For this 30th edition of NFL Thursdays, we find interesting developments afoot. The NFL switched to a 16-game schedule, adding two more contests to the regular season. It also added a second wild-card playoff team in each conference, expanding opportunity to reach the Super Bowl.

Furthermore, the passing rules changed, opening the aerial offense a lot more than ever before in a trend that continues to this day. Last but not least, the two major MVP awards went to different players!

Here’s our take on this unique season …

1978 MVP: Terry Bradshaw (original AP) & Earl Campbell (original PFWA), Walter Payton (revised)

Six different quarterbacks finished with QB ratings between 80.7 and 84.9, creating a logjam of decent passers—but no real MVP candidates. A QB rating should be in the 90s at least to warrant exceptional value.

Pittsburgh Steelers signal caller Terry Bradshaw won the AP MVP vote with his 84.7 QB rating and 28 touchdown passes, but he also tossed 20 interceptions and finished second in QB rating to Dallas Cowboys star Roger Staubachour 1971 MVP pick.

Eleven runners passed the 1,000-yard mark, and the two best may have been Houston Oilers rookie Earl Campbell—winner of the PFWA MVP vote—and Chicago Bears star Walter Payton, our pick for MVP in 1977.

But we also like the season for Miami Dolphins running back Delvin Williams and Philadelphia Eagles runner Wilbert Montgomery. Look at the four compared below:

  • Campbell: 1,450 yards on 302 carries with 13 TDs and 9 fumbles
  • Payton: 1,395 yards on 333 carries with 11 TDs and 5 fumbles
  • Williams: 1,258 yards on 272 carries with 8 TDs and 4 fumbles
  • Montgomery: 1,220 yards on 259 carries with 9 TDs and 6 fumbles

Other backs either fumbled too many times (Dallas RB Tony Dorsett coughed it up 12 times, for example) or couldn’t out-do this quartet. Of course, Payton’s team finished under .500 and missed the postseason, while the other three guys helped their teams to the playoffs.

In terms of receivers under the new rules, four wideouts caught passes for more than 1,000 yards on the season: New York Jets star Wesley Walker (1,169 yards), Seattle Seahawks grinder Steve Largent (1,168 yards), Eagles veteran Harold Carmichael (1,072 yards), and San Diego Chargers stud John Jefferson (1,001 yards).

None of them were really dominant, however, and like some of the RBs above, we need to know more about their contributions in terms of total yards from scrimmage (see below). Also, Walker played for an 8-8 team that finished two games out of a playoff spot, while Largent and Jefferson played for teams that finished 9-7 and one game out of contention.

Defensively, Los Angeles Rams cornerback Rod Perry returned three of his 8 interceptions for TDs while adding one fumble recovery to his stat sheet on the season. The Rams won 12 games to capture the NFC West Division, so Perry certainly aided that cause. But generally, this wasn’t an MVP effort.

Back to the skill-position guys: Overall, in total yards on offense, Payton led the league with 1,875 total yards, but his team wasn’t good enough to make the postseason while finishing under .500 for the year.

Dorsett was next with 1,703 total yards, but the 12 fumbles are ridiculous. Campbell finished fourth in total yards (1,498), and his TD/fumble margin was just plus-4. He also averaged less yards per catch than he did per rushing attempt, which is interesting albeit irrelevant.

Williams finished fifth with 1,450 total yards, also with a plus-4 margin for scores and turnovers. His per-touch average was higher than Campbell’s mark, however, since his receiving skills were more polished. Montgomery (1,415 total yards) also was at plus-4 in the TD/fumble margin, with the same per-touch average as Campbell.

Payton was clearly the best player in the league, and this is the situation: The Minnesota Vikings won the NFC Central with an 8-7-1 mark, while the Bears finished 7-9.

But this was the season, perhaps, where the “Black & Blue” Division earned its name as Minnesota and the Green Bay Packers both finished 8-7-1, while Chicago and the Detroit Lions both finished 7-9.

Can we give the award to Payton for his outstanding season for a team that he clearly carried on his own? His QB, Bob Avellini, finished with a 54.9 QB rating, which ranked him 24th in the league. Chicago’s second-best player was WR James Scott, who caught 42 passes for 759 yards. That’s middling at best.

A quick look at Payton’s game log from the season shows us that against the three division foes above, he posted these combined stats in six games: 124 carries for 530 yards and 6 rushing TDs with 22 receptions for 222 yards and zero receiving TDs. The Bears went 2-4 in those games.

For the record, that’s a 4.3 per-carry average on the ground and a 10.0 per-catch average in the air. With 752 total yards in six games, Payton was carrying the heavy load for his team. He was at his best against the teams the Bears needed to beat most.

In the absence of a truly dominant performance from a player on a playoff team, we give this award to Payton for his overall excellence in carrying a truly bad team to its highest position possible under the circumstances.

He becomes the third RB of the decade to win two of our MVP awards, by the way—joining O.J. Simpson (1973 and 1975) and Chuck Foreman (1974 and 1976). That is six years in a row for RBs, as the rules really put QBs and WRs at a disadvantage. We expect that to change in upcoming seasons a bit.

Check in every Thursday for our NFL awards historical analysis on The Daily McPlay!