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Philip Rivers passes Dan Marino on all-time passing list, a reminder of how NFL has evolved

Henry Bushnell
·3-min read

With his first pass of Thursday night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans, Philip Rivers leapt into the top five of the NFL’s all-time passing leaderboard.

To get there, he passed a Hall of Famer who two decades ago held the top spot: Dan Marino.

Rivers’ 11-yard checkdown to Jonathan Taylor took him to 61,369 yards for his career, 8 ahead of Marino’s 61,361.

Rivers will likely stay at No. 5 for at least a couple of seasons. Brett Favre, at No. 4 on the list, is more than 10,000 yards ahead of him. Rivers’ 2004 draft classmate, Ben Roethlisberger, is roughly 3,000 behind him at No. 7. Rivers would have to play at least two more full seasons after this one to catch Favre in fourth and Peyton Manning (71,940 yards) in third. He almost certainly won’t catch the top two, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

No matter where he finishes, his ascent tells a story about the game’s evolution.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - NOVEMBER 12: Philip Rivers #17 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass during the first half against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on November 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Philip Rivers moved into the top five on the NFL's all-time passing yardage list Thursday night. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Philip Rivers’ ascent a sign of changing times

Rivers has had a strong 17-year career. In 15 seasons as a starter, he has never missed a game. Since 2008, he’s only once failed to reach 4,000 yards. He’s an eight-time Pro Bowler, and one of the more underappreciated regular-season gunslingers ever.

Yet, he has never earned AP All-Pro honors. Never made a Super Bowl. He has never been the best quarterback in his conference. He isn’t a surefire Hall of Famer. Heck, some Colts fans and media want him benched.

In other words, he isn’t better than Marino.

But the leaderboard says he is, because the sport he plays is different than the one Marino played — which was different than the one Johnny Unitas or Fran Tarkenton played, and so on. Nowadays, teams across the league pass more, and more efficiently, than ever. That’s why, as explained in our recent piece on the passing leaderboards:

There are few stats that recognize old-time greatness anymore. Jameis Winston, Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins have each thrown for more yards in a single season than Unitas, Joe Montana or Favre ever did. Wondrous feats are being washed away by a rising tide. They’re preserved only by grainy footage and memory. Numbers have lost historical meaning.

And this is why we at Yahoo Sports devised a passing yardage inflation index. Era-adjusted stats allow us to contextualize the historical numbers that pop up on our TV screens. They show that Rivers has not, in fact, been more prolific than Marino. But he has been pretty darn good.

Rivers’ place on the inflation-adjusted leaderboard

Rivers sits seventh on the inflation-adjusted all-time passing leaderboard. This is how it looked entering Thursday night:

(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports illustration)

We explained our methodology. Essentially, using Pro Football Reference data, we created a system that puts every NFL passing yard dating back to 1948 in 2019 terms. We found, for example, that 1 passing yard in 2004 is worth 1.16 yards in 2019; that 100 passing yards in 1973 is the equivalent of roughly 175 yards today.

After the inflation adjustments, Rivers drops out of the top five. Matt Ryan falls out of the top 10. Aaron Rodgers sinks from 12th to 19th. Old-timers, meanwhile, rise.

But Rivers recently passed Unitas. He could still catch Marino and Tarkenton by the time his career ends. He has been, and still is, remarkable in his durability and consistency. And his new place in the all-time top five is evidence.

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