Defensive players face MVP obstacles

ABOVE: Photos of the defensive players who have received MVP votes since Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor won the award in 1986.

Editor’s Note: This was posted in November 2011.

Defense wins championships, but apparently not MVP awards.

And based on recent voting, nobody might ever join Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor and Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page. Since Taylor easily won the 1986 award after leading the NFL with 20.5 sacks, only 10 defensive players have received an MVP vote. Twenty-two defensive players received votes from 1957 to 1985.

There are some procedural reasons why votes have declined. The Associated Press has fewer MVP voters — dropping from the mid-80s to 50 — and groupthink has increased in an era of blogging and Twitter. The lone 1969 voter who picked Bears linebacker Dick Butkus might not think it’s worth standing apart from the crowd 40 years later.

The NFL itself has changed, too. Ira Kaufman, an MVP voter who writes for the Tampa Tribune, said he doesn’t think the league will see another overwhelming defense like the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, or 2002 Buccaneers.

“Let’s be honest, quarterback is the game’s glamour position and passers dominate the league MVP award,” said Kaufman, who hasn’t voted for a defensive player since he began casting a ballot in the early 2000s. “That’s not going to change, so any defensive player that legitimately competes for MVP is going to need a compelling case.”

It’s an uphill battle because the NFL tries hard to protect the league moneymakers. Quarterbacks are given special protection from hits — they can’t be contacted in the head or the knees, or driven to the ground — and liberal pass-interference rules have opened the passing game. Drew Brees and Tom Brady both surpassed Dan Marino’s single-season record of 5,084 passing yards in 2011. (No surprise, but Marino won the MVP that season, throwing for 48 touchdowns.)

“It would be nice if defensive players get more votes, but it’s been true in our society that offense gets more publicity than defense,” said Barry Wilner, who runs the MVP voting for The Associated Press.

The recent paucity of defensive votes is apparent.

Page barely won the award in 1971, picking up 10 votes to edge Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who earned nine votes. The NFL didn’t record sacks at that time, but Page recorded two safeties for an 11-3 Vikings squad. Fast-forward 30 years, and Giants defensive end Michael Strahan received no votes in 2001 despite setting the NFL single-season record with 22.5 sacks.

During that timespan since Taylor, quarterbacks have won the MVP award 18 times with running backs earning the honor six times. MVP voter Dan Pompei, who covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune, said it’s the new reality.

“I would have no hesitation voting for a defensive player if I thought he was most valuable,” Pompei said. “But when a [quarterback] has a season like [Packers quarterback Aaron] Rodgers is having, it’s virtually impossible for a defensive player to be more valuable just because of the nature of the quarterback position.”

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