When votes are counted for NFL’s Most Valuable Player for 2020, it will come down to Aaron Rodgers of the 13-3 Green Bay Packers, Patrick Mahomes of the 14-2 Kansas City Chiefs, and maybe Josh Allen of the 13-3 Buffalo Bills.
But except for the NFL history books, where does it say that the MVP has to play for a winning team? Because nobody was more indispensable to his team in 2020 than Deshaun Watson of our disappointing and frustrating, though strangely AFC South defending champs, Houston Texans, who finished their season Sunday, January 3 with a disastrous 4-12 mark.
An MVP from a 4-12 team? Hey, things can always get worse, Without Watson, it’s possibly, probably likely, the Texans would have been 0-16 in 2020.
This is a team that stumbled and bumbled, firing its coach and general manager and popular media director, promoted a shifty butt smoocher to executive vice-president, lost games on last-minute goal line fumbles, had its all-time star player publicly accuse his teammates of quitting, had a game delayed by lightning (surely a sign from above), lost its best receiver in a trade that made the Great Train Robbery look like an ATM withdrawal, and barely managed a running game or offensive line.
Still, Watson was nothing short of breathtaking.
The young quarterback passed for 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. He completed 70 percent of his throws to butterfinger receivers. His quarterback rating is the stuff of Canton. He was the undisputed, durable team leader, playing all 16 games, often hobbling to the final gun.
It’s not easy to be spectacular and steady at the same time, but that was Watson in 2020, even when teammates, though by black magic, pulled defeat from the jaws of certain victory.
He wasn’t just the face of the Houston Texans this year, he was their entire body of work.
Would the Texans have been more successful with Rodgers or Mahomes at quarterback? Hard to say. But just once wouldn’t you love to watch Watson armed with the Packers and Chiefs’ array of speed burner All-Pro receivers?
Forget the Texans’ dismal record, the player who meant most to his team in 2020 was Deshaun Watson. “Meant most” … isn’t that the same as most valuable? By every earthly standard, except those pesky ol’ wins and losses, Watson was the NFL’s most outstanding player in 2020, a thrill-a-minute, one-man, 3-ring circus.
But like Bruce Hornsby said, it’s just the way it is: No NFL MVP has ever come from a team with a losing record. So count Watson out.
Two times, the league’s Defensive Player of Year came from losing teams: Dick Butkus from the 1-13 Chicago Bears in1969, and Cortez Kennedy from the 2-14 Seattle Seahawks in 1992. How great was Butkus? He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for both the 1960s and 1970.
Here’s one that would never happen today. In 1961, Paul Hornung won the Heisman Trophy despite his Notre Dame Fightin’ Irish finishing 2-8. Of course, Hornung led the Irish in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff returns, punt returns and punting that year. Presumably there were 10 other players on the field that year for Notre Dame. Hornung was named NFL league MVP a few years later for the Packers.
Only twice in NBA history has the MVP played for a losing team. They were Bob Pettit for the 33-39 St. Louis Hawks in 1955-56, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the 40-42 L.A. Lakers in 1975-76.
Baseball has been more open to recognizing greatness in the agony of defeat. Four players have won the MVP while toiling for losing teams: Ernie Banks with the Cubs,, Cal Ripken for the Orioles, Mike Trout for the Angels and Andre Dawson with the Cubs. Trout did it most recently in 2016. Banks did it twice, back-to-back in 1958-59. Dawson was the only one in history to be named MVP while playing for a cellar-dweller, the 1987 Cubs.