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With just three weeks remaining in the regular season, no one is running away with the NFL's MVP award. Instead, a handful of the usual suspects—comeback kings Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson; mad bombers Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady—are divvying up the buzz. The refrain from football's punditocracy: The MVP race is wide open.
Try telling that to a particular trio of second-year players who've performed at an extraterrestrial level in 2012 but won't even get a sniff of the award. Indeed, the argument could be made that San Francisco's Aldon Smith, Denver's Von Miller and Houston's J.J. Watt all lost the MVP vote before this season had even begun, for the simple reason that they line up on the wrong side of the ball. In the 58-year history of the award, voters—a nationwide panel of NFL media—have bestowed the honor on a defensive player just twice: the Giants' Lawrence Taylor in 1986, when he redefined the outside linebacker position; and before him, Vikings tackle Alan Page, in '71. Consider that a placekicker, Mark Moseley of the Redskins, got the award in '82, which is once more than Butkus, Nitschke, Lambert, Singletary, Lott and the lot.
Among the football clichés in which writers (including this one) traffic is the terse axiom that "Defense wins championships," football's analog to golf's "Drive for show, putt for dough." Of course, that only became a cliché because there's truth to it. It's no coincidence that the 49ers, Broncos and Texans, top five teams in everybody's power rankings, also rank among the league's best in scoring defense and total defense.
With 19½ sacks this season, Smith, an outside linebacker, is three shy of Michael Strahan's NFL single-season record, with three games left to play. Smith is the most talented defensive player on a team whose identity is largely wrapped up in its defense.
Miller, an outside linebacker, is arguably the more complete player, with 16 sacks, six forced fumbles and 57 tackles for the Broncos. He's the single biggest reason Denver's D has been transformed from embarrassing in 2010 into elite in '12.
And then there's Watt. Going into Houston's Monday nighter, the man dubbed J.J. Swatt had 16½ sacks, 60 tackles and a jaw-dropping 15 passes batted down—tied for eighth in the league in passes defensed, unheard of for a defensive end.
With apologies to Messrs. Manning, Rodgers and Brady, the production of these three NFL sophomores has been no less spectacular than that of any passer in recent memory. Yet because of groupthink and a poverty of imagination, the award is all but assured of going to one of those familiar names. While voters purport to recognize the value of defense, they prefer to think of the MVP as the MVQB (quarterbacks have won the league's highest honor 37 times, and 10 of the last 12), or MVRB (running backs: 17 total). Plus, the contributions of defensive players are often intangible. You say Justin Smith of the 49ers collapses the pocket from the inside and creates sacks for teammates? Well, how do I quantify that? It's much easier to tote up touchdown passes and rushing yards.
Sadly, this is not just the NFL's problem. This lazy, narrow thinking is endemic to sports in general. Last Saturday, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman. I was as dazzled as anyone by Johnny Football's thrilling, kinetic play and his heroism in knocking off No. 1 Alabama. But the news out of New York City should have been different: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o deserved to be the first purely defensive player to win the Heisman in the award's 78-year history. With 103 tackles, seven interceptions and 11 passes defensed, he was the heartbeat of the nation's only undefeated team. But that wasn't enough for a Heisman electorate addicted to offensive stats.
Angels fans can confirm that this bias goes beyond football. Check out the voting for last season's AL MVP. Yes, Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, but he was a defensive liability at third base for the Tigers and arguably the third-most valuable player on his own team. Meanwhile, the Angels' Mike Trout led the majors in steals (49 bases) and scoring (129 runs), and played a sensational centerfield. Yet there was never really any doubt that Cabrera, the less complete player, would take the hardware.
Defense might win championships, but it is given short shrift when it comes time to hand out important awards. That says something unflattering about what we value, and why. Defensive players are right to find it, well, offensive.