Evolution does not happen overnight, right? It takes a long time, usually, for change to take root and overrun what was. On NFL Thursday we have been watching a slow shift in the game, in terms of the 1978 rules changes opening up more scoring through the air. Yet we have had just three quarterbacks win our MVP awards since that fateful season.

Where will 1986 take us? Read on to discover the answer …

1986 MVP: Lawrence Taylor (original AP & PFWA), Walter Payton (revised)

We start with defense, since New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor won both MVP votes at the time—despite the fact that Chicago Bears LB Wilber Marshall led the NFL in Approximate Value (AV) during the season. We’ve not really looked at AV as an individual-season, sabermetric tool, as it can be fluky, and we rely on it more as a data point for career assessment (which evens out the quirks over time, theoretically).

So what are the stats here for defensive MVP candidates? The only number we have available for Taylor is 20.5 sacks, which was not an NFL record, although it did lead the league in 1986. But two other players also registered more than a sack per game—Washington Redskins defensive end Dexter Manley (18.5) and Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Reggie White (18). If this is the only stat we have available for Taylor, it does not stand out in terms of exceptionalism, either historically or even within the framework of 1986.

Marshall, on the other hand, registered 105 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 5 interceptions (one touchdown return), and 3 fumbles recoveries (one TD here, too). This guy was all over the field, and while we know the statistics for defensive players are still incomplete for the year, it’s clear Marshall had a better all-around season than Taylor—and the Bears defense allowed 49 fewer points than the Giants did (a field goal a game, on average). How can we give an MVP Award to Taylor in this situation? We just cannot, and that’s not Taylor’s fault.

On to the offensive skill players! Only three QBs finished above 90 on the QB rating charts. None of them—Minnesota Vikings veteran Tommy Kramer (92.6), Miami Dolphins star Dan Marino (92.5), and Seattle Seahawks grinder Dave Krieg (91.0)—stood out on an MVP-worthy level of play. In fact, none of these three guys got their clubs to the postseason, although the Seahawks did win 10 games to just miss the playoffs on a crazy tiebreaker against three other 10-win teams.

Running backs: Los Angeles Rams legend Eric Dickerson topped the league with 1,821 yards, but he also fumbled 12 times—while scoring 11 TDs. Giants RB Joe Morris was the only other rusher (1,516 yards in 15 games) to top 100 yards per game on average, and his TD:TO ratio (14:6) was much better than Dickerson’s sad mark (minus-1) on the ground. Both players performed for playoff teams, as well.

Down the receiving avenue, Los Angeles Raiders tight end Todd Christensen continued the trend begun by San Diego Chargers stud Kellen Winslow of redefining his position with 95 catches to lead the league (not to mention 1,153 yards receiving and 8 TDs). Meanwhile, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice made a big splash in just his second NFL season with 86 catches, an NFL-best 1,570 yards receiving, and a league-topping 15 TD catches. For the record, the Raiders missed the playoffs, and the 49ers made it to January.

Overall, Dickerson topped the league in scrimmage yards (2,026), but he also still had that negative ratio (11 TDs, 12 fumbles). Seattle RB Curt Warner (1,823 yards, 13 TDs, 6 fumbles) was second in this category, while Cincinnati Bengals RB James Brooks was also up there (1,773 yards, 9 TDs, 2 fumbles). The Bengals, like the Seahawks, ended up on the wrong side of that four-way tiebreaker in the AFC playoff hunt.

Finally, Morris finished with 1,749 yards, 15 TDs, and 6 fumbles, while Chicago Bears stalwart Walter Payton squeezed in next with 1,715 yards, 11 TDs, and 6 fumbles. Rice was sixth in scrimmage yards with 1,642 yards, 16 TDs, and just 2 fumbles. We know receivers fumbles less for a few obvious reasons, so that ratio comes with context, of course, and for the record, the Bears won 14 games to match the Giants’ win total.

Who should our finalists be? We just can’t consider a non-historical defensive performance until we have complete stats available, and while that may not be fair to Marshall or Taylor, it is what it is. Maybe in time when video review of old game tapes firms up the data, this could be revisited. In the meantime, we can look more closely at our best offensive candidates: Warner, Brooks, Morris, Payton, and Rice.

We know Warner had a very good QB to help him out, while other players may not have. Brooks had Boomer Esiason (87.7 QB rating), while Rice had Joe Montana (80.7). Meanwhile, Morris had Phil Simms (74.6), and Payton had … no single QB that even qualified for the rating system in 1986 (see below). For the record, Montana and Simms both threw more INTs than TDs, which is incredible if you think about it. In fact, Montana only played 8 games during the regular season due to injury.

This tells us a few things: Warner and Brooks had help, while Morris, Rice, and Payton had less help. We know the Giants and the Bears had great defenses, of course, and we also see that Rice had an offensive complement in fullback Roger Craig (1,454 yards from scrimmage, 10th best in the league). So none of these guys did it alone, but they did do it without decent QB play augmenting their efforts.

San Francisco was the only offense with two guys in the Top 10 for yards from scrimmage, and even though Rice scored more than Craig did, there isn’t a lot separating them, truly, in terms of impact on team success. And the 49ers defense gave up just 11 more points on the season than the Giants defense did, so there was plenty of help there for Rice.

This leaves us with Morris and Payton in the final analysis: Giants TE Mark Bavaro topped 1,000 total yards (39th in the league), while Bears WR Willie Gault managed 897 yards (51st). That’s another performance advantage, in addition to QB play, for Morris.

Just who was playing QB for the Bears in 1986? Combined, four guys managed a terrible 57.6 QB rating, and we think historians would point to the incredible defense that gave up just 187 points on the season as the primary reason Chicago posted 14-2 record. But we have to look at Payton’s amazing season, too, since we know the defensive effort was collective—and the stats are incomplete, as discussed above.

The four Bears QB were Mike Tomczak (7-0 as a starter, 50.2 QB rating), Jim McMahon (6-0, 61.4), Steve Fuller (0-2, 60.1), and Doug Flutie (1-0, 80.1). Combined, they threw just 12 TD passes and a whopping 25 INTs. Flutie actually was the only one to manage more TD tosses than picks, and he only played in four games.

In the end, we have to give this award, surprisingly, to Payton: He did more with less than anyone in the league, even on a team that posted a 14-2 record, best in the NFL. At age 32 in 1986, he would retire after the 1987 strike-altered season, making this his last great hurrah—which played no role in our decision whatsoever.

This is Sweetness’ fourth MVP Award from us, after the three straight he won in 1977, 1978, and 1979. Only Cleveland Browns superstar Jim Brown has won more (5) in this space.

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