Due to a NFL Players Association strike, Jerry Rice played just 12 games in 1987 for the San Francisco 49ers. He still managed to record 65 receptions, 1,078 yards and 22 touchdowns (extrapolated to today’s 17-game schedule, that’s 92 for 1,527 and an astounding 31 TDs). Oh, he also rushed for a score.
It was enough for Rice to command significant support as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, garnering 30 votes (35.7 percent of the tallies) to finish second behind Denver quarterback John Elway (36 for 42.9 percent). Niners teammate Joe Montana received the other 18 votes.
That’s as close as a wide receiver has ever come to being named MVP in the 67-year history of the award.
In 2021, the Los Angeles Rams' Cooper Kupp got a single vote. In 1998, Randy Moss picked up four as a rookie for Minnesota. Other than that, the list for wide receivers garnering significant MVP votes is mainly just Jerry Rice (votes in six seasons during his illustrious career). Rice also finished second in 1995 (with 11.4 percent of the vote) and third in both 1993 and 1994.
Enter Philadelphia’s A.J. Brown.
He probably won’t win the award that has overwhelmingly gone to quarterbacks and running backs. He should secure meaningful consideration, however, not merely because of his eye-popping production, but the manner in which he is producing it.
Brown is the first player in NFL history to record six consecutive games with at least 125 yards receiving. For a full 17-game season, he is on pace for 128 receptions, 1,995 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Miami’s Tyreek Hill is having, statistically, an even better season thus far and is worth considering as well, depending on who stays hot. Hill is on pace for 130 receptions for 2,155 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The NFL single-season record for receiving yards is 1,964, set by Detroit’s Calvin Johnson in 2012 in a 16-game season. Johnson received zero MVP votes that year.
If anything, these dueling star receivers in Brown and Hill might split the non-quarterback vote and make both candidacies moot.
Hill’s value to Miami is unquestioned, in part because beyond his actual catches, defenses must account for his speed anytime he is on the field.
That said, his impact on the team isn’t any more than Brown’s with the Eagles. At 6-foot-1, 226 pounds, the Ole Miss product is a physical challenge for any defense.
It is part of what, to some, sets Brown slightly above Hill. Brown is making extremely difficult receptions that almost no other receiver in the league can, let alone with his frequency.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) October 29, 2023
He’s caught 75 percent of the passes thrown to him (60 of 80), just a bit above Hill’s 72.6. His contested catch rate, though, is 57.9 percent, according to Pro Football Focus, laying waste to the concept of a 50-50 ball. Hill’s is 40 percent. Brown has just one drop on the season.
Brown caught all eight passes thrown to him last Sunday against Washington, three of them deemed contested by PFF. Two went for touchdowns.
Brown is not a product of scheme. Even if he isn’t open, he just catches the pass, sometimes in front of two defenders. Philadelphia doesn’t beat Washington, 38-31, on Sunday and improve to 7-1 with anyone else in his spot.
The 125-plus-yards-per-game streak alone has Philadelphia appreciating just what they have.
“The history of this league and the history of this game is special to me,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said Sunday. “... So A.J. has done it better over a six-game stretch than anybody ever to play this game. And that’s pretty special.”
Is it special enough to be a legit MVP candidate?
First off, the season is only half over and history suggests the 125-yard streak will end. Can Brown’s impact remain as high? It’s the same for Hill.
“People come up and tell you [about the record], but you’ve got to be humble in this game,” Brown said Sunday. “You’ve got to come out and prove it each and every week. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to come in and work and strive to be better each and every day.”
Then there is the nature of the award.
The last 11 MVPs have been quarterbacks, dating back to Adrian Peterson winning it in 2012 when he rushed for 2,097 yards and 12 TDs. And there is little doubt that quarterback is the most important position in the game.
The QBs for both the Eagles (Jalen Hurts, who finished second last year) and Dolphins (Tua Tagovailoa) will be in the mix. Same with perennial candidates such as Patrick Mahomes (the 2022 MVP), Lamar Jackson (2019) and others.
A route to winning the most votes for Brown or Hill seems unlikely. Who knows what these receivers can still show? It’s been a long time since Jerry Rice made a real run from the position at the award. Maybe it’s time for another.