As the 1970s comes to a close on NFL Thursdays, we take a look at the last season of the decade, as the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty came to an end—and the league continued to usher in a new era of offensive dominance from players in all skill positions.
Welcome back, our friends, to the show that never ends …
1979 MVP: Earl Campbell (original AP & PFWA), Walter Payton (revised)
We always start with the quarterbacks, but today we’re going to mix it up and go with the running backs. Houston Oilers stud Earl Campbell earned the votes for both MVP awards by running for 1,697 yards and 19 touchdowns. But he wasn’t alone in posting dominant numbers:
- Campbell: 368 carries for 1,697 yards, 19 TDs, and 8 fumbles
- Walter Payton: 369 carries for 1,610 yards, 14 TDs, and 7 fumbles
- Ottis Anderson: 331 carries for 1,605 yards, 8 TDs, and 10 fumbles
- Wilbert Montgomery: 338 carries for 1,512 yards, 9 TDs, and 14 fumbles
All in all, 12 backs cracked the 1,000-yard mark, which was now easier to attain with 16-game seasons. These four were the best of the best, but Anderson and Montgomery aren’t MVP candidates, due to the fumble issues, while Campbell and Payton both got their teams to the playoffs.
Onto the QBs then, and it’s a very short list of candidates: Only Dallas Cowboys star Roger Staubach was good enough for MVP consideration, posting a 92.3 QB rating to lead the NFL by 8.4 points in that category. That’s a great season, albeit not an elite one. The Cowboys won the NFC East, of course, but nothing Staubach did stands out, statistically.
When it comes to receivers, 12 guys also cracked the 1,000-yard barrier—none of them posting MVP-like numbers. The best of the bunch includes Seattle’s Steve Largent (66 catches for 1,237 yards and 9 TDs without a fumble), Pittsburgh’s John Stallworth (70-1,183-8-4), Minnesota’s Ahmad Rashad (80-1,156-9-2), and San Diego’s John Jefferson (61-1,090-10-0).
When we shift to total yards from scrimmage, we get the same four RBs at the top of the list—albeit in a different order: Montgomery (2,006 yards with 14 TDs and 14 fumbles), Payton (1,923 yards with 16 TDs and 7 fumbles), Anderson (1,913 yards with 10 TDs and 10 fumbles), and Campbell (1,791 yard with 19 TDs and 8 fumbles).
This leaves us with Payton ahead of Campbell, in terms of total yards, and Campbell ahead of Payton when it comes to positive-play ratio (more TDs than fumbles). But we have one more group to look at: defense.
Oilers free safety Mike Reinfeldt was the standout with 12 interceptions for 205 return yards, and no one else in the league reached double digits for picks. Like Staubach, it’s a great seasonal output, but it’s not MVP worthy.
So, like 1978, we have to analyze Campbell and Payton again. One interesting thing is to look at the players’ two games each against the teams that won their respective divisions: Pittsburgh (AFC Central) and Tampa Bay (NFC Central).
- Campbell vs. Steelers: 49 carries, 147 yards, 3 catches, 26 yards, 0 TDs
- Payton vs. Buccaneers: 37 carries, 123 yards, 5 catches, 88 yards, 2 TDs
Neither player had much success on the ground against top run defenses, but Payton’s ability to catch the ball again stands out. Both players’ teams split these contests, and remember, the Bucs reached the NFC Championship Game in 1979, while the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
These were quality opponents, and incidentally, both star runners played with bad QBs sporting QB ratings in the 60s during the 1979 season. These teams each were carried by their stud running backs.
In the end, we have to give this award to Payton again, because he was just the better overall player, and that fact carried value with it as well, in terms of his versatility on offense.
This is his third MVP from us in a row, and Sweetness becomes just the second NFL player to win more than two MVPs in this space, after Jim Brown and his five MVPs.