The case for James Harrison as NFL MVP
By Donald Starver
Sports writers are hypocrites. They are quick to spout trite phrases like “defense wins championships”, yet when they are called upon to show what they really believe, their actions prove that they believe that offense wins championships.
Each year, the Associated Press selects the NFL MVP. And each year they go through their annual ritual of proving that they only value offense.
Since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970 there have been 40 NFL MVP’s. Of those, 25 have been quarterbacks and 12 have been running backs. That’s 92.5% for those of you who like statistics. The only anomalies from this rule were linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986, kicker Mark Moseley during the strike shortened 1982 season, and DT Alan Page in 1971.
Two defensive MVP’s since the merger. Pathetic! So much for “defense wins championships”.
Of the NFL’s 5 top ranked offenses, 4 of them will be watching the playoffs from their living rooms. Prolific passer Drew Brees and the #1 ranked New Orleans Saints offense had an amazing season. Too bad their season’s over. Same for the Denver Broncos, the NFL’s #2 offense. The Houston Texans had the 3rd best offense in the NFL this season. They’re also vacationing now. So how important is offense if it can’t even carry a team into the playoffs?
Contrarily, 4 of the top 5 defenses in the NFL will make playoff appearances. The lone holdout was the Washington Redskins, and if they played in any division other than the brutal NFC East, they too would probably have made the playoffs. Despite these obvious arguments for the importance of defense, look for Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson, Kurt Warner, and Philip Rivers to garner most of the MVP votes. Idiotic, if you ask me.
In January of 2001, when the Baltimore Ravens where enjoying a parade following the first Super Bowl championship in team history, was there anyone in the known universe who didn’t agree that Ray Lewis was the MVP? I’m not talking about the Super Bowl MVP. I don’t mean the Defensive Player of the Year. Nope, Ray Lewis was the friggin’ NFL MVP. For the Ravens, defense DID win a championship, and Ray Lewis was the engine that drove that defense. Some quarterback or running back may be babysitting his MVP trophy, but we all know it belongs to Ray.
This year, we have the potential for a similar injustice. The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the playoffs with the league’s #1 ranked defense. They allow the fewest points per game. They allow the fewest yards per game. They are #1 against the pass, and #2 against the run. They were #1 against the run as recently as week 14, but were surpassed by the Minnesota Vikings’ defense late in the season. Suffice it to say that the Steelers’ defense is pretty good.
The best player on that defense is James Harrison. Harrison was voted team MVP for the second year in a row. He will also make his second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance since becoming a starter last year. The Steelers have a $100 million quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, but James Harrison is the team’s two-time MVP. Think about that for a moment.
On a team with a tradition for great defenses, James Harrison broke the Steelers’ all-time record for sacks in a season. Neither Joe Greene, nor Jack Lambert, nor Greg Lloyd, nor Kevin Greene, nor Jack Ham, nor Joey Porter, nor Jason Gildon, nor L.C. Greenwood, nor any other Steeler has ever harrassed opposing quarterbacks like James Harrison did this year. When you think about all of the Hall-of-Famers who have played for the Steelers, that’s pretty amazing.
Sure, there are other defensive players who deserve attention. DeMarcus Ware and former Steeler Joey Porter both had more sacks than Harrison. But in many ways, they’re both one trick ponies. Ravens’ safety Ed Reed and Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu also had fantastic seasons. But they didn’t fill stat sheets like Harrison. Same with Tennessee’s Albert Haynesworth. He had a great year. Just not as great as Harrison’s.
Harrison’s off-field demeanor is so quiet and understated that it’s easy too overlook his accomplishments. No defensive player filled stat sheets quite the way Harrison did. Harrison ended the season ranked #4 in sacks. However, unlike the 3 players who were ahead of him, Harrison is asked to do far more than sack the quarterback. Harrison had 17 more tackles than sack leader DeMarcus Ware, 54 more than Joey Porter, and 63 more than John Abraham.
Anyone who has ever watched James Harrison play has probably noticed that he isn’t satisfied with simply sacking a quarterback. When Harrison sacks a quarterback, he seems to think that forcing a fumble is also a requirement. He led the league with 7 forced fumbles.
Harrison was tied for second in the NFL in forced safeties. How many did Albert Haynesworth force? zero. How about DeMarcus Ware? Zero. Joey Porter? Zero.
If you look at the league leaders in total tackles, you notice that this statistic is traditionally dominated by inside/middle linebackers and safeties, the guys who roam the middle of the field. If we eliminate the inside/middle linebackers and safeties, and look at tackles by players at all other positions, James Harrison is 9th in the NFL. Even when you add the inside/middle linebackers and safeties back into the statistics, Harrison is still 25th in the league. Not bad for a guy who is only responsible for one side of the field, and who has to take on the opponent’s toughest offensive lineman (the left tackle) on every single play.
James Harrison is tied for 7th in the NFL in interceptions. He has the same number as defensive backs Champ Bailey, Brian Dawkins, Jonathan Joseph, and Lawyer Milloy.
Harrison even has 4 passes defensed. That may not sound like a lot, but for an outside linebacker, that it tremendous. DeMarcus Ware has none. Joey Porter has none. See my point?
There is no doubt that Peyton Manning has had a great season. And this Friday, I expect to hear his name called as this year’s NFL MVP. But the reality is that Peyton Manning has not had as good a season as James Harrison. In order to match what Harrison has done on defense, Manning would have to be among the league leaders in passing yards, rushing yards, punt return yards, kick return yards, and field goals. That may sound like a ridiculous statement, but when you look at how broadly James Harrison has filled the defensive stat sheets, you quickly realize that it is an appropriate analogy.
Peyton Manning will probably receive his third NFL MVP Award this Friday. However, those who truly understand football will know that he is merely babysitting James Harrison’s award, just like Marshall Faulk is babysitting Ray Lewis’.
If sportswriters had any courage, they would use their vote to correct this injustice. But they don’t. So they won’t. Congratulations Peyton.