The first NFL Thursday miniseries has ended, and since late March 2020 our journey took us through decades of NFL MVPs to see which players were unfairly undervalued—and which players were traditionally overvalued. We definitely noticed some trends over the years, which coincided with the evolution of the game, of course. Tell us something we don’t know, right?
For example, in the first decade of the NFL, just two quarterbacks were our choice for the MVP Award—while three receivers were chosen. And then we saw a run of outstanding ball carriers take home the hardware: At one point, we had a streak of 9 consecutive backs chosen for the MVP, from 1972 to 1980. The predicted shift to QBs at that juncture took a longer time than expected, but we ended with 8 straight signal callers emerging as our MVPs.
Overall, here were the true winners in our long-term analyses:
- Jim Brown: 5 MVPs
- Walter Payton: 4 MVPs
- Barry Sanders: 3 MVPs
- Marshall Faulk: 3 MVPs
- Aaron Rodgers: 3 MVPs
So, we do see a RB-heavy list there, and it’s key to note that 12 other different players won at least two MVPs each: Jim Taylor, Leroy Kelly, O.J. Simpson, Chuck Foreman, Ken Anderson, Eric Dickerson, Sterling Sharpe, Priest Holmes, Peyton Manning, and Russell Wilson … not to mention Lance Alworth and Len Dawson in the AFL years. The breakdown for our multiple winners is interesting, too: 10 runners, 5 passers, and 2 receivers.
The most surprising names on this list of repeat offenders have to be Kelly, Foreman, Anderson, Sharpe, Alworth, and Wilson. Let’s look at each of them a bit closer, as circumstances are always part of the package when deciding the true MVP, as anyone knows who has been reading our stuff for the last 17 months.
Kelly was Brown’s successor in Cleveland, but it’s not like either player benefitted from a well-oiled machine in a Browns offense that often had no other stars on it. Kelly was an eighth-round draft pick from Morgan State University in Baltimore, and he was just very good at evading tacklers, as evidenced by his kick/punt return abilities.
Foreman was a great player, too, of course, but often he was overshadowed by the likes of Simpson and also by the overrated QB on his own teams, Frank Tarkenton. But without Foreman to both hand the ball to and to dump it off to, Tarkenton never would have been a good QB, in all honesty. Foreman is what made those Minnesota teams.
Anderson was the first protégé of the famous Bill Walsh, and that grounding in modern-passing ideals and techniques helped Anderson develop into one of the best QBs in the game. Remember, he played college football at Augustana College—not exactly a powerhouse of Division I football (or even Division III, for that matter).
Sharpe may be better known for his stint on ESPN after his playing career, as injuries cut his playing days short. But he was the rare WR that made the QB look better, unlike other wideouts who just benefitted from excellent QB play. His back-to-back MVP nods from us (1992, 1993) were perhaps the biggest surprise of all our analysis here.
As for Alworth, we knew he was special historically, already, and so did you if you’ve been reading us for awhile. His career in the AFL was legendary, of course, and by the time he joined the NFL, he was more of a role player with the Dallas Cowboys—albeit still a very successful one … and a key cog in the team’s early 1970s success.
Finally, Wilson has been carrying a serious load in Seattle over the last handful of years, and we were pretty shocked to see him come this close to taking home three straight MVP awards. It’s tough these days for a QB to win all on his own, but Wilson has done a pretty amazing job of doing just that with the Seahawks recently.
You probably notice big names like Joe Montana, Emmitt Smith, and Steve Young are not on our lists above, and while Montana and Young did win single MVP nods from us, Smith did not. You can review the years in our archive, of course, for explanations and rationales, but this is why we do this: to learn more and surprise ourselves with what we didn’t know overlaying what we thought we knew.
We will back later today with a closer look at the players who didn’t end up on these lists, surprisingly or not.