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Revisiting notable NFL MVP races: When did voters get it wrong?

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Was Russell Westbrook your NBA MVP?

Right. This is an NFL site, making that an odd way to start a column. Well ...

Was Russell Westbrook your NBA MVP??

Many clamored for James Harden to receive basketball's most prestigious award. Kawhi Leonard could have been a solid choice. Still, I think the NBA got it right. That's not to say these things don't go south sometimes. As a kid, I vividly remember voters handing Robin Yount the 1989 American League MVP award when everyone and their mother (my granny, too) knew Ruben Sierra was the best player in the A.L. I'm not bitter -- just a disgruntled Rangers fan, 28 years later.

But all of the recent hoopla around the NBA's MVP award made me ponder this league's top individual honor -- specifically, when voters might've gotten it wrong.

The Associated Press began handing out the NFL MVP award back in 1957. And we've seen a number of debatable choices over the past 60 years. In fact, that's what I'm here to discuss! Let's dive into this juicy subject matter with a judgment on an MVP race that's still quite fresh in the mind ...

Last season's MVP debate: Did the voters get it right?

2016 MVP: Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons.
Alternative options: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots OR Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys.

Ryan won the prestigious honor by 15 votes over Brady. Patriots fans thought it B.S., and I get their point. One of the main arguments for Ryan in a tight race was, well, he started all 16 regular-season games. Didn't necessarily outplay the Patriots QB, but unlike Brady, Ryan wasn't absent four games. Essentially, voters had a built-in tiebreaker provided by the league. And of course, fans in New England felt the NFL should have never handed down the four-game suspension to their franchise QB in the first place, thus making the "Brady played less games" point moot.

While I personally think the voters chose the right MVP in Ryan, it is difficult staining a player's MVP-caliber season with something he allegedly did two seasons prior. More egregious: Ezekiel Elliott receiving only six votes. Who was better than the rookie last year? Dude led the NFL in rushing by more than 300 yards -- despite being rested for 1.5 games -- as the motor of the NFC's top seed.

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Now let's move on to some other occasions when the MVP winner was less certainly -- and in some cases, FAR less certainly -- the most deserving party. Which way would I go, with all the knowledge I have today? Answers below!

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Fans' choice: The MVP 'injustice' I've heard about most

2014 MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers.
Alternative option: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans.

The recent MVP result that fans (and many people who cover the league) complain about the most? Aaron Rodgers taking home the hardware in 2014. Rodgers was outstanding (112.2 passer rating, 38:5 TD-to-INT ratio), but Watt enjoyed perhaps the finest campaign of any defensive player since Lawrence Taylor won MVP from his OLB spot in 1986. Watt secured 20.5 sacks and scored five touchdowns, three of which came on offense. Meanwhile, Rodgers didn't even boast the season's highest passer rating; Tony Romo did. (Romo finished in a tie for third in the voting, with his backfield mate, DeMarco Murray.)

Counterpoint: For those aggrieved folks who spent years spouting the oft-heard "Where would Houston be without J.J. Watt?!" ... Well, we found out last season. 9-7 and in the playoffs. Again.

My pick: Rodgers -- by a hair -- over Watt.

Overlooked

2008 MVP: Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts.
Alternative option: Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona Cardinals.

A good argument can be made here for Drew Brees, who became the first player since Dan Marino in 1984 to eclipse 5,000 yards passing. And Adrian Peterson led the NFL with 1,760 rushing yards, carrying the Gus Frerotte/Tarvaris Jackson Vikings to the postseason.

But me, I would have taken Warner over Manning. The latter's 4,002 yards, 27 touchdowns and 95.0 passer rating were nice, but this was far from his best season. Meanwhile, Warner beat out Matt Leinart in an unfair quarterback competition where the tie would have gone to the kid, posted a line better than Manning's (4,583/30/96.9) and took the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. (Yes, I'm well aware voting was done before Arizona's magical playoff run -- but hindsight's one of the real nice benefits of practicing revisionist history!)

Don't think of Bruce Arians' Cards here. This franchise had only been to the playoffs four times in the previous 59 seasons before Warner directed Arizona to the postseason in 2008.

My pick: Warner over Manning.

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1961 MVP: Paul Hornung, RB, Green Bay Packers.
Alternative option: Sonny Jurgensen, QB, Philadelphia Eagles.

Paul Hornung was the "Golden Boy" in every sense: He played under the golden helmet of Notre Dame, sported beautiful blonde curly locks and was one of the most popular players on the NFL's best team of the era. Yet, in 1961, Hornung was not the league's most important player, despite his scoring 146 points as halfback and kicker.

Hornung and his Packers teammates lost to the Eagles in the NFL title game the year before (Hornung's best season). Philly's quarterback in 1960, Norm Van Brocklin, called it a career after the game, leaving some pundits to think Philadelphia would plummet. Instead, Jurgensen guided the team to a 10-4 record, throwing for 3,723 yards and 32 scores -- absurd numbers for that era. Jurgensen is one of the top arm talents in football history. He still serves as analyst on the Redskins' radio broadcast, too.

My pick: Jurgensen over Hornung.

Badly overlooked

2002 MVP: Rich Gannon, QB, Oakland Raiders.
Alternative option: Priest Holmes, RB, Kansas City Chiefs.

I'm not sure what's most egregious: Holmes receiving three votes for his stunning 2003 season, one vote for the greatest fantasy year ever in 2002 or NO votes despite leading the NFL in rushing yards in 2001. Guess I'll go with '02, when the hardest working stud this side of Walter Payton paced everyone with 2,287 scrimmage yards and 24 touchdowns despite missing two games. Sure, Holmes' 8-8 Chiefs missed the playoffs that year. Gannon took the Raiders to the Super Bowl. The latter also played with Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and peak Charlie Garner.

Yes, Gannon was a quarterback, so some of you will argue his output had more impact on a playoff team. Well ... Holmes' season was still unbelievable. He averaged 163.4 yards and almost two touchdowns per game. And got one stinking vote. Come on.

My pick: Close, but Holmes over Gannon.

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1982 MVP: Mark Moseley, K, Washington Redskins.
Alternative option: Dan Fouts, QB, San Diego Chargers.

While I have always been a staunch supporter of the kicking game globally -- and kickers, specifically -- no way Moseley should have been the MVP of the league in 1982. Moseley made 20 of his 21 field-goal attempts for the 8-1 Redskins, who went on to win it all in the strike-shortened season. He also missed three extra points. Meanwhile, Fouts was in the midst of changing pro football with the "Air Coryell" passing offense. Fouts averaged 320.3 yards passing per game, which would put him well over 5,000 yards passing in a 16-game season (in 1982!). He led the Bolts to a viable 6-3 record and a postseason berth. Alas, he lost the MVP to Moseley by two votes.

Fun fact: The Chargers led the league in passing six straight years (1978-83), which was an astonishing feat, considering there were 28 teams in the NFL.

My pick: Fouts over Moseley.

Transcendent season, no hardware

1990 MVP: Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco 49ers.
Alternative options: Randall Cunningham, QB, Philadelphia Eagles OR Derrick Thomas, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs.

Montana commandeered the defending champion 49ers to a 14-1 record as a starter, but he didn't come close to his top three seasons (1984, 1987, 1989) in terms of production. Montana passed for 3,944 yards and 26 touchdowns (six in one game). He also tossed a career-high 16 picks, while his 89.0 passer rating was the sixth-best of his career.

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.

My pick: Cunningham edges DT and Montana.

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1987 MVP: John Elway, QB, Denver Broncos.
Alternative option: Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers.

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.

My pick: Elway keeps his MVP trophy, but shares the honor with Rice.

The most interesting debate

1971 MVP: Alan Page, DT, Minnesota Vikings.
Alternative option: Roger Staubach, QB, Dallas Cowboys.

Pore over the MVP winners since 1957, and the most unusual name you'll find beyond Mark Moseley is Alan Page -- a defensive tackle! Page was unstoppable in the early '70s, an off-the-charts smart interior defender who could disrupt blocking schemes before they ever got going. Why was this so important? Because the early '70s were the deadball era of the NFL, a time when teams rushed the football more than half of the time and threw the deep ball less than they did in the 1960s. According to AP reports from the time, he recorded 109 solo tackles (with 35 assists) and 11 sacks. Wow.

So, was he really more important than Roger Staubach?

The Cowboys quarterback endured -- then triumphed in one of the craziest seasons an elite player could ever have. Staubach rotated with Craig Morton -- first by game, then play by play. Read that last line again. After Dallas sputtered to a 4-3 start, head coach Tom Landry (mercifully) decided on Staubach. Voila! Staubach led Dallas to 10 straight victories, including the triumph in Super Bowl VI. No one would equal Staubach's 104.8 passer rating over the next dozen years, until Dan Marino produced the greatest offensive season of all time in 1984. (Marino did win the MVP that season, thankfully.) Oh, and back in '71, Staubach averaged 8.4 yards per scramble, to boot.

Also worth mentioning: Staubach led the Cowboys to a playoff win over Page's Vikings.

My pick: Staubach over Page. But this one's agonizing. Defensive players do belong in the MVP race.

Tough argument, but I'll give it a good college try

1997 Co-MVPs: Brett Favre, QB, Green Bay Packers AND Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions.
Alternative option: Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions (alone).

Like Elway's Broncos in '87, who knows how the Packers would've fared sans Brett Favre in 1997? Educated guess: They wouldn't have been playing an older Elway's Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII. Now, I like the Co-MVP more than most other people I know, but this was one year when Favre could have been left at the door. After all, he already won the award in both 1995 and '96. By '97, the media love affair with the Packers quarterback was somewhere between "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Ghost." Meanwhile, Barry Sanders ghosted enough dudes to make any girl on Bumble proud.

The 1997 season represented the apex of the most elusive running back the NFL has ever known. Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards at an astonishing 6.1 yards per carry. While the '90s Lions had a few solid teams -- Sanders was not always the one-man army revisionist historians claim he was -- there were times Sanders carried Detroit. In '97, he went over 100 yards in each of the last 14 regular-season games (averaging 22 carries for 143 yards in that span). But when the Bucs sold out on defense to shut down the running back in the Wild Card Round, Scott Mitchell couldn't pick up the slack. The Honolulu Blue went down, 20-10.

And what of the would-be solo MVP? Played one more season, then squirted and darted off into the sunset.

My pick: I've convinced myself! Sanders doesn't Co-MVP with anybody.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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