clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What does NFL MVP even mean?

Is MVP the Most Valuable Player or just the QB with the Best Stats?

Saturday morning of Super Bowl Week, Pro Football Talk posted an article reporting that the last nine regular season MVPs who made the Super Bowl had lost. Patrick Mahomes bucked the trend in this year’s sloppy (and oddly anticlimactic) shootout, but even so, he’s the first MVP to touch the Lombardi this century.

And there’s a curious phenomenon that goes along with that streak: regular season MVPs used to be a decent bet to win it all. As the article states:

“The regular-season MVP winning the Super Bowl used to be commonplace: Kurt Warner did it in 1999, Terrell Davis in 1998, Brett Favre in 1996, Steve Young in 1994, Emmitt Smith in 1993, Joe Montana in 1989, Lawrence Taylor in 1986, Mark Moseley in 1982, Terry Bradshaw in 1978 and Bart Starr in 1966.”

I think this is more than a coincidence. In fact, I’d argue that, over the last twenty years (as the rules have pivoted more and more toward favoring the passing game), the regular season MVP award has really just become the “award for the quarterback with the best stats.” That is, it doesn’t represent the best player or the most valuable player in the game at all anymore.

Seeing this trend in real-time back in 2001, Gregg Easterbrook, formerly the author of the column Tuesday Morning Quarterback on various platforms, began awarding a “Non-QB/Non-RB MVP” every year. His inaugural award winner was none other than Steelers OG Alan Faneca. (In 2008, the award notably went to another Steeler, James Harrison.)

Even the YouTube channel, “NFL Throwback,” (run by NFL network, I believe), also recently aired a program in which it named a non-QB MVP for each of the Super Bowl years. Among the winners, you’ll be interested to note, were 2010 MVP Troy Polamalu, 2008 MVP James Harrison (again), and 1976 MVP Jack Lambert.

(You can see an evolution with just those three players, in fact. All three of these Steelers finished those respective seasons as Defensive Player of the Year. In the 1976 MVP voting, Lambert finished second overall, having garnered 19 votes. By 2008, Harrison was only able to secure three MVP votes. Just two years later, Polamalu got zero.)

PFT’s founder, Mike Florio (not the author, incidentally, of the Mahomes-focused article that got me thinking about this) argued repeatedly this season that the NFL MVP would be easy to predict late in the year: “it’ll be the quarterback of one of the #1 seeds.” Turns out he was correct (doubly so, in fact, as Jalen Hurts, the QB of the NFC’s top seed, finished second). In fact, 16 of the last 20 MVPs have been reducible to “quarterback of one of the two #1 seeds.” That doesn’t seem right.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs
Look, it’s the best player in the NFL! And he’s sacking Patrick Mahomes!
Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Voters’ infatuation with the QB position makes sense, given the way the rules have skewed so dramatically to favor the passing game. Accurate, athletic quarterbacks have always been an asset, but once upon a time you could neutralize them with a ferocious pass rush or hard-hitting coverage. But while modern safety regulations have protected passers and pass-catchers (understandably), no rules adjustments have ensued to help out the suddenly hamstrung defenses (such as a lightening of the Mel Blount rules restricting downfield contact). There’s a reason, for example, that shutouts are almost extinct in the last few years, and that a 90.0 passer rating, which used to get you All Pro votes, now gets you benched.

This isn’t an essay about how to adjust the rules, though. (That can come another day.) Instead, this is an essay that’s arguing that NFL MVP ought to be more closely aligned with the game’s most impressive player or the player with the most impressive season — the game-changer on a team or in the grand arc of a season — not simply the guy with the passing statistics at the end.

A couple of cases in point:

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers
Cam Heyward was always more of a Randy Moss guy.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

2007: MVP Tom Brady

Patriots went 16-0, set the NFL scoring record, as Brady threw a then-record 50 touchdowns.

Who should have gotten it: his teammate, WR Randy Moss

Before Moss arrived in Foxboro, the Patriots were already a very good team, but a fairly quiet, conventional offense. They’d “won” titles in 2001, 2003, and 2004, on the strength of their defense and attention to detail (including apparently the details of opponents’ signals). Brady meanwhile had been a starter for six years, which included all three of those championship seasons. His best passing season came in 2004, when he posted a rating of 92.6 and threw 28 touchdowns (both career highs at the time, though he’d also thrown 28 scores in 2002). He’d also never thrown fewer than 12 interceptions in a season, and tossed 14 in both ‘02 and ‘04.

Enter Randy Moss in 2007, and suddenly Brady became a different player. He threw 50 scores against 9 INTs that season, and posted a 117.2 passer rating. Did Brady suddenly learn how to play in the summer of 2007? That seems unlikely. So what was the difference? Well, Brady’s career best in touchdowns increased by 22 that year; Moss caught 23. It’s practically a science experiment.

Brady won the MVP that year with 49 out of 50 votes (Brett Favre got the other). But it’s impossible for me to look at that situation and think anything other than, “that’s Randy Moss’s MVP award that Tom Brady took home.”

Green Bay Packers v Pittsburgh Steelers
I know this is Brett Hundley getting sacked. I couldn’t find a picture that included both T.J. and Rodgers.
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

2021: MVP Aaron Rodgers

Packers went 13-4, took the top seed in the NFC, and A-Rod threw 37 touchdowns against an absurd 4 interceptions. (Of course, Rodgers also brought controversy with him everywhere that season, toying with retirement, lying about his vaccination status and then missing time when he tested positive for COVID, and trash-talking with Bears fans on a hot mic, among other things.)

Who should have gotten it: The Pittsburgh Steelers own T.J. Watt

Watt famously tied a 20 year old NFL record with 22.5 sacks (though he did it in only 15 games, and with no one taking a dive on the record setting hit). But not just that, he also led the league in tackles for loss, QB hits, and QB pressures, among other categories. And he did it in a season in which he was routinely double- or triple-teamed, as the Steelers played without front-line pass rusher Stephon Tuitt or Watt’s long-time edge partner Bud Dupree. (Alex Highsmith was also still a year away from his 2022 breakout season.) That is, T.J. got everyone’s best, and still couldn’t be stopped. He was a one-man wrecking crew.

Moreover, Watt played his biggest games in must-win situations, recording 4.0 sacks and three tackles for loss against the Cleveland Browns in the season’s penultimate game with the playoffs on the line. Meanwhile, he amassed 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and an absurd NINE quarterback hits in two wins against Baltimore down the stretch (notably breaking up a key 2pt PAT that sealed the week 13 win over the Ravens). The Steelers were 9-4 in games where Watt played 50% of snaps; 0-3-1 in games where he didn’t.

Moss somehow finished second (to Brady) for Offensive Player of the Year in 2007, though Watt was runaway DPOY winner last year. But you’d have some arguing to do to convince me that they weren’t the most impressive, decisive, valuable players in the NFL during those two seasons.

Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers
Hey look! It’s two former MVP’s in the alternate universe where the award means something.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images


I’ve keyed on Brady and Rodgers because the two of them (and now Mahomes) seem to have represented a lazy trend in this type of voting: simply leaning on quarterback stats. Any year when discerning the game’s greatest player might take some thought, players like Brady, Rodgers, or Mahomes are easy. These are guys who always have good stats and always seem to play on good teams (2022 notwithstanding for the former two). So they become the “default” MVP choices.

Showering players like these with awards is anticlimactic — and not just because it’s familiar, but because it’s thoughtless. If we don’t have an unignorable season, like Adrian Peterson’s 2009 (2097 yards rushing one year after an ACL tear), voters simply lean on passing numbers or jot down the quarterback of the top team. This degrades the award, in my opinion, and it cheats great players of recognition. And that’s a shame.

Don’t misunderstand me: quarterbacks do certainly deserve the MVP some years. I’m on record as much less of a Lamar Jackson fan than the rest of the world, but I don’t think there’s any way around his historic 2019 season — in which Jackson led the league with 36 touchdown passes, while also rushing for 1206 yards, on a Ravens team that improved from 10-6 to 14-2. That’s a pretty clear MVP season. (A bit of a flash-in-the-pan, if you ask me, but no doubt a season worth recognizing.) And honestly, I rarely had a problem with Peyton Manning’s many MVP awards, since Manning famously called most of his own plays — he was the closest thing to a player coach we’ve seen in this league in decades.

But most years, I believe NFL Most Valuable Player ought to represent the entire game. I get it that MVP (of all NFL awards) is about marketing the top players, rather than simply recognizing greatness. But that doesn’t make it right.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles
Remember when the Steelers D-Line was Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward, and J-Wobble? Man, no wonder that D was so good.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

2022 Post-Script

P.S. I know there’s an implicit question about 2022 in this piece, so I might as well take it head-on: No, I probably wouldn’t have given the MVP to Mahomes this year. He’d be in the running, after putting up an outstanding year despite losing Tyreek Hill, but my personal finalists would have been:

Christian McCaffrey, who’s arrival in San Francisco immediately made the 49ers a genuine Super Bowl favorite, even though they fielded a cast-off at QB to start the year, and then a 7th round rookie to end it. The Niners defense was also outstanding, but even with that D, S.F. underachieved for the first six weeks, starting the year 3-3. McCaffrey arrived, and after an initial loss where he only saw limited action, they ran off 12 straight victories. Hard to call that a coincidence. If you ask me, that’s what a difference maker looks like.

Justin Jefferson, who was a genuine superstar on a team that won 11 games by one score or less. Without Jefferson’s clutch playmaking or ability to draw double-teams and free up teammates, Minnesota would never have been the nail-biter champs of 2022. In fact, I don’t think it’s outrageous to assume they’d have lost half of those tight games without Jefferson on the field. And with that, they’d have missed the postseason entirely.

My winner, though, is cheating a little: I’d have gone all 2003 on this season, and given out co-MVP awards to a couple players on the Eagles defensive front (some combination of Hassan Reddick, Javon Hargrave, Brandon Graham, and Josh Sweat — I’ll let you decide which two). Philly notched 70 sacks in 2022 (third most all-time, and tops in the NFL by a whopping 15) while running up the NFL’s best record. Their entire roster is regarded as one of the league’s best (especially on the lines) but their front-7 absolutely overpowered opponents.

There wasn’t a single game-wrecker on that squad, so I’d look to recognize two, but I don’t think that’s a problem. MVP has been shared in the past (such as ‘03, with Peyton Manning and Steve McNair), even Super Bowl MVP has been shared (with teammates Harvey Martin and Randy White splitting the award in 1977).

It’s easy to forget how dominant this unit was after their Super Bowl loss, but remember that these are regular season awards. (Also remember the conditions of the field in Glendale — I have a feeling the athleticism of that pass rush was negated a little by slipping on the lousy turf.) No unit was better this year than the Eagles’ defensive front. If you want to recognize greatness, recognize greatness.