We are officially into training camp month, but with 25 days remaining until 49ers players report, things are really quiet. There is plenty of preview content out there, but now is the time to get a little more creative in covering the NFL.
Last week, Russell Westbrook was named the 2016-17 NBA Most Valuable Player. He averaged a triple-double for the season, and seemed to single-handedly carry the Oklahoma City Thunder on his shoulders. James Harden was getting a lot of love in advance of the award, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant did big things for Golden State, and of course, LeBron James is always worthy of the award. But Westbrook won, and the debate began (or continued, I suppose).
After the award was announced, NFL.com’s Elliott Harrison put together a look at notable NFL MVP races over the years, and considered when the voters might have gotten it wrong. He broke them down into various categories to cover a variety of races. He had basic overlooked candidates, badly overlooked candidates, and players who had transcendent seasons but came away with no hardware.
The San Francisco 49ers had two players mentioned in that last category. In 1990, Joe Montana won the MVP award, his second straight award. He was a first-team All Pro that year, and threw for a career high 3,944 yards. The 49ers were 14-1 in his 15 starts, and that seems to have been a big reason he took home the award. He had a career-high 16 interceptions, and his 61.7 percent completion rate was the ninth best of his career. The award is not about comparison with previous seasons, but it makes for an interesting look.
Harrison suggested Randall Cunningham and Derrick Thomas were worthy alternative options. He suggests Cunningham deserved the win, and had this to say about the two players
Cunningham's 3,466/30/91.6 passing line was comparable to Montana's, while his 942 rushing yards (8.0 yards per carry) were, well, otherworldly. Cunningham's electric play pushed the Eagles to the playoffs during a season where Buddy Ryan's legendary defense wasn't at its best (12th in both total D and points allowed).
Thomas deserves equal acclaim, as the 20 sacks he produced marked the second-most ever by a linebacker at the time. Only Lawrence Taylor, with 20.5 sacks during his MVP campaign of 1986, had posted more as an OLB. Thomas' speed -- and biomechanically-challenging body lean -- changed the way scouts looked at 3-4 outside linebackers. If Taylor was the Beatles of the British Invasion, then Thomas was the Rolling Stones. The freakish pass rusher helped propel the Chiefs into the postseason for only the second time since 1972.
On the flip side, Harrison suggests Jerry Rice as an alternative to 1987 MVP John Elway. Harrison concluded that Elway still deserved the award, but that it should have been split with Rice. The 49ers wide receiver had many great seasons, but his 1987 season was eye-popping for one big reason. Rice set the record for single season receiving touchdowns with 22 that year. Randy Moss broke the record in 2007, when he hauled in 23 receiving touchdowns. The big difference? Moss set the record in 16 games, while Rice set his in 12 due to the strike shortened season. Rice had at least one touchdown in every game, more than one touchdown in seven games, and three scores in three games. Rice might not have hit 30 touchdowns in four more games, but he likely would have put that record out of reach.
Here’s what Harrison had to say about that season.
Many fans and media types have either wondered why Rice never won MVP or were surprised to find out he didn't. Of course, it's been 30 years now, but everyone over 40 remembers the year Rice caught 22 touchdown passes in 12 games. Although he was a different kind of player, Rice's ability to score made him Randy Moss-like early in his career. Rice lost out on the award in '87 to Elway, despite the fact that the receiver scored 23 times (he had one TD rushing, for good measure) in the strike-abbreviated campaign. So when Moss broke the record for most touchdown catches in a season with 23 in 2007, he had four extra games in which to accomplish the feat.
In fairness to Elway, the Broncos would have been nowheresville without him. Rice was playing with Montana, Roger Craig and Dwight Clark. Elway had "The Three Amigos." We'll let you look that group up. (HINT: The movie was better.) The Hall of Fame quarterback managed to push Denver to a Super Bowl, despite merely a good season, not a transcendent campaign. Rice's incredible year is what morphed him from a Pro Bowl wideout to Jerry Rice.
The 49ers have not had many MVP candidates in recent years. I’d say Justin Smith in the 2011-2013 period was a deserving candidate. Aldon Smith set records for most sacks to open his career, and Justin Smith was a huge reason that happened. Aldon had a lot of raw natural talent, and his off-field issues were a big reason for his derailment, but in many ways Justin deserves a ton of credit. He was never going to get a shot at winning MVP without the big counting stats, but Justin’s importance and dominance aside from the traditional stat sheet numbers remains underrated in a lot of ways.