Our last “new series” introduction brings us to NFL Thursday and our annual awards analysis for MVP and Rookie of the Year. On Monday, we started looking at MLB award winners in the past, and on Tuesday, we took on the NBA MVP history. Wednesdays will focus on college football’s “mythical national championship” for a slight change of pace before we come back to pro leagues and award winners every Thursday.
The Associated Press first did an MVP vote in 1957, but we’re going to start with the 1950 season—as that is the dawn of the modern NFL, with the AAFC merger bringing the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers into the league for good. The Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) started giving MVP awards in 1975, too, by the way, so that created some controversy as well down the line.
AP Rookie of the Year voting didn’t start until 1967, and it was split into offensive and defensive categories. When we get around to that season in about four months or so, we will start analysis on that award, too—but we will choose just one overall winner, since we have the sabermetric tools to do so now, provided by pro-football-reference.com in the form of Approximate Value (AV).
Note: For the AFL years (1960-1969), we will award separate MVP awards and ROTY awards as well.
So here we go with the first of 70-plus award analyses columns on the NFL!
1950 NFL MVP: A three-way “debate”
The Browns came from the AAFC and dominated the NFL in their first season, eventually winning the championship with narrow playoff wins over the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams had the best quarterback-receiver combination in the league, while the Browns had the best running attack.
On defense, three different players registered double-digit interception totals, but that is not surprising considering this era of football often featured QBs throwing a lot more INTs than touchdown passes. To wit, of the 15 QBs that played enough to qualify for the QB rating minimums, only two of them registered more TDs than INTs.
The NFL didn’t track sacks or even tackles for defensive players in this era, so it’s hard—in the absence of one player dominating the stat sheet for INTs—to consider these defenders for the MVP award. Anyone and everyone could pick off a pass in 1950.
The best QB in the league was Norm Van Brocklin for the Rams: His QBR (85.1) looks pedestrian by modern standards, but he led the league in the category by 13.4 points over his timeshare partner, Bob Waterfield. With 18 TDs and only 14 INTs, Van Brocklin was definitely the most effective QB in the league, and his 8.8 yards-per-attempt mark is actually very impressive for this era of offense. Not many QBs do that even today.
The Rams also had the best receiver in the league, which is not surprising since Van Brocklin and Waterfield were the top rated QBs in the league. Tom Fears caught a whopping 84 passes in 1950, when the next-best receiver snagged a mere 52 receptions. This is more impressive than anything any WR in the modern era of the pass offense (1978 to the present) has done, really. Fears’ 1,116 receiving yards also led the league.
Finally, the Browns were paced by running back—well, actually fullback—Marion Motley, who led the league in rushing with 810 yards on just 140 carries. His 5.8 yards-per-attempt mark led the NFL, too, and even though Motley only ran for three rushing scores in 1950, his 67.5 yards-per-game average was second best in the league.
To parse a single MVP from this trio is actually easier than you might think: Van Brocklin only started six games, due to the timeshare situation with the aging Waterfield. Between them, the two QBs attempted 446 passes, and no other QB attempted more than 336 passes on his own in 1950. That was the Rams offense, and it has to be taken in context when looking at Fears’ numbers, too.
The leading rusher on the Rams had just 88 carries, so the numbers are a bit inflated for Fears as the primary target in passing offense that was unique for the time. That is not to diminish his statistics, but in that offense with those two QBs, someone had to catch all the balls. We’re not saying anyone could have done it, but … we sort of are saying it.
That leaves us with Motley, who was the centerpiece of a balanced offense where the QB attempted just 253 passes. Defenses knew they had to stop Motley, and they still couldn’t do so. In this sense, it comes down to the volume/efficiency argument that so often confused—and still does, evidently—sports analysis.
Motley was the most effective player on the best team in the league, as the Browns went 10-2 in the regular season with a league-best 166-point scoring differential. He was 30 years old during the 1950 season, and after four amazing seasons in the AAFC, this was his best NFL campaign, by far, as he began to decline with age starting in 1951.
And he gets rewarded for that stellar season with our first retroactive NFL MVP award.