Dissecting the Voting Process

Titans quarterback Steve McNair, left, and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning split the 2003 MVP when each received 16 votes.

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

Sometimes one vote makes a difference. Peyton Manning or Steve McNair? Brett Favre or Barry Sanders?

With only 50 voters for the NFL MVP, it’s almost guaranteed that ties will occur. Favre and Sanders shared the award in 1997 before Manning and McNair repeated the feat in 2003. In comparison, there are more than 900 voters for the Heisman Trophy. Barry Wilner, who has organized NFL  MVP voting since the mid-1990s, is probably thankful he has to deal with slightly less paperwork.

“To tell you the truth, sometimes it would be difficult to get 50 voters because guys are losing their jobs and not covering the NFL,” Wilner said. “Before the Internet came around, it could be tough to fill up to 50.”

The Associated Press originally had three voters per NFL franchise, but after reaching a high of 98 voters in 1994, the number stabilized at 50 beginning in 1999. Voters are not assigned by team or region, and there is an emphasis on including national writers.

“We want a cross section of writers whose main beat is the NFL and who cover it on a national basis,” Wilner said. “Some of the guys on this list cover teams, but they write on a national basis so they’re very clued into the entire league. We want a mix of print, website, radio, and TV.”

Wilner said voting used to occur before the regular season ended in order to count ballots and arrange press interviews with the winner. That process quickly changed, however, after Favre and Sanders each received 18 MVP votes in 1997. That meant Sanders’s 184-yard rushing performance in the season finale was ignored even though it put him over the 2,000-yard mark and helped the Lions sneak into the playoffs.

Curt Sylvester, the former Lions beat writer for the Detroit Free Press, voted for Favre that season but contacted the AP and said he would have voted for Sanders after the final game. It didn’t take much prodding for the organization to change the process so voting is held immediately after the regular season.

Although voting occurs early in January, anticipation builds by delaying the announcement until the bye week between the conference championships and Super Bowl. Beginning in 2010, the AP announced the award in conjunction with exclusive coverage from the NFL Network. It’s clearly a fine line.

“If we were to delay the voting process even a week, a performance in the playoffs might creep into people’s thinking,” Wilner said. “And these awards are not for the playoffs. It needs to be equal footing for every player in the league.”

Other professional sports leagues have different methods to their madness.

Major League Baseball annually picks two voters for each franchise from a pool of more than 600 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Voters must rank 10 players on a weighted ballot. The National Hockey League uses a weighted five-player ballot from the Professional Hockey Writers Association to determine the Hart Memorial Trophy, and it has made a difference at least once. Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore and Flames right wing Jarome Iginla tied in the 2001-02 race, but Theodore won the award by having four more first-place votes.

But Wilner doesn’t see the current process changing.

“I’m surprised it took you so long to ask that question,” Wilner said. “Our feeling is that the winners of these awards should have the most first-place votes.”

“I know for certain that the NFL likes it this way. It’s a true MVP then.”

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