Aaron Rodgers had a season for the ages in 2020. He threw 48 touchdowns, only 5 interceptions, had a completion rate over 70% (for only the second time in his illustrious career), and he’s almost certainly going to win the MVP at season’s end. Sure, it ended with a bitter disappointment last Sunday as the Packers lost the NFC Championship game to Tampa Bay. But overall, this COVID-impacted NFL season treated Mr. Rodgers just fine, thank you very much. Adding to how impressive the 2020 campaign has been for A-Rod, he went into this year viewed almost universally as a guy whose best play was behind him. If he can lead Green Bay in a few weeks to his second Super Bowl title, it will go down as one of the great individual seasons in sports history.
Thinking about what he’s accomplished in 2020, and channeling Carrie Bradshaw for just a second… I couldn’t help but wonder, who managed the greatest single sports years/seasons of all time?
Obviously there are many, many deserving candidates. In 1961, Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double and Wilt Chamberlain averaged over 50 points a game (not a lot of defense being played in the NBA in 1961 apparently). If you don’t care about the influence of PED’s in baseball, Barry Bonds’ slash line in 2004 (.362/.609/.812) could have won him the MVP in almost every slow-pitch softball league in the country. If you DO care about PED’s, then how about a 20 year old Dwight Gooden going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 16 complete games, tossing 276 innings and striking out 268 batters in 1985? Or Babe Ruth in 1921 leading the league in Homeruns, RBI’s, walks, OBP, Slugging, Total Bases and whatever else you felt like keeping track of. Tom Brady in 2007, Magic Johnson in 1987, Carl Yazstremski in 1967 (what’s with all the years ending in 7??), Orel Hershiser in 1988, many of the greatest athletes in history have years that stand out even when compared to the other all-time greats of their sports. But none of those cracked my top 5. I don’t even want to try to put these in order, because comparing basketball to Olympic swimming is like comparing Michter’s 20-year old bourbon to the 4th season of The Wire, so let’s go in chronological order, shall we?
1984/1985 – Wayne Gretzky
The Great One probably had 4 or 5 seasons you could pick, but if pressed to pick one I’d go with 1984-1985. He not only led the league in points (as he did almost every year) but tallied a ridiculous 73 points more than second place finisher (and teammate) Jari Kurri. Gretzky scored 73 goals that season and had 135 assists. Now, if you’re not a huge hockey fan, those numbers may not mean a lot to you. So to give it some context, Kurri was second in assists with only 84. Finishing 73 points clear of second place isn’t quite Babe Ruth hitting more homeruns than other whole teams (from 1926-1932 he out-homered the Washington Senators), but dominating the modern era is a little harder than it was almost a century ago. When the Oilers reached the playoffs Gretzky only got better, scoring 47 points in 18 games, including 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals as Edmonton, after spotting the Philadelphia the first game, swept 4 straight to win the title.
1988 – Steffi Graf
Fraulein Forehand was the number one ranked player in the world from 1987-1991 (and then again at times in 1993, 1995 and 1996), but she was at her most dominant in 1988. Winning all four grand slam tournaments (The Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open) in a career is one of the best ways to separate yourself from the other top players of history and become one of the very greatest to ever play the game. 8 men and 10 women have accomplished the feat, and the list of those that haven’t is a ridiculously impressive one (Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras and Monica Seles to name a few). Steffi completed the career grand slam FOUR TIMES, and yes, she’s the only player in history to manage that one. But in 1988 she turned the sport into her personal playground, winning all four majors, and oh by the way, tossing in the gold medal at the Olympics for good measure. She went 72-3 for the year and probably overslept the night before her three losses (I don’t have evidence to support this theory). You can certainly make an argument for Martina Navratilova or Serena Williams as the Female Tennis GOAT, but nobody in the history of the women’s game ever played tennis any better than Steffi did in 1988.
1992 – Michael Jordan
Like Gretzky, MJ was of course the unquestioned best player in the game for multiple seasons, but like Graf, he was able to add a cherry on his sundae during an Olympic year. In the 1991/1992 NBA season Jordan was his usual transcendent self, scoring over 30 points a game, leading the Bulls to their second straight NBA title while winning the MVP award for both the regular season and the NBA Finals (where he absolutely obliterated Clyde Drexler). One of the signature performances of his career was Game 1 of the Finals where His Airness made 6 three-pointers in the first half (then an NBA record). Once the season was over, Jordan spent some of his summer vacation abroad, winning his second Gold Medal and perhaps making his claim as the Basketball GOAT for the first time, as he established himself as the Alpha-Dog on the Dream Team, generally considered the greatest basketball team ever assembled. On a team filled with super-stars (Magic, Bird, Barkley, Malone, Ewing, Pippen), MJ was clearly the leader and star of stars, and he held the position as the best basketball player on the planet until he retired (for the second of three times) after the 1998 season.
2000 – Tiger Woods
Before Tiger came along, winning three times on the PGA tour in one year was considered an incredible feat. The idea of betting on an individual to win a tournament, against the entire field, was entirely laughable. Not so in 2000. Tiger was at the peak of his powers, winning an astounding 9 tournaments, including 3 of the 4 majors (US Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship) and he even won the 2001 Masters to hold all four major titles at one time. Only 5 golfers have won all 4 grand slams in their career (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger), so winning them all within 12 months was beyond unheard of. Also unheard of was the way he won the US Open at Pebble Beach, shooting 12 under par for the tournament. He came to the 18th hole on Sunday needing a par on the famous par-5 closing hole to shoot 67. Sounds like a lot of pressure, but he could have finished with a 19 on the hole and still won the tournament. He only won the British Open by 8 strokes, so, you know, nice job and all, but that really wasn’t all that impressive, you know? It doesn’t look like Tiger will end up catching Jack and his 18 major titles (Tiger has 15 and he’s 45 years old with a body that has been racked by injuries), but nobody has ever come close to playing golf at the level Tiger did in 2000.
2008 – Michael Phelps
From August 10, 2008 through August 17, 2008, in Beijing, China, Michael Phelps won 8 Olympic gold medals in swimming. Only two other men (Matt Biondi and Mark Spitz) have won 8 over the course of their CAREER. Phelps won 23 Olympic gold medals in total (in addition to the 8 he won in Beijing, he managed 6 in 2004, 4 in 2012 and 5 in 2016). He set 7 different world records at the 2008 Summer Games, and one Olympic record to boot. His only disappointment was in the finals of the 200 Butterfly, where his goggles broke when he entered the pool, so he had to basically swim blind. Without being able to see, he wasn’t able to swim his best, so he had to settle for…winning the gold medal and setting a new world record. He claimed years later that the missed opportunity to set a BETTER world record that wouldn’t be touched for decades “still haunts him.” Um, ok Mike, whatever you say.
Commercial Real Estate Broker/Sports Fan
Staff writer at Six Feet Apart, commercial real estate broker for CBRE, Inc., and most importantly, a father of two.