SITE NEWS: We are moving all of our site and company news into a single blog for Sports-Reference.com. We'll tag all PFR content, so you can quickly and easily find the content you want.

Also, our existing PFR blog rss feed will be redirected to the new site's feed.

Pro-Football-Reference.com ยป Sports Reference

For more from Chase and Jason, check out their work at Football Perspective and The Big Lead.

Most pick-sixes in NFL history

Posted by Chase Stuart on October 15, 2010

Note: The initial post was based on an inaccurate query. Our apologies for the mistake. The below numbers are now accurate.

Which quarterback has thrown the most interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in league history? While we don't have that exact data available, we can do a reasonably job of answering that question based on the tools we do have here at PFR, which include:

  • Individual game logs for all players, showing all interceptions thrown, dating back to 1960
  • Individual season logs for all players, showing all interceptions thrown, dating back to 1920
  • Scoring logs for all scores, showing all interceptions returned for a touchdown, dating back to 1940

For any game from 1960 to 2009 (2010 data not included), we can do a very good job approximating who threw the pick-six. For the vast majority of teams, only one player (at most) will throw an interception in any given game. Fifty years from now, if you look at the box score from this past Monday night, you will be able to know for sure that Brett Favre threw the interception that Dwight Lowery returned for a touchdown. The Vikings threw just one interception, and it was by Favre, so Favre must have thrown the pick-six. It doesn't matter if the team has thrown five interceptions, as long as all were thrown by the same guy, such as Keith Null against the Titans last year.

The problem games are the ones where multiple players, usually quarterbacks, threw interceptions. For example, against the Patriots earlier this season, Chad Henne threw three interceptions and Tyler Thigpen threw one. We can check the game log to see that Chung's interception came on a pass from Henne, but we don't have game logs dating back to 1960. The shortcut we'll use? Award Henne 0.75 pick-sixes and Thigpen 0.25; obviously this isn't perfect, but over the course of a player's career, I think this will work well as an approximation.

For games from 1940 to 1960, we'll have to be quite a bit rougher with our approximation. In this 1957 game against the Packers, Jack Christiansen scored on a 29-yard interception return. Whom do we blame on the Packers for that? In 1957, Babe Parilli threw 12 interceptions, Bart Starr threw 10, and Ron Kramer threw 1 for Green Bat; as a result, Christiansen's pick-six gets recorded as 0.52 P-6s for Parilli, 0.43 for Starr and 0.04 for Kramer. That's the best we can do for the pre-1960 games.

Once you go through every game from 1940 and 2009, using the system described above, it's easy to tally a career list. So which quarterback has thrown the most approximate pick-sixes in league history? Prepared to be floored:

player Total Reg Post Att INT Years
Brett Favre 32.3 28.3 4.0 9811 317 1991--2009
Dan Marino 29.5 28.5 1.0 8358 252 1983--1999
Joe Namath 25.8 25.8 0.0 3762 220 1965--1977
Norm Snead 23.3 23.3 0.0 4353 257 1961--1976
Vinny Testaverde 22.7 22.7 0.0 6701 267 1987--2007
Babe Parilli 21.5 21.5 0.0 3330 220 1952--1969
Steve DeBerg 20.2 20.2 0.0 5024 204 1978--1998
Kerry Collins 19.7 18.7 1.0 5885 187 1995--2009
John Elway 19.0 18.0 1.0 7250 226 1983--1998
George Blanda 18.1 18.1 0.0 4007 277 1949--1975
Kurt Warner 17.5 15.5 2.0 4070 128 1998--2009
Lynn Dickey 17.1 16.1 1.0 3125 179 1971--1985
Ken Stabler 17.0 15.0 2.0 3793 222 1970--1984
Johnny Unitas 17.0 16.0 1.0 5186 253 1956--1973
Peyton Manning 17.0 15.0 2.0 6531 181 1998--2009
Warren Moon 16.0 16.0 0.0 6823 233 1984--2000
Frank Tripucka 15.6 15.6 0.0 1745 124 1949--1963
Steve McNair 15.3 13.3 2.0 4544 119 1995--2007
Drew Bledsoe 15.0 15.0 0.0 6717 206 1993--2006
Sonny Jurgensen 14.8 13.8 1.0 4262 189 1957--1974
Mark Brunell 14.5 13.5 1.0 4624 107 1994--2009
Jon Kitna 14.5 14.5 0.0 4114 151 1997--2008
Brad Johnson 14.0 12.0 2.0 4326 122 1994--2008
Len Dawson 14.0 14.0 0.0 3741 183 1957--1975
John Hadl 13.7 12.7 1.0 4687 268 1962--1977
Phil Simms 13.7 13.7 0.0 4647 157 1979--1993
Joey Harrington 13.7 13.7 0.0 2538 85 2002--2007
Fran Tarkenton 13.3 12.3 1.0 6467 266 1961--1978
Tobin Rote 13.3 13.3 0.0 2907 191 1950--1966
Jim Kelly 13.3 12.3 1.0 4779 175 1986--1996
Jim Zorn 13.2 13.2 0.0 3149 141 1976--1987
Craig Morton 13.2 11.9 1.3 3786 187 1965--1982
Sammy Baugh 13.1 12.3 0.8 2995 203 1937--1952
Jim Everett 13.0 13.0 0.0 4923 175 1986--1997
Don Meredith 12.9 12.2 0.8 2308 111 1960--1968
Jake Plummer 12.9 12.9 0.0 4350 161 1997--2006
Bob Griese 12.9 11.4 1.5 3429 172 1967--1980
Jim Hart 12.8 10.8 2.0 5076 247 1966--1984
Brian Griese 12.8 12.8 0.0 2796 99 1998--2008
Chris Chandler 12.7 12.7 0.0 4005 146 1988--2004
John Brodie 12.6 12.6 0.0 4491 224 1957--1973
Jim Plunkett 12.5 11.5 1.0 3701 198 1971--1986
Troy Aikman 12.5 11.0 1.5 4715 141 1989--2000
Trent Dilfer 12.5 12.5 0.0 3172 129 1994--2007
Tommy Kramer 12.5 11.2 1.3 3651 158 1977--1990
Dan Fouts 12.3 12.3 0.0 5604 242 1973--1987
Ben Roethlisberger 12.0 9.0 3.0 2411 81 2004--2009
Dave Krieg 11.9 11.9 0.0 5311 199 1980--1998
Jeff George 11.7 11.7 0.0 3967 113 1990--2001
Richard Todd 11.6 10.6 1.0 2967 161 1976--1985
Bobby Hebert 11.3 10.3 1.0 3121 124 1985--1996
Jeff Blake 11.3 11.3 0.0 3241 99 1992--2005
Charley Johnson 11.3 11.3 0.0 3392 181 1961--1975
Elvis Grbac 11.2 11.2 0.0 2445 81 1994--2001
Y.A. Tittle 11.1 10.1 1.0 4395 248 1948--1964
Stan Humphries 11.1 11.1 0.0 2516 84 1989--1997
Roman Gabriel 11.1 11.1 0.0 4498 149 1962--1977
Jeff Garcia 11.0 11.0 0.0 3676 83 1999--2009
Jake Delhomme 11.0 11.0 0.0 2755 94 1999--2009
Steve Grogan 10.8 9.8 1.0 3593 208 1975--1990
Boomer Esiason 10.8 10.8 0.0 5205 184 1984--1997
Chris Miller 10.8 10.8 0.0 2892 102 1987--1999
Gus Frerotte 10.7 10.7 0.0 3106 106 1994--2008
Archie Manning 10.7 10.7 0.0 3642 173 1971--1984
Wade Wilson 10.7 9.2 1.5 2428 102 1981--1998
Norm Van Brocklin 10.2 9.4 0.9 2895 178 1949--1960
Rich Gannon 10.1 6.8 3.3 4206 104 1987--2004
Earl Morrall 10.1 10.1 0.0 2689 148 1956--1976
Terry Bradshaw 10.0 8.0 2.0 3901 210 1970--1983
Jay Fiedler 9.7 8.7 1.0 1717 66 1995--2005
Gary Hogeboom 9.6 8.6 1.0 1325 60 1980--1989
Carson Palmer 9.5 9.5 0.0 2631 80 2004--2009
Drew Brees 9.5 9.5 0.0 4164 110 2001--2009
Marc Bulger 9.3 9.3 0.0 3171 93 2002--2009
Ed Brown 9.2 9.2 0.0 1987 138 1954--1965
Scott Mitchell 9.2 7.9 1.3 2346 81 1991--2001
Milt Plum 9.1 8.7 0.4 2419 127 1957--1969
Bart Starr 9.1 9.1 0.0 3149 138 1956--1971
Danny White 9.0 8.0 1.0 2950 132 1976--1988
Mark Rypien 9.0 8.0 1.0 2613 88 1988--2001
Otto Graham 8.9 8.9 0.0 2626 135 1946--1955
Donovan McNabb 8.8 5.8 3.0 4746 100 1999--2009
Randy Johnson 8.7 8.7 0.0 1286 90 1966--1976
Ken Anderson 8.7 7.7 1.0 4475 160 1971--1986
Joe Montana 8.6 6.4 2.2 5391 139 1979--1994
Mike Tomczak 8.6 7.6 1.0 2337 106 1985--1999
Tim Couch 8.5 8.5 0.0 1714 67 1999--2003
Bill Nelsen 8.5 8.5 0.0 1905 101 1963--1972
Zeke Bratkowski 8.2 8.2 0.0 1484 122 1954--1971
Bert Jones 8.2 8.2 0.0 2551 101 1973--1982
Don Majkowski 8.1 7.5 0.7 1905 67 1987--1996
Charlie Conerly 8.0 7.3 0.7 2833 167 1948--1961
Chad Pennington 8.0 6.0 2.0 2469 64 2000--2009
Eli Manning 8.0 8.0 0.0 2793 88 2004--2009
Steve Walsh 8.0 8.0 0.0 1317 50 1989--1999
Jim McMahon 8.0 8.0 0.0 2573 90 1982--1996
Eddie LeBaron 8.0 8.0 0.0 1796 141 1952--1963
Bubby Brister 7.9 7.9 0.0 2212 78 1986--2000
Rudy Bukich 7.7 7.7 0.0 1190 74 1953--1968
Billy Wade 7.6 7.5 0.1 2523 134 1954--1966
Jack Kemp 7.5 7.5 0.0 3073 183 1957--1969
Billy Kilmer 7.5 7.5 0.0 2984 146 1961--1978
Steve Beuerlein 7.5 7.0 0.5 3328 112 1988--2003
Joe Kapp 7.5 7.5 0.0 918 64 1967--1970
Tommy Maddox 7.3 7.3 0.0 1200 54 1992--2005
Tom Brady 7.3 7.3 0.0 4218 99 2000--2009
Neil O'Donnell 7.2 7.2 0.0 3229 68 1991--2003
Daunte Culpepper 7.0 7.0 0.0 3199 106 1999--2009
Matt Hasselbeck 7.0 6.0 1.0 3835 111 1999--2009
Bernie Kosar 7.0 7.0 0.0 3365 87 1985--1996
David Carr 7.0 7.0 0.0 2251 70 2002--2009

We can get a little more precise when it comes to Favre. In two of his games, he was credited with two-thirds of an interception, which explains why he's listed with 32-and-a-third interceptions returned for touchdowns in his career. In '08, against the Chargers, Favre threw two interceptions and Kellen Clemens threw one. A quick check at the play log confirms that it was one of Favre's interceptions that was returned for a touchdown. The other interception in question? It famously came on Favre's first pass, as detailed by Peter King here. So we can verify that Favre threw 33 interceptions from 1991 to 2009 that were returned for scores, and Lowery's return was the 34th overall and his 30th in regular season play.

As for Marino, we can do a similar analysis. He has only one interception in question, which came on a game played on October 2nd, 1983. Thanks to the PFR commenters, we've learned that Marino was the responsible party for that interception, and thus he ended his career with 30 interceptions returned for touchdowns, with one of those coming during the post-season.

That means Lowery's pick-six this past week was historic: it was Favre's 30th such interception in regular season history, breaking the tie he held with Marino. Thanks to three pick-sixes against the Rams in 2001, Favre already held the record for most career pick-sixes thrown, regular and post-season combined.

This entry was posted on Friday, October 15th, 2010 at 7:03 am and is filed under Quarterbacks, Statgeekery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.