Welcome to 2021, and may it be a better year for you than 2020. We wish that for everyone.
Here we are in the 1990s now on NFL Thursday and moving a lot closer to modernity, which is shocking to us as we look back at where we started in this column nine-plus months ago. If 40 percent of our NFL MVP Award winners in the last decade were quarterbacks, we do expect that number to rise in the 1990s. Or will we be surprised again?
The fun part is finding out, right? Read on …
1990 MVP: Joe Montana (original AP) & Randall Cunningham (original PFWA), Cunningham (revised)
We have a split-award situation this time out, which will take care of itself, obviously. We have more-complete defensive statistics than ever before, as well. This could make our analyses more complex going forward, and we will start with Atlanta Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle, who totaled 201 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries—in addition a touchdown return on one of them. New York Jets LB Kyle Clifton was right behind with 199 tackles and three interceptions. More short passes means more tackles in the middle.
Three players notched at least a sack a game, too: Kansas City Chiefs LB Derrick Thomas (20), Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith (19), and San Francisco 49ers linebacker Charles Haley (16). Thomas also forced six fumbles, while Smith forced four, and Haley forced three. Meanwhile, Chicago Bears free safety Mark Carrier led the NFL in interceptions (10), while forcing five fumbles and making 122 total tackles. These are all impressive defensive seasons, in truth.
The evolution of the passing game meant more defensive ability was needed to cover both the pass and the run, and we saw a lot more flexible skill sets from linebackers and safeties in countering this development. Are any of these defensive guys real MVP candidates, though? The Falcons won 5 games and finished last in the NFC West. The Jets finished fourth in the AFC East, winning just 6 times. Meanwhile, the Chiefs (11-5), the Bills (13-3), the 49ers (14-2), and the Bears (11-5) all made the playoffs—stay tuned.
49ers QB Joe Montana won the AP MVP Award, somehow, by posting a middling 89.0 QB rating, which was just seventh best in the NFL. He also tossed the seventh-most interceptions (16) in the league. Needless to say, the AP voters were way off there. Philadelphia Eagles QB Randall Cunningham won the PFWA MVP vote with his 91.2 QB rating—plus his 942 yards rushing, which was good enough for ninth best in the NFL. That vote makes a lot more sense, obviously, as the Eagles went 10-6 to make the playoffs.
Buffalo QB Jim Kelly led the league in QB rating (101.2), which was almost five points better than the next-best quarterback. Kelly and Cunningham make much better MVP candidates in our estimation than Montana, who won last year’s award easily. The fact Cunningham threw for 30 TDs and ran for almost 1,000 yards really is amazing, even if he did fumble the ball 9 times overall. More on that later.
It was a down year for running backs, as Detroit Lions star Barry Sanders led the NFL with just 1,304 yards rushing. Overall, only eight players ran for 1,000 yards, followed by Cunningham with his 942 yards. None of them had a dominant season, so we will have to look to scrimmage yards down below to find the real RB candidates for the MVP Award.
Ten receivers posted 1,000-yard seasons, the best, by far, coming from 49ers wideout Jerry Rice (100 catches for 1,502 yards and 13 TDs—all NFL highs). When you win a statistical Triple Crown like that, it’s been a great season. How much credit do we give to Montana, the AP MVP, for making Rice’s season what it was, though? A significant amount, which is why it’s always key to analyze QB play when evaluating WR value.
Three players topped Rice’s total scrimmage yards (1,502) to gain entry in this conversation: Bills RB Thurman Thomas (1,829 total yards and 13 TDs), Sanders (1,784 yards and 16 TDs), and Bears RB Neal Anderson (1,562 yards and 13 TDs). Keep in mind that the Lions finished 6-10, which makes Sanders’ MVP hopes nil. We know the Bills and the Bears reached the postseason.
So here’s a not-so-short list for a complicated season of candidates on defense (Thomas, Smith, Haley, Carrier) and offense (Kelly, Cunningham, Rice, Thomas, Anderson). Have we ever nine candidates before after our initial analysis? Doubtful. But here we are, and we can start—fairly or not—by eliminating teammates, who clearly had shared responsibility for a team’s success.
Smith, Kelly, and Thomas form a unique set of Triplets in Buffalo, so they all lose value in this conversation. Haley and Rice (not to mention Montana) find themselves in the same boat. Anderson and Carrier fall one tier below those two trios, of course, leaving us with Cunningham as a guy who carried his team quite alone.
Or did he? A quick look at the scrimmage stats shows us that the Eagles’ best complementary player on offense was RB Keith Byars (960 total yards, 3 TDs, 4 fumbles). Philly did have defensive end Reggie White (14 sacks) and some other good players on defense, but Cunningham did a lot on his own for the Eagles. The fact he was barely second on his own offense for total yards from scrimmage is shocking.
What about the 9 fumbles? Cunningham’s fumble total was kind of average for a QB in 1990, in truth, as guys like Houston Oilers QB Warren Moon (18) and Seattle Seahawks QB Dave Krieg (16) were fumble machines at the bottom of the list. Seven other starting QBs also fumbled in double digits, leaving Cunningham looking a lot better under the circumstances.
Also, factor in his 118 rushing attempts—additional chances to be stripped of the ball, basically—and his 9 fumbles actually look pretty good in context. Along with 465 passing attempts, that’s 583 plays with only 9 fumbles as a primary threat.
Therefore, in the end, we look favorably upon Cunningham’s amazing season. His QB rushing total was not an NFL record, but the record was held at the time by a QB who threw for just 1,246 yards while completing a mere 37.9 percent of his passes in the season he ran for 968 yards (Bobby Douglass, Chicago Bears, 1972). That’s a running QB, not a dual threat. When a QB throws for 3,466 yards and 30 TDs while running for 942 yards and another 5 TDs, that’s an MVP season in anyone’s eyes.