Before Ezekiel Elliott ever took an NFL snap, he had two major strikes against him winning an MVP award this season.
1. He’s not a quarterback.
2. He’s a rookie.
And with that, Elliott was swimming upstream.
Elliott is getting some MVP buzz, and logically it’s fair. He leads the NFL with 703 rushing yards, even after Dallas’ bye week. He’s averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He plays on a high profile team that is a surprising 5-1. He has been very good.
But history tells us he won’t win, mostly because voters default to picking the best quarterback among playoff teams and it takes something earth-shaking to move them off that. We learned that in 2014 when Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt had by far the best season but couldn’t beat Aaron Rodgers for MVP because Watt didn’t play quarterback.
Over the last 22 seasons, dating back to Emmitt Smith’s win in 1993, there have been 24 Associated Press MVP winners (it was split twice). Here is the breakdown:
• 18 quarterbacks
• 3 running backs who set an NFL single-season touchdown record (Marshall Faulk in 2000, Shaun Alexander in 2005, LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006)
• 3 running backs who rushed for 2,000 yards (Barry Sanders in 1997, Terrell Davis in 1998, Adrian Peterson in 2012)
So yeah, that bar is pretty high if you’re not a quarterback. Since 1993, no non-quarterback has won MVP without a 2,000-yard season or setting an NFL touchdown record (and if you’re a receiver don’t even bother applying; a receiver has never won MVP and the last receiver to even get a vote was Randy Moss in 1998 according to NFL MVP Voting, which tracks the annual voting results).
Running backs who don’t hit those rare milestones not only never win MVP, they rarely even get any votes.
Since Faulk got 17.5 votes in 2001 without going for 2,000 rushing yards or setting a TD record, backs not in the 2,000-yard/TD record club have received 15 votes. That’s it. In 14 years, covering 698 total NFL MVP votes (there are 50 votes a year, with the odd exception of 48 in 2002), only 2.1 percent have gone to running backs who haven’t gone for 2,000 or set a touchdown record.
A 2,000-yard season for Elliott isn’t out of the question, but it won’t be easy. He is averaging 117.2 yards per game. To get to 2,000, he’d have to average 129.7 per game the rest of the way. Only five backs in NFL history have averaged at least 129.7 yards per game over a whole season – O.J. Simpson (twice), Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Adrian Peterson and Eric Dickerson. Good luck, kid.
And Elliott would have to score 27 touchdowns in 10 games to beat Tomlinson’s touchdown record, so we can probably rule that out.
Even if Elliott was in his 10th season he would be fighting history. But the hill gets steeper because he’s a rookie.
Here are all the rookies who have won NFL MVP:
Jim Brown, 1957
And that’s the list. Brown won the first-ever MVP award his rookie year and is still the only rookie to win the AP award, which is recognized as the official MVP (technically Brown didn’t even win “MVP,” the first four years it was called the “NFL Most Outstanding Player Award”).
Rookies get even fewer MVP votes than running backs. No rookie has been given an MVP vote this century. The last rookie to get an MVP vote was Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James in 1999. He got one vote.
Elliott’s MVP candidacy makes sense. He’s a valuable player on a very good team. But to actually win, he’ll have to overcome a tremendous amount of history. Voters this century very rarely vote for running backs who don’t reach 2,000 yards or set a touchdown record, and they never vote for rookies.
Consider that history before picking Elliott to win MVP this year. Or, just hope he hits 2,000 yards.
Here are the rest of the rankings for the NFL awards:
Most Valuable Player
1. Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan – It’s odd that we’re trying to make anyone but Ryan the MVP at this point. If the vote was today, Ryan should win almost unanimously. But I get it – we’ve spent the last couple years bashing Ryan, so it’s hard to admit now that he’s MVP. But he is.
2. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady – But I’ll concede this: Here’s your winner by the end of the season, as long as voters don’t refuse to vote for a guy who missed four games.
3. Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott – Here’s the one caveat to all the words above: Elliott could set the NFL rookie rushing record. It’s 1,808 yards, set by Eric Dickerson. It’s pretty obvious that a running back needs a record or milestone on his resume to get votes. That would be one.
4. Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford – If we could just take Stafford’s last 15 games, in which he has 4,093 yards, 34 touchdowns and six interceptions, he’d be higher on the list. I’m not buying he can win though. Everyone seems to be trying very hard to find anyone but the deserving Ryan to lead the MVP race right now, and that undercurrent will be even stronger for the much-maligned Stafford.
5. Arizona Cardinals RB David Johnson – Johnson still leads Elliott in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns, and if that holds it will put another dent in Elliott’s MVP hopes. One note: Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is close to breaking into the top five, especially if he can carry that flawed roster over the .500 mark.
Defensive player of the year: I put Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander on here last week as a tip of the cap to a guy having a great season absolutely out of nowhere. Then he had another five-tackle, one-sack game. He has recorded at least a half-sack in each game this season. So he has to stay on the list, and even moves up a spot.
The ballot: 1. Denver Broncos OLB Von Miller. 2. Alexander. 3. Kansas City Chiefs CB Marcus Peters.
Coach of the year: No change, and consider this – if the New England Patriots win on Sunday, they’ll lead the AFC East by three games halfway into the season. And, of course, they played four games without Tom Brady.
The ballot: 1. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. 2. Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. 3. Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.
Offensive rookie of the year: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is a distant third after a rough game last week (albeit a game the Eagles won anyway). It’ll be worth keeping an eye on Denver Broncos running back Devontae Booker for the No. 3 spot over the next few weeks, now that he has the starting job with C.J. Anderson out.
The ballot: 1. Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott. 2. Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott. 3. Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz.
Defensive rookie of the year: It’s fair to wonder how many more games the San Diego Chargers would have won so far this season had they signed defensive end Joey Bosa on time. The long holdout probably had something to do with the hamstring injury that kept him out four games. But it’s clear now, after his second two-sack game in three tries, that Bosa is the best rookie defender.
The ballot: 1. Bosa. 2. Atlanta Falcons S Keanu Neal. 3. San Diego Chargers LB Jatavis Brown.
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