No cheaters to discuss this week on NFL Thursday, which is a relief. We can just focus on the football itself, without having to lower the morality hammer. We know it will come up again in the next few months, but for now, it’s back to the basics: Quarterbacks owning the league like never before, right?

On with the award analysis!

2008 MVP: Peyton Manning (original AP & PFWA), James Harrison (revised)

We did not have any defensive players averaging 10 tackles a game, but four guys did notch at least one sack a game: Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware (20), Miami Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter (17.5), Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham (16.5), and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison (16 in 15 games).

Only Harrison also registered 100-plus tackles (101) on the year, and he also forced a whopping 7 fumbles. He is MVP worthy, as the Steelers won 12 games to make the AFC playoffs. Ware’s season was also noteworthy, with 84 tackles and 6 FFs, as the Cowboys went 9-7 to miss the NFC playoffs by half a game.

On to the QBs, where Indianapolis Colts star Peyton Manning won both MVP votes at the time with a 95.0 QB rating. The issue is that San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers topped the league by a wide margin (105.5) as his team snuck into the postseason with an 8-8 record. The next QB on the list—Miami’s Chad Pennington—came in at 97.4 on the QB rating scale as the Dolphins won the AFC East.

Arizona Cardinals veteran Kurt Warner (96.9) and New Orleans Saints phenom Drew Brees (96.2) also came in ahead of Manning on the QB rating hierarchy. The Cardinals (9-7) made the postseason, though, while the Saints did not (8-8). But clearly, New Orleans was right there with Brees. It’s hard for us to look at Manning as even the best quarterback under these circumstances.

All five QBs started all 16 games, and considering team quality, we’re thinking Rivers was a lot more valuable than Manning was, but we will shelve that conversation for a few minutes here. But the odds are not in Peyton’s favor right now to keep those trophies.

Two running backs topped 100 yards per game: Minnesota Vikings youngster Adrian Peterson (1,760 yards) and Atlanta veteran Michael Turner (1,699 yards). But Peterson fumbled 9 times while scoring just 10 touchdowns, even though the Vikings won 10 games to claim a division title. Turner, meanwhile, posted 17 TDs and fumbled just 3 times for the 11-win Falcons, who also made the postseason. We like Turner’s value here a lot more.

For the receivers, Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson topped the NFL with 115 catches and 1,575 receiving yards, while catching 8 TD passes. Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald (96 catches for 1,431 yards) and Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson (78 catches for 1,331 yards) tied for the league lead with 12 TD catches. The Texans and the Lions (0-16!) missed the postseason, however, by a lot.

Peterson topped the NFL with 1,885 scrimmage yards, but that 10:9 TD:TO ratio is a big negative. We’d like to note that Carolina Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams (1,636 total yards) scored 20 TDs without fumbling once—and the Panthers won 12 games to claim a division title. That’s some serious value right there.

So, where does this leave us? Rivers has to be our top QB candidate, while Turner and Williams made a big impact at RB. We could look at both Warner and Fitzgerald, but they really end up canceling each other out. What about Harrison? The Steelers did give up the fewest points in the league, so we’re going to include him in our analysis:

  • Rivers: RB LaDainian Tomlinson (1,536 total yards with 12 TDs and 1 TO); WR Vincent Jackson (1,167 total yards with 7 TDs and 1 TO); seventh-best defense in the AFC for points allowed (347)
  • Turner: QB Matt Ryan (87.7 rating); WR Roddy White (1,386 total yards with 7 TDs and 1 TO); fifth-best defense in the NFC (325 points allowed)
  • Williams: QB Jake Delhomme (84.7 rating); WR Steve Smith (1,461 total yards with 6 TDs and 1 TO); sixth-best defense in the NFC (329 points allowed)
  • Harrison: QB Ben Roethlisberger (80.1 rating); WR Hines Ward (1,047 total yards with 7 TDs and 1 TO); RB Mewelde Moore (908 total yards with 6 TDs and 2 TOs)

The Chargers clearly should have won more than 8 games; they went 1-7 games in decided by a TD or less. That’s terrible, and in that scenario, we could blame the average defense, but with that offensive cast, there’s just no way to justify that. We can’t give Rivers the MVP for sucking in crunch time.

Turner had good support on offense and on defense, too, so we’re not seeing MVP value there. Williams ranks a bit higher than Turner, perhaps, but still … we’re not blown away by the value-added data there. What we are incredulous about is just how bad the Pittsburgh offense was—and how much value Harrison brought to the Steel Curtain every game. How did the Steelers win 12 games with that offensive trio?

This is a shocker to us, for sure, but we really see Harrison as the league MVP here. We never saw this coming, as he is the first defensive player we’ve chosen for the NFL MVP Award since 1987—and just the third defensive MVP overall since we started this project with the 1950 season.

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