Skip to main content
Menu
Brothers Are Lighting Up The NFL. Which Pair Had The Best Single Season?

It’s been a fraternal season in the NFL. Off the field, Peyton and Eli Manning have brought the Thanksgiving Uncle Aesthetic — preplanned zingers nevertheless delivered several beats late, whole industrial bolts of checkered fabric — to the cutting edge of sports multicasting. On it, Trevon Diggs has spent his sophomore year building a reputation as the league’s premier back-line gambler, tallying eight interceptions through nine games as his Dallas Cowboys join big brother Stefon’s Buffalo Bills in the inner circle of contenders. The Bosas (Joey and Nick) are tormenting offensive tackles to the tune of 13.5 combined sacks; the Kelces (center Jason and tight end Travis) are still doing their respective things, albeit for clubs that have struggled some. J.J. Watt tore his labrum, rotator cuff and bicep in Week 7, but there are already whispers that he may return by the playoffs. Maybe he just can’t stand the idea of T.J. making gains in the sack race.

Brothers in pro football are nothing new; turns out the genetic cocktail required to produce one human missile sometimes spins out another. But the current golden age of noogie-givers and -receivers makes the ManningCast-worthy question worth asking: Which pair of NFL siblings has had the best season of all time?

There’s an easy, boring way to answer the question: Quarterback is the most important position in football, Peyton was one of its most proficient tacticians ever, and Eli had stretches where he was no slouch. When they neared their respective peaks simultaneously, they meant more to their teams than any brothers before or since. The best example came in 2012, Peyton’s first season in Denver, when he led the league in QBR, completion percentage and net yards per attempt. Eli threw for 26 touchdowns and put up a QBR of 67.0 that year, each good for ninth in the league. Two top-10 passers is a pretty tough bar to clear.

National Football League players

Related: Our 2021 NFL Predictions Read more. »

So let’s liven things up by modifying the question: Which brothers, in a single season, were best at their particular jobs? Were the Sharpes (Shannon and Sterling) more effective receivers in 1993 than the Pounceys (Maurkice and Mike) were blockers in 2014? Who has the pass-rushing bragging rights, the Bosas or the Watts? Among dynasties, do the Mannings stack up to the Matthewses (Clay and Bruce)?

Sorting this out requires navigating the trickier points of football statistics: namely, comparing between positions. Quarterbacks and skill-position players come with oodles of counting stats and accompanying metrics. Offensive linemen, almost none at all. Defensive backs run into a distinct problem; oftentimes the better they are, the less they get to show it, as passers avoid them in favor of going at their teammates. It’s apples to the way the wind rustles the branch.

To trim down the list, I held to brothers who earned Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors in the same season. (Some sad cuts: Randall and Sam “Bam” Cunningham, whose careers didn’t quite overlap; Devin and Jason McCourty, the twins who held down the back line of the Patriots’ Super Bowl-winning defense in 2018; Champ and Boss Bailey, who just have tremendous names.) Then I looked at Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value metric. AV is an imprecise measurement — so it goes, in sports not blessed with baseball’s comparability — but it offers a back-of-the-napkin look at who accomplished what, and when.1

These brothers were peaking at the same time

Brothers in the NFL by their most combined Approximate Value in a single season in which they were both named to the Pro Bowl or All-Pro team

Season Player 1 AV Player 2 AV Combined AV
2005 Ronde Barber 17 Tiki Barber 21 38
1989 Bruce Matthews 17 Clay Matthews 13 30
2012 Eli Manning 15 Peyton Manning 15 30
2018 Jason Kelce 13 Travis Kelce 15 28
2018 J.J. Watt 16 T.J. Watt 11 27
1993 Shannon Sharpe 11 Sterling Sharpe 15 26
2014 Maurkice Pouncey 14 Mike Pouncey 8 22
2019 Joey Bosa 11 Nick Bosa 11 22

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

AV backs up the read on the Mannings’ combined peak in 2012 and yields other results that line up with what you might expect. The Watts’ best campaign, when they combined for 29 sacks in 2018, gave way to that of the younger Bosas (20.5) the next year. The Kelces had their top cumulative season smack dab between Jason’s Super Bowl win and Travis’s.

The shocker, of course, is up top — cornerback Ronde and running back Tiki Barber combining for a whopping 38 AV in 2005. Unlike the aforementioned examples, their top year has no tidy narrative to pin it in the mind. Ronde’s Buccaneers were a few seasons removed from their Super Bowl win, and though his five picks and 20 passes defensed made for a good year of work by any measure, they didn’t match his sparkling numbers in 2001 (10 and 24). Tiki, at age 30, piled up counting stats (116 rushing yards per game, a league-best 2,390 yards from scrimmage) for a Giants team that, like the Bucs, stalled out in the wild-card round.

AV is designed to start conversations, not end them. “We can’t be very confident that the 16AV player actually had a better season than the 14AV player,” Pro-Football-Reference.com founder Doug Drinen wrote of the metric. “But I am pretty confident that the collection of all players with 16AV played better, as an entire group, than the collection of all players with 14AV.”

Other stats can better isolate individual contributions. For quarterbacks and skill-position players, I used Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) rankings; for the rest, Pro Football Focus’s player grades. This won’t work fully for the Barbers and first-generation Matthewses (due to PFF’s not existing yet),2 but looking at the rankings for each set of brothers can still help us put the rest of these doubly accomplished seasons into context.


What makes Patrick Mahomes so great? | FiveThirtyEight

In true brotherly fashion, we’ll first say this: Everyone in this group is a winner. Still, the approach revealed some inter-family gaps. In 2018, J.J. Watt graded out as the NFL’s second-best edge rusher, per PFF; T.J. checked in in the 30th slot, pulling down the average. In their best year, Joey and Nick Bosa landed at sixth and 12th (again, per PFF), respectively, while Shannon and Sterling Sharpe finished first and 18th among tight ends and wideouts (according to DYAR). The Mannings, in 2012, graded out second and tenth in DYAR,3 but the Kelces’ 2018 masterpiece topped it. That year, with Jason mashing everyone in sight (his pass- and run-block grades were nearly identical) and Travis clearing 1,300 yards while swiveling in for 10 touchdowns in his first year alongside Patrick Mahomes, they finished as the top-rated center (PFF) and second-best tight end (DYAR) in football.

We can also use this approach to check in on the Diggs brothers. They don’t rank nearly has highly as our Pro Bowl pairs, in large part due to Stefon’s downturn this season (from second in DYAR last year to 20th halfway through this one, averaging 1.7 fewer catches and a dozen fewer yards per game) and Trevon’s penchant for giving up yardage over the top as he chases interceptions. Still, they’re playing starring roles on title contenders! Look at Stefon dusting a DB on an in-breaker or Trevon picking two passes in two minutes, and tell me their work isn’t fit for the ol’ photo album.

No matter how effective the back halves of their seasons, Stefon and Trevon Diggs seem unlikely to crack the top of the class. (Even if Trevon reaches with double-digit picks, they come at a cost.) There’s still another goal out there for them, though. No brothers have ever made Pro Bowl rosters and faced off in a Super Bowl in the same season. Per FiveThirtyEight’s projections, they’ve got a 3.9 chance at a February reunion in L.A.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. And since AV is limited to players, we’re losing coaching siblings, like Jim and John Harbaugh or Rob and Rex Ryan.

  2. The family will have to settle for Clay VII winning defensive player of the year sometime in the 2100s.

  3. You know who was who.

Robert O’Connell is a writer from Kansas. His work can be found on The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and elsewhere.

Comments