For this edition of NFL Thursday, we find ourselves in interesting territory: The last two MVP awards have gone to quarterbacks for the first time since 1981 and 1982, and we have to wonder if it will turn out to be anomaly like last time … or a trend that is going to last to the present day—as every week, we get one step closer to 2021 in this throwback series.
Now, on with the award presentation for 1991!
1991 MVP: Thurman Thomas (original AP & PFWA), Barry Sanders (revised)
Let’s start with the quarterbacks to get it out of the way: Three QBs posted ratings above 97.5 for the season, and they were led by San Francisco 49ers star Steve Young and his 101.8 QB rating. But Young started just 10 games during the season, posting a 5-5 record as the 49ers missed the playoffs—not a lot of value there.
Washington QB Mark Rypien (97.9) and Buffalo QB Jim Kelly (97.6) were the only other notable quarterbacks during this season, and both led their teams to the postseason (where the Redskins and the Bills ended up meeting in the Super Bowl). None of these three QBs truly had an exceptional season worthy of MVP consideration, so that stops our trend right there.
Three running backs stood out in 1991: Dallas star Emmitt Smith (1,563 yards with 12 touchdowns and 8 fumbles), Detroit legend Barry Sanders (1,548 yards with 16 TDs and 5 fumbles), and Buffalo workhorse Thurman Thomas (1,407 yards with 7 TDs and 5 fumbles), winner of both MVP votes at the time. Both Dallas and Detroit made the playoffs, so all three of these guys are instantly elevated to frontrunner status (pun not intended).
Fifteen different receivers grabbed passes for over 1,000 yards, so there were a lot of good seasons in this area, led by Dallas WR Michael Irvin (93 catches for 1,523 yards and 8 TDs). Houston wideout Haywood Jeffires topped them all with 100 receptions, while 49ers WR Jerry Rice caught the most TD passes (14). The Oilers won the AFC Central, and again, S.F. missed the postseason.
The top four players in total scrimmage yards were Thomas (2,038 yards with 12 TDs and 5 fumbles), Sanders (1,855 yards with 17 TDs and 5 fumbles), Smith (1,821 yards with 13 TDs and 8 fumbles), and Irvin (1,523 yards with 8 TDs and 3 fumbles). With Smith and Irvin being on the same team—and supported decently enough by QB Troy Aikman and his 86.7 QB rating in 10 games—it’s easy to reclassify their value, and that’s even before considering the numerous fumbles.
Thomas benefitted from Kelly’s QB play, of course, in addition to Bills WR Andre Reed, who finished ninth in total scrimmage yards (1,249 yards with 10 TDs and 1 fumble). That kind of leaves us with Sanders on the offensive side: The next-best Lions player finished just 74th in total scrimmage yards (678 with 1 TD), and Detroit QB Erik Kramer finished a mere 25th in QB rating (71.4). Somehow, Sanders carried the Lions to 12 wins and an NFC Central Division title, pretty much all alone.
But what about defensive guys? Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Broderick Thomas had a crazy good season: 174 tackles, 11 sacks, and 7 forced fumbles. New Orleans Saints LB Pat Swilling notched 17 sacks and had an interception return for a TD, in addition to forcing 6 fumbles. Tampa finished just 3-13, but the Saints finished atop the tough NFC West, where three teams posted double-digit victory totals.
There is a good argument here for Swilling, as he also led the NFL in Approximate Value for the season, too, and the Saints offense was … mediocre, at best. Its top QB, Steve Walsh, started just 7 games with a 79.5 QB rating, and no New Orleans offensive player posted more than 1,000 total yards from scrimmage. Someone named Floyd Turner—we know you’ve never heard of him, either—led the Saints with 927 total yards with 8 TDs and 1 fumble as a wide receiver. That was the 43rd-best scrimmage-yards performance in the NFL.
The Saints had a brilliant defense, however, and Swilling did have help there: LB Rickey Jackson had 11.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles, while free safety Gene Atkins tossed in 5 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 3 sacks, and 75 tackles. Cornerback Vince Buck also had 5 INTs and 3 fumble recoveries. New Orleans gave up a league-low 211 points on the year. Swilling led a complete team effort there, for sure.
So, we put forth this reality: Swilling may have had the better season, but Sanders had the more valuable season. It’s that simple. This was a close decision, as it was one of those years where we could have had another defensive player win the MVP Award, but in the end, this is about value above all else—and no one brought it to his team like Sanders did.