What can we say about the 1981 NFL season? It was the start of a new dynasty in league history, for one, but NFL Thursday continues to see the shift in statistical dominance from the ground game to the passing game. This is reflected in the voters’ minds at the time for the two major awards.
But was it accurate? Read on to find out …
1981 MVP: Ken Anderson (original AP & PFWA, confirmed)
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson and his MVP-voted season represents a shift in the philosophy of the modern passing game, as he posted a 98.4 QB rating to lead the league by almost 8 points. His completion percentage (62.6) also was second in the league to someone named Joe Montana (63.7). No other QB was above 59.8 percent on the year.
Fifteen different runners cracked the 1,000-yard mark, and while several of them had great seasons, none of them really stood out from the rest: Only 7 of these RBs scored more often than they fumbled, as well, which is quite shocking, in truth. Detroit Lions star Billy Sims might have been the best of the bunch, however, running for 1,437 yards in just 14 games.
His plus-4 TD:TO margin was “good” in comparison to the two guys above him: New Orleans rookie George Rogers (1,674 yards and even on TD:TO ratio) and Dallas Cowboys legend Tony Dorsett (1,646 yards and minus-6). We will see how this trio pans out in the yards-from-scrimmage category.
When it comes to receivers in 1981, there were 19 guys (!) who topped the 1,000-yard mark—but only three of them also caught double-digit scoring passes: Atlanta Falcons WR Alfred Jenkins (1,358 yards and 13 TDs), Denver Broncos stalwart Steve Watson (1,244 yards and 13 TDs), and San Diego Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow (1,075 yards and 10 TDs).
We still really don’t have a lot of defensive data from this season (sacks would become an official category in 1982, for example), but the best defensive players were Seattle Seahawks free safety John Harris (10 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries, 2 TDs) and San Francisco 49ers free safety Dwight Hicks (9 INTs, 4 FRs, and 2 TDs).
Circling around again to total yards on offense, Falcons fullback William Andrews led the NFL with 2,036 yards from scrimmage—but his even TD:TO ratio was not good. Dorsett posted 1,971 yards with a minus-4 ratio, while Sims stands out again as the best of the bunch: 1,888 yards and plus-6.
In the end, we have a group of great players without a singular outstanding one. Anderson and Sims are the best of the group, really. The Bengals won the AFC Central, while the Lions finished 8-8 and one game out of the postseason playing in the NFC Central. That seems to give Anderson the edge.
Sims also missed two games during the year, and strangely, Detroit won both those games. That adds even more negatives to his ledger in this discussion. Also, in the final game of the regular season that would decide the NFC Central title against Tampa Bay, Sims was just average: 19 carries, 76 yards, 3 catches, 39 yards, no TDs. Detroit lost, 20-17.
Thus, we confirm Anderson as the first QB MVP of the NFL in a decade.