Maybe we hailed the arrival of the quarterback era too soon on NFL Thursday as running backs already have won the majority of MVP Awards this decade in our analyses. With this last year of the 1980s to go, we have seen five RBs win the award, compared to just three QBs (and one defensive lineman in an anomalous year). Maybe it’s the 1990s that will show the changes in the game? Or do we wait until the 2000s?!
Either way, our last look at NFL MVP awards this calendar year might not be too surprising …
1989 MVP: Joe Montana (original AP & PFWA, confirmed)
We still have incomplete defensive data for this season, but four different linebackers averaged at least 10 tackles a game: New York Jets ILB Kyle Clifton (162 tackles in 16 games), Indianapolis Colts ILB Jeff Herrod (154 tackles in 15 games), Atlanta Falcons ILB Jessie Tuggle (183 in 16), and Philadelphia Eagles MLB Byron Evans (184 in 16). The Eagles stud also intercepted three passes, recovered three fumbles, and posted two sacks. That’s a crazy good season, all around.
Meanwhile, five players notched at least one sack a game, too: New Orleans Saints OLB Pat Swilling (16.5 sacks), Los Angeles Rams OLB Kevin Greene (16.5), Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Keith Millard (18), Green Bay Packers OLB Tim Harris (19.5), and Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman (21). Minnesota’s Doleman also added 94 tackles and 5 forced fumbles/recoveries, while his teammate Millard intercepted a pass and returned a fumble recovery for a touchdown. That was a tough D-line to face every week!
We can see Evans and Doleman as MVP candidates in the absence of anyone worthy on offense (which isn’t the case this time out), as the Eagles and the Vikings both qualified for the NFC postseason with double-digit victories. But what about the offensive skill-position players? Well, it’s a mixed bag, of course, as usual.
San Francisco 49ers legend Joe Montana won both the MVP votes at the time by posting an incredible 112.4 QB rating, which was just short of the NFL record at the time (112.8, set by our 1960 NFL MVP Milt Plum). Montana was over 20 points better in QB rating than any other player in the league, as he completed a whopping 70.2 percent of his passes and averaged a stunning 9.1 yards per attempt. The 49ers won 14 games to compile the best record in the league, by the way.
Two different RBs came very close to averaging 100 yards per game: Kansas City Chiefs fullback Christian Okoye (1,480 yards in 15 games) and Detroit Lions rookie scatback Barry Sanders (1,470 yards in 15 games). Both posted plus-4 ratios for scoring to turnovers as well. Each team missed the playoffs, however; the Chiefs by half a game and the Lions by three games.
Packers wide receiver Sterling Sharpe topped the NFL with 90 receptions, while totaling 1,423 yards and 12 TDs. Meanwhile, 49ers standout Jerry Rice led the league with 1,483 yards and 17 TDs on 82 receptions. But it was Rams WR Henry Ellard that bested both Hall of Game WRs with 98.7 yards receiving per game (1,382 yards in 14 games). The 49ers and the Rams made the postseason out of the NFC West, while the Packers (10-6) lost the tiebreak and the NFC Central Division title to the Vikings.
Buffalo Bills RB Thurman Thomas topped the league in scrimmage yards—1,913 yards with 12 TDs and 7 fumbles—followed by Saints RB Dalton Hilliard (1,776 yards, 18 TDs, 7 fumbles) and Sanders (1,752 yards, 14 TDs, 10 fumbles). The Bills won the AFC East, while the Saints won 9 games in the NFC West to finish third and two wins out of a wild-card slot.
What we have here is a lot of great performances in general on offense (and defense)—and one season for the ages, really: Montana’s effort at QB. Considering he’s beating out Hall of Fame RBs like Sanders and Thomas for this award (not to mention Doleman’s impressive season), the 49ers star definitely earned his MVP awards for the 1989 season.
We confirm it, fully, and maybe that transition to the passing-era dominance will arrive in the 1990s after all.