It’s always a mystery on NFL Thursday as to who will win our MVP Award nods in the past, and this edition of the column will be no different. This was a pass-crazy season in NFL history, as the analysis below will show. Quarterbacks and wide receivers went nuts, and of course, we still had some incredible running backs, too. What happened to defense in 1995?!
Let the analysis below answer questions, while also providing the biggest mystery with a surprise solution …
1995 MVP: Brett Favre (original AP & PFWA), Jim Harbaugh (revised)
Let’s just get the defensive discussion out of the way first: No players averaged 10 tackles a game, and only one guy notched a sack a game—Buffalo Bills linebacker Bryce Paup (17.5 sacks). There also was not a single player to register double digits in interceptions, so the defensive question is answered: The offenses were just too much in 1995 for any single defensive player to make a difference.
Now, on to the QBs … Eight different players put up 90-plus QB ratings, led by Indianapolis Colts signal caller Jim Harbaugh (100.7). Meanwhile, Green Bay Packers rising star Brett Favre was next (99.5), and he won the MVP votes from both organizations giving the award at the time. Dallas QB Troy Aikman was third (93.6), much further down the scale. The Colts won 9 games to make the playoffs, while the Packers won 11 games to win their division. Favre led the NFL in touchdown passes and passing yards, as well.
Cowboys RB Emmitt Smith topped the league in rushing yards as the only player to average more than 100 yards a game, and he also scored a record 25 TDs on the ground (while fumbling 7 times, too). Detroit Lions star Barry Sanders—our pick for MVP in both 1991 and 1994—was the only other back from a playoff team to post impressive numbers during the season (1,500 yards even and 11 TDs). Sanders actually averaged more yards per carry than Smith did, too. The Cowboys won 12 games to top the NFC East, by the way.
Receivers had a banner year, based on the stellar QB noted above, so hold on to your hats here: Detroit WR Herman Moore set the single-season reception record (123), while San Francisco 49ers WR Jerry Rice totaled 1,848 yards to set the record there. Minnesota Vikings WR Cris Carter (122 catches) and Cincinnati Bengals WR Carl Pickens both caught 17 TDs each to lead the league there. Neither Carter nor Pickens could get their teams to the postseason, however, while the 49ers won the NFC West.
But perhaps the most impressive effort at the position came from St. Louis Rams wideout Isaac Bruce (119 catches for 1,781 yards), who also broke the old yardage record set in 1961. While Rice had Steve Young (92.3 QB rating) throwing to him on a team that won 11 games, Bruce did his damage for a 7-9 team with someone named Chris Miller (76.2 QB rating) throwing him the ball. It’s not enough for the MVP Award, but it does tell us that Bruce was the most impressive WR of the year—all but eliminating the others from consideration.
Smith topped the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,148) with those 25 totals TDs as well. He was followed, in order, by Sanders (1,898 yards), Rice (1,884), and Bruce (1,798). We don’t like Smith’s fumbles, and we also know Smith had tremendous help in his offense in the form of Aikman and WR Michael Irvin (9th in total yards with 1,603 plus 10 TDs, too). We see Rice the same way: Young at QB plus 1,385 total yards from scrimmage and 13 TDs from RB Derek Loville.
Sanders had help for once in Detroit’s offense as well: Lions QB Scott Mitchell had a career year with a 92.3 QB rating, throwing for 4,338 yards and 32 TDs, while Moore totaled 1,686 total yards and 14 TDs. We will maintain that we think Bruce’s season was the best in the league, by far, when taken in content, as his third “triplet” was RB Jerome Bettis with just 743 total yards from scrimmage—and more fumbles (4) than touchdowns (3). Bruce carried the Rams to their seven victories, in essence.
But we also have to ask if we can look at Harbaugh as a serious MVP contender? If not, we may have to give this award to Bruce, simply because the Rams would have been a 2-win team without him. Harbaugh started just 12 games, getting the Colts into the postseason by the skin of their teeth: Three AFC teams made the postseason with 9-7 records, including Indy, while three other teams finished 8-8 right behind. Without Harbaugh, there’s no way the Colts make the postseason, in truth.
The two other Indy QBs to start were Craig Erickson (2-1 record, 73.7 QB rating) and Paul Justin (0-1 record, 49.8 QB rating). They combined for three TD passes and six INTs while Harbaugh put up 17 TDs and just 5 INTs on his own. When we look at scrimmage yards, the Colts featured RB Marshall Faulk (1,553 yards and 14 TDs with 8 fumbles) and WR Sean Dawkins (784 total yards with 3 TDs). For the record, Favre was aided by fullback Edgar Bennett (1,715 total yards and 7 TDs) and WR Robert Brooks (1,518 total yards and 13 TDs).
In the end, to us, this comes down to Harbaugh getting his team into the playoffs with less help than any of the other MVP candidates explored in detail above, and while Bruce probably had the most impressive season all things considered, his team didn’t come near the postseason despite his carrying them all by himself. Favre had lots of help; Smith had lots of support; and so did Sanders, Rice, and all the rest. Harbaugh had less help, and he made the difference for a playoff team in terms of making it to January or going home for Christmas.