This is the 10th entry in our NFL Thursday series, and we have a two-time defending MVP winner that could genuinely be considered every year of his career for the award. That’s something special; can he make it three in a row?
Read on to find out … even with the spoiler right below.
1959 NFL MVP: Johnny Unitas (original), Charlie Conerly (revised)
Let’s start with the basics: The New York Giants won the East Division with a 10-2 record, three games better than the Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Colts—despite being on the literal East Coast—won the West Division with a 9-3 mark, one game better than the Chicago Bears and two games better than the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers, respectively.
Three players tied for the lead league in interceptions with 7 picks each, which means no one really stood out on that side of the ball in terms of what we have for statistical analysis. Two of them, however, were from the Colts defense, which could explain a lot about how the Colts won a second straight NFL title.
Giants QB Charlie Conerly posted a wicked 102.7 QB rating to top the league, tossing 14 TD passes and throwing just 4 interceptions. He started only 9 games in the regular season, though, while playing in a tenth contest. Still, the next-best mark (92.0) was put up by Colts QB Johnny Unitas. That’s a big gap.
Unitas, however, threw 32 touchdown passes, a record at the time. Yet that mark would be surpassed multiple times in the next few seasons in both the AFL (1960-1969) and the NFL. Unitas’ 52.6-percent completion rate was almost six points lower than Conerly’s mark (58.2), and that is the main reason why Conerly was the significantly higher-rated QB.
Both guys played for division winners, so their value is equal at this point in terms of an MVP race, with the New York QB getting the edge on sheer efficiency alone. Remember, quantity does not always equal quality.
Cleveland fullback Jim Brown once again led the NFL in rushing attempts (290), rushing yards (1,329), rushing TDs (14), total yards from scrimmage (1,519), and total TDs (14, tied). But the Browns really dropped off and weren’t a true contender for the postseason, after getting swept by the Giants in the East Division.
Consider this, too: In Week 11, the two teams played in New York, with the Giants at 8-2 and the Browns at 6-4. Cleveland needed to win this game to stay alive in the postseason chase, and New York jumped out to a 48-point lead before the Browns scored a meaningless special-teams TD in the fourth quarter.
Brown himself ran for just 50 yards in this game on a mere 15 carries. As shown in the prior two years’ postseasons, he couldn’t carry the team alone—as good as he was. But in this kind of showdown, an MVP has to show up more than Brown did, period.
What about receivers? Baltimore end Raymond Berry led the league in receptions (66), receptions yards (969), and reception TDs (14). No other receiver put together any kind of MVP campaign, although Giants halfback Frank Gifford finished second in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage (1,308) to be in the discussion.
Berry and Unitas obviously had each other to feed off, as well as halfback Lenny Moore, who finished third in the league with 1,268 yards from scrimmage. The Colts offense was a well-oiled machine, although Berry was the only one who was best at his position in the NFL during the regular season.
Conerly also had Gifford as a unique offensive weapon to work with, while Brown played for an also-ran team that would have missed the postseason without him, anyway. This puts us in perhaps the most difficult position yet in assessing a clear-cut MVP winner.
True measurements (Approximate Value) only go back to the 1960 season, so we really are facing quandary here. It’s hard to take any of the Colts seriously for the MVP, since this early version of “triplets” dominated so easily. They all had value as separate and equal cogs. Replacing any one of them with an average player, and you’re still going to have a great offense.
Conerly’s QB rating was the highest since 1948, and that’s important in terms of historical value. Of course, he didn’t do it alone, either, but one Gifford is less than a Berry/Moore combination—not to mention fullback Alan Ameche, who also tossed in 808 total yards for Baltimore. The Colts were loaded, while the Giants were not.
This makes our decision a bit more manageable, since Conerly—despite playing in just 10 of his team’s 12 games and posting just one loss as a starting QB—was the best passer in the NFL this season, on a historic level, while also leading his team to a division title.
Even with those two top interceptors on defense and a four-pronged offensive attack, the Colts still lost three games somehow (probably the travel from Baltimore to those West Division opponents, but two Colts losses came at home, actually).
Conerly did better than that, with fewer tools at his disposal, and that’s why we can confidently name him the MVP winner.