NFL Thursday is coming off a surprising two seasons where we anointed a wide receiver as the MVP both times, and we cannot imagine that happening a third year in a row. But the best part of these analyses is that we really have no idea where the statistical data is going to lead us in any given season. All we see are the numbers and the context in which they were established. It’s pure objectivity as its finest!

That being said, on with another season of NFL analysis …

1994 MVP: Steve Young (original AP & PFWA), Barry Sanders (revised)

Let’s start with defense this time out, for the heck of it: Detroit Lions linebacker Chris Spielman registered a whopping 195 tackles while forcing three fumbles and recovering three fumbles as well—including one for a touchdown. The Lions finished 9-7 to claim an NFC playoff spot, and Spielman was really the standout defensive player of the year in the league. No player compiled more than 14 sacks or 9 interceptions during the season, and that tackles total remains the fifth best in NFL history since the stat started being compiled.

In the quarterbacks category, only San Francisco 49ers star Steve Young stood out: His 112.8 QB rating was an all-time NFL record at the time, beating out his predecessor at the position on the team (1989 MVP Joe Montana). We stripped Young of his 1992 MVP awards, but setting this record is impressive in a season where no other QB even reached 91.0 on the QB rating scale. Yet Young’s stats weren’t record breaking: He didn’t break any individual counting records, but his all-around effort was profound for the 13-3 49ers.

Running backs: Our 1991 pick for MVP, Detroit’s Barry Sanders, led the league with 1,883 rushing yards and no fumbles. No other RB averaged over 100 yards per game, although Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith did rush for 21 touchdowns while fumbling just once. In contrast, Sanders only scored 8 times on the ground. Smith’s 1,484 yards rushing in 15 games represented the next-best effort among runners in the league, too. Dallas finished 12-4 as the two-time defending Super Bowl champions.

Among the receivers in the the NFL, three players stood out: Minnesota Vikings WR Cris Carter (a record 122 catches), San Francisco WR Jerry Rice (league-best 1,499 yards), and two-time MVP pick Sterling Sharpe of the Green Bay Packers (NFL-high 18 TD receptions). The Vikings won 10 games to win the NFC Central Division, while the Packers went 9-7 to tie the Lions and the Chicago Bears in the division as four teams from the ol’ Black & Blue made the NFC playoffs. However, no single receiver dominated the numbers here.

As good as this group of RBs and WRs were, can any of them really touch the season Young had for the 49ers? Not really, although a closer look at the total yards from scrimmage is always needed: Sanders (2,166 total yards, 8 TDs, 0 fumbles) and Smith (1,825 total yards, 22 TDs, 1 fumble) stand out here among everyone else at the offensive, non-QB positions. In many years, either of those efforts might be enough to run away with the MVP Award.

We have to look at teammates here, too, in that traditional “triplet” way for our prime candidates:

  • San Francisco: Rice (1,592 total yards, 15 TDs), RB Ricky Watters (1,596 total yards, 11 TDs)
  • Detroit: QB Scott Mitchell (62.0 QB rating), WR Herman Moore (1,173 total yards, 11 TDs)
  • Dallas: QB Troy Aikman (84.9 QB rating), WR Michael Irvin (1,241 total yards, 6 TDs)

The reality is that Young was playing with major studs in the 49ers offense, while Smith was playing with great players, too, although they had “lesser” seasons than their San Francisco counterparts and rivals. What did Sanders have? Pretty much a negative drain at QB and a WR teammate doing his best to keep the offense afloat—although Spielman’s defensive efforts probably helped Detroit a lot. But overall, Dallas’ defense was a lot better than the 49ers defense, and the Lions defense overall was worse than the one in S.F. (see below).

So this is our dilemma: Sanders once again carried—pun intended this time—his team to the postseason, while Young and Smith benefitted from Pro Bowl teammates all around them in addition to having stellar defenses on their side, too. Young definitely had the “best” season, in terms of historical performance, but Sanders’ season had more value. In fact, at the time, the Lions star’s total-yards number was the sixth-best total in history. That’s not bad.

We don’t like this choice, in truth, at all: Both players are deserving of the award. But we want to point out something here: Young’s backup in San Francisco, Elvis Grbac, posted a 98.2 QB rating on 50 pass attempts for the season, as the 49ers starter was often removed from games early as the team romped to its league-best 13 victories—including 10 in a row at one point, by an average margin of 19.7 points per game. Meanwhile, how did other Detroit RBs fare on the season? 28 carries for 52 yards. Let that sink in for a moment.

Also, here’s an additional kicker: In a head-to-head matchup in Week 6, the 49ers beat the Lions, 27-21. Young threw for only 152 yards in that win, while Sanders totaled 111 yards from scrimmage. San Francisco had a much better defense than Detroit did, giving up three points fewer per game during the regular season overall. Yet Sanders outperformed Young in that matchup, objectively speaking.

This is about doing more with less: There is no way the Lions make the postseason without Sanders, while it’s pretty likely the 49ers would have made the playoffs without Young. In the end, it’s clear that the Detroit running back simply had more value than the San Francisco quarterback. This is not taking anything away from Young at all, but … value is value, and that’s what the “V” stands for in the name of the award here.

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