Here we go again on NFL Thursday, as we move deeper into the 2000s and start moving toward the 2010s. Our passing-game revolution has taken over the sport, although not in the way we thought it might when we first discussed it in the early 1980s. Instead of quarterbacks dominating, the concept of the hybrid backs able to run and catch took over the sport.

Will that continue this year? Read on to find out …

2006 MVP: LaDainian Tomlinson (original AP & PFWA, confirmed)

Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas once again topped the tackles charts, nothing 165 takedowns in 16 games. He added 8 passes defensed and 3 sacks as well to produce a great season for the 6-10 Dolphins, but he’s not really an MVP candidate, of course. San Diego Chargers defensive lineman Shawne Merriman put up 17 sacks to lead the league, as the Chargers went 14-2 to post the best record in the NFL.

He also made 63 tackles, defended 8 passes, and recovered 4 fumbles while intercepting a pass, too. Merriman was all over the defensive side of the ball for the best team in the league, so we like his impact on the sport a lot in terms of considering him an MVP candidate among defenders. Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey led the league with 10 interceptions while making 86 tackles, too—but his team went 9-7 and just missed the playoffs.

On to the QBs, as usual: Only one passer topped the 100-point threshold this year for QB rating, and that was Indianapolis Colts star Peyton Manning (101.0). The Colts won 12 games to win their division and make the postseason, and Manning led the league with 31 TDs while throwing just 9 INTs. He was definitely a rock star.

Four RBs logged more than 100 yards per game, including Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson (1,815 yards and 28 TDs on the ground, the latter being a new record, which won him the MVP votes at the time); Kansas City Chiefs workhouse Larry Johnson (who set an NFL record with 416 carries, running for 1,789 yards and 17 TDs); San Francisco 49ers youngster Frank Gore (1,695 yards and 8 TDs); and New York Giants veteran Tiki Barber (1,662 yards and 5 TDs)—our MVP pick last year.

The Chiefs beat out the Broncos for the final AFC playoff spot, while the Giants made the NFC postseason with an 8-8 record. The 49ers finished one game behind New York for a postseason berth. It’s hard to ignore Tomlinson’s scoring profile, but pretty much all four of these runners could be the MVP.

Meanwhile, Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson topped the league with 103 receptions, while Cincinnati Bengals WR Chad Johnson led the NFL in receiving yards (1,369)—three more yards than Colts star Marvin Harrison. Dallas Cowboys veteran Terrell Owens caught 13 TDs passes to edge out Harrison by one score for the league high there. None of them really dominated the game, though, so we don’t see any MVP candidates here.

Moving to the all-important scrimmage yards, St. Louis Rams RB Steven Jackson topped the sport with 2,334 total yards (1,528 on the ground, 806 through the air), while Tomlinson came in just 11 yards behind him. LT ended up with 31 total TDs and just 2 fumbles, while Jackson scored 16 times and turned the ball over 4 times. The Rams went 8-8 and just missed the NFC postseason.

Overall, though, five different backs topped the 2,000-yards line, which is just insane. Behind LT were Johnson (2,199 yards for 19 TDs with 2 TOs), Gore (2,180 yards for 9 TDs and 6 TOs), and Barber (2,127 yards for 5 TDs and 3 TOs). We can add Jackson to the collection of MVP candidates, really, but we should drop Gore and Barber for their lack of scoring and higher rates of fumbling.

We also are going to pullback on Merriman, as the Chargers gave up 303 points on the year, which ranked just sixth in the AFC for points allowed. Even with the highest-scoring offense in the league, San Diego needed to play better defense than that. So, Merriman falls by the wayside here.

This leaves us with the following MVP candidates—and what kind of help they got from teammates:

  • Manning: RB Joseph Addai (1,406 yards with 8 TDs and 2 TOs), WR Harrison (1,366 yards with 12 TDs and 1 TO), WR Reggie Wayne (1,310 yards with 9 TDs and 1 TO)
  • Tomlinson: QB Philip Rivers (92.0 QB rating), tight end Antonio Gates (924 yards with 9 TDs)
  • Johnson: QB Damon Huard (98.0 in 8 starts), TE Tony Gonzalez (900 yards with 5 TDs and 1 TO)
  • Jackson: QB Marc Bulger (92.9), WR Torry Holt (1,188 yards with 10 TDs and 2 TOs)

This is eye opening here. Manning had tremendous help, and all four of those Colts players fed off each other, in a system where clearly at least the RB was replaceable (see previous columns with Edgerrin James in that slot). Likewise, Jackson took over from RB Marshall Faulk well enough (although not entirely, of course), while Bulger himself did a good imitation of Kurt Warner. Holt took over the top spot from Isaac Bruce as well.

We’re not de-valuing Manning or Jackson, but their offensive systems were well oiled machines that thrived even with changes in personnel. Manning was a constant in Indianapolis, of course, but even with this help, his numbers were not stellar enough. Jackson was a lesser part with lesser teammates, but he still couldn’t get the Rams to the postseason even in a weak division where every team was outscored on the year.

Johnson carried a monster load for the Chiefs, clearly, as the other QB on the roster—Trent Green—posted just a 74.1 QB rating in his 8 starts. Without Johnson, there is no way that Kansas City makes the playoffs. So was he more valuable than LT, who had a good QB and a good TE to support him? What about San Diego WRs? The best one, Eric Parker, caught just 48 passes for 659 yards and no TDs.

Rivers was a young QB who threw just 22 TDs, more than half of them to LT and Gates. Tomlinson obviously got a lot of scores that might have gone to WRs, otherwise, but he did do the leg work, too. His NFL records, both the rushing TDs and the overall TDs, cannot be overlooked.

In the end, we do see LT with a more stable QB situation, but his superior numbers—an extra 124 total yards and an extra dozen TDs to break major records—give him the edge on Johnson, who in almost any other year would have been the MVP. This was a lot closer than we expected it to be, for sure, and we want to make sure everyone knows this.

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