Best NFL MVP seasons: Kurt Warner, Dan Marino lead the way

Patrick Mahomes is going to be selected as the 2018 NFL MVP (sorry, I should have prefaced that with a spoiler alert). And there is no doubt folks will argue for years as to where his season (5,097 passing yards, 50 TDs, 113.8 passer rating) ranks amongst those of the all-time greats. I'm not sure yet where Mahomes would fit (he hasn't actually officially won the award yet, after all), but let me go ahead and settle the previous 52 seasons' worth of MVP awards for you with the below power rankings of MVP campaigns during the Super Bowl era.

A few things to note here. For starters, all of these players are great. But we're judging the best of the best. Even though it's hard to put numbers in context. For example, consider that Bart Starr won an MVP award throwing for 14 touchdowns -- which is just two more than Tim Tebow threw for in 2011. Second, I'm probably going to favor dudes who won Super Bowls, even though The Associated Press' MVP award is based on regular-season performance. When you're assessing the most dominant, it's important to know how the story finishes. Third, for the purposes of this exercise, the two seasons in which two different players were named MVP (1997 and 2003) were each listed as one season. And fourth, don't @ me.

Here is my ranking of every MVP award given out in the Super Bowl era, from 1966 to 2017, presented in reverse order:

52) 1982: Mark Moseley, K, Washington Redskins. Football in the 1980s fascinates me to this day. It seems like everybody was intent on murdering the quarterback. But in this strike-shortened season, a kicker won the MVP award. How have we not done an episode of "A Football Life" on this? Dan Fouts would have been a great choice.

51) 1987: John Elway, QB, Denver Broncos. This was a weird year, with another strike that -- with the subsequent use of replacement players -- eventually inspired the movie "The Replacements." But please save your Shane Falco for MVP campaigns. Elway won, and he's great. But Jerry Rice had 22 receiving touchdowns in 12 games. I mean, come on.

50) 2008: Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts. I sometimes get really upset with the MVP voting, because it comes off as lazy sometimes. And if you needed one case study to prove that point, this would be the season. Kurt Warner should have won this award going away (he posted 4,583 yards and 30 TDs while pushing Arizona to the Super Bowl), while Manning did not have one of his best years (and he had some great ones).

49) 1976: Bert Jones, QB, Baltimore Colts. Obviously, I wouldn't know from experience, but I have to assume this was a controversial choice, because while Jones led the NFL with 3,104 passing yards, it seemed like Ken Stabler had the better season (and ended up winning the Super Bowl).

48) 1981: Ken Anderson, QB, Cincinnati Bengals. In 1981, Anderson became the first player in NFL history to attempt 600 passes in a season, while also setting a single-season passing record at the time with 4,802 yards -- oh, wait, that was Dan Fouts. Anderson attempted 479 passes and threw for 3,754 yards. The Bengalsdid win the AFC Central and go to Super Bowl XVI, though. Seriously, why do people hate Fouts?

47) 1970: John Brodie, QB, San Francisco 49ers. Brodie led the NFL with 2,941 passing yards and 24 touchdown passes. The 49ers had been also-rans in the Coastal Division in the three previous seasons, lagging behind the Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Colts (I know, I want to really get into why Los Angeles, Baltimore, Atlanta and San Francisco were in the same division), but improved from four wins to 10 in 1970, winning the NFC West in the first year following the AFL-NFL merger.

46) 2002: Rich Gannon, QB, Oakland Raiders. Gannon led the NFL with 4,689 passing yards, 418 completions and 618 attempts. He pushed the Raiders to Super Bowl XXXVII, where he lost to the Bucs and his former coach, Jon Gruden. But honestly, I would have gone with Priest Holmes.

45) 1988: Boomer Esiason, QB, Cincinnati Bengals. This Bengals team was fun and seemed like a team of destiny, with Esiason leading Cincinnati to four comeback wins on the way to Super Bowl XXIII. Maybe this would rank higher if the Bengals had held on to beat the 49ers.

44) 1967: Johnny Unitas, QB, Baltimore Colts. Can you be the league MVP if your team didn't win its division? Wait, I'm a fan of the Angels and Mike Trout -- don't answer that. Fun fact: The Colts finished 11-1-2 in the Coastal Division, tied with the L.A. Rams (don't ask), but because the NFL playoffs were reserved for division winners, Baltimore was left out in the cold by virtue of its tiebreaking disadvantage in head-to-head points scored. Despite other division winners having nine wins each. But this still beats picking a kicker.

43) 1978: Terry Bradshaw, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers. Led the NFL with 28 passing touchdowns. Entering this season, Bradshaw was already a two-time Super Bowl winner. He capped his MVP-winning campaign by winning it all (and the Super Bowl MVP award), a feat he repeated in '79.

42) 1983: Joe Theismann, QB, Washington Redskins. Theismann was coming off a win in Super Bowl XVII. And really, he was a good quarterback. But sometimes these just come off like achievement awards.

41) 1980: Brian Sipe, QB, Cleveland Browns. Holy smokes, a Browns quarterback won the MVP award. Sipe led the top seed in the AFC that season, and then the year crumbled in what we would describe today as the most Browns way possible: in a devastating loss to the wild-card Raiders, with (wait for it) Sipe throwing a pick in the closing moments.

40) 1969: Roman Gabriel, QB, Los Angeles Rams. Gabriel led the NFL with 24 touchdowns against just seven interceptions (his interception percentage of 1.8 was the lowest in the league). He led the Rams to a perfect 11-0 record to start the season before a loss to the Vikings in Week 12.

39) 1968: Earl Morrall, QB, Baltimore Colts. Morrall replaced injured starter Jonny Unitas, who was lost for most of the season with an injury suffered in the final exhibition game. What, you think Kurt Warner owns that narrative? Well, OK; I guess he does. Anyway, Morrall led the Colts to a 13-1 record, but then Baltimore lost to the Jets in Super Bowl III. Or something like that. I've never heard that story. Like, ever.

38) 2003: Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts and Steve McNair, QB, Tennessee Titans. Manning led the NFL with 4,267 passing yards and was fine. McNair led the NFL with a 100.4 passer rating. And had he been competing against any other QB for the honor, he probably would have won outright.

37) 1991: Thurman Thomas, RB, Buffalo Bills. The Bills were in a dominant stretch as a franchise, offensively. Thomas led the NFL with 2,038 yards from scrimmage that year. It was the third time in four straight seasons that he claimed that mark. Hmm ... what ELSE were the Bills known for doing four straight times in the '90s? (Don't say it.)

36) 2016: Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons. Ryan was great, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards to go along with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions. But as was the case with a lot of great Ryan statistical seasons, I just didn't get the sense he dominated like other quarterbacks.

35) 2009: Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts. Manning threw for 4,500 (not rounding up) and 33 touchdowns. Good numbers, for sure. Although he did have a lot of interceptions (16). Plus one key one in Super Bowl XLIV.

34) 2017: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots. Brady passed for 4,577 yards, 32 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. This latest string of QB MVPs is weird, because all of the numbers are just so similar. Brady nearly added another Super Bowl ring here, though.

33) 2014: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers. Rodgers nabbed his second MVP after throwing for 4,381 passing yards, 38 touchdowns and five interceptions. A late-game collapse in Seattle is the only thing that prevented us from getting a Brady-Rodgers Super Bowl.

32) 1990: Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco 49ers. Montana went back-to-back with this honor. And he was good, as he approached 4,000 passing yards. He even went 14-1 as a starter. But it's hard to give him too much love, seeing as how this award should have gone to Randall Cunningham.

31) 1992: Steve Young, QB, San Francisco 49ers. Young had an awesome year while seizing the reins from the legendary Montana in San Francisco. He led the league with 25 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions and posted a league-high passer rating of 107.0. But he was defeated by the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.

30) 1975: Fran Tarkenton, QB, Minnesota Vikings. Tarkenton is the guy all of your grandfathers will try to tell you was better than Patrick Mahomes. And this was probably his greatest season, when he led the Vikings to a 12-2 record.

29) 1974: Ken Stabler, QB, Oakland Raiders. Stabler led the NFL in passing touchdowns (26), touchdown percentage (8.4) and beer cans crushed (immeasurable). Stabler was perfect for Al Davis' preferred vertical passing game.

28) 1966: Bart Starr, QB, Green Bay Packers. Starr led the NFL in completion percentage (62.2), interception rate (1.2), yards per attempt (9.0) and passer rating (105.0). He wasn't the most dominating, but he directed one of the most-dominant teams in NFL history.

27) 1985: Marcus Allen, RB, Los Angeles Raiders. The 1985 season featured a Bears defense that was the most dominant in NFL history, and the MVP award went to ... a running back who rushed for 1,759 yards. Yes, Allen deserves some respect for collecting nearly 100 scrimmage yards against the Bears in '84 (they didn't play each other in '85). But come on, voters.

26) 1972: Larry Brown, RB, Washington Redskins. Brown led the NFL with an average of 101.3 rushing yards in 12 games. And he also led the NFL in total scrimmage yards (1,689) -- again, despite playing in just 12 games.

25) 1979: Earl Campbell, RB, Houston Oilers. Campbell set the football world on fire during his first three years in the league, as he led the NFL in rushing each season. In his sophomore campaign, he ran for 1,697 yards and 19 touchdowns. His 1980 season was even more impressive, when he rushed for 1,934 yards.

24) 1995: Brett Favre, QB, Green Bay Packers. This was a really good year for Favre, who passed for a league-high 4,413 yards and 38 touchdowns. But dang, Emmitt Smith set an NFL record at the time with 25 rushing touchdowns and ran for more than 1,700 yards. I'm not sure Favre was the deserving choice here, as amazing as Favre's season was.

23) 2010: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots. Brady had great numbers, posting 3,900 passing and 36 touchdowns. Dude threw just four interceptions. Which barely seems possible to accomplish when you're playing a season of "Madden."

22) 1997: Brett Favre, QB, Green Bay Packers and Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions. Sanders had a dominant season, rushing for 2,053 yards for the Lions. THE LIONS. But the voters just had to keep giving the award to Favre, making poor Barry split it here. Disgraceful.

21) 1996: Brett Favre, QB, Green Bay Packers. This was another solid year for Favre, who was in the middle of a stretch of winning three consecutive MVP awards. He threw for 3,899 yards and 39 touchdown passes. But maybe most importantly, he got his lone Super Bowl win.

20) 2000: Marshall Faulk, RB, St. Louis Rams. One of the best dual-threat guys of his era, Faulk led the league with 26 total touchdowns. There are those who will contend his previous season in St. Louis, when he finished with a league-high 2,429 yards from scrimmage, was probably more impressive.

19) 2004: Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts. Incredible season from Manning. He passed for a then-career-high 4,557 yards (though it didn't lead the league) while throwing 49 touchdown passes, which did lead the league, as did his 121.1 passer rating.

18) 1971: Alan Page, DT, Minnesota Vikings. Page became the first defensive player to win MVP since the award's inception. But he was just the first of many! (Or not.) The '71 Vikings allowed a mere 139 points in a 14-game season (that's less than 10 points per game).

17) 2001: Kurt Warner, QB, St. Louis Rams. Warner set a career-high with 4,830 passing yards, although some of his other numbers trailed behind his 1999 MVP season which, correct me if I'm wrong, hasn't appeared on this list yet.

16) 2012: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings. Peterson nearly broke the NFL's single-season rushing-yards record in '12, with 2,097. But his yards-per-game mark (131.1) was still behind O.J. Simpson's in his MVP-winning 1973 season (143.1). Peterson also had fewer yards from scrimmage (2,314) in '12 than LaDainian Tomlinson did in his MVP-winning 2006 campaign (2,323). And Peterson had just 13 total touchdowns. This was a good season. Let's leave it at that.

15) 1973: O.J. Simpson, RB, Buffalo Bills. Simpson became the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season and was incredible, with an average of 143.1 rushing yards per game.

14) 1977: Walter Payton, RB, Chicago Bears. The best season by the best running back in NFL history. Payton led the league with 1,852 rushing yards, while his 2,121 total scrimmage yards topped O.J. Simpson's mark from four years earlier (2,073). You wonder how many scrimmage yards Walter could have put up in a pass-happy era.

* 13) 2015: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos. * OK, I started this exercise by writing these down by hand, and I don't know why my mind had me convinced this actually happened. Let's take a look at the actual winner of the award that season instead ...

13) 2015: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers. Like some others on this list, Newton is going to be taken down for his team's performance in the Super Bowl following his MVP campaign (in this case, the Panthers' 24-10 loss to the Broncos in Super Bowl 50). But he had a hand in 45 of the 54 offensive touchdowns Carolina scored that year (35 passing TDs, 10 rushing TDs) while rolling to a 15-1 record. This was one of the most special seasons ever by a quarterback.

12) 2005: Shaun Alexander, RB, Seattle Seahawks. Alexander is not going to the Hall of Fame. But this was one of the most incredible rushing seasons, as he went for 1,880 rushing yards and an NFL-record 28 total touchdowns. It was really impressive to watch.

11) 1986: Lawrence Taylor, LB, New York Giants. Just the second defensive player in NFL history to win MVP honors, Taylor set an NFL record at the time with 20.5 sacks for a Giants team that dominated the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.

10) 1998: Terrell Davis, RB, Denver Broncos. Davis rushed for 2,008 yards, led the NFL with 21 rushing touchdowns and averaged more than 5 yards per carry. He also lifted John Elway to his second consecutive Super Bowl victory.

9) 1993: Emmitt Smith, RB, Dallas Cowboys. Smith truly proved his worth, as he held out the first two games of the season, only to return to lead the NFL in rushing (1,486 yards) and push the Cowboys to the second of their three Super Bowl wins from 1992 to '95.

8) 2006: LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, San Diego Chargers. On the heels of Alexander setting the record for total touchdowns in 2005, my guy LT came right over the top and usurped it in '06, with 31 total touchdowns and 2,323 total yards. The best season by a running back ever. EVER. And if Marlon McCree had just fallen down ...

7) 2013: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos. I complain about all of these numbers looking the same, but Manning really set the bar high this season, posting 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns. And all of that is amazing. But am I supposed to sit here and pretend I didn't see the Broncos' 43-8 loss to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII? We've got to be fair.

6) 2011: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers. This was a crazy season. Rodgers set the current NFL record for passer rating (122.5) as the Packers started out 13-0 and finished it off 15-1. Rodgers posted 45 touchdown passes this season, but it seemed like he could have thrown for 70 if he'd wanted to.

5) 1994: Steve Young, QB, San Francisco 49ers. Easily the best season of Young's brilliant career. He led the NFL with a completion rate of 70.3 percent. Tossed a league-high 35 touchdown passes. And he posted an amazing passer rating of 112.8, the highest of his career, which also broke a record set by Joe Montana five years earlier. Of course, he capped it all off by finally beating the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game and getting the monkey off his back in Super Bowl XXIX against the Chargers.

4) 1989: Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco 49ers. Some consider the '89 Niners one of the best teams (if not the best team) in NFL history, and Montana was operating at his peak, setting a new passer rating mark at the time (112.4). He passed for 3,521 yards, led the NFL in passing yards per game (270.8) and completed over 70 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 227 yards and three scores. Oh, and he beat some great teams in the lead-up to Super Bowl XXIV. (The Broncos team he beat inSuper Bowl XXIV wasn't great, but still.)

3) 2007: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots. This was one for the ages, with Brady compiling more than 300 passing yards per game and 50 touchdown passes. This was a perfect season in almost every sense of the word. Almost. This might be wrong. But I can't get the loss by the 16-0 Patriots to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII out of my head. I know I keep going back to this, but I have to be honest with you all.

2) 1984: Dan Marino, QB, Miami Dolphins. In what was probably the most incredible passing season in NFL history, Marino threw for 5,084 passing yards and 48 touchdowns, which stood as records for YEARS until rule changes made those kinds of numbers easier to come by. Here's what is super crazy: Marino had 16 more touchdown passes than the second-place guy, Dave Krieg. Even in today's game, which is much friendlier to quarterbacks, Marino's numbers would get you in the conversation for MVP right now.

1) 1999: Kurt Warner, QB, St. Louis Rams. Everybody settle down and listen to me. First, Warner's story is truly one of the most remarkable in NFL history, though you don't need me to recite it here. Second, the numbers are there: 4,353 passing yards, 41 touchdown passes, a 109.2 passer rating. But here's the thing: He won the (expletive) SUPER BOWL. I know this is a regular-season award, but we were blessed with hindsight when compiling this list, and when you look at the total picture, there is no doubt that this was the most dominant MVP season ever.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content