People say defense wins championships in football, but this doesn’t help defensive players who want to earn the NFL MVP award. Quarterbacks are named MVP more often than any other position. But when a quarterback doesn’t get the award, it usually goes to another offensive player.
In fact, it’s been more than 30 years since a defender won the award. The last time it happened? In 1986, when Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor was named the league’s MVP. Here’s why defensive players rarely win the award, and what it took for Taylor to get the job done.
Why defensive players don’t win NFL MVP
Since Taylor’s MVP in 1986, not many defensive players have received MVP votes. The decline in votes involves procedural reasons. There are fewer MVP voters than in the past, and social media has increased the amount of “group think.” Voters aren’t as willing to vote against others.
The league has changed too, with a focus on the offense and quarterback. Protecting the quarterback from taking hits as well as liberal pass-interference rules opened up the passing game and minimized the effect defenders can have on the game.
With the way the league is now, it is unlikely that a defensive player will be named NFL MVP anytime soon.
Lawrence Taylor’s MVP season
When Taylor was named the league MVP, he did it in a season when he recorded 20.5 sacks, a career-high and league-best. This performance made him only the second defensive player to win the award. He also became the first defender to win MVP with a unanimous vote.
Taylor had a better season than Alan Page, when he won the MVP in 1971, which means Taylor’s 1986 campaign was arguably the best season in NFL history for a defensive player. It didn’t affect MVP voting, but Taylor also led the Giants to a Super Bowl title that season.
Becoming the 1986 NFL MVP was a well-deserved honor for the linebacker. But if he had a similar season in the modern era, he may not have won the award.
Defensive NFL MVP snubs
Although only a few defensive players have ever won the MVP, several deserved it over the years but lost out to other players. Here are some of those defensive MVP snubs:
1994: Deion Sanders, CB, 49ers
Cornerback Deion Sanders had 34 tackles, six interceptions, and three touchdowns in 1994. Unfortunately, he lost to his teammate, QB Steve Young, in MVP voting. It was Young’s second MVP award after winning it in 1992.
2000: Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
In the 2000 season, Ray Lewis recorded 107 tackles with three sacks and two interceptions. Although in the MVP conversation, he ultimately lost to Rams running back Marshall Faulk, a rare non-QB to win the award. In the end, Faulk’s 1,359 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns were too much for voters to ignore.
2003: Ray Lewis, LB Ravens
Lewis had an even better season in 2003, with 121 tackles, six interceptions, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and a touchdown. But he was overlooked by the voters, who voted for co-MVPs. Colts QB Peyton Manning and Titans QB Steve McNair shared the honors. This was the second time in NFL MVP history that two players shared the honor.
2008: James Harrison, LB, Steelers
In 2008, James Harrison had an impressive 16 sacks, seven forced fumbles, 59 tackles, one interception, and one safety. But this wasn’t enough to convince voters that he deserved the MVP award. Instead, they gave it to Manning, his third of five MVPs in his career.