If we exclude the Walter Payton Man of the Year, the Super Bowl MVP, and Comeback Player of the Year awards,1 my database identifies six players who have won an award despite missing at least three games.2 Four of them won the defensive rookie of the year award, while the other two were quarterbacks. In reverse chronological order…
Michael Vick, 2010: Bert Bell Player of the Year award
The BBPOY award is similar to the MVP trophy award by the Associated Press, just without some of the panache. From 1959 to 2013, the Maxwell Football Club and the AP have identified the same players as the game’s best in 29 of 53 years.3 In 2010, the Associated Press unanimously voted for Tom Brady as MVP, but the Maxwell Football Club named Vick as its most outstanding player.
That year, Vick had a great season, going 8-3 as a starter, throwing 21 touchdowns against just 6 interceptions, producing a 100.2 passer rating, ranking 3rd in Adjusted Yards per Attempt, and leading the NFL in yards per carry. He finished 5th in Total QBR, and certainly passed the eye test as having a dominant year. He also one of the single greatest games in NFL history. Statistically, Brady had Vick beat in all major passing categories, but perhaps the “wow” factor Vick provided was what caused the Maxwell Club to swing its choice towards Vick.
Julius Peppers, 2002: Defensive Rookie of the Year
The second overall pick in the draft, Peppers didn’t have much of a learning curve when he came to the NFL. Through twelve games, the Panthers rookie had 12 sacks, good enough for third place at that point in the season. But that was it for Peppers, who was suspended for the final four weeks of the season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Peppers claimed that the suspension was due to a dietary supplement he had taken containing ephedra. That didn’t bother at least 25 of the AP voters; Dwight Freeney was the runner up with 14 votes, followed by Roy Williams (7), Ed Reed (1), and Tank Williams.
Mike Croel, 1991: Defensive Rookie of the Year
Croel was the fourth overall pick in the draft, but wound up starting just ten games as a rookie. He missed three games due to injury/illness late in the year, and began the season on the bench after a training camp holdout. But Croel had ten sacks and played for one of the league’s best defenses and best teams. The award went to him in a landslide: Croel picked up 68 of the 82 votes. Atlanta nose tackle Moe Gardner (7) and Cardinals corner Aeneas Williams (2) were the only other players to receive more than one vote. Williams turned out to be the best defensive player from that draft, but alas, honors are not commonly doled out to players on 4-12 teams.
Joe Montana, 1989: AP MVP, AP Offensive Player of the Year, Bert Bell Award, Newspaper Enterprise Association MVP, and Pro Football Writers Association MVP
One more honor you can add to this list: Montana’s ’89 season was named the single greatest season by a quarterback who wound up winning the Lombardi Trophy by… some guy. And all this came despite him missing three games, and despite his backup somehow posting even better numbers.
But Montana was the obvious choice for MVP: he received 62 of 70 votes, with Don Majkowski (6 votes) and Keith Millard (2) picking up the remainder. Montana finished with a passer rating 20.3 points better than every other qualifying quarterback in football; he averaged 8.31 ANY/A, over a yard ahead of his nearest competition. It was a magnificent season, and the three missed games didn’t seem to bother anybody too much.
Erik McMillan, 1988: Defensive Rookie of the Year
The Jets rookie free safety was one of just five players to record eight interceptions, and he lead the league with two interception return touchdowns. He was the only defensive rookie to make the Pro Bowl, and easily outpaced Detroit’s Chris Spielman for Rookie of the Year honors. McMillan missed three games with a foot injury, and he didn’t play on a particularly good defense, but he was impressive enough in his individual capacity, when healthy, to win the award.
Leslie O’Neal, 1986: Defensive Rookie of the Year
Like McMillan and Croel, O’Neal won the DROY award despite missing three games. He picked up 12.5 sacks in 13 games, a total a bit inflated by a five-sack performance against the Cowboys (San Diego dropped Steve Pelluer on 11 of his 44 dropbacks!). O’Neal’s strong rookie season ended in disastrous fashion: his knee was shredded on a running play in the 13th game of the season, which caused him to miss all of the 1987 season. His career was nearly ended by the injury, but he managed to come back and record another 120 sacks before hanging up his cleats for good.
But O’Neal, a star at Oklahoma State and the eighth overall selection, was dominant prior to his injury. He earned 34 votes from AP writers, while Miami’s John Offerdahl was the runner up with 20 votes.
Later this month, Beckham will win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in a landslide. Maybe Mike Evans or Teddy Bridgewater or Jeremy Hill will steal a vote or two, preventing Beckham from winning the award unanimously. But it was a remarkable year for anybody, let alone a rookie. His 108.8 receiving yards per game stands as the 12th greatest ever. In non-PPR leagues, Beckham averaged an incredible 17.0 fantasy points per game, a mark which has been hit by just two receivers (guess who) in a non-strike season since the merger.
Beckham will become the first player to win Offensive Rookie of the Year while missing at least four games, and that shouldn’t bother anybody.
- For those curious, Tedy Bruschi, Greg Ellis, Doug Flutie, Tommy Kramer, Jim McMahon, Joe Montana, Jim Plunkett, and Michael Vick have all won that award despite missing games — or, perhaps in some cases, because of missing those games. [↩]
- This excludes the 1987, when just about every player missed three games due to the players’ strike. [↩]
- Excluding the two years where the AP awarded co-MVPs. For reference, in both 1997 and 2003, the BBPOY award went to one of the AP’s co-MVPs (Manning and Sanders). [↩]