Since 1957, when the Associated Press first began awarding a Most Valuable Player, the interpretation of what’s “most valuable” in the NFL has skewed unwaveringly toward players who consistently touch the ball.
It’s an understandable shortcoming in an age when quarterbacks shatter records on the regular. But even before two high-powered offenses could combine for more than 100 points and 1,000 yards in a single Monday night, we struggled to quantify the value of defenders in relation to their flashier offensive counterparts.
Truth is we’ve never really known where defensive players fit in the MVP conversation. Over six decades, 42 quarterbacks, 18 running backs and one kicker – don’t ask – have shared or been named MVP. That’s not a lot of positional diversity.
Even as legendary defenses reigned in the 1970s and ’80s, only twice in NFL history has a defensive player been named Most Valuable. Hall of Fame Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page won in 1971 in one of the more wide-open votes ever, narrowly edging Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who’d started only 10 games. Fifteen years later, Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor had the most dominant season by a defensive player in league history, racking up 20.5 sacks while literally redefining modern defenses as an edge rusher.
But since … nothing. Since 1986, when Taylor became the only consensus winner ever on defense, only J.J. Watt has even finished second in voting, and that vote wasn’t all that close. Watt received just 13 votes to Aaron Rodgers’ 31 in 2014, despite one of the most statistically impressive seasons for a defender in NFL history.
It’s not difficult to imagine circumstances in which Page or Taylor might’ve come up short in their own MVP seasons. If Staubach hadn’t alternated with Dallas backup Craig Morton at the beginning of the 1971 season, the narrative power of a Cowboys quarterback probably would’ve crushed Page’s chances. If Taylor’s Giants hadn’t gone 14-2, on their way to a Super Bowl, maybe his unmatched dominance wouldn’t have overshadowed Dan Marino’s eye-popping passing numbers in Miami.
Those numbers have only skyrocketed since. As many as 20 (!!) quarterbacks could throw for 4,000 yards this season. A quarterback has won MVP in nine of the last 10 years. For a defensive player to subvert that trend, it would take more than just historical dominance. It would take a miracle of circumstance.
In Los Angeles, Aaron Donald is in the midst of perhaps the best season for an interior defensive lineman in NFL history. He leads the league in sacks (16.5), tackles for loss (20) and quarterback hits (32). He has forced four fumbles in 13 games, each of which resulted in a Rams touchdown. Week after week, he has taken over games single-handedly from his spot on the interior, in a way few players in NFL history have.
And yet, even that won’t be enough.
Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips lobbied for Donald to win MVP at this time last season. He has marveled about him on a weekly basis this season, whenever asked. But even as the L.A. media championed the cause of Donald’s MVP campaign over the past week, Phillips was realistic when asked about Donald’s actual chances.
“They’re not going to give it to a defensive player, in my opinion,” Phillips said. “Quarterbacks are always the guy that – and probably well deserved – they cause a lot of points. It’s harder on defense to say, ‘Hey, man, he stopped him from scoring how many times or how many points he’s accounted for.’ But, (Donald) has actually accounted for a lot of points because he’s stopped drives or he’s caused fumbles – all those things. But, you don’t see that in the defensive player stats. So it’s always going to be an offensive player, pretty much.”
That narrow definition is so ingrained that it seems, at this point, inescapable. We’ve come to tacitly accept this notion that only offensive players – and, really, only quarterbacks – are worthy of winning MVP, since the ball is most often in their hands. “People want to see points,” Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers told me. “They want to see those guys win MVP.”
I asked Brockers what it might take for a defensive player to win for the first time in three decades.
“You would have to make something spectacular happen,” he said.
It’s the answer everyone gives, but no one quite knows what it means. How much more spectacular can you get than what Donald has done this season? With four games remaining, the man is just six sacks away from Michael Strahan’s all-time record.
And if he gets there, at the end of an extraordinary, historic defensive campaign, maybe then, Aaron Donald can look forward to a respectable second-place finish in the MVP race.