Moving closer to the present day on NFL Thursday, we once again dive into the MVP awards for professional football. The pass-happy 21st century was well under way at this point, as well. Even in selecting a running back the last three seasons for our MVP, we did so because the player in question was adding a lot of value as a receiver in an offense that had the ability to run and throw effectively. What will happen next?

The passing game is here to stay, so let’s get on with the (aerial) show!

2002 MVP: Rich Gannon (original AP & PFWA), Priest Holmes (revised)

Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor topped the league with 18.5 sacks, the only player to register at least one sack a game. He also showed his flexibility, defending 8 passes and forcing 7 fumbles on the year. He was by far the best defensive player during the season, although Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks did score 4 defensive touchdowns (3 interception returns and one fumble return).

We see those scores as more fluky than anything else: Brooks scored just 7 defensive TDs in his entire 14-year career, so there’s the proof. Meanwhile, Taylor was more consistent all season long, although the Dolphins’ 9-7 record wasn’t good enough to make the postseason (losing a four-way tiebreaker to the Cleveland Browns for the final AFC postseason berth). But the Dolphins never would have been that close if not for Taylor’s efforts.

In the quarterback department, the New York Jets phenom Chad Pennington topped the NFL in QB rating (104.2), while leading his team to the AFC East crown with a 9-7 record. Pennington was 8-4 as a starter and played in 15 games total, so clearly he was key to the Jets’ playoff charge. Meanwhile, Oakland Raiders veteran Rich Gannon won both the MVP votes by posting a 97.3 QB rating and guiding the Silver & Black to the AFC West title with 11 victories.

Gannon’s 4,689 yards wowed the voters, obviously, even though Pennington had higher completion and TD percentages—not to mention a lower INT percentage. Tampa Bay QB Brad Johnson was third in QB rating (92.9) while also posting a higher TD percentage and a lower INT percentage than Gannon, as the Bucs won 12 games to make the playoffs. Basically, it’s arguable Gannon was even the best QB, let alone the league MVP.

Three different RBs topped 100 yards per game on the season: Dolphins stud Ricky Williams (1,853 rushing yards with 16 TDs and 7 fumbles), San Diego Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson (1,683 rushing yards with 14 TDs and 3 fumbles), and Kansas City Chiefs workhorse Priest Holmes (1,615 rushing yards with 21 TDs and 1 fumble). We know the Dolphins missed out on the postseason with that tiebreaker, while the Chargers and the Chiefs finished one game back in that wild-card hunt with 8-8 records.

In fact, 9 AFC teams finished with either 7, 8, or 9 wins, creating quite the logjam here in terms of valuation. And of those three RBs, Holmes brought the most value on the ground with his totals coming in just 14 games—not to mention his lack of turnovers. It’s hard to escape the fact the Chiefs might have made the playoffs if he had been able to play all 16 games.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison set the NFL record with 143 receptions, while also leading the NFL in receiving yards (1,722). He also scored 11 TDs, although San Francisco 49ers wideout Terrell Owens (13 TDs) topped the league in that category. The Colts won 10 games to claim an AFC playoff berth, too, so Harrison is a serious MVP candidate as well.

So far, then, we have Pennington, Holmes, Harrison, and Taylor as legitimate MVP options, but we have to see how the scrimmage yards shake out: What we see here is Holmes separating himself with 672 receiving yards and 3 more TDs, still while fumbling just once, all in 14 games. His 2,287 total yards beat both Williams and Tomlinson, and the TD/TO ratio is stunning.

We like Pennington’s value, as the Jets other QB—Vinny Testaverde—posted just a 1-3 record as a starter and a 78.3 QB rating. The Jets did have their triplets, however: RB Curtis Martin totaled 1,456 yards and 7 TDs with no fumbles, while WR Laveranues Coles gained 1,303 total yards with 5 TDs.

Holmes also had his quality teammates: QB Trent Green (92.6 QB rating), WR Eddie Kennison (964 total yards), and tight end Tony Gonzalez (773 yards and 7 TDs) were pretty good, too. As for Harrison and the Colts, there was RB Edgerrin James (1,343 total yards) and QB Peyton Manning (88.8 QB rating). We know Taylor had Williams on offense, as well as WR Chris Chambers (812 total yards) and QB Jay Fiedler (85.2).

We can’t determine which player is more valuable to the Dolphins, however, since they were the two studs on the roster. But we would give the edge to Taylor, as Miami actually gave up the fewest points in the AFC. But Williams also helped keep the Dolphins defense off the field and rested. It’s too hard here to separate them, in truth, so they sadly cancel each other out. We know that’s not fair, but it is what it is.

In reality, Holmes was a lot like Marshall Faulk: The Chiefs offense doesn’t work without him and his ability to make all kinds of plays, and the fact he only played 14 games is huge. Holmes missed the final two games of the season with a hip injury, and Kansas City split those two games, losing 24-0 in the finale against Oakland with a playoff spot on the line. Yes, they were only 7-7 with him, but that proves his value: The Chiefs would have been 4-12 without Holmes, or something like that.

Meanwhile, Pennington started the last 12 games of the season for Jets, and he almost got them to the playoffs after Testaverde couldn’t get the offense scoring in double digits for three straight losses in Weeks 2-4. If the Jets had started Pennington all season long, perhaps they made the playoffs readily instead of starting 1-3 and having to play catchup the rest of the way.

We see Harrison as having enough help on offense in Indianapolis (without being über-dominant himself, really, in addition to just catching a lot of short passes), so this comes down to Holmes or Pennington, as both the Chiefs and the Jets just missed the playoffs because their best players didn’t play a full season. Coaching decisions cost New York, while injuries cost Kansas City. And Holmes had less help with the Chiefs than Pennington had with the Jets, in truth.

Therefore, we see this award going to Holmes, one of the few times we haven’t given the award to a record setter or a player from a playoff team. These analyses are hard, but this is our thought process—and if you disagree, we will totally understand this time. It was tough to decide between a lot of quality candidates in 2002.

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