Welcome back to NFL Thursday, where we see the last season played for a legend this time. That’s right: Barry Sanders retired at the tender age of 30, and this would be his last season. A three-time MVP in this space, we also think Sanders is the NFL GOAT as explored last spring. Go ahead: Disagree with us, and then prove us wrong!

That being said, we have a new MVP Award to grant, so here we go with that task …

1998 MVP: Terrell Davis (original AP & PFWA, confirmed)

Let’s start with defense again, to get it out of the way. No player averaged more than 10 tackles a game, and no player picked off more than 9 passes. Three players—Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Sinclair (16.5), Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White (16), and Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Kevin Greene (15 in 15 games)—registered at least one sack a game, however. Sinclair also forced 6 fumbles, while White forced 4 turnovers. Greene didn’t force any.

From that bunch, only the Packers made the postseason (11-5 record as a wild-card team), so we aren’t looking at any defensive candidates this time around. However, four different quarterbacks posted 100-plus QB ratings, which demonstrates that trend we’ve been discussing now for a few months in this column. The best quarterback? Our 1990 MVP pick Randall Cunningham, now playing for the Minnesota Vikings, led the NFL with a 106.0 QB rating.

He was followed by New York Jets veteran Vinny Testaverde (101.6), our 1996 MVP pick Steve Young from the San Francisco 49ers (101.1), and Atlanta Falcons stalwart Chris Chandler (100.9). All these guys were at least 33 years old, too, showing the evolution in the sport again, where QBs had a longer life span in a league with better rules designed to protect their health. The Vikings posted 15 wins for the best record in the NFL, while Falcons won 14 games. The Jets and the 49ers each won 12 times.

That makes all four players viable MVP candidates, of course. But what about the running backs and the receivers? Sanders “only” ran for 1,491 yards one season after cracking the 2,000-yard barrier, and the Lions won just 5 games, anyway. The real dominant runners were Denver Broncos shooting star Terrell Davis—who won both the AP and PFWA award votes by running for 2,008 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns—and Falcons workhorse Jamal Anderson (a then-record 410 carries for 1,846 yards and 14 TDs). Denver, the defending Super Bowl champs, topped the AFC with 14 victories, by the way.

This brings our MVP candidate list to six players already, and we haven’t even gotten to the receivers yet. In that category, we don’t have any dominant players, however, as three different guys topped the league in the three big categories: Miami Dolphins wide receiver O.J. McDuffie (90 catches), Green Bay’s Antonio Freeman (1,424 yards), and Vikings rookie Randy Moss (17 TDs) split the honors. None of these players can crack the group we already have going above.

For scrimmage yards, however, we see four different players topped 2,000 yards for the season, which is incredible: Indianapolis Colts star Marshall Faulk topped the league, actually, with 2,227 yards combined, followed by Davis (2,225), Anderson (2,165), and 49ers running back Garrison Hearst (2,105). Davis posted 23 total TDs with just 2 fumbles, though, to stand out here, and the Colts won just 3 games, anyway.

So, we can add Hearst to the MVP convo along with Cunningham, Testaverde, Young, Chandler, Davis, and Anderson. Right away, we see two 49ers players and two Falcons players on our short list—and you know how we feel about that. How much individual MVP value can teammates have together in a scenario like this? That automatically reduces this list down to three players: Cunningham, Testaverde, and Davis. So now, it’s on to the standard “triplet” analysis.

  • Minnesota: Cunningham, RB Robert Smith (1,478 total yards with 8 TDs), WR Moss (1,317 yards and 17 TDs)
  • New York: Testaverde, RB Curtis Martin (1,652 yards and 9 TDs), WR Keyshawn Johnson (1,191 yards with 11 TDs)
  • Denver: QB John Elway (93.0 QB rating), Davis, WR Rod Smith (1,285 yards and 6 TDs)

All three players pretty much played in All-Star offenses, although we might argue that this comes down to Testaverde and Davis, since Minnesota’s “triplets” were the best ones, overall. Elway was 38 years old and also playing in his final season, so there was a need for the Broncos to protect him as they made a run for a second-straight Super Bowl victory. The Jets also had a significantly better defense during the regular season, which put less pressure on Testaverde—age 35—to deliver big plays.

In this sense, and it is closer than we ever thought it could be, we see Davis as having the most individual value. With an aging and potentially fragile QB on his last legs, he had to carry more of the load for his team, which had an aging defense, too, as it had to defend its title—taking the best shots each opponent had to give, each and every game. Due to these factors, we confirm the AP and PFWA votes for MVP with confidence.

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