Named in honor of Automatic Otto Graham, the Automatic Award goes to the most valuable player in the league each season. Given the value of passing for most of NFL (and AFL and AAFC) history, this award will almost always go to a quarterback. He touches the live ball more than any other player, has by far the largest impact on the outcome of his team’s success, and mans arguably the most important position in team sports.1 By and large, I am going to give preference to players on successful teams, with the possibly flawed idea that a player may have been valuable on a bad team, but it’s hard to call him most valuable if he had a losing squad. I try my best to separate a player’s contributions from those of his teammates, but I still attempt to recognize historically dominant seasons that come on teams with other great players. After all, it is difficult to disentangle a quarterback from his receivers and protectors, a running back from his blockers, or any player from his coaches, and I don’t want to take away too much credit from a guy just because of his perceived advantages.
From 1920 to 1931, there are no official statistics and only incomplete records from studious historians. The records form a good deal of my foundation for naming Automatic winners for that era. I also use the views of contemporary accounts and narrative historians, in addition to looking at the overall success of each team’s offense, defense, and special teams. You’ll notice that some years have multiple winners. This is because the period in the game’s history was unique. Players were also coaches. In some years, the player who was the most productive may or may not have been the most valuable, because a slightly less productive player was also a coach. For example, Lou Smyth was a dominant force for the 1923 Canton Bulldogs. Guy Chamberlin wasn’t quite as productive, but he happened to be the coach of a team that didn’t lose a game and won the championship. It’s too hard to say who had more value, so I went with both in those strange years.
Automatic Award Winners
The table below lists every Automatic Award winner since 1920. Read it thus: in 1920, playing in the NFL, Ockie Anderson of the All-Americans won his first Automatic Award.
|1920||NFL||Ockie Anderson||Buffalo All-Americans||1|
|1921||NFL||Fritz Pollard||Akron Pros||1|
|1922||NFL||Guy Chamberlin||Canton Bulldogs||1|
|1922||NFL||Jimmy Conzelman||Rock Island Independents/Milwaukee Badgers||1|
|1923||NFL||Guy Chamberlin||Canton Bulldogs||2|
|1923||NFL||Lou Smyth||Canton Bulldogs||1|
|1924||NFL||Curly Lambeau||Green Bay Packers||1|
|1924||NFL||Tex Hamer||Frankford Yellow Jackets||1|
|1925||NFL||Paddy Driscoll||Chicago Cardinals||1|
|1926||NFL||Paddy Driscoll||Chicago Bears||2|
|1927||NFL||Benny Friedman||Cleveland Bulldogs||1|
|1927||NFL||Jack McBride||New York Giants||1|
|1928||NFL||Benny Friedman||Detroit Wolverines||2|
|1929||NFL||Benny Friedman||New York Giants||3|
|1930||NFL||Benny Friedman||New York Giants||4|
|1930||NFL||Verne Lewellen||Green Bay Packers||1|
|1931||NFL||Johnny Blood||Green Bay Packers||1|
|1932||NFL||Bronko Nagurski||Chicago Bears||1|
|1933||NFL||Ken Strong||New York Giants||1|
|1934||NFL||Bronko Nagurski||Chicago Bears||2|
|1935||NFL||Ed Danowski||New York Giants||1|
|1936||NFL||Dutch Clark||Detroit Lions||1|
|1938||NFL||Mel Hein||New York Giants||1|
|1939||NFL||Parker Hall||Cleveland Rams||1|
|1941||NFL||Don Hutson||Green Bay Packers||1|
|1942||NFL||Don Hutson||Green Bay Packers||2|
|1943||NFL||Sid Luckman||Chicago Bears||1|
|1944||NFL||Don Hutson||Green Bay Packers||3|
|1946||NFL||Bill Dudley||Pittsburgh Steelers||1|
|1946||AAFC||Otto Graham||Cleveland Browns||1|
|1947||AAFC||Otto Graham||Cleveland Browns||2|
|1948||AAFC||Frankie Albert||San Francisco 49ers||1|
|1949||NFL||Steve Van Buren||Philadelphia Eagles||1|
|1949||AAFC||Otto Graham||Cleveland Browns||3|
|1950||NFL||Norm Van Brocklin||Los Angeles Rams||1|
|1951||NFL||Bob Waterfield||Los Angeles Rams||1|
|1952||NFL||Hugh McElhenny||San Francisco 49ers||1|
|1953||NFL||Otto Graham||Cleveland Browns||4|
|1954||NFL||Norm Van Brocklin||Los Angeles Rams||2|
|1955||NFL||Otto Graham||Cleveland Browns||5|
|1956||NFL||Frank Gifford||New York Giants||1|
|1957||NFL||Johnny Unitas||Baltimore Colts||1|
|1958||NFL||Jim Brown||Cleveland Browns||1|
|1959||NFL||Johnny Unitas||Baltimore Colts||2|
|1960||NFL||Norm Van Brocklin||Philadelphia Eagles||3|
|1960||AFL||Jack Kemp||Los Angeles Chargers||1|
|1961||NFL||Sonny Jurgensen||Philadelphia Eagles||1|
|1961||AFL||George Blanda||Houston Oilers||1|
|1962||NFL||Y.A. Tittle||New York Giants||1|
|1962||AFL||Len Dawson||Dallas Texans||1|
|1963||NFL||Y.A. Tittle||New York Giants||2|
|1963||AFL||Tom Flores||Oakland Raiders||1|
|1964||NFL||Johnny Unitas||Baltimore Colts||3|
|1964||AFL||Babe Parilli||Boston Patriots||1|
|1965||NFL||Jim Brown||Cleveland Browns||2|
|1965||AFL||John Hadl||San Diego Chargers||1|
|1966||NFL||Frank Ryan||Cleveland Browns||1|
|1966||AFL||Len Dawson||Kansas City Chiefs||2|
|1967||NFL||Fran Tarkenton||New York Giants||1|
|1967||AFL||Daryle Lamonica||Oakland Raiders||1|
|1968||NFL||Earl Morrall||Baltimore Colts||1|
|1968||AFL||Joe Namath||New York Jets||1|
|1969||NFL||Roman Gabriel||Los Angeles Rams||1|
|1969||AFL||Daryle Lamonica||Oakland Raiders||2|
|1970||NFL||John Brodie||San Francisco 49ers||1|
|1971||NFL||Roger Staubach||Dallas Cowboys||1|
|1972||NFL||Joe Namath||New York Jets||2|
|1973||NFL||O.J. Simpson||Buffalo Bills||1|
|1974||NFL||Ken Stabler||Oakland Raiders||1|
|1975||NFL||Fran Tarkenton||Minnesota Vikings||2|
|1976||NFL||Bert Jones||Baltimore Colts||1|
|1977||NFL||Walter Payton||Chicago Bears||1|
|1978||NFL||Roger Staubach||Dallas Cowboys||2|
|1979||NFL||Roger Staubach||Dallas Cowboys||3|
|1980||NFL||Brian Sipe||Cleveland Browns||1|
|1981||NFL||Ken Anderson||Cincinnati Bengals||1|
|1982||NFL||Dan Fouts||San Diego Chargers||1|
|1984||NFL||Dan Marino||Miami Dolphins||1|
|1985||NFL||Dan Marino||Miami Dolphins||2|
|1986||NFL||Dan Marino||Miami Dolphins||3|
|1987||NFL||John Elway||Denver Broncos||1|
|1988||NFL||Boomer Esiason||Cincinnati Bengals||1|
|1989||NFL||Joe Montana||San Francisco 49ers||1|
|1990||NFL||Randall Cunningham||Philadelphia Eagles||1|
|1991||NFL||Barry Sanders||Detroit Lions||1|
|1992||NFL||Steve Young||San Francisco 49ers||1|
|1993||NFL||Steve Young||San Francisco 49ers||2|
|1994||NFL||Steve Young||San Francisco 49ers||3|
|1995||NFL||Brett Favre||Green Bay Packers||1|
|1996||NFL||Brett Favre||Green Bay Packers||2|
|1997||NFL||Brett Favre||Green Bay Packers||3|
|1998||NFL||Randall Cunningham||Minnesota Vikings||2|
|1999||NFL||Kurt Warner||St. Louis Rams||1|
|2000||NFL||Daunte Culpepper||Minnesota Vikings||1|
|2001||NFL||Kurt Warner||St. Louis Rams||2|
|2002||NFL||Rich Gannon||Oakland Raiders||1|
|2003||NFL||Steve McNair||Tennessee Titans||1|
|2004||NFL||Peyton Manning||Indianapolis Colts||1|
|2005||NFL||Peyton Manning||Indianapolis Colts||2|
|2006||NFL||Peyton Manning||Indianapolis Colts||3|
|2007||NFL||Tom Brady||New England Patriots||1|
|2008||NFL||Philip Rivers||San Diego Chargers||1|
|2009||NFL||Drew Brees||New Orleans Saints||1|
|2010||NFL||Peyton Manning||Indianapolis Colts||4|
|2011||NFL||Aaron Rodgers||Green Bay Packers||1|
|2012||NFL||Tom Brady||New England Patriots||2|
|2013||NFL||Peyton Manning||Denver Broncos||5|
|2014||NFL||Aaron Rodgers||Green Bay Packers||2|
|2015||NFL||Carson Palmer||Arizona Cardinals||1|
|2016||NFL||Aaron Rodgers||Green Bay Packers||3|
|2017||NFL||Tom Brady||New England Patriots||3|
Sometimes we’ll get lucky and get a 2007 Tom Brady or 1984 Dan Marino type performance that will leave no doubt who the MVP was. In many seasons, however, it’s not that easy. Modern seasons that gave me headaches include: 1966, 1967, 1977, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 2000, 2003, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015, and 2016.
In 1966, most publications favored Bart Starr, who was incredibly efficient for the star-studded Packers. While his rate stats were extraordinary, he was involved in just 298 plays and had incredible talent all around him. That left Don Meredith, Frank Ryan, and Sonny Jurgensen, who all had impressive numbers and produced them with less help. After watching as much as I could, I came away convinced that Ryan deserved the award, if only by a hair.
In 1967, it was down to Jurgensen, Fran Tarkenton and Johnny Unitas. Unitas was the consensus pick, taking MVP honors from nearly every major publication. It’s easy to see why. He had above average stats as the leader of a team that went 11-1-2 (so did Roman Gabriel, who was more efficient on a per-play basis and probably had less offensive talent on the field with him). Sonny led the league in passing yards and touchdowns, albeit for a team with a .464 record. While the narrative of his surrounding talent is true – he was often hampered by bad overall teams – it doesn’t mean he didn’t have some great teammates at important positions. He threw to Hall of Fame receivers Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell, as well as borderline HOF tight end Jerry Smith. Tark, on the other hand, joined a team that won a single game the previous year,2 kept its head coach, and didn’t experience significant roster turnover. Fran was the difference. He put up impressive numbers, and looked good doing it, while dragging a sad sack squad on his back.
In 1977, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, and Bert Jones were the premier quarterbacks, and Craig Morton was awfully good as well. Staubach gets my nod as the top trigger man in the league, but my Automatic Award goes to (gasp!) running back Walter Payton, whose team relied on him in a way few teams have leaned on a back in the modern game. He led the league in yards and touchdowns while running behind a line full of inexperienced and unheralded blockers. Sweetness led runner up Lydell Mitchell by 342 yards from scrimmage, and Mitchell was 222 yards ahead of third place.
In 1985, Payton and Marcus Allen were the popular MVP picks, with each receiving at least three awards from major voting bodies. To me, it was a five-way battle between Joe Montana, Boomer Esiason, Ken O’Brien, Dan Fouts, and Dan Marino. Fouts was easy to get rid of, having missed four games. Montana and Esiason also missed a game apiece, and both saw their offenses do well enough in their absence. I whittled it down to Marino versus O’Brien, and I went with Marino based on degree of difficulty in his offense. O’Brien had superior stats, but I believe Marino was asked to do more.
In 1986, Lawrence Taylor became just the second defensive player to win the AP’s version of the NFL MVP award. He came very close to winning mine as well, with his play having a palpable impact on the entire Giants defense – a defense that led his team to a dominating postseason run and eventual championship.3 However, due to the importance of the position, and despite the fact that his team finished with a .500 record, I went with Marino. He led the league in yards and touchdowns by a country mile and may have been the only thing keeping the Dolphins from picking at the top of the draft in 1987.
John Elway won the 1987 AP MVP award. It’s not the official award (there isn’t an official award), but it is easily the most popular. Every other major publication went with Jerry Rice. Had the GOAT made it a clean sweep, he would have become the first (and still the only) wide receiver to win the award from the wire service. Elway’s strongest competitors for votes were Rice and Montana, who won the first team all pro spot. Many believe the two teammates split the vote, allowing Elway to claim the award (though one could also argue that Elway and Montana split the QB vote). It’s possible that’s what happened. Rice was clearly the best player in football that year, and Montana led the best team in a league he led in passing touchdowns. However, when I reviewed the relevant material, it didn’t come down to Elway versus a San Francisco player; it came down to Elway versus Bernie Kosar. Both quarterbacks played exceptionally without the significant advantages the two 49ers enjoyed. Based on a holistic analysis of the stats and the context in which they occurred, I felt compelled to give the Automatic Award to Elway.4
Montana took home the AP MVP crown in 1990. He is my favorite quarterback of all time and one of my favorite players, but I couldn’t give him the Automatic Award. For me, he wasn’t even in consideration. It came down to Warren Moon (who won the NEA MVP) and Randall Cunningham (who won the award from the PFWA and Bert Bell). The Ultimate Weapon, Cunningham, had an offensive season for the ages, throwing 30 touchdowns5 and rushing for 942 yards while leading the Eagles to a 10-6 record. It was enough for me to give him the Sweetness Award for offensive player of the year, but I had Moon as the MVP for a very long time. His edge as a pure passer was far too large for me to ignore, and he was the driving force on a potent offense. However, when Moon’s Oiler faced the Steelers without him, Cody Carlson went 22 for 29 with 247 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a passer rating of 120.9.6 After much back and forth, the award goes to Cunningham.
In 1991, Thurman Thomas won the bulk of the awards. However, it isn’t clear he was even the most valuable player on his own team, as Jim Kelly ranked third in the NFL in DYAR at the helm of the K-Gun offense. Mark Rypien had the best stats and the top record of any starting quarterback, but I don’t think anyone could watch him play and declare he was actually better than Kelly, Moon, Marino, or Steve Young that year. Those stats belonged to Joe Gibbs. Young put up impressive numbers, but he missed several games and played on a loaded team. Marino was the prettiest passer, but it’s hard for me to give him another MVP award for another 8-8 season. Ultimately, in a move that surprised even me, I went with Barry Sanders. I know, running backs don’t matter and all that. Sanders mattered. So much so that he is the last non-quarterback to win the Automatic Award, and he will probably hold on to that distinction in perpetuity. He was the main man on a team that reached 12-4 with eight (mediocre) games apiece from Erik Kramer and Rodney Peete. Detroit’s leading receiver had 668 yards. The offensive line featured two bad guards, a right tackle who was once okay but was near the end of his career, a solid center, and a very good left tackle. Sanders is my man.
In 2000, there were several quarterbacks who were viable candidates. Jeff Garcia may have been the most efficient, but his team wasn’t any good, and some of his stats were empty ones. Donovan McNabb had average numbers, but his impact on the offense was clear, and let’s not even talk about his receiving corps. Rich Gannon was a reasonable choice, but he had a stellar cast around him and did it for Gruden before the coach became a punchline. Peyton Manning controlled the line of scrimmage like few in history. He led all passers in DVOA and DYAR, and his subsequent seasons proved it wasn’t a fluke performance. Ultimately, however, I went with Daunte Culpepper, the young dynamo with the brilliant deep ball and uncanny playmaking ability. He led the NFL in touchdown passes and threw in 470 yards and 7 touchdowns on the ground as a nice bonus. Yes, Randy Moss was a freak, but the difference in surrounding talent between Manning and Culpepper wasn’t significant, in my opinion. I went with the playmaker over the steady hand.
The 2003 season was another year in which Manning gave me issues. As a passer, he was clearly the best. But something about the way Steve McNair led his team made it hard for me to pick anyone else. This isn’t just a style thing. Air McNair led the league with a NTAY/P of 8.93 (Manning had 7.82). He did it while playing for Jeff Fisher. I don’t think I have to say much more than that.
Because I include the postseason in my evaluations, Warner was a finalist for 2008 despite a merely good regular season. Manning and Philip Rivers were the other contenders. Rivers had a slight lead in DVOA, while Manning held an advantage in DYAR. Their supporting casts were about even, I think, but I do think the Tony Dungy/Tom Moore duo was superior to the Marty Schottenheimer/Cam Cameron combo. Warner’s playoff heroics weren’t enough to close the gap on either. In a coin flip, I went with Rivers over Manning.
In 2010, Tom Brady was the most efficient passer in the league and avoided turnovers at an incredible rate. However, in the last season before his fateful neck surgery, I felt Peyton Manning carried a heavier load for the Colts. In 2012, both players were terrific, and the general opinion at the time was that the MVP award was between Manning and Adrian Peterson, for some reason. Synthesizing what I believed then with what I believe now (after stepping back for some perspective), I went with Brady. Yes, Manning was on a new team and turned around the offense in dramatic fashion. But Brady led an offensive juggernaut, and we are comparing 2012 Brady with 2011 Brady while subconsciously comparing 2012 Manning with 2011 Tim Tebow (and probably thinking about the 2010 and 2011 Colts in the back of our minds). It’s close, but I’m going with Tom.
The analytics community will have my head for thinking this is even close. “Of course Carson Palmer should get the Automatic Award,” they’ll say. While I did pick him, I’m not convinced it’s as easy as the nerds suggest. When accounting for rushing and workload (and why the heck wouldn’t you?), both Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have legitimate claims to the award. I hated when media types were using Carolina’s record to prop up Newton’s case, but I also hated the overreaction from spreadsheet supermen.
In 2016, Matt Ryan produced one of the greatest statistical seasons in history. It was a thing of beauty, and we all sang songs and danced in green meadows, but I’m not convinced he was the most valuable player in football that year. After accounting for teammates and, especially, offensive schemes, I thought Aaron Rodgers meant more to his team than anyone else. He had the highest total EPA of anyone in the league (by ESPN’s model), and his defense-adjusted EPA/P compared favorably to Ryan’s. I hate to go against gaudy numbers, but I don’t think anyone did a better job making lemonade than Rodgers did.
- I don’t know much about other sports, but I have been told goalies play a pretty outsized role in winning hockey games. In basketball, I don’t know if there is necessarily a single position that is the most important, but it definitely appears to be the team sport in which the best player can have the largest impact. ↩
- With everyone’s favorite backup and eventual league MVP Earl Morrall going 1-5-1 as a starter. ↩
- In an odd choice, the NEA actually chose Phil Simms as its MVP, despite the fact that he was fairly pedestrian that season. ↩
- At first glance, his stats don’t seem to compare well to those of Montana, Kosar, or even Marino – especially if you focus solely on the touchdown column. However, he had a comparable ANY/A and TAY/P, and he trailed only those three in DYAR. His 3-0 lead over Kosar in game-winning drives tips the scales in his favor. ↩
- While playing quarterback for Buddy Ryan, mind you. ↩
- Yes, passer rating is a stupid stat. It’s also popular and easy to weave into a narrative. You will manage to keep your head from exploding just this once. ↩