Which Player Caught the Most Interceptions in a Season?

While Tua Tagovailoa is the one grabbing the most headlines in Miami right now, it’s cornerback Xavien Howard whom many pundits consider to be the team’s “X-factor”. The 2016 second-rounder and third year pro football veteran has catapulted himself back into relevance by nabbing nine interceptions in just 13 games on the season so far. With three games left to play, that puts Howard firmly on pace to become the first player to reach double-digit interceptions since Antonio Cromartie all the way back in 2007. There’s no doubt that this will be a fun storyline to watch for the remainder of the season, but another question remains: will Howard have a shot at setting a record in this category? And which player caught the most interceptions in a season? I took a deep dive in order to find out.

Hall of Famer Night Train Lane (yes, that’s his real name according to Pro Football Reference), caught 14 interceptions all the way back in 1952. No player has caught more since at least 1940, when the stat started being included in game-level data.

In the past 55 years, only three players have managed to nab 12+ interceptions in a single season, and ten other players managed to accomplish the feat prior to 1965 (Lane included). I’ve compiled the complete list below for the pure fun of it.

T-5th Place: Nine Players – 12 Interceptions

Bob Nussbaumer, Chicago Cardinals (1949)

Robert John Nussbaumer, also known as “Bomber” in keeping with the final two syllables of his last name, became the second player ever to reach the 12-interception threshold during his 1949 season. He compiled 157 return yards on those plays.

That season was a pure anomaly for Nussbaumer, accounting for three-quarters of all interceptions over the course of his six-year career as a mostly part-time player. In addition to the Cardinals, he also played for the Packers and Redskins. As a former Marine, Nussbaumer was particularly disciplined, which is probably why he made a great coach for several years after he retired.

Woodley Lewis, Los Angeles Rams (1950)

You may have guessed this already, but most of the names on this list might not be ones that you’ll recognize. Woodley Lewis, however, was a Pro Bowler in his 1950 rookie season, and a key piece for the Rams for several seasons thereafter.

Lewis went on to play a total of 11 NFL seasons, ten of them for the Rams and the Cardinals. He was mostly seen as a kick returner throughout the course of his career, and only topped three interceptions in one other campaign (1953). After he retired, Lewis invested in a 36-lane bowling alley with an adjacent restaurant and cocktail lounge.

Don Doll, Detroit Lions (1950)

1950 was a remarkable year for the all-time interceptions leaderboards, with three of the top thirteen performances coming in that particular season. Despite his last name, Doll was ferocious enough to be part of that trio, and returned his 12 interceptions for a massive total of 301 yards. It was his sophomore season, and the first of four in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl.

Unlike the previous two players on this list, Doll’s 12-interception season was anything but an anomaly. He also managed to snag 11 picks over the course of his rookie season in 1949, and he caught 10 interceptions in 1953. That’d make him the one and only player in the entire history of the NFL to accrue a double-digit interceptions total in three different seasons.

Jack Christiansen, Detroit Lions (1953)

In most seasons, Doll’s ten interceptions would have the league. In 1953, however, he wasn’t even the leader on his own team. Hall of Famer and six-time First Team All-Pro defensive back Jack Christiansen earned that honor by returning 12 interceptions for 238 total yards, the bulk of which came on a wild 92-yard pick six. He also recovered three fumbles that season, making him responsible for a total of 15 turnovers.

Christiansen’s career totals are eye-popping. He intercepted a whopping 46 passes over the course of his nine professional seasons, recovered seven fumbles, and fought through opposing special teams for a total of eight punt return touchdowns. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked him among the 100 greatest football players of all time. After his playing career, Christiansen went on to coach at both the collegiate and NFL level.

Fred Glick, Houston Oilers (1963)

I’d prefer to reference Glick by his full name, Frederick Couture Glick, because it makes him sound so much fancier than the abbreviated alternative. After being a pretty decent player for the Oilers during 1961 and 1962, Glick absolutely exploded in 1963 with 12 interceptions, including a pick six. His tremendous overall performance earned him a First-Team All Pro nod.

Though Glick continued to be a serviceable player throughout the remainder of his career, he was never again quite able to recreate the defensive rampage he went on in 1963. He closed out his career with a total of 30 interceptions across eight seasons, and all of those interceptions came during his six seasons with the Oilers.

Paul Krause, Washington Redskins (1964)

Hall of Famer Paul Krause is the second-youngest player to make this list, having reeled in 12 interceptions during his rookie season at the age of just 22. It was the catalyst to a long and dominant career as defensive juggernaut. Over the course of his 16 professional seasons, Krause intercepted 81 passes, which is of course an NFL record and one that will probably never be broken as long as we live.

Not only did Krause compile 81 interceptions in his career, but he also recovered 19 fumbles, meaning he was responsible for 100 total turnovers over the course of his career. Again, that’s something that no player will probably ever accomplish again unless something about NFL gameplay changes dramatically.

Dainard Paulson, New York Jets (1964)

Back when the Jets weren’t an embarrassment to football, Paulson compiled 12 interceptions in just 11 games. Interestingly enough, they seemed to come in pairs for the California native. He had four different games in which he intercepted exactly two passes, which by today’s standards seems pretty spectacular.

His titanic effort in 1964 notwithstanding, Paulson had a good but not great career overall. He intercepted seven passes the following season and six the year prior, but not much else about his career statistics really stands out. Paulson retired at the age of 29 after playing six professional seasons, and currently resides in Salem, Washington doing who knows what.

Emmitt Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs (1974)

Yet another Hall of Famer on this list, Thomas remarkably had at least one interception in ten different games during the 1974 season. Imagine what an NFL team would do today in exchange for being able to rely on a player for at least one turnover in nearly every game they played. Thomas’ picks included two that he returned for touchdowns, the most awesome of which was a 73-yard pick six.

Thomas also earned a place on the all-time interceptions leaderboards, checking in at number twelve on the list with 58. He returned those picks for a combined 937 yards, for an average of about 16 yards per catch. In addition to 1974, he led the league in interceptions on one other occasion, amassing nine in 1969.

Mike Reinfeldt, Houston Oilers (1979)

The Oakland Raiders probably regretted giving up on Reinfeldt halfway through his rookie season and trading him to the Oilers, who benefitted from his defensive aptitude for several seasons thereafter. The one season in which he truly stood out was a 1979 campaign in which he returned 12 interceptions for an average of 17 yards apiece.

Reinfeldt is fairly unique in that he’s one of very few safeties throughout NFL history to compile this many receptions. There’s nothing scientific about this guess, but I’d say he must have had remarkable speed in order to cover so much ground and make these interceptions; while a cornerback is typically guarding one receiver specifically on each play, a safety is more likely to be assigned a wide zone coverage.

T-2nd Place: Three Players – 13 Interceptions

Dan Sandifer, Washington Redskins (1948)

Not only was Sandifer the first player ever to reach 12 interceptions in a single season, but to this day he’s still the youngest player ever to do so. At the tender age of 21, Sandifer put on a clinic against opposing defenses by nabbing 13 opponents’ passes and recovering four fumbles.

Sandifer ended up being something of a one-hit wonder, though. After his ridiculous rookie season, he was shuffled around between several different teams (including being traded twice in 1950), and was never able to repeat the type of performances he put up in ‘48.

Spec Sanders, New York Yanks (1950)

We jump from the youngest player ever to reach 12 interceptions in a season, to the oldest. And yes, you read that right: there was a football team called the New York Yanks. In the final season of his short, four-year career, Sanders returned 13 interceptions for 199 yards.

Sanders was an incredible rusher and receiver who retired in 1948 due to knee problems. When the Yanks lured him out of retirement to play another season in 1950, he agreed to do so as a defensive player, and responded by frustrating the hell out of opposing quarterbacks.

Lester Hayes, Oakland Raiders (1980)

Only one player in the past 67 years has managed to intercept at least 13 passes in a single season, and that player is Lester Hayes. It wasn’t his only good season in the NFL, but it certainly was his best by a wide margin — Hayes only topped four interceptions in one other season (7, in 1979).

In ten seasons for the Raiders franchise, Hayes intercepted 39 passes, four of which he returned for touchdowns. He owes a large amount of credit for his success in 1980 to a substance called Stickum, which was a foreign substance used by players to help the football stick to their hands. After Hayes’ 13-interception season, the substance was banned by the league.

1st Place: Night Train Lane, Los Angeles Rams – 14 Interceptions (1952)

It’s unlikely that any player will ever be able to break or even match Lane’s record, because today’s very different style of gameplay makes it nearly impossible for one player to be omnipresent in the way that Lane was during his rookie season in 1952. Lane intercepted 14 passes and returned them for a whopping 298 yards, including a pair of touchdowns.

That season gave him a great start to a career in which he ultimately reeled in 68 interceptions, good for fourth place on the career interceptions leaderboard. Lane is of course in the Hall of Fame, along with all three players above him on that list. 

Featured image courtesy of Marco Verch Professional Photographer, via Flickr.

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