had less than half of what Belichick has even after success in both Philadelphia and Kansas City. If the Chiefs win the Super Bowl the next four seasons -- and Belichick doesn't win anymore playoff games in his career -- he'll still be trailing the Patriots mastermind.
His .721 winning percentage in the playoffs is a testament to just how special a coach he is, and should he build upon his Hall of Fame resume without Tom Brady he'll have a near-irrefutable case as the greatest coach to ever grace this game.
Additionally, the late Don Shula's record of 328 career wins previously seemed unbreakable, but Belichick keeps on adding to that total. Five or six more strong seasons out of Belichick may not be the most likely outcome, given his age and the uncertainty of the Patriots on offense for the future, but he's definitely in the running to catch Shula.
1. Jerry Rice: Most career receiving touchdowns (197)
No, I didn't forget to add receiving yards to the list, a statistic he also is the career leader in with 22,895 yards. I genuinely believe that there is a receiver in today's NFL that has a chance to break that record in Julio Jones. Jones needs a little under 11,000 yards to go -- not a small amount by any means -- but he has not shown the faintest sign that he might be slowing down. He just turned 30 last year, meaning he's over the hump, but has averaged 1,564 yards per season since 2014. If he can play for another six to eight years at a high level, who's to say he can't break the record?
And no, I didn't forget about receptions, either. Rice leads with 1,549, but Michael Thomas' record-breaing 2019 season saw him haul in 149 balls on 185 targets. Sure, having Drew Brees at the helm is a nice bonus that won't last forever, but it's impossible to completely rule out Michael Thomas as a candidate to break the record even at his young age. He's at 470 catches after just four seasons, so anything is possible.
But the touchdowns number doesn't look like it's realistically going to be caught by anyone. 197 touchdowns? Are you crazy? Randy Moss was a touchdown machine and he was more than 40 TDs short of Rice's record. Larry Fitzgerald, the active leader, has 120. Kenny Golladay led the NFL with 11 receiving touchdowns last season; Rice exceeded 11 touchdowns a whopping eight times, including his 1987 campaign when he doubled that amount.
Rice's touchdown record is here to stay.