In one of those weird seasons, we find ourselves on NFL Thursday this week having to deal with a split decision for the AP MVP Award, as one of the winners also won the PFWA MVP Award. In addition, we find ourselves in a stretch of eight seasons where only twice has our MVP nod gone to a player not involved in the aerial game of the modern NFL. Will that trend continue today? Or will we buck the momentum one more time?
Such fun times ahead … enjoy!
1997 MVP: Brett Favre (original AP) & Barry Sanders (original AP & PFWA), Sanders (revised)
To start, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis burst onto the scene with 184 tackles in 16 games, to go along with 4 sacks, while establishing himself as a force to reckon with in the league for years to come. He was probably the best defensive player in the league at age 22, but the Ravens finished last in the AFC Central Division with just 6 victories, so his value took a hit there.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young was by far the best at his position, posting a 104.7 QB rating, which far outdistanced the next-best QB, Atlanta Falcons veteran Chris Chandler (95.1). Somehow, Green Bay Packers gunslinger Brett Favre won a slice of the AP MVP despite posting just a 92.6 QB rating. His league-high 35 touchdown passes again wowed voters who ignored his low completion percentage (59.3 percent) and high interception total (16).
Needless to say, Favre will not be winning this award from us, and the Falcons finished 7-9, out of the playoff hunt. This leaves Young, who surprisingly won our 1996 MVP analysis, as the early frontrunner for this season. But of course, we have a lot more players to look at closely before we decide.
Three RBs averaged over 110 yards per game, while also helping their teams get to the postseason: Detroit Lions star Barry Sanders (2,053 yards), Denver Broncos workhorse Terrell Davis (1,750), and Pittsburgh Steeler bowling ball Jerome Bettis (1,665). Sanders played the full season, while Davis and Bettis both played in just 15 games. Strangely, though, Sanders fumbled fewer times (3) than either Davis (4) or Bettis (6). The Lions legend was just the third player at the time to crack the 2,000-yard mark as well, which is how he earned his half of the AP MVP and the PFWA MVP.
In the wide receiver category, two players caught more than 100 passes—both Oakland Raiders WR Tim Brown and Lions WR Herman Moore hauled in 104 catches—while Arizona Cardinals WR Rob Moore topped his peers with 1,584 yards receiving. Five other WRs each caught double-digit TD passes, meaning there was no one dominant player at this position in 1997.
Scrimmage yards always give us a better view of skill-position players, and this year is no exception: Sanders set the all-time record with 2,358 yards with 14 TDs and just 3 fumbles, while Davis also cracked the 2,000-yard mark (2,037) with 15 TDs and 4 fumbles. Along with Young, both these guys deserve serious MVP consideration.
So, now, we look at our usual peripheral data: How much support on offense did each of these players have? Sanders was joined by Moore and QB Scott Mitchell (79.6 QB rating), while Davis had help from QB John Elway (87.5 QB rating) and both WR Rod Smith (1,180 receiving yards, 12 TDs) and tight end Shannon Sharpe (1,107 receiving yards). What about Young? He had RB Garrison Hearst (1,019 rushing yards) and WR Terrell Owens (936 yards receiving).
Davis was surrounded by three quality teammates, which drops his value below both Sanders and Young. Detroit had a great RB, and good WR, and a mediocre QB, while San Francisco had a great QB, a good RB, and a good WR. The 49ers changed their offensive philosophy a bit due to the first-game, season-ending injury to WR Jerry Rice, and S.F. rode its run-heavy offense to 13 wins, the best record in the NFC, with Young throwing for just 201.9 yards per game.
In fact, the 49ers ran the ball 523 times, the fourth-most in the league, which was a complete change from where the S.F. offense had been in recent seasons. We totally give Young credit and value for toning down his game—he actually ran for only 199 yards himself—to be more conservative and safer as his body was starting to break down a bit, too. And again, the 49ers still won, securing the top playoff seed in the NFC, thanks to Young’s efficient game management and skill set.
But it’s hard to overlook Sanders’ record-breaking season: Nothing Young did was record breaking, and the 49ers did win the one game where Young couldn’t play. On the contrary, the Lions finished 9-7, and if they had won only 8 games, they would have missed the playoffs. We know the 49ers were a well-oiled machine at this point, while no one would ever say the same about Detroit.
Without Sanders, the Lions would have been a 4-12 team. Without Young, San Francisco would still win 9-10 games and make the postseason. There is also the matter of defense: The 49ers gave up the second-fewest points in the NFC, while the Lions defense gave up the sixth-fewest points. On the surface that may not seem like much, but it meant San Francisco had almost a field goal more cushion to work with each game offensively than Detroit, putting more pressure on Sanders to deliver every game.
We wouldn’t argue with someone who wanted to give this award to Young too strongly, but it’s hard for us to do so: Sanders was just more valuable to the Lions than Young was to the 49ers, and thus he wins his third MVP nod from us in the process—to go alone with his 1991 and 1994 trophies.