The 2020 NFL season involved a few dominant individual performances. Aaron Rodgers took home this year’s MVP award, so players like Patrick Mahomes and Derrick Henry will join the league’s collection of near-misses. Here is who this year’s “others receiving votes” contingent will join among the best NFL seasons of the MVP era (1957-present) that did not result in a trophy.
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30. Roger Craig, 1985
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Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey have joined Craig in the 1,000-1,000 club, but both did so in increasingly friendlier offensive eras. With Jerry Rice not making an immediate impression as a rookie, the 49ers leaned on their third-year fullback. Bill Walsh made Craig a rarely seen chess piece, and the former Nebraska hurdler delivered. Craig rushed for 1,050 yards but caught an NFL-most 92 passes to gain 1,016 through the air. He added a career-high 15 touchdowns. Marcus Allen earned MVP acclaim in this season, which is better known for the Bears and Ronnie Lott’s pinkie. But Craig’s versatility opus still stands out.
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With Peyton Manning throwing him passes, Harrison never had a reasonable MVP path. But his age-30 season came closest. Although Harrison did not receive a vote, he was far and away the NFL’s best wideout that year and moved the position into new statistical terrain. Harrison set the NFL’s single-season receptions record in Week 15, and immediately threw the ball back to officials upon doing so, and shattered Herman Moore’s mark with 143 by year’s end. Hines Ward was a distant second with 112. Harrison’s 1,722 yards led the field by nearly 400 as well. This set the table for Manning’s run of MVPs.
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While a “feat. Randy Moss” credit is necessary, Cunningham proved he could thrive as a pocket passer. The unretired quarterback experienced frequent criticism as a passer in Philadelphia, but at 35, he took advantage of the best weaponry array of his career. Terrell Davis’ 2,000-yard season clinched MVP honors, but Cunningham threw for 3,704 yards in 34 touchdown passes in 14 starts. The Vikings had gone 9-7 in 1997; with Cunningham (and Moss) in ’98: 15-1. Behind Cunningham, Minnesota broke a 15-year-old scoring record with 556 points.
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This was not a good year to wage an MVP campaign, with Patrick Mahomes setting the league ablaze. But Donald coasted to Defensive Player of the Year acclaim, soaring to a 20.5-sack season. The Rams defensive tackle flourished under Wade Phillips, helping them to Super Bowl LIII. While their defense was not statistically great, Donald helped compensate — most notably in Los Angeles’ epic Monday-night win over Kansas City, when Donald stripped Mahomes twice. Donald seized the “best defender alive” belt during J.J. Watt‘s previous injury hiatus and has not given it back.
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From 1990-97, either Smith or Barry Sanders won the rushing title. Behind another dominant offensive line, Smith took his turn in 1995 and led Dallas to its third Super Bowl title in four years. Smith broke John Riggins‘ 12-year-old record with 25 rushing touchdowns — 10 more than anyone else in 1995 — and led the league with 1,773 rushing yards. Four of Smith’s five O-linemen made the Pro Bowl, with Hall of Fame guard Larry Allen — not present on the previous two Cowboy Super Bowl teams — debuting as a full-time starter in ’95. Brett Favre‘s first MVP season edged out Smith.
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25. Rob Gronkowski, 2011
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Gronkowski began his long run as the NFL’s best tight end in his sophomore campaign. Despite being a second-round pick with an injury past, Gronk set the tight end receiving record (1,327 yards). That has been broken, but the ex-Patriot icon’s 17 touchdown catches remain the tight end standard. Gronkowski’s emergence helped the worst of Bill Belichick’s Patriots defenses (31st in yards) to Super Bowl XLVI and opened the door to another set of Tom Brady Super Bowl appearances (four pre-Gronk, six post). Brady finished with a career-high 5,325 yards in 2011. No tight end dominated more than Gronk during his Pats years.
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24. Deacon Jones, 1967
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Although sacks were not official until 1982, pass rushers had field days dropping QBs in anonymity. Defenders could mug receivers, and O-linemen were heavily restricted in how they could block until the late 1970s. Jones also had his since-banned head-slap maneuver. That said, Jones was an all-time menace in his heyday. Accounts vary on his masterpiece season, but the Rams defensive end recorded between 21.5 and 26 sacks during a year in which Los Angeles went 11-1-2 to lead the NFL. This was Jones at his peak, at age 29, he teamed with fellow Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen to power a talented Rams team.
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23. Jim Brown, 1959
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This list could devolve into “Best non-MVP Jim Brown seasons.” The Cleveland phenom was in the heart of an unparalleled prime in his third season. The result: a runaway rushing title. Only two running backs eclipsed 900 rushing yards in 1959. Brown came in at 1,329 — 293 ahead of second-place J.D. Smith of the 49ers — in the 12-game season. Cleveland had two Hall of Famers in its backfield that year, in Brown and Bobby Mitchell. They combined for over 2,000 yards. The 1957 and ’58 MVP, Brown scored 14 touchdowns but lost out to Johnny Unitas for the award.
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22. Jamal Lewis, 2003
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No. 3 on the all-time single-season rushing list, Lewis lost out on MVP acclaim when Peyton Manning and Steve McNair shared it. Lewis bizarrely ranked fourth, behind Brady as well, after carrying Baltimore’s offense to a 10-6 record and an AFC North title. The Ravens used a first-round pick on Kyle Boller and used him and journeyman Anthony Wright in Lewis’ fourth year. The Ravens ranked 32nd in passing yards but turned to their hardnosed back, who broke the single-game rushing record in Week 2 (295 yards) and finished with 2,066 to go with 14 TDs. This was Lewis’ only Pro Bowl or All-Pro season.
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Voyaging to back-to-back Super Bowl routs, the Cowboys were 3-0 against the 49ers from 1992-93. Each win came by double digits. With Sanders as a one-year hired gun, San Francisco beat Dallas twice en route to a Super Bowl blowout. The era’s premier cover man changed the course of modern NFL history, joining Steve Young and Co. in stopping a Cowboys three-peat. Despite signing in September and missing two games, Sanders intercepted six passes and took three back for TDs. The ex-Falcon and future Cowboy totaled 303 return yards and dueled with No. 1 wideouts, helping the 49ers go from 16th to sixth in scoring defense.
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20. Ray Lewis, 2000
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Statistically, Lewis’ 2003 Defensive Player of the Year campaign was better. But the Ravens middle linebacker made a defining team defensive season possible. Wearing bigger shoulder pads and sporting a bulkier physique due to the era, Lewis was still a sideline-to-sideline demon who led Baltimore to a 12-4 record. Lewis’ 137 tackles (14 for loss) and two INTs were not career-highs, but the Ravens held the opposition to 10.3 points per game — the lowest in the 16-game era’s 43 years — and won two games in which its offense failed to score a touchdown. The Super Bowl champs do not hit these heights without their 25-year-old leader.
Johnson did not receive an MVP vote, with Adrian Peterson edging Peyton Manning during a season that featured a 4-12 Lions team, but he left no doubt as to the NFL’s wideout of the moment. Megatron broke Jerry Rice’s 17-year-old record with a 1,964-yard season. Only one receiver, Andre Johnson, came within 400 yards of the 6-foot-5 marvel in 2012. While today’s wideouts have easier paths to production, and the Lions phenom only scored five TDs, Megatron dropped both of his 200-yard games on playoff opposition and broke Rice’s record in an 11-catch, 225-yard Week 16 day against a Falcons team on its way to the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
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18. Randall Cunningham, 1990
Cunningham ran into perhaps the toughest MVP luck of anyone, finishing second in the AP balloting four times. Joe Montana won in 1990, but Cunningham received 18 votes (to the 49ers QB’s 26) and had a clear case. The Eagles QB dropped an ahead-of-its-time 3,466-942 passing-rushing double that featured 30 TD passes and five more rushing scores. Cunningham’s 30 touchdown passes — highlighted by this one — ranked second to Warren Moon, and in a season in which the Eagles defense ranked only 12th, their quarterback powered the team to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth out of an all-time great division.
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Reed’s “best safety ever” claim began in his third season. The Ravens were still trying Kyle Boller at quarterback and ranked 31st in total offense. They still went 9-7, behind the league’s No. 6-ranked defense. Reed was at the epicenter of this effort, intercepting nine passes and returning them for a then-record 358 yards. Reed thwarted a Browns game-tying touchdown attempt with a 106-yard pick-six; he broke this NFL record four years later. Overall in 2004, the ex-Miami Hurricane totaled 12 forced turnovers for 402 yards and two TDs. It is hard for a modern safety to be more productive.
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16. Barry Sanders, 1994
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The Lions went from starting three QBs in 1993 to turning to Scott Mitchell and a 36-year-old Dave Krieg in 1994. Fortunately, they had the era’s best running back. Sanders broke through to power the Lions back to the playoffs, rushing for 1,883 yards on 5.7 per carry. Detroit ranked 24th in passing yards in a 28-team league. Sanders’ masterpiece came in Week 3 when the Lions beat the defending champion Cowboys after their running back’s 40-carry, 194-yard night. This was the second of Sanders’ four rushing titles; he led the league by more than 300 yards.
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15. J.J. Watt, 2014
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This Watt version became the only defender to receive more than one MVP vote since James Harrison in 2008. Watt garnered 13 — the most any defensive player has since Lawrence Taylor won the award in 1986. Watt recorded 20.5 sacks, a career-high 51 QB hits and 29 tackles for loss (tied, with 2015 Watt, for second in the TFL era). His MVP push centered on touchdowns. The fourth-year Texan scored five — on a pick-six, a fumble-six and, in a one-year-only role, three as a tight end. Illustrating defenders’ MVP futility, this perfect storm could not top Aaron Rodgers’ third-best season.
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14. Jerry Rice, 1995
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In a year that featured passing numbers balloon leaguewide, the 49ers played five games without Steve Young. At 33, Rice confirmed his prime was not finished. In the middle of an unapproached span of 10 first-team All-Pro nods in 11 years, Rice broke the single-season receiving record with 1,848 yards. In the five-game stretch with second-year backup Elvis Grbac, Rice posted four 100-yard games — including a 161-yard performance in a 49ers upset win in Dallas. The all-time receiving kingpin punctuated his season with a 289-yard showing on a December Monday night against the Vikings.
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13. Lester Hayes, 1980
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In the third year of the NFL’s shift toward a pass-focused product, Hayes dropped a throwback season that made a major difference in a Super Bowl push. During eight of his 10 seasons, the Raiders cornerback did not surpass four interceptions. “The Judge” snared 13 INTs in his fourth season and posted 273 return yards. Hayes had four more called back due to penalty and later managed five playoff picks. Yes, the since-banned Stickum was heavily involved. But Hayes did not stack these picks against bad QBs; he intercepted a pass in 12 games. In the 40 seasons since, only one player — the Cowboys’ Everson Walls — has even reached 11 INTs.
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Venturing into Sanders territory and doing so in a pass-crazed era, Johnson set the NFL record for scrimmage yards with 2,509 in his second season. “CK2K” spawned because of this season, and although the Titans’ 8-8 record (after an 0-6 start) kept Johnson off the MVP radar, it remains an all-time great slate in rushing annals. After being held under 100 yards in four of his first five games, Johnson finished with 11 straight three-digit outings. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry and accomplished all this against teams geared toward stopping him and not Vince Young.
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11. Charley Hennigan, 1961
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So obscure that photos have proven elusive, Hennigan was the 1961 AFL champion Oilers’ top yard-gainer. But the wide receiver’s total resided in another stratosphere compared to peers. In a 14-game season, Hennigan posted 1,746 yards. Even in what became a pass-friendly AFL, that total bested all other receivers by nearly 600. The 6-foot-1 ex-high school biology teacher’s 82 catches did not lead the league, and Bill Groman’s 17 TD grabs paced the Oilers. Hennigan, however, averaged 21.3 yards per catch and had three 200-yard games in teaming with George Blanda. Hennigan’s single-season record stood for 34 years.
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10. J.J. Watt, 2012
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Watt is far from the best player on this list, but it is impossible to exclude his second season. The Texans defensive end delivered one of modern sports’ signature breakouts, running up a mind-boggling combination of numbers. Watt’s 20.5 sacks led the league, but his peripheral stats are more impressive. The interior pass rusher recorded 39 tackles for loss. For perspective, no one else since TFLs became charted (in 1999) has surpassed 30. No non-Watt season has ever topped 28. The 23-year-old sensation also forced four fumbles and tallied 16 passes defensed — seven more than any other D-lineman that year — in the Texans’ 12-4 season.
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9. Earl Campbell, 1980
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Winding down their “Luv Ya Blue” run, the Oilers traded Dan Pastorini for Ken Stabler in 1980. The future Hall of Famer threw 13 TD passes and 28 INTs. The Oilers still went 11-5 and won the AFC Central for the first time. This happened because Campbell was unstoppable in his third season. Browns QB Brian Sipe won MVP honors, but this was Campbell’s defining season. He amassed career highs in rushing yards (1,934) and yards per carry (5.2) and dominated despite presenting nary a receiving threat (47 yards). Campbell’s career steadily declined after this, but his ’80 season is a time-capsule rushing year.
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The heart of Brees’ Saints dominance saw Dan Marino‘s 27-year-old single-season yardage record fall and the New Orleans QB lead the NFL in touchdown passes (46) and completion percentage (a then-record 71.2 figure). But Aaron Rodgers garnered 48 of the 50 MVP votes while leading a 15-1 Packers team. Helping Jimmy Graham become an all-time fantasy sleeper, Brees threw for 5,476 yards to lead a 13-3 Saints team. The future career pass yardage kingpin threw at least one touchdown pass in every game, on his way to breaking Johnny Unitas’ record for consecutive games with a TD toss in 2012. That currently stands at 54.
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7. Randy Moss, 2007
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The season that lifted Tom Brady onto the elite quarterback tier can be traced to the Patriots swindling the Raiders for Moss . Bill Belichick giving up a fourth-round pick for the 30-year-old superstar transformed the Patriots, and though Brady was the unanimous MVP, Moss kind of deserved co-MVP acclaim. Moss caught 98 passes for 1,493 yards and an NFL-record 23 touchdowns. Just as he catalyzed the 1998 Vikings, Moss lifted the Pats to the NFL’s lone 16-0 season. Brady’s TD number ballooned from 24 in a non-Pro Bowl 2006 season to 50. That record has fallen; no one has approached Moss’ TD standard.
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6. Jerry Rice, 1987
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Fantasy players in the discipline’s infancy cleaned up if they drafted Rice in his third season. It is both a dominant display indicative of the wideout deity’s future while simultaneously a tantalizing “what if?” year. Due to a players’ strike, Rice played 12 games. He caught 22 touchdown passes. Only one other player topped eight that year. Rice also added a rushing score, and his 1,078 yards would have led the league had Cardinals wideout J.T. Smith not crossed the picket line. The 49ers went 13-2, and Rice and Joe Montana split MVP votes in a year when John Elway won. It took Moss all 16 games to break Rice’s record.
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5. Marshall Faulk, 1999
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In a three-year stretch when the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” claimed three MVP awards, Faulk scored 26 touchdowns to win the award in 2000. His Rams debut may have been better. Acquired from the Colts that spring, Faulk became the second player in NFL history to go 1,000-1,000. Kurt Warner won the 1999 MVP, but Faulk was the biggest difference between a bad 1998 Rams team and its Super Bowl champion outfit. The explosive back reached 2,429 scrimmage yards — still second-most all time — and averaged 5.5 per carry in his age-26 season, one that drove St. Louis to a championship.
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4. Reggie White, 1987
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In addition to Rice’s unfathomable TD edge on his peers, 1987 featured a fellow all-time great lap his contemporaries in sacks. Like Rice, White played 12 games because of the strike. He registered a career-high 21 sacks — 8.5 more than anyone else. While the historically gifted power rusher was a star from the jump after two USFL seasons, White’s monster third NFL slate did not come from big games. He notched a sack in 11 games and got to 21 without a four-sack showing. White’s consistency would remain until the late 1990s. The record Michael Strahan owns would be buried had the NFL’s regulars played 16 games in 1987.
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3. Eric Dickerson, 1984
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During their lengthy period without a reliable quarterback, the Rams landed an offensive centerpiece in the 1983 first round. A year later, Dickerson set the NFL rushing record. After totaling 390 carries as a rookie, Dickerson logged 379 and turned those into 2,105 yards — a number that has topped info graphics for a generation. He rushed for 14 TDs, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, and was so effective the Rams barely threw to him (139 yards). The Rams made the playoffs with career backup Jeff Kemp as their primary starting quarterback, ranking 27th in passing and winning 10 games. Dan Marino cruised to MVP honors in ’84.
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2. O.J. Simpson, 1975
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Simpson’s prime goes understandably overlooked now, but in addition to his 1973 2,000-yard MVP season, the Bills running back was perhaps even better two years later. At 28, Simpson led the NFL in rushing for the third time in four years. He got to 1,817 yards on 5.5 per carry but far exceeded his ’73 work in other areas. After a 12-TD 1973, Simpson scored 23 times in ’75 and eclipsed his scrimmage-yards total as well by reaching 2,243 — easily the best mark in the NFL’s 14-game era. Buffalo went 8-6 and missed the playoffs, further obscuring this transcendent season.
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1. Jim Brown, 1963
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Y.A. Tittle’s 36 touchdown passes earned him MVP honors; the Giants finished 11-3 to the Browns’ 10-4. But there is no satisfactory explanation for the most dominant player in NFL history’s best season receiving seven votes to Tittle’s 33. Brown’s 1,863 rushing yards broke his own NFL record by 336. He averaged 6.4 per carry and a career-best 133 per game and totaled 15 TDs. A better illustration of the gap between Cleveland’s fullback terminator and the other men paid to take handoffs: Jim Taylor — the 1962 MVP — ranked second with 1,018 yards. Respected as he is, Brown is underrated. His three MVPs are not enough.