History of RBs to win NFL MVP: How Colts star Jonathan Taylor could snap the QBs streak

By | December 24, 2021

The NFL MVP award has gone to quarterbacks more often than not during its history. Could we see that change in 2021? It’s possible thanks to the strong performance of Jonathan Taylor.

Taylor, the Colts’ second-year running back, has been the best running back in football for the second half of the season. He was overshadowed by Derrick Henry and a lower usage rate in the first half of the campaign, but since the Colts have given him the primary, do-it-all role in the offense, he has excelled.

In fact, Taylor has performed so well that he is getting MVP buzz from people within the NFL community.

“He’s kind of taken the team on his shoulders, which is hard to do for a runner, and he’s taken over games,” an AFC executive told NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. “Most of their big games, he’s taken over.”

Indeed, that’s true. The Colts are averaging 197 rushing yards per game in their wins and just 103.7 in their losses, so there’s a clear correlation between the success of their running game and the success of their team.

Will that be enough to earn Taylor the MVP? Here’s a look at how he stacks up against the other most recent running back recipients of the NFL’s highest on-the-field honor.

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NFL running backs to win MVP

There have been 18 running backs that have won the MVP award since it was first awarded in 1957. Jim Brown is the only running back to win the award multiple times, as he took home three in 1957, 1958 and 1965.

Since 2000, only four running backs have won the award, the most recent of which was Adrian Peterson in 2012. Peterson came off a torn ACL that season and posted the second-most rushing yards in NFL history.

Here’s a full list of the running backs that have won the MVP award.

Year Player Team
1957 Jim Brown Browns
1958 Jim Brown Browns
1961 Paul Hornung Packers
1962 Jim Taylor Packers
1965 Jim Brown Browns
1972 Larry Brown Washington
1973 O. J. Simpson Bills
1977 Walter Payton Bears
1979 Earl Campbell Oilers
1985 Marcus Allen Raiders
1991 Thurman Thomas Bills
1993 Emmitt Smith Cowboys
1997 Barry Sanders* Lions
1998 Terrell Davis Broncos
2000 Marshall Faulk Rams
2005 Shaun Alexander Seahawks
2006 LaDainian Tomlinson Chargers
2012 Adrian Peterson Vikings

* Barry Sanders was co-MVP with Packers QB Brett Favre in 1997.

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Breaking down the five most recent RB MVP seasons

It has been rare for running backs to win MVP in recent years. Since the turn of the century, the award has been dominated by quarterbacks, who have won 16 MVPs compared to the four that have gone to running backs.

Still, elite, breakthrough performances have been recognized over the last 20-plus years. Here’s a clear picture of what recent MVP RBs have had to do to earn that honor.

Terrell Davis, Broncos, 1998

Carries Rushing yards Rushing TDs Receptions Receiving yards Receiving TDs
392 2,008 21 25 217 2

Davis did it all. He was second in the league in total carries behind only Jamal Anderson (410) and led the league in yards per carry with 5.1 per attempt. That mix of volume and efficiency was key in his MVP case. So too was eclipsing 2,000 yards rushing, racking up more than 20 touchdowns and leading his team to a 14-2 regular-season record.

Davis had one of the best running back seasons in NFL history in 1998. He became just the third running back in NFL history (at the time) to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards and his 392 carries rank as the seventh-most in NFL history. He also aided the team’s Super Bowl title run, as he had 468 rushing yards and three TDs for Denver during their three postseason games. 

Marshall Faulk, Rams, 2000

Carries Rushing yards Rushing TDs Receptions Receiving yards Receiving TDs
253 1,359 18 81 830 8

Faulk was the most important part of the “Greatest Show on Turf” offense. He was a do-it-all machine out of the backfield, as he finished eighth in the NFL in rushing yards, first in rushing touchdowns and he managed the 17th-most receptions in the league despite his running back role and the presence of Hall of Famer Isaac Bruce and seven-time Pro Bowler Torry Holt. If you just looked at Faulk’s rushing yards, you might question why he won MVP in 2000. But when you factor in his work as a receiver (830 yards and eight TDs), it’s easy to understand why he got the nod.

Faulk’s 26 total touchdowns were an NFL record for a running back at that time, and that was likely what gave him the nod. Generating 2,000 scrimmage yards and playing for a 10-win team certainly helped as well.

Shaun Alexander, Seahawks, 2005

Carries Rushing yards Rushing TDs Receptions Receiving yards Receiving TDs
370 1,880 27 15 78 1

Faulk’s touchdown record didn’t stand for long. Alexander came along in 2005 and broke it with ease, generating 28 total touchdowns (27 rushing) while leading the Seahawks to a 13-3 regular-season record.

Alexander was a true, between-the-tackles grinder for the Seahawks. He accounted for 1,958 of the team’s 6,089 scrimmage yards. That was good for 32.2 percent of the team’s offensive output, and he had more than double the next-highest producer (Bobby Engram, 778).

The Seahawks rode Alexander to a Super Bowl appearance, where they lost at the hands of the Steelers, but it was still a banner year for Alexander. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry and though he didn’t quite eclispe 2,000 scrimmage yards, his effort as a highly productive, high-volume runner was enough to earn him the MVP.

LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers, 2006

Carries Rushing yards Rushing TDs Receptions Receiving yards Receiving TDs
348 1,815 28 56 508 3

Poor Alexander only got to hold the running back touchdown record for a single season before Tomlinson came along and broke it. Tomlinson was absolutely insane for the Chargers in 2006, as he recorded a whopping 31 rushing and receiving touchdowns, a record that nobody has come close to breaking over the last 15 seasons.

Comparatively, Philip Rivers, who was the Chargers’ fresh-faced starter at the time threw for just 22 touchdowns, three of which went to Tomlinson. And LT threw a couple of touchdown passes of his own. So, all told, the Chargers had 32 rushing touchdowns and 24 receiving touchdowns. Tomlinson was directly involved in 33 of them, including his two passes, which meant he was a part of 58.9 percent of the team’s scores.

That type of touchdown production alone was absurd enough to warrant the MVP. Add in his 2,323 scrimmage yards and he was a shoo-in for the award — even though he didn’t get the elusive unanimous MVP nod.

Adrian Peterson, Vikings, 2012

Carries Rushing yards Rushing TDs Receptions Receiving yards Receiving TDs
348 2,097 12 40 217 1

Peterson had, by far, the fewest touchdowns of any running back to win the MVP in the last 25 years, but he still certainly deserved his MVP nod. Why? Because he came within eight yards of breaking Eric Dickerson’s rushing yardage record.

Peterson came up just short, but he still produced the second-highest rushing yardage total in NFL history. That number of 2,097 still stands in second place nearly a decade later, though Derrick Henry has threatened it before.

The most impressive thing about Peterson’s elite season? He did it all after tearing both his ACL and MCL the previous December. There were questions about whether he’d be ready for the start of the season. Players simply didn’t make that kind of quick recovery from ACL injuries in 2012. 

Peterson was even listed as questionable in Week 1. He played and suited up for all 16 games during his historic season. That story, as much as his stats, allowed him to win the MVP award.

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How Jonathan Taylor’s 2021 stats compare to recent RB MVPs

Taylor has posted strong numbers so far in 2021 with three games left to go. If he continues at his current pace, this is what his final stat line would look like over a 17-game season (rounded to the nearest whole number).

Carries Rushing yards Rushing TDs Receptions Receiving yards Receiving TDs
328 1,843 20 44 408 3

Those numbers compare pretty favorably to the five most recent running back MVPs. Taylor is projected to come up with about 50 more scrimmage yards than the average running back MVP and just one fewer touchdown.

Stat MVP average Jonathan Taylor 2021 projections
Scrimmage yards 2,202 2,251
Total TDs 24 23

Of course, these numbers are merely estimates on Taylor’s end. He will still have to generate 132.3 scrimmage yards and 1.3 touchdowns per game over his last three contests to meet them. If he comes up short, it will be a bit tougher for him to make an MVP case.

Also, the Colts will probably have to lock up a playoff spot for Taylor to win the award. The Colts are currently 8-6 and are well-positioned in the AFC Wild Card race, but if they suffer a late-season collapse, it’s hard to imagine that Taylor would win the award. The NFL has only given the MVP to a non-playoff participant twice: Johnny Unitas in 1967 and O.J. Simpson in 1973.

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Why didn’t Derrick Henry win MVP in 2020?

This is a fair question to ask. Why is Taylor getting MVP consideration this year while Henry was, largely, ignored in 2020? Henry didn’t receive a single MVP vote last year despite turning in a solid season. The votes went to Aaron Rodgers (44), Josh Allen (4) and Patrick Mahomes (2).

Henry certainly had a great year in 2020. He generated 2,027 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns, both of which led the NFL. That said, Henry didn’t do as much as a receiver, so he ended up with 2,141 scrimmage yards (which led the NFL) and the 17 touchdowns.

While those numbers are excellent for a running back, they didn’t quite reach the average marks set by previous MVPs. Perhaps had he gotten to 20 touchdowns — or if he had gotten closer to Dickerson’s record, of which he finished less than 100 yards shy — he would have drawn more consideration.

It also didn’t help Henry’s cause that Aaron Rodgers had an amazing year during a 2020 season that saw several quarterbacks play at an extremely high level. Rodgers accounted for 51 total touchdowns and led the Packers to the No. 1 seed in the NFC. That was enough to get him the nod.

Meanwhile, Taylor isn’t facing as much competition, as each MVP candidate at quarterback has had at least one blip on the radar. Rodgers’ came in Week 1 against the Saints while Tom Brady’s came in Week 15 against the Saints as well. If Taylor can perform consistently, he might be able to overtake those passers, something that Henry wasn’t able to do because of the consistently great performances of Rodgers, Allen and Mahomes last season.