Don’t expect Houston’s J.J. Watt to receive many votes for this year’s Associated Press (AP) Most Valuable Player award. Von Miller, Charles Tillman? Forget it. History suggests AP voters will not pay much attention unless you play quarterback or running back.
Dating back to the start of the award, in 1957, passers and rushers have claimed 54-of-57 MVPs. (Two recipients shared the award in 1997 and 2003.) Here’s a quick breakdown:
Running back: 17
Defensive tackle: 1
While it’s fair to argue no position is more important to a team’s success than quarterback, it’s also fair to argue that voters have demonstrated position bias and in some cases have blatantly disregarded the most worthy candidate. A few years highlight this:
1979 — AP voters were probably guilty of snubbing Earl Campbell the year before. They made up for it in his second season. The Oilers' running back was certainly deserving, but the better pick may have been Tampa Bay’s Lee Roy Selmon, who led a Buccaneers defense that finished first in the NFL in both points and yards allowed. Tampa Bay’s record improved by five wins and they got as far as the NFC championship game.
1987 — The AP picked Denver’s John Elway in the strike-shortened season even though virtually every other publication picked San Francisco’s Jerry Rice, who set a single-season record by scoring 23 touchdowns — in 12 games. Elway, meanwhile, was 8-3-1 as a starter and owned an 83.4 passer rating. The Broncos had the second-best record in the AFC and returned to the Super Bowl. An argument also could be made for Reggie White, who had arguably the greatest year ever by a pass rusher. White was virtually unblockable and collected 21 sacks in 12 games.
1998 — Terrell Davis gained 2,008 yards for a Denver team that went 14-2. The Broncos had won the Super Bowl the year before with a 12-4 record. The Vikings improved by six wins from the year prior, finishing with a league-best 15-1 record. The difference? Rookie Randy Moss caught 17 touchdown passes and averaged 19.0 yards per reception.
Here’s the real issue: When it comes to selecting an MVP, voters often take the path of least resistance. It reminds me of a story legendary NFL writer Paul Zimmerman once told me. Zimmerman had been convinced, as had a lot of fans, that Buffalo’s Thurman Thomas was the most valuable player of Super Bowl XXV. Only thing is, Scott Norwood’s kick missed its mark by a few feet and the Giants won the game. Thomas had given one of the all-time great performances in Super Bowl history, many times carrying his offense down the field on his back. But because the Giants won, voters quickly shifted their focus to New York’s most valuable player — O.J. Anderson. Zimmerman never participated in another Super Bowl MVP vote.
Most would agree that the MVP should go to the player whose contributions have the greatest impact on the success of his team. But the MVP rarely fits this description. Instead, MVP voters tend to look at two things: (1) The league’s best teams, and (2) the quarterbacks and running backs on those teams. Of course, if someone gains 2,000 yards it grabs everyone’s attention, but that in itself is a flaw of the award. Some statistics are hollow, in that they mean very little to the success of the team. For example, Calvin Johnson is not far off the pace of setting a single-season record for receiving yards this season, but no one could argue he’s an MVP candidate — nor would they, because Johnson does not play quarterback or running back. On the other hand, if Chris Johnson was approaching Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing mark for a 4-7 Titans squad, he would, at the very least, be part of the discussion. It’s a double standard.
Rookies are ignored. Defense, as a whole, is ignored. Wide receivers and tight ends have historically been ignored. And there is a better chance of seeing a man walk on Mars in our lifetime than witnessing an offensive lineman take home the honor.
And it’s not just that the AP ignores positions; sometimes it ignores the better choice, albeit someone from a “lesser” team. In 2009, Brett Favre joined the Vikings and turned a club that had lost in the first round of the playoffs the year before into an instant NFC contender. Peyton Manning got the honor that year, mostly because his Colts won their first 14 games. It was Manning’s third MVP, tying him with Favre for the most ever. But Favre should have won a fourth instead. Here’s how the numbers stacked up:
Favre was more efficient and had the greater impact on his team’s success, but finished fourth in voting behind Manning, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers — the three quarterbacks whose teams had better records than Favre’s Vikings. The voting wasn’t even close; Manning claimed 39.5 of the 50 votes cast.
A year ago, a case could have been made for DLT Justin Smith, whose presence helped San Francisco’s defense become the league’s most dominant. Of course, who’s going to vote for a defensive lineman whose contributions can’t be measured in statistics?
This season, Watt is the dark-horse candidate, and he has numbers to show. He ranks second in sacks, is tied for sixth in passes defended (ridiculous for a defensive lineman) and he leads all linemen with 54 tackles. It could be one of the greatest seasons ever by a defender, yet Watt has little hope — too many great passing seasons to contend with this year.
In PFW's latest MVP Meter (posted every Tuesday evening during the season), PFW's Dan Parr has Watt third behind Manning and Tom Brady. Six of the players in Parr’s top 10 are quarterbacks.
The MVP is too predictable, too easy. And it shouldn’t be. It should be a debate. It should be more subjective than objective. It should be less about numbers and wins, and more about improved records and opposing game plans. Quarterbacks always will be the favorites to win, but perhaps one day we’ll have a level playing field where other positions will at least receive consideration.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mikebeacom.