This may be the weirdest year we’ve ever tackled on NFL Thursday as there was another player strike—and in addition to just a 15-game regular season, three of those games were played mostly by replacement guys. This means most NFL players we will evaluate today for the 1987 MVP Award played just 12 games. So like 1982, it’s a statistically goofy season.
We did the best we could with it, so here it goes …
1987 MVP: John Elway (original AP) and Jerry Rice (original PFWA), Reggie White (revised)
Let’s start defensively, where Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Reggie White posted a whopping 21 sacks in just 12 games—in addition to 76 tackles and one fumble recovery he returned 70 yards for a touchdown. That’s a special season, but again we’re left with incomplete data for the league as a whole on defense. Still, White is the one guy to be in the MVP convo from that side of the line.
We are a little confused how Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway won the AP MVP when he finished 11th in QB rating (83.4) and eighth in TD passes (19), while completing just 54.6 percent of his passes (18th). Even if you toss in his 304 yards rushing (a career-high mark) and 4 running TDs, that’s not a particularly impressive season. Meanwhile, San Francisco 49ers QB Joe Montana was the QB rating leader (102.1) by almost 7 points over the next-best guy (Cleveland Browns star Bernie Kosar).
Running back Eric Dickerson, splitting his time between the Los Angeles Rams and the Indianapolis Colts, was the only runner to top 100 yards per game (1,288 yards in 12 games), but once again, his fumbles were an issue: He coughed it up 7 times while rushing for just 6 TDs. Overall, 10 backs averaged more than 62.5 yards per game—the normal standard for reaching 1,000 yards in a 16-game season—but no one really stood out in an MVP-worthy way.
One receiver stood out this year: 49ers wideout Jerry Rice, who won the PFWA MVP vote by hauling in 65 passes for 1,078 yards and a whopping 22 TD catches! He also fumbled twice, however, which is rare for pass catchers: Of the 584 players who caught passes in 1987, 462 of them fumbled less than Rice did. Also, St. Louis Cardinals WR J.T. Smith topped the NFL in both receptions (91) and receiving yards (1,117), meaning all Rice did best was catch a lot TD passes—and there was a odd reason for that (see below).
The top two players in yards from scrimmage played for squads that missed the postseason by finishing under .500 on the year: Dallas Cowboys RB Herschel Walker (1,606 yards, 8 TDs, 4 fumbles) and Rams RB Charles White (1,495 yards, 11 TDs, 8 fumbles)—two former Heisman Trophy winners. Generally, no one really stood out here, either. Even Rice finished just ninth on this list (1,129 yards).
This leaves us with a puzzling list of legitimate contenders for the singular MVP Award in a strange season: White, Montana, and Rice. The issue with Rice is that he didn’t even lead his own team in yards from scrimmage—that honor went to fullback Roger Craig (1,307 yards, 4 TDs, and 5 fumbles). Rice’s TD total, therefore, might have come at the expense of Craig’s grinding work to get the 49ers into scoring position.
How many of those TDs were “vultured“, to borrow a phrase from baseball parlance? Here is a quick glancer at Rice’s game log from 1987:
- 10 TDs inside the red zone
- 9 TDs inside the 10-yard line
- 8 TDs inside the 5-yard line
Obviously, Craig was doing the vast majority of the dirty work, and Rice was cleaning up on cheap TDs. This is not meant to disparage Rice, but at least 8 of those TDs above normally would go to a running back. That the 49ers chose to pass instead of run doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have run the ball with Craig.
And if the opposing defenses were lined up to stop the run, then that’s circumstantial and/or bad coaching. Either way, this was a totally unique fluke to catch 22 TDs with so many of them coming from inside the 5-yard line. With 27 TDs between Rice and Craig, an average distribution would have had a more even total for both. Even if you take just half those red-zone scores from Rice and give them to Craig … Normalcy.
However, this also says something about Montana: He had two huge weapons at his disposal, and while we would argue most of the time that the QB makes the WR, it’s also a quality RB that helps make the QB. This set of triplets, as we have theorized before in this space many times, makes it hard to award any of them an MVP Award when all three feed off each other so successfully. Oh, and 49ers backup QB Steve Young? He posted a 120.8 QB rating himself in three starts, so this was a well-oiled machine with replaceable parts.
So what about White? Eagles QB Randall Cunningham finished just behind Elway in the QB rating list, while also running for 505 yards and 3 TDs on the ground himself. He was basically just as good as the Denver star—except that he led the NFL in fumbles (12). Philly’s best offensive complement to Cunningham was FB Anthony Toney (814 scrimmage yards, 6 TDs, 5 fumbles). That’s 17 fumbles from your offensive stars, meaning White had a lot of work to do on defense as the Eagles ended up finishing just 7-8 on the year.
That was one game out of the playoffs in the NFC, as the Minnesota Vikings finished 8-7 to claim the final postseason berth. However, the Vikings were an 8-4 team, really, as their replacement players went 0-3. What about the Eagles? Same thing: Philadelphia was a 7-5 team with an 0-3 replacement record.
Can we give the award to White over Rice and/or Montana? Generally, we have gone with this approach: The 49ers, with a NFL-best 13-2 overall record—including 3-0 with replacement players—still would have made the postseason without one of their three triplets in action. They were great players, but that doesn’t always equate to value. And the MVP Award is about that value.
This is an odd season, as we noted, and it’s even odder for us to give the award to a defensive player on a team that missed the playoffs. But sometimes, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles, and this time the MVP cookie crumbles right into the hungry mouth of White. No one else on the Eagles defense had more than six sacks total (or four interceptions, either), and only one other defensive teammate even scored a return TD. White was a one-man wrecking crew on a team that just missed the postseason by one game.