When Did a Running Back Last Win the NFL MVP Award?

Entering the 2021 season, football fans might have guessed quarterback Carson Wentz had the best NFL MVP odds of any player on the Indianapolis Colts roster. Indeed, Wentz ended the preseason at +4000 odds (bet $100 and win $4,100), and running back Jonathan Taylor was nowhere to be found on the FanDuel Sportsbook.

As the end of the 2021 NFL season rapidly approaches, things have changed drastically. Although Wentz has enjoyed a fine first season in Indianapolis, he’s nowhere to be located on the MVP ladder. Instead, all eyes are focused on Taylor, who ran for 1,518 yards and 17 touchdowns in the Colts’ first 14 games.

Although Taylor still has an outside chance at running for 2,000 yards, he shouldn’t get his hopes up about capturing the MVP Award.

Adrian Peterson is the last running back to win the NFL MVP Award

For all intents and purposes, the NFL MVP Award is essentially the League’s Top Quarterback Award. MVP winners regularly included the old guard of quarterbacks (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) and fresher faces (Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes) throughout the 2010s.

From 2007-20, only once did a non-quarterback win the NFL MVP Award. Adrian Peterson, then playing for the Minnesota Vikings, earned 30.5 votes after rushing for 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Oklahoma product finished nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season record.

Manning, who completed 68.6% of his passes for 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 11 touchdowns in his first year with the Denver Broncos, earned the other 19.5 votes. The legendary quarterback won his fifth MVP a year later after throwing for an NFL-record 55 touchdowns.

Manning’s 2013 MVP run began a new streak for quarterbacks. Despite rushing for over 2,000 yards last year, Tennessee Titans star and Offensive Player of the Year recipient Derrick Henry didn’t receive a single MVP vote. The honor instead went to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who’d previously won in 2011 and 2014.

Some of the greatest running backs in league history won the MVP Award

As of December 2021, there had been 13 instances of a running back winning the NFL MVP Award since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Several fullbacks, including Cleveland Browns great Jim Brown, won the award in the pre-Super Bowl era.

Football fans are likely familiar with most of the names on the list. Of the 13 running backs who won MVP honors, 10 are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Peterson, who as an active player is still ineligible, will almost certainly join them when he retires. 

Interestingly, the first running back in modern NFL history to win the MVP Award, Larry Brown, isn’t among those 10. Brown won the award after rushing for 1,289 yards and eight touchdowns for Washington in 1972. 

Former Seattle Seahawks star Shaun Alexander is the only other non-Hall of Fame running back to win MVP. The Alabama product rushed for 1,880 yards and an NFL-record 27 touchdowns in 2005. However, injuries and the after-effects of a high workload limited him to injuries over the next few years and ended his career after the 2008 season.

Three of the other 10 running backs rushed for at least 2,000 yards the year they won the MVP. O.J. Simpson (1973), Barry Sanders (1997), and Terrell Davis (1998) might want to make sure the voters receive a bi-annual Christmas present.

The other seven: Walter Payton (1978), Earl Campbell (1979), Marcus Allen (1985), Thurman Thomas (1991), Emmitt Smith (1993), Marshall Faulk (2000), and LaDainian Tomlinson (2006). Suffice to say that the next running back to win the MVP will be in good company.

Unfortunately for those 13 running backs, only Smith and Davis managed to win the Super Bowl that same year. 

Jonathan Taylor still faces a difficult road to earning MVP honors in 2021

Even if Taylor rushes for 2,000 yards, the odds are against him winning the MVP Award. As of Dec. 24, 2021, Taylor’s +850 odds (bet $100 and win $950) of winning the MVP Award ranked third in the FanDuel Sportsbook

Rodgers (+140) and Brady (+195) each ranked considerably higher entering Christmas Day. Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (+900) and Mahomes (+1100) round out the top five.

Nothing is impossible, but in this case, the skepticism feels warranted. However, if a running back uses the new 17-game season to rush for 2,500 yards, perhaps we’ll finally see a non-quarterback earn MVP honors.

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