There were 430 interceptions during the 2017 NFL regular season. It was the third consecutive year that saw fewer than 450 passes picked off — the only three seasons ever under that mark, aside from a strike-shortened 1982 season.
As recently as the 1980s, the number of touchdowns and interceptions used to be close to even on an annual basis. Oftentimes, the interception total was slightly higher.
Eight quarterbacks threw more than 20 interceptions in the 1985 season — including Phil Simms, Dan Fouts, and Dan Marino, who each made the Pro Bowl that year. But in 2017, DeShone Kizer was the only passer to finish the year with more than 20 interceptions, and that was a big reason why the Browns couldn’t win a game.
Rule changes over the last few decades have made it more difficult to defend the pass. Couple that with NFL offenses prioritizing efficiency more and more, and it’s no wonder there are declining turnover numbers.
And that means all the major interception records haven’t come close to being challenged.
For some of the greatest defensive players ever, it means their legacies are etched in stone. For others, it means they’ll forever be remembered as the worst at avoiding huge mistakes.
Brett Favre, the all-time reckless champ
It’s a term used in football to describe a quarterback unafraid of taking risks and hurling balls into coverage downfield.
Patrick Mahomes was called it before the 2017 NFL Draft. The Raiders’ Derek Carr was too. But the gunslingingest gunslinger of them all has always been Favre.
Favre was the NFL MVP three seasons in a row from 1995 to 1997, with at least 35 touchdowns in each year. He was the first to crack 500 career passing touchdowns and his 508 are still second on the all-time list, with Tom Brady and Drew Brees each just 20 behind.
But those touchdown numbers for Favre came because of his high-risk/high-reward style of play. And all that gunslinging meant a ton of interceptions.
Favre finished his career with 336 interceptions, and he is the only quarterback to ever top 280. George Blanda is in second place with 277, and the nearest active players are Drew Brees and Eli Manning, who each have 228.
It’d probably take at least seven or eight more years for either player to reach Favre’s interception numbers. That’s pretty unlikely to happen considering Brees and Manning are 39 and 37, respectively.
After that, there isn’t a single quarterback in the NFL under 30 who even topped 100 interceptions.
Favre is your interception king and always will be. All hail the gunslinger.
George Blanda, thrower of 42 (FORTY-TWO!) picks in one year
The all-time interception king may be Favre, but nobody will ever come close to the 42 (!!!) picks thrown by Blanda in 1962.
If a player even got to 30 interceptions in today’s NFL, he’d probably be strapped to a rocket and launched into space. The only quarterback to top 25 in the last nine seasons is Manning, who had 27 in 2013 and 25 in 2010.
Blanda averaged three interceptions per game during his 1962 season with the Houston Oilers and threw a pick on more than 10 percent of his attempts. Those are numbers nooooobody will ever come close to matching.
During Kizer’s disastrous 2017 season, his interception rate wasn’t even half as bad.
Blanda — like Favre — landed in the Hall of Fame, though. He played an NFL-record 26 seasons and doubled as kicker too. Blanda retired just before his 49th birthday, making him the oldest player in NFL history. He’s the all-time leader in successful extra points with 943 — another record that probably won’t be broken thanks to a recent rule change that made extra points longer and more difficult.
And for as bad as 42 interceptions in a season sounds, Blanda made the Pro Bowl during that 1962 season and led the Oilers to the AFL Championship game, where they lost to the Dallas Texans, 20-17. Fittingly, Blanda threw five interceptions in that game — which didn’t count to his record-breaking total.
If Blanda started more than just 106 games at quarterback, his torrid interception pace probably could’ve put him in Favre territory. Instead, he sits at No. 2 with 277 on his career.
Paul Krause, all-time ball hawking champ
The drop-off in interceptions in the NFL also means some defensive backs have been immortalized.
Krause finished his Hall of Fame career with 81 career interceptions. That may not sound like a lot, but the only active player in the NFL with more than 36 is 39-year-old Vikings cornerback Terence Newman, who has 42.
In 16 seasons with Washington and Minnesota, Krause finished eight with at least six interceptions and two with at least 10. For perspective, there isn’t a single active player in the NFL who has topped six interceptions more than twice in his career.
Krause did most of his damage as a free safety before retiring in 1979. His 81 interceptions will almost definitely sit in the record books forever.
Night Train Lane, the rookie sensation of 1952
Of the unbreakable interception records here, Richard “Night Train” Lane’s 14 interceptions in 1952 has stood the longest, but is also the most breakable. Still, the odds are that it’s going to be safe for a very long time.
The few defensive backs capable of coming close are avoided by quarterbacks. The last time a defensive player even had more than 10 interceptions was in 1981 when Everson Walls had 11.
If — and it’s a big if — a player went on a run and got to 10 interceptions in a season, opposing teams would do whatever possible to avoid him. When Richard Sherman led the NFL with eight interceptions in 2013, he was targeted once every 9.6 times a team dropped back to pass — or less than four times per game.
And so for the last few decades, Lane’s 14 interception record that he set as a rookie in 1952 — a time when they played 12 games in a season — has been largely unchallenged.
Lane got his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974 and finished his career — which included stops with the Rams, Cardinals, and Lions — with 68 interceptions. But no year for Lane, or any other NFL defensive back, was better than his record-setting rookie season.
Favre, Blanda, Krause, and Lane are your interception kings and probably always will be.