Starting in 1957, the Associated Press began naming its Most Valuable Player each season. During the '60s, the AP gave two MVPs, one to (in its mind) the most deserving NFLer and one to (in its mind) the most deserving AFLer. For our purposes, I'm going to consider each of the AP awards in the '60s as co-MVPs, along with the two co-MVPs awarded since the merger. That leaves us with 32 QB MVPs, 16.5 RB MVPs and 3.5 MVPs given to other players.
The point of this post isn't to show that numbers rule and sportswriters drool, or that I could do a better job of picking the 1965 AFL MVP than the Associated Press. Rather, I'm doing this for two reasons. One, checking the annual award winner lets me play with my QB Rating formula and my soon to be released RB Rating formula, along with (on occasion) my recent WR rating system. It serves as a nice check on my formulas to see how the MVP ranked each year compared to his peers at the position. Two, you learn a lot by researching, and studying why and who won each award can be pretty fun. I'm not taking the ratings as gospel or claiming their superiority, but rather they let me get into discussing what I really enjoy: NFL history.
Let's start with the RBs. Barry Sanders won the co-MVP in 1997, and three AFL and three NFL RBs won the award in the '60s. Here's the list, with the number on the right showing how the RB ranked that season in my (unreleased) RB rating formula.
2006 NFL LaDainian Tomlinson 1
2005 NFL Shaun Alexander 1
2000 NFL Marshall Faulk 1
1998 NFL Terrell Davis 1
1997 NFL Barry Sanders 1
1993 NFL Emmitt Smith 1
1991 NFL Thurman Thomas 2
1985 NFL Marcus Allen 1
1979 NFL Earl Campbell 1
1977 NFL Walter Payton 1
1973 NFL O.J. Simpson 1
1972 NFL Larry Brown Jr. 1
1966 AFL Jim Nance 1 (1)
1965 NFL Jim Brown 1 (1)
1962 NFL Jim Taylor 1 (1)
1962 AFL Cookie Gilchrist 2 (3)
1961 NFL Paul Hornung 6 (11)
1960 AFL Abner Haynes 1 (4)
1958 NFL Jim Brown 1
1957 NFL Jim Brown 1
The numbers in parentheses represent the players overall ranks if you combine the two leagues. If a RB ranked 1st in the league among RBs, I'll generally just assume that he deserved the award as comparing RBs to QBs and WRs is pretty dicey. But I thought it might be interesting to explore the other seasons.
In 1991, Thurman Thomas ranked just a hair behind Barry Sanders in my rating system, so I'm more than okay with Thomas getting that award considering Thomas led the Bills to the best record in the AFC. That was the year the Lions made it to the NFCCG and Sanders led his team to a 12-4 record, but Thomas did have more total yards than Sanders.
In 1962, Gilchrist led the AFL in rushing but only by 47 yards over Abner Haynes. Haynes led his team to the championship that season, had four more TDs, 350 more receiving yards and three fewer fumbles. Gilchrist served as the team's primary FG kicker that year, so perhaps that factored into the voting. Even adjusted for era he was a terrible kicker that season, but roster spots were scarce at the time so there is probably some value there.
Then there's Paul Hornung's 1961 MVP award, which at first glance seems entirely unjustifiable. 1960 was his big TD and scoring season, but in 1961 here were the top RBs in the NFL:
Tm Rsh Ryd YPC Rec Yds YScm RRTD
Jim Brown CLE 305 1408 4.6 46 459 1867 10
Jim Taylor GNB 243 1307 5.4 25 175 1482 16
Alex Webster NYG 196 928 4.7 26 313 1241 5
Willie Galimore CHI 153 707 4.6 33 502 1209 7
J.D. Smith SFO 167 823 4.9 28 343 1166 9
Nick Pietrosante DET 201 841 4.2 26 315 1156 5
Don Perkins DAL 200 815 4.1 32 298 1113 5
John Henry Johnson PIT 213 787 3.7 24 262 1049 7
Joe Perry BAL 168 675 4.0 34 322 997 4
Clarence Peaks PHI 135 471 3.5 32 472 943 5
Jon Arnett RAM 158 609 3.9 28 194 803 4
Paul Hornung GNB 127 597 4.7 15 145 742 10
Hornung had only one fumble and didn't play in two other games, so his numbers are probably more impressive than some of the guys on the bottom of the table. But he looks far behind Smith, Galimore and Webster and light years behind Taylor and Brown. Brown already had two MVP awards but how could the second most valuable Packers RB be the MVP of the league? Probably because like Gilchrist, he was the team's primary kicker. Unlike Gilchrist, Hornung was terrific and the best kicker in the NFL that season. Still, there's only so much value to be had as a kicker, and this award stands out as absurd if you look at him as just a RB and still unjustified when you consider the total package. I know he was a special teamer and a lead blocker and a affable fellow, but he ranked 13th in rushing yards in a 14 team league.
Overall, it looks like when a RB wins the MVP award he's usually the most dominant (according to my system) statistical RB in the league. That's less frequently the case at quarterback. In '03, Manning and McNair split the award and in '97 Favre and Sanders won co-MVPs. Seven NFL QBs and six AFL QBs won the award in the '60s. The full list:
2008 NFL Peyton Manning 5
2007 NFL Tom Brady 1
2004 NFL Peyton Manning 1
2003 NFL Peyton Manning 1
2003 NFL Steve McNair 2
2002 NFL Rich Gannon 1
2001 NFL Kurt Warner 1
1999 NFL Kurt Warner 1
1997 NFL Brett Favre 3
1996 NFL Brett Favre 1
1995 NFL Brett Favre 1
1994 NFL Steve Young 1
1992 NFL Steve Young 1
1990 NFL Joe Montana 5
1989 NFL Joe Montana 1
1988 NFL Boomer Esiason 1
1987 NFL John Elway 2
1984 NFL Dan Marino 1
1983 NFL Joe Theismann 1
1981 NFL Ken Anderson 2
1980 NFL Brian Sipe 1
1978 NFL Terry Bradshaw 5
1976 NFL Bert Jones 1
1975 NFL Fran Tarkenton 2
1974 NFL Ken Stabler 2
1970 NFL John Brodie 1
1969 NFL Roman Gabriel 1 (2)
1969 AFL Joe Namath 2 (4)
1968 NFL Earl Morrall 1 (3)
1968 AFL Joe Namath 3 (4)
1967 NFL Johnny Unitas 3 (4)
1967 AFL Daryle Lamonica 2 (5)
1966 NFL Bart Starr 1 (2)
1965 AFL Jack Kemp 14 (34)
1964 NFL Johnny Unitas 1 (1)
1963 NFL Y.A. Tittle 2 (2)
1963 AFL Tobin Rote 1 (3)
1961 AFL George Blanda 1 (1)
1960 NFL Norm Van Brocklin 2 (2)
In '08, Manning comes in way behind Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, who both had outstanding seasons. Brees threw for over 5,000 yards and was sacked just 13 times. One of the great qualities about Brees is his ability to make quick decisions -- he's ranked in the top three in sack rate each year since moving to the Saints. Rivers had 4,000 yards and 34 TDs on just 478 attempts -- the fewest in league history by a member of the 4,000/30 club. Kurt Warner and Chad Pennington had very good seasons leading bad teams to big seasons. Both were mentioned in MVP talks, too. Manning won because he's Manning, and he led a bunch of fourth quarter comebacks, and what he did considering the state of his knee was downright amazing. And really, Manning's (or Brady's) been the most valuable player in the league almost every year, even if the statistics don't show it. That said, his production was down in 2008, and even though he may be the best QB in the league, Rivers or Brees would have been better choices. Rivers got some revenge in the playoffs, at least, unlike some other Chargers QB.
In 2003, Manning and McNair were both deserving MVP candidates, and a split award was appropriate there.
In 1997, Favre's co-MVP was not unjustifiable, but it was probably unnecessary. Sanders had an all time great year and several other QBs were about as good as Favre. Favre's raw numbers were terrific, as usual, but he threw more than twice as many INTs as Steve Young or Mark Brunell. He was the defending MVP and SB Champion and had a great season, but I would have preferred to see Sanders win that alone.
In 1990, Montana was the defending MVP and SB Champ, and was Joe Cool. What he wasn't, was one of the top three QBs in the league that year. Warren Moon had the best season of his HOF career, Steve DeBerg had a fluky but incredible season (23 TD/4 INT, fourth in the league in raw yards per attempt) and Randall Cunningham had a good passing season and 942 rushing yards and five TDs. Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas were the best RBs in the league (as they were in '91) but neither had abnormally big seasons. Jim Kelly also rated ahead of Joe Montana, but was not nearly as deserving as Moon or DeBerg or Cunningham.
In '87 there were four great QBs -- Kosar, Elway, Montana and Marino. Any of them could have been argued for MVP, along with Jerry Rice (22 TDs). None of these QBs had big time seasons and in this strike year, only Rice was historically great. I would have given it to him.
In '81, Ken Anderson and Dan Fouts were terrific, and both were worthy MVPs. Fouts had much bigger raw numbers while Anderson threw for slightly more adjusted net yards per attempt and chipped in 320 rushing yards. Anderson's team had the best record in the AFC and that probably pushed him over the edge; Fouts didn't exact much revenge when the two met in the AFC Championship Game that season. That game was arguably the coldest game in NFL history.
Terry Bradshaw's MVP in 1978 wasn't too bad of a choice, either. Bradshaw ranked fifth in value, behind Staubach, Manning, Fouts and Sipe. Staubach had one of his typical great years but didn’t have a career year. This was the best year of Archie’s career after adjusting for era, as ‘78 was really the last season in the dead ball era. The league average was 3.66 ANY/A (with a passing TD being equal to 10 yards) and it’s never been below 4.00 since then. This was also Fouts’ first breakout season. Suffice it to say, this was a close call and I can't find fault with the voters that chose Bradshaw. He lead the league in passing TDs and took the Steelers to a 14-2 record. While Staubach's regular season numbers were probably better (on the strength of a lower INT rate), Bradshaw outdueled him in the classic Super Bowl XIII.
No one loves Fran Tarkenton more than me, but he didn't really deserve his '75 MVP. Ken Anderson averaged a full yard more adjusted net yards per pass attempt that season and also outgained him on the ground. Anderson had a huge season, and along with John Brodie (1970) and Bert Jones ('76) had one of the three best QB years of the decade. Anderson shouldn't have won it, either, though. O.J. Simpson had what I consider to be the best season in RB history, with 1817 rushing yards (runner up: Franco Harris at 1246), 23 TDs and 426 receiving yards. As referenced here, O.J. also had the greatest fantasy season ever in '75.
What about '74? Anderson, Stabler and Tarkenton were the best QBs in the league that year, although Stabler led the league in ANY/A. I've got Anderson a smudge higher because of his good rushing numbers, but I can understand why Stabler (12-2) won the award over Anderson (7-7).
In 1969, Joe Namath won the AFL MVP award but he didn't produce the best numbers that year. While he and Lamonica averaged nearly the same ANY/A, Daryle Lamonica did it over more passes, he beat Namath head to head, he quarterbacked the team with the best record in the league, and helped the Raiders lead the AFL in scoring. Namath won the MVP in '68, too, and once again Lamonica (or Dawson) would have been worthy. Len Dawson averaged an absurd 8.4 adjusted net yards per attempt (league average was just 4.8), but he only threw 224 passes. Lamonica and Namath posted similar numbers, with Namath amassing more yards per pass and more pass attempts overall and Lamonica throwing more TDs and fewer INTs. Of course, Namath won the Super Bowl in '68, so he justified the award by season's end.
Ironically, in '67, Lamonica won the award but Namath finished as the top QB. He was the first (and only QB) to throw for 4,000 yards before the move to the 16 game season, and while he threw more INT than TD, he still edged out Lamonica in my system as the top QB. John Hadl also had a big year, and Dawson had a typical Dawson-like season.
In the NFL, four QBs stood out, not counting eventual SB MVP Bart Starr. Sonny Jurgensen (who was throwing to two HOF WRs), Fran Tarkenton, Unitas and Roman Gabriel all were worthy MVPs that season. The Redskins and Giants weren't very good, so you can see why Jurgensen and Tarkenton didn't win. Gabriel and Unitas were on the two best teams in the NFL, and due to the unfair NFL playoff structure at the time (and the subsequent tiebreaker), only one of them could make the playoffs. In the final game of the season, Gabriel went 18-22 for 257 yards and 3 TDs, leading the host Rams to a victory over the Colts. The Fearsome Foursome helped the Rams get seven sacks that day.
And then there's 1965 and Jack Kemp. Paul Lowe had the best season of his very good career and he won the UPI and TSN AFL MVP award that season. Lowe was a deserving winner as was teammate John Hadl. Hadl and Len Dawson ranked as the top two QBs in the AFL that season, with rookie Joe Namath a distant third. Kemp's 14th place rating is misleading because my grade is relative to the league average -- once you fall below average you rate behind every QB with a small number of attempts. Comparing him to replacement value (75% of league average) instead of league average bumps Kemp up from 14th to 4th. But how in the world does Kemp win over Hadl (or Lowe), Dawson or Namath?
player team g cmp att pyd ptd int ay/a
Dawson kan 14 163 305 2262 21 14 6.04
Hadl sdg 14 174 348 2798 20 21 5.90
Namath nyj 13 164 340 2220 18 15 5.07
Kemp buf 14 179 391 2368 10 18 4.24
We don't have individual sack numbers from 1965, but according to the team pages, Len Dawson was probably sacked a bit more often than average, Namath a bit less than average, and Hadl and Kemp right about average. So why Kemp? The Bills had the best record in the AFL East and beat the Chargers in the AFL Championship Game. But Kemp's AFL MVP stands out as the last time a QB will ever win the MVP when he throws 8 more INTs than TDs. Even if you don't love any of those QBs or Paul Lowe, there was an obvious choice for MVP that season. Lance Alworth had maybe the greatest WR season ever, with his 1602 receiving yards more than doubling the fourth best WR that season, and his 14 TDs weren't too shabby, either. The only reason that Alworth's season does not come out as #1 in my rating system is because of the AFL adjustment, which is obviously not relevant when discussing the AFL MVP.
The last two NFL MVP QBs to discuss are Y.A. Tittle in '63 and Norm Van Brocklin in '60. For starters, Jim Brown was the obvious choice for MVP in '63, when he had the best season of his career, the best season by any RB at that time and what still stands (in my system) as a top five season in RB history. As far as QBs go, though, Tittle and Unitas were by far the class of the league in '63 and either would have been a worthy choice (if not for Brown). Tittle set the record for passing TDs in a season that year and had a higher ANY/A than Unitas, who edged him out ever so slighty in my system because of his edge in pass attempts.
1960 was not the same. Milt Plum produced much better statistics, although perhaps they deserve an asterisk. The Eagles won the NFL Championship and had a better record than Cleveland, but the Browns led the league in points differential and lost their three games by a combined ten points. While Plum and NVB had almost identical numbers, there was one big difference: Van Brocklin threw 17 INTs and Plum threw five. So why the asterisk on Plum's numbers? He was playing with two HOF skill position players and two more HOFers on the right side of the line, so he had a pretty easy gig back there. One could also argue for Raymond Berry, whose 1298 receiving yards was over 300 yards more than any other player, making it one of the best WR seasons in NFL history.
Non-QB, non-RB seasons
Three and a half MVPs have been awarded to non-QBs and non-RBs. Going in reverse order:
In 1986, Lawrence Taylor had 20.5 sacks while leading the 2nd best defense in the league. Taylor's impact on all those Giants teams is legendary, and an MVP for him in his best year is appropriate. That season, Marino had another 40 TD season and Boomer Esiason had a big year. Marino threw 635 passes and was the Miami team; that would have been a justifiable MVP for his collection case. Eric Dickerson, Curt Warner and Joe Morris had big years at RB, too. Rice had the first of many huge seasons and was the top WR that year. But it is hard to really argue with LT.
In 1982, Mark Moseley, a placekicker, won the NFL MVP. On one hand, this award is not entirely absurd, as according to both Doug and my yet to be released kicker rating system (sad but true), Moseley's '82 season ranks as one of the top five kicker performances per game in NFL history. On the other hand, no one was arguing Shaun Alexander or Neil Rackers for MVP in 2005 and for good reason. This was my best attempt to justify Moseley getting the award. So who should have received it?
Marcus Allen had a very big year, the second biggest of his career on a per game basis. He was the top RB in the league and could have won the award, but Dan Fouts and Ken Anderson were probably better. Fouts would have been a great MVP choice, as he averaged 7.20 ANY/A while the league average was just 4.41. On a per game basis, 1982 was the best season of his career. Fouts never won an MVP, but he was better than Joe Theisman was the next year when he quarterbacked that great Redskins offense and won MVP honors.
But Fouts' main man, Wes Chandler, should have been the MVP. He had one of the greatest WR seasons of all time and the best WR season of all time on a per game basis. In consecutive high scoring games against the defending SB Champions and the defending AFC Champions (who ended the Chargers season the prior year), Chandler caught 17 passes for 385 yards and five TDs.
In 1971, Alan Page won the NFL MVP. As I wrote about here and here, the '69-'71 Vikings had maybe the best defense in NFL history. Judging one player on a defense is close to impossible, but there's no doubt that the value created by those Vikings defenses was off the charts. In 1969, the Vikings had maybe the best defense in history. In 1970, Page had 8 turnovers and a TD, both career highs. So at first glance, you might wonder why he won the MVP in '71 and not either of the prior two years. Page certainly benefited from the talent on the defensive line, as Carl Eller, Gary Larsen and Jim Marshall were terrific players. My best guess is that it was some sort of three-year achievement award.
Staubach had a big year but only started 11 games. He was easily the best QB in the league and would have been a very deserving winner. Brodie very much deserved the MVP in 1970, but if it was time for a DT to win the award, I'm not sure if I'd say Page was more deserving over Staubach in '71 than over Gabriel in '69. Greg Landry, Bob Griese and Len Dawson also had good seasons. The top RBs all had down years, as Floyd Little, John Brockington and Larry Csonka were probably the best of the bunch. Otis Taylor was the top WR that year but he wasn't historically good enough to win the award. I'm fine with Page winning the award, and after three awesome years by the Purple People Eaters, some recognition was appropriate.
That leaves just one MVP award left, and it's an obscure one. In 1964, Dawson was the class of the AFL, throwing 30 TD and 18 INT. Matt Snell, Cookie Gilchrist and Clem Daniels had big years at RB, although none were particularly outstanding. But if I gave you 100 guesses, I doubt you would have come up with the name of Gino Cappelletti, 1964 AFL MVP.
The Duke, as he was known, played quarterback at Minnesota and just about everything else in the pros. He played QB in the Ontario Rugby Football League out of college, then was drafted by the Army, and then played in the CFL. In a sign of how desperate for talent the AFL was, Cappelletti was signed by the Boston Patriots in their inaugural season ... to play cornerback and kick field goals. He played as a WR and kicker for the rest of his career. In 1964 he set a career high with 865 receiving yards, but that still ranked just 9th in the AFL.
So why did he win the award? Because the Duke had a dominant season at kicker, with his '64 rating as one of the five best kicker seasons in the '60s. He made every XP, was 8/16 from 40-49 yards (league average was 37%), and was the class of the AFL. If nothing else, he convinced the Broncos that he was the best player in the league. In the first game against Denver, he converted on all six attempts in a blowout victory. In the rematch against the Broncos, Cappelletti caught a 25 yard TD pass and kicked a 51 yard FG, leading the Pats to a 12-7 victory. In NFL history, only two players (Paul Hornung in 1960 and LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006) have scored more points per game in a season than than the 10.5 PPG the Duke had in 1964.
Those are my thoughts on past MVP winners. I'm excited to hear yours.