Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner lead history in ‘Perfect Games’ for NFL quarterbacks

Doug Farrar
August 16, 2012

On Wednesday afternoon, Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez threw his first perfect game, and the first perfect game in franchise history. It was as dominant a pitching performance as you'll ever see -- King Felix struck out 12 Tampa Bay Rays batters, all with off-speed pitches on the strikeout throws. It was the third perfecto of the 2012 season, and the 23rd in Major League Baseball history.

It also got us thinking of what might be a football equivalent. There really isn't anything in the NFL that has the same every-play sense of suspense, but in an interesting coincidence, there have also been 23 regular-season instances of a quarterback putting up a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in a single game. Per Pro Football Reference's Play Index, we started with the 1960 season and demanded that our qualifiers throw at least 20 passes in a game. Of course, passer rating isn't a perfect stat as it doesn't adjust for opponent, but as it's the only performance metric that currently spans the NFL's modern era, we'll take what we can get. None of the quarterbacks threw interceptions (obviously), and each of the 23 perfectos resulted in wins.

There were a couple of unexpected names on this list, but the three players who have thrown more than one NFL 'perfect game' should come as no surprise -- Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, and Tom Brady.

Manning threw his perfectos in 2000, 2002, and 2003. The first, which came in a 30-23 Week 8 win over the New England Patriots, saw Manning complete 16 of 20 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns. Manning 2002 game was a 35-13 Week 10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, in which he completed 18 of 23 for 319 yards and three more scores. The most statistically dominant game of Manning's three -- perhaps the best game of any of the 23 named -- came in 2003, when he shredded the New Orleans Saints' defense in Week 4 of the 2003 season. The Colts won, 55-21, and Manning completed 20 of his 25 attempts for 311 yards and six touchdowns.

Yeah, it's hard to do better than that. Manning also has the only perfect game in NFL postseason history, a brilliant performance against the Denver Broncos in the wild-card round of the 2003 playoffs. Manning went 22 of 26 for 377 yards and five touchdowns.

Warner's three perfectos came in the 1999, 2000, and 2008 seasons, and it's typical of Warner's unusual career arc that he's the only guy with two of these passer rating miracles a decade apart. The first one came in his Cinderella season of 1999, when he completed 17 of 21 passes for 310 yards, and three touchdowns in a 38-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. About a year later, he went back to the well with another 158.3 performance against the San Diego Chargers, completing 24 of 30 passes for 390 yards and four scores. Few expected that Warner would do such a thing again after his failed mid-2000s turn with the New York Giants, and having to beat out Matt Leinart in Arizona. But there he was, throwing 19 completions in 24 attempts for 361 yards and three more touchdowns.

Tom Brady is the only other quarterback to put up more than one perfect day by our standards -- he first accomplished this feat in his amazing 2007 season, when the poor Dolphins were waxed by Brady in a Week 7 49-28 win. Brady went 21 of 25 for 354 yards and six touchdowns, matching Manning's best 158.3 day. Three years later, in a Week 10 45-24 win over the Detroit Lions, Brady went 21 of 27 for 345 yards and four scores.

Many of the one-timers are easy to predict: Johnny Unitas in 1967, Ken Anderson in 1974, Ben Roethlisberger in 2007, Drew Brees in 2009. But just as journeyman Don Larsen threw the most famous perfect game in the history of baseball, there are a few NFL shockers on the NFL perfect list. Craig Erickson actually put up a perfecto for the 1994 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Vince Evans did the same for the 1980 Chicago Bears, and Donovan McNabb, for all the talk about his career inconsistency, did the same for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007.

Sometimes, you catch lightning in a bottle, and sometimes, a ticket to perfection is the single-game manifestation of your greatness. For Felix Hernandez and a handful of NFL quarterbacks, perfection is a prized addition to one's resume.