To understand how we got to a point in which the best player in the NFL on the best team in the league has almost no shot at an MVP award, let’s go back in history. It’s all about the unfortunate inclusion of “valuable” for each pro league’s top individual award. It has caused decades of arguments over semantics.
In 1911, the Chalmers Award in baseball was awarded to the player who “should prove himself as the most important and useful player to his club and to the league at large in point of deportment and value of services rendered.” The Chalmers Award was discontinued after 1914. In 1922 the “League Award” was given to “the baseball player who is of the greatest all-around service to his club.” In 1931, we saw the first “Most Valuable Player” award given to each league.
And because in 1911, 1922 and 1931 baseball folks decided its biggest award should be about “most important,” “all-around service” and “valuable,” and all major leagues followed their lead after that, that’s how we end up parsing the “V” in “MVP” to death and not just giving the top award to the best player.
The argument against Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald would have to be the “value” part. There’s no argument about how great he is. Is Donald more valuable than Patrick Mahomes or Drew Brees? Is any position player ever more valuable that a good quarterback? Voters don’t believe so. Since 1993, the MVP has gone to 20 quarterbacks, three running backs who set single-season touchdown records and three running backs who rushed for 2,000 yards. That’s it.
Donald is plenty valuable. In the biggest game of the season, one of the greatest games in NFL history, Donald’s two strip-sacks helped the Rams knock off the Kansas City Chiefs. Last week, with the Rams leading just 16-13 against the Lions with less than nine minutes left, Donald beat a double-team and got a strip-sack of Matthew Stafford. The Rams recovered and a 24-yard touchdown drive put the game away. How’s that for value?
Donald has been doing that all season. Opponents double-team him and it doesn’t matter. The Rams are the best team in the league at 11-1, in large part because Donald always seems to make game-changing plays. Donald has been the best player in the league this season, regardless of position. His 16.5 sacks are four more than anyone else in the NFL. He’s likely going to break the record of 18 sacks by a defensive tackle, set by Keith Millard in 1989. He might break Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5 sacks, which is unfathomable from an interior defender. If he reaches 20 sacks, that’s just as impressive as Mahomes throwing for 50 touchdowns or Brees completing 75 percent of his passes.
Yet, it’s hard to imagine Donald winning MVP. Voters prefer quarterbacks. The idea of another defensive player winning the award probably died in 2014. J.J. Watt had a phenomenal season, clearly the best in the NFL that season, but voters just picked the best quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Alan Page in 1971 and Lawrence Taylor in 1986 will be the only defensive players to win MVP until there’s a major philosophy shift by voters. Many will probably just rely on the thought that Donald isn’t as valuable as a quarterback, though even that’s arguable after the season Donald has had. The Rams paid Donald $22.5 million per season; they clearly understand how valuable Donald is.
Donald will likely get another NFL defensive player of the year award, and that’s fine. But the league’s top player on the NFL’s top team probably deserves more. If baseball writers had decided 87 years ago to name their award the “Best Player” instead of “Most Valuable Player,” Donald might win the NFL’s top award this season. As crazy as that sounds.
Here are the MVP standings for this week:
1. New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees — I’m not sure this is how I’d vote, but this is how I think it stands at the moment. Though after Brees struggled in a nationally televised game against the Cowboys, the race probably got a lot closer.
2. Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes — When Mahomes ends up with 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns and the Chiefs are the No. 1 seed, it’ll be tough to not vote for him.
3. Donald — The Associated Press NFL MVP has been awarded since 1957. If we hit the college game, the Heisman Trophy has been awarded since 1935. Of the 61 NFL MVPs and 84 Heisman winners (all three finalists this year are quarterbacks), only three primarily defensive players have won: Alan Page, Lawrence Taylor and Charles Woodson in his 1997 Heisman season. Just three of 145. That isn’t right.
4. Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley — Gurley rebounded from a quiet game against the Chiefs for 165 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions. It’s probably too late for him to break that single-season touchdown mark, but it’s still a historic, amazing season.
5. Los Angeles Chargers QB Philip Rivers — I assume most people would have Rivers ahead of Donald, and I would disagree if they did. Rivers has been fantastic, and Donald has been better. If the Chargers somehow get the AFC West title from the Chiefs though, Rivers’ argument will get stronger.
Defensive Player of the Year: For all of the words above about Donald’s dominance, it’s crazy to think Khalil Mack still deserves to be in the conversation for this award. He has been incredible as well. It’s clearly Donald now, but what if Mack has a monster game in a Bears win over the Rams on Sunday night?
3. Houston Texans DE J.J. Watt
Coach of the Year: Speaking of Rams-Bears, I’d think a Bears win on Sunday night would likely clinch a coach of the year award for Matt Nagy. Nagy might win anyway, even though other great coaches will post better records. This award is strange.
2. Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid
3. Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay
4. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton
Offensive Rookie of the Year: There’s some of that “let’s make an argument for argument’s sake” going on for Phillip Lindsay over Saquon Barkley. Lindsay has had a remarkable rookie season too, no question. But Barkley is still the answer.
1. New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley
2. Denver Broncos RB Phillip Lindsay
3. Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield
Defensive Rookie of the Year: It’s not like it’s hindsight to wonder how Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James fell to 17th in the draft. Everyone knew he had immense potential and everyone knew on draft night that the Chargers got a steal. James had another interception last week and he has been one of the best defensive players in football.
2. Indianapolis Colts LB Darius Leonard
3. Denver Broncos LB Bradley Chubb
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