We return to some normalcy on NFL Thursday this week with the 1988 season. After a fluky strike season, pro football got back to basics with that aforementioned, newfound emphasis on the passing game. In this decade of transition, we’ve seen our MVP analysis point to a quarterback three times that happened just once in the 1970s. With two season left in the 1980s, will the QBs continue to surge?

Read on to find out, even if you get spoiled to soon by our section header …

1988 MVP: Boomer Esiason (original AP, PFWA), Eric Dickerson (revised)

No, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Reggie White will not be repeating as the MVP in this space, although he did post 18 sacks on the season, one of only three players to register more than one QB drop a game. Another was Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Kevin Greene (16.5), while New York Giants outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor notched 15.5 sacks in just 12 games. Those are all great seasons, but we have seen it takes unique circumstances for a defensive player to win the MVP.

Cincinnati Bengals QB Boomer Esiason won the vote for both MVP awards as he led the Bengals to the best record in the AFC while topping all players at his position with a 97.4 QB rating. While not as statistically impressive, both Seattle Seahawks signal caller Dave Krieg (94.6) and Minnesota Vikings veteran Wade Wilson (91.5) also posted high QB ratings this season while leading their teams to the playoffs, too. What separates Esiason from those two guys, really?

Esiason did not lead the NFL in completion percentage, yards, or touchdown passes, although he did have the highest yards-per-attempt mark (9.2) in the league—traditionally one of the most important numbers for a QB. That was a big contributor to his QB rating mark, although it’s not a sexy statistic. No doubt he had a great season, but is it really an MVP effort? We’re not convinced (yet?).

For the ground gamers, Indianapolis Colts running back Eric Dickerson—our pick for the 1983 MVP as a rookie with the Rams then—led all backs with 1,659 yards rushing, and he finally learned not to fumble, scoring 14 TDs on the ground with just five turnovers. He was just one of three players to surpass 1,500 yards on the season: Dallas Cowboys halfback Herschel Walker (1,514 yards with 5 TDs and 6 fumbles) and San Francisco 49ers fullback Roger Craig (1,502 yards with 9 TDs and 8 fumbles) also turned the trick.

Walker’s season is impressive, but his team won just 3 games, while Craig’s team made the postseason with 10 victories. However, the 49ers star’s scoring/turnover ratio pales in comparison to Dickerson’s numbers for a Colts team that won 9 games in the AFC East. Indy missed the playoffs by one victory, but that wasn’t Dickerson’s fault (see below).

Receivers stood out a bit in 1988, as 12 of them passed the 1,000-yard mark. Three of those receivers did, too, with double-digit TD catches and zero fumbles: Washington Redskins WR Ricky Sanders (12 TDs), Houston Oilers veteran Drew Hill (10), and Miami Dolphins legend Mark Clayton (14). Generally, no single receiver stood out of the crowd this year, as all three of these players totaled between 1,100 and 1,200 yards.

For total scrimmage yards, there was tie atop the league between Dickerson and Craig, each with exactly 2,036 yards. The 49ers star scored 10 times with 8 fumbles total, while Dickerson’s 15:5 ratio was much better. Walker also surpassed the 2,000-yard mark by 15 yards, with his 7:6 ratio. No one else in the NFL topped 1,600 total yards during the year.

This basically comes down to a debate, then, between Esiason and Dickerson. Let’s look at supporting casts: The Bengals had their triplets, with Esiason, WR Eddie Brown (1,268 total yards, 9 TDs), and RB Ickey Woods (1,265 total yards, 15 TDs). Meanwhile, Dickserson did not have the same support: Colts WR Bill Brooks (929 total yards, 3 TDs) was the next-best, skill-position teammate for Dickerson, while Indy QB Chris Chandler was absolutely brutal (67.2 QB rating, 8 TDs, 12 INTs)—and the primary reason the Colts missed January.

Dickerson was clearly doing more on his own than Esiason was, but there is the issue of the Colts not making the postseason. Let’s look at that more closely, too:

  • Indy started 1-5, and in those games, Dickerson totaled 630 yards rushing, 144 yards receiving, and 3 TDs;
  • The Colts then won five straight, with Dickerson totaling 535 yards rushing, 69 yards receiving, and 7 TDs;
  • Indy went 3-2 down to close, while Dickerson compiled 494 yards rushing, 164 yards receiving, and 5 TDs.

Overall, in the Colts’ losses, Dickerson put together this line: 619 yards rushing, 263 yards receiving, and 5 TDs. He was doing his share to win those games, and in only 2 of those 7 team losses did Dickerson not surpass 100 yards total from scrimmage. Against the Buffalo Bills, the AFC East champs, Dickerson put up 232 yards rushing and 40 yards receiving as the Colts split the two matchups.

We clearly see a one-man team there in Dickerson’s efforts, and while it came up just short of a postseason spot thanks to terrible QB play, the value represented in the Colts RB is a lot more than what we see in the Bengals QB—who had traditional support from both a star running back and a star wide receiver.

In addition to extending the livelihood of MVP RBs in the league for at least another year, Dickerson also becomes our first player to win this award for two different teams.

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