In 1987, the Associated Press voters were faced with a difficult choice. This was a year disrupted by the players’ strike, which led to a 15-game season that included three games featuring replacement players. Jerry Rice was the rare unanimous first-team All-Pro selection at wide receiver, courtesy of a record-breaking 22 touchdown receptions in 12 games. How remarkable was that? Eagles receiver Mike Quick was second in the league in receiving touchdowns with *11*, and no other player had more than 8! And for good measure, Rice scored a 23rd touchdown on a rush against the Falcons.
And it’s not as though all Rice did was catch touchdowns. Cardinals wide receiver J.T. Smith crossed the picket line and played in all 15 games; he wound up leading the league in receiving yards, but Rice led the NFL in receiving yards per game for the second straight season. A remarkable year from the greatest receiver in NFL history is certainly worthy of MVP honors.
The biggest threat to Rice capturing the MVP award appeared to be his own quarterback, Joe Montana. The 49ers lost on opening day in Pittsburgh, but the 49ers went 10-0 in Montana’s remaining starts. In part, this is because this was a dominant San Francisco team on both sides of the ball, but Montana led the NFL in completion percentage, touchdowns, touchdown rate, and passer rating. He also ranked 2nd in ANY/A, behind Cleveland’s Bernie Kosar (the Browns went 8-4 in his starts, and Kosar received minimal MVP attention). Montana had three 4th quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives, while Kosar had none. And in a head-to-head game on Sunday Night Football, Montana outclassed Kosar. And Montana was Montana, so it’s no surprise that peak Montana on a 10-game winning streak was considered the best quarterback in the NFL.
There were really just two knocks on Montana that year. One was that he crossed the picket line after a week: that means two of his ten starts came in those games, slightly inflating his stats. The other was was that his backup — future HOFer in Steve Young — was insanely efficient on 69 pass attempts and three starts. How efficient? Despite playing in 1987, Young posted what remains today as the single-greatest ANY/A average of the modern era, among players with at least 50 pass attempts.1
How far ahead of the pack was the San Francisco passing attack with Montana, Rice, and an assist from Young? Below are the NFL team passer ratings from the last 10 games of the season, which is when all regular players returned. The 49ers lapped the field with a passer rating that would still be outstanding 30 years later:
Montana had a 103.8 passer rating, while Young had a 120.8 rating! Now, was Young’s performance enough to cost Montana the MVP? In 2011, Aaron Rodgers was remarkable, with a 122.5 passer rating, but seeing Matt Flynn torch the Lions for 480 yards and 6 touchdowns (and a 136.4 passer rating) in his only start didn’t cost Rodgers the award. From ’99 to ’01, Kurt Warner had a 103.4 passer rating and averaged 7.87 ANY/A and won two AP MVP awards, while his backup Trent Green had a 101.8 passer rating and 7.63 ANY/A in 8 games and 5 starts for those same Rams. Heck, last season, Tom Brady received 15 of 50 All-Pro votes despite not having the best passer rating on his own team! Brady averaged 8.81 ANY/A and had a 112.2 passer rating, while Jimmy Garoppolo had a 113.3 passer rating and averaged 8.59 ANY/A on a Young-like 63 attempts.
Montana was still widely viewed as the best quarterback in football that season. He was named the first-team All-Pro quarterback by the Associated Press, the Pro Football Writers of America, Pro Football Weekly, the Football Digest, Sports Illustrated (Dr. Z), USA Today (Gordon Forbes), the New York Daily News (Bryan Burwell), the Washington Post (Michael Wilbon), Newsday (a young Peter King), the Buffalo News (Larry Felser), and NFL Films.
But he was not a unanimous first-team choice. The Newspaper Enterprise Associated, The Sporting News, College and Pro Football Newsweekly, Gannett News Service’s Joel Buchsbaum, and National Sports Daily all chose John Elway as its first-team All-Pro quarterback.
Is there anyone else to consider? If you really want a fourth candidate, it’s not another offensive player,2, but Eagles defensive end Reggie White, who like Rice, was a historically great player having a historically great season. White had 21 sacks in 12 games, while no other player had more than 12.5 sacks! White also had a 70-yard strip-sack touchdown against the eventual Super Bowl MVP that year, too. But let’s be real: this was a three-man race.
The Football News, NFLPA (poll of league players), and Washington Touchdown Club named Players of the Conference. All three named Elway the MVP of the AFC, of course, while Rice was the NFC MVP for two of the three organizations, with the WTC going with Montana. That splitting of the vote for 49ers players would be a sign of things to come, at least when it came to the Associated Press. For just about everyone else, the answer was pretty easy.
Eight organizations — the Pro Football Writers of America, the Newspaper Enterprise Association & Jim Thorpe Athletic Club (voting as a collective entity), The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, the Football Digest, the Maxwell Club of Philadelphia Bert Bell Award, the New York Daily News, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune (Robert Sansevere) — named Rice their MVP.
Michael Wilbon, writing for the Washington Post, put out his column with one game left in the regular season. He named Rice, with 20 touchdown receptions in 11 games, his Most Outstanding Player, and Elway his most valuable player. “Yes, it’s a copout to pick an MVP and an outstanding player, but where would the Denver Broncos be without John Elway? He’s completed 56 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. Without Elway, the Broncos probably would be the Raiders.” Had Wilbon waited another week, his vote may have gone to Rice alone, as he caught two more touchdowns in the final game (we’ll get to Elway’s final game later).
At Newsday, Peter King went with Elway as his MVP, with Montana 2nd, Rice 3rd, and White 4th.
King appears off on an island. The only other outlet to name Elway MVP that year? Well, that happened to be the Associated Press. Of the 84 AP voters, 43% named Elway MVP, with the remaining 57% voting for one of the 49ers stars. Of course, 30 votes went to Rice and 18 to Montana, allowing Elway and his 36 votes to narrowly take the award.
Here was the story from the AP on January 1, 1988:
John Elway of the Denver Broncos, who carried the injury-decimated Denver Broncos to the best record in the AFC, was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player by The Associated Press on Thursday. Elway was one of only three players to receive votes for the award, beating out wide receiver Jerry Rice of San Francisco, who was named the AP’s offensive player, and 49ers quarterback Joe Montana.
Elway was beaten out by Montana for the first-team quarterback spot on the AP’s All-Pro team “It’s very flattering,” Elway said in Denver. “But without the team behind you, you don’t have a chance to win an award like this. A quarterback tends to get more credit than he deserves sometimes.”
Of 84 votes cast — by three broadcasters and sports writers from each NFL city — Elway received 36 votes to 30 for Rice. Montana got 18 votes. Elway carried the Broncos to a 10-4-1 record this season, good enough for the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, even after losing to injury such stars as running backs Gerald Willhite3 and Steve Sewell4, safety Dennis Smith5, wide receiver Steve Watson6 and center Bill Bryan.7 Also, five defensive players from the team that went to the Super Bowl last season retired.
Elway entered the league as the first choice in the 1983 draft, but got off to a shaky start, thrown in as the savior of the Denver franchise. Still, in his last four years, the Broncos have been 44-17-1 with him as the starter. “It makes me feel like I’ve come a long way in five years,” Elwav said. “As a rookie, I hit rock bottom. When you start down-and-out and then come back to this level, it makes all the hard work seem worthwhile. That makes this award seem even more special.”
How far he has come was evident during a four-game stretch in mid season when he carried the Broncos to four straight victories after a loss in Buffalo that dropped the Broncos to 4-3-1. He threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-29 win over the Bears and 347 and two TDs in a key 31-17 victory in San Diego. “Since he’s been here he’s played an awful lot of good games” Coach Dan Reeves said after the San Diego game. “But I don’t know that he’s been as consistent as he’s been in these past three.” With his running backs hurt, Elway relied principally on three fast wide receivers Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson and rookie Ricky Nattiel, who were nicknamed “The Three Amigos”.
He finished with 224 completions in 410 attempts and 19 touchdowns. He also finished as the team’s second leading rusher behind Sammy Winder, carrying 66 times for 304 yards, a 4.6 average. On numerous occasions, he scrambled his way to first downs on third down situations and ran for four touchdowns. Against San Diego, for example, he carried six times for 40 yards and against the Bears, he was five for 35.
So was Elway a deserving MVP choice by the Associated Press? Remember, nearly every organization chose Rice as MVP, and even the AP only narrowly selected Elway over Rice. There’s no doubt who sportswriters as a group thought was the most valuable player in 1987. The AP is the “name” award, but there’s no reason to take the votes of 36 men as superior to those of other organizations. The Maxwell Club MVP polled 640 people, and there Rice actually received a majority of first-place votes (which, of course, Elway did not in the AP poll):
In ballots for the Bert Bell Award cast by sports writers, football coaches and club members, Rice received 326 first-place votes and 1,996 total points to become the first wide receiver to win the prize since it was first awarded in 1959.
White had 105 first-place votes and 905 points, Elway received 133 first-place votes and 833 points and Montana garnered 49 first-place votes and 421 points.
If four AP voters selected Rice over Elway — or seven of the Montana voters went for Rice, or some combination of the two — then Rice would have been the AP, NEA, PFW, Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and Maxwell Club MVP. And no one would ever associated Elway with being the most valuable player in the NFL in 1987. Perhaps the most remarkable note: Elway didn’t even account for more touchdowns than Rice that season: both were responsible for 23 touchdowns.
The Case For Elway
That said, let’s end with some reasons why Elway won the award. Elway’s numbers may not look great to you — 3,198 yards, 19 passing touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 83.4 passer rating — but they are better than they appear at first glance. He finished 4th in ANY/A and actually led the NFL in net yards per pass attempt. He had a better interception rate than Montana, but a mediocre 4.6% touchdown rate hurt his ANY/A average. That low touchdown, however, was due in part to all the injuries to the Denver running backs that turned the Broncos in a pass-happy team that ranked 2nd in pass attempts.
It’s also probably fair to throw out Elway’s terrible numbers from the last game of the season, played in absolutely miserable conditions, that the Broncos won 24-0 over a Chargers team that appeared frozen. He was 7 of 20 for 98 yards with an interception in a game that had 14 inches of snow, but also a game that was never in doubt. It’s not hard to imagine that the voters ignored his stats from the game. And without those bad numbers, Elway’s ANY/A jumps to 7.00, which was narrowly ahead of Montana’s ANY/A.
Let’s operate under the assumption that the voters paid little attention to the first two weeks of the season — the pre-strike games were a distant memory — and the final week of the year, due to the blizzard conditions and since the game was meaningless for San Francisco. Over that time period, Elway edged out Montana in ANY/A (though not passer rating), despite, you know… not having the best player in football. If anything, it’s Kosar (who played well in the two pre-strike games, too) who has a real gripe:
Elway produced legitimately great passing numbers over games 6 through 14 of the 15-game season, while also finishing the season 2nd among all quarterbacks in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Oh, and he did it with a mediocre supporting cast and a coach who wasn’t exactly quarterback-friendly, while engineering a new-look, quarterback-centric, shotgun offense. That was the opposite of the situation Montana found himself in, and we can all agree that elevating a mediocre team to the 1 seed is the kind of stuff MVPs are made of. But if you don’t score more touchdowns than a wide receiver, it’s hard to be the most valuable player in football.
Ironically, Elway had a better claim to be made as the most valuable quarterback in the NFL, rather than its most valuable player. The Associated Press just got it reversed.
- And his most meaningful work came not as a starter. In week 14, the 49eres had a huge game against the Bears for conference supremacy. Both teams were 10-2 entering the game, making it a showdown for the 1 seed in the NFC. The Bears defense was still dominant, and while Montana was the starter, he pulled a hamstring early in the game after going 4-8 for 47 yards with two sacks. Young stepped in and the 49ers blew out the Bears, 41-0. Young threw for 4 touchdowns on his 19 passes. [↩]
- If you are curious about the running backs of 1987, you probably would focus on either Rams running back, Eric Dickerson or Charles White. Dickerson was magnificent down the stretch for Indianapolis after a mid-season trade — he rushed for 973 yards in the Colts final 8 games and carried the team to the postseason — but didn’t do enough in September or October to merit consideration. White crossed the picket line and led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns, but did so for a 6-9 Rams team. Ironically, these two running backs who began the season as teammates ended as the two AP 1st-team All-Pro backs. [↩]
- In 1986, Willhite finished 2nd on the team in rushing yards, 3rd in receiving yards, and 2nd in yards from scrimmage. [↩]
- The team’s top pass-catching back. [↩]
- A Pro Bowler in ’85 and ’86, Smith was limited to six games in ’87. [↩]
- Second on the ’86 Broncos in both receptions and receiving yards. [↩]
- Who started nearly every game from ’78 to ’88, but was limited to four starts in ’87. [↩]