Editor’s Note: This was originally posted in November 2011, but has since been updated.
It looks like winning actually is everything.
Study the case of Titans running back Chris Johnson. After a solid rookie campaign, Johnson exploded onto the scene with 2,006 rushing yards, 503 receiving yards and 16 combined touchdowns in 2009. Blazing speed made him a dangerous threat anywhere on the field, and he scored seven times on 50-plus yard plays.
But unlike the six other members of the prestigious 2,000-yard rushing club, Johnson didn’t receive any MVP votes. Because Tennessee finished 8-8, Johnson was ignored.
Adrian Peterson (2012), Barry Sanders (1998), Terrell Davis (1997) and O.J. Simpson (1973) each won the MVP award for their historic season. Eric Dickerson finished second (1984) and Jamal Lewis finished fourth (2003).
Tampa Tribune writer Ira Kaufman said he links the MVP award to team performance, unlike the Offense and Defensive Player of the Year awards.
“It would be very difficult for me to vote a league MVP off a 5-11 club,” Kaufman said.
He’s not alone. No NFL MVP winners have played for a losing team, and only two missed the playoffs.
Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas led Baltimore to an 11-1-2 record in 1964 but did not receive an automatic bid to the playoffs because of an 0-1-1 head-to-head record against the Los Angeles Rams. Simpson finished 9-5 with the Buffalo Bills in 1973, losing the AFC East crown to the 12-2 Miami Dolphins and the lone wild-card spot to the 10-4 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Few athletes in any sport have won major honors while playing for a losing team, but there are exceptions.
- Bob Pettit won the NBA’s first MVP award for a 33-39 St. Louis Hawks team after the 1955-56 season, finishing first in scoring (25.7 per game) and second in rebounds (16.2 per game). Kareem Abdul-Jabaar duplicated the feat after the 1975-76 season, leading the league in rebounds (16.9 per game) and finishing second in points (27.7 per game) despite playing for a 40-42 L.A. Lakers squad.
- Running back Paul Hornung was the jack-of-all-trades for 2-8 Notre Dame in 1956, and is the only Heisman Trophy winner to play for a losing team. He struggled at quarterback — throwing three touchdowns versus 13 interceptions — but led the Fighting Irish in rushing (420) and kick returns (496) while adding two interceptions and 14 extra points to his resume.
- The NHL notably bucks the trend, led by Oilers center Wayne Gretzky winning his first two MVP awards for losing teams after leading the league scoring in 1979-80 (137 points) and 1980-81 (164). Twelve other MVPs, including Gordie Howe, played for losing teams.