Numerous Hall of Famers did not earn MVP acclaim. A few stars finished with repeated regular-season silver medals for their best work. Here is a list of the best players to miss out on MVP awards since the NFL began handing them out in 1957.
While Cunningham is not a Hall of Famer, it should not be overlooked the dual-threat phenom finished second in MVP voting a record-tying four times. In 1988, '90, '92 and '98, Cunningham lost out to Boomer Esiason, Joe Montana, Steve Young and Terrell Davis, respectively. Cunningham broke out in 1988, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards. In 1990, the Eagles QB nearly dropped a 3,500/900 yardage double, far outflanking Montana statistically. By 1998, an unretired Cunningham used his arm (and Randy Moss) to help the Vikings set the single-season scoring record. These MVP near-misses add a layer to the current high jump dad's legacy.
The quarterback driving a revolutionary passing offense, Fouts led the NFL in passing from 1979-82 and had strong MVP cases in multiple seasons. Air Coryell's pilot led the NFL by a staggering 890 passing yards in 1981 but lost out on the MVP to Bengals QB Ken Anderson. That was a defensible outcome, but in 1982, voters lost their minds and gave the MVP to Washington kicker Mark Moseley. Moseley's 35 votes edged Fouts by two, and the Chargers did not return to the playoffs in the Hall of Famer's final five seasons. While he benefited from Don Coryell's system, Fouts deserved at least one MVP for his role in a defining NFL offense.
Wilson famously trails teammate Bobby Wagner in MVP votes (1-0) but has never had a strong case. That may well change in 2020, with the Seahawks finally unleashing their quarterback. Wilson has cleared 30 touchdown passes in four of the past five seasons and led the NFL with 34 TD tosses in 2017, when Tom Brady won -- after injuries to Carson Wentz and Antonio Brown cleared a path -- in the lone season the Seattle QB has missed the playoffs in his career. Wilson has grown from Legion of Boom/ Marshawn Lynch copilot to a premier NFL passer who is a Hall of Fame lock. This season looks like his best chance to date to win the award.
Like Fouts, Moon padded his stats in a pass-crazed system. Unlike Fouts, Moon was a high-end passer in other systems -- when he made Pro Bowls with the Vikings and Seahawks. Moon led the Oilers to seven straight playoff berths and was the premier run and shoot NFL quarterback, leading the league in passing in 1990 and '91. Moon's 16 MVP votes lost out to Joe Montana (26) and Randall Cunningham (18) in '90; he received votes in 1993 upon helping the Oilers to an 11-game win streak. Moon made nine Pro Bowls and was a high-octane passer, surpassing 3,000 yards at age 41, longer than anyone in his era.
Johnny Unitas' stature almost makes Moore ineligible here, as Raymond Berry is, but the historic versatility Moore displayed allowed for standalone value. Moore scored 113 touchdowns -- which was a top-five total 25 years after he retired -- in 12 seasons, and his 26 50-plus-yard TDs are the most ever for a running back. Well ahead of his time, Moore lined up in the backfield and at wideout for the Colts throughout his career. He submitted dazzling highlights during his prime, and after a 1963 knee injury (a considerably higher hurdle than it is today), Moore dropped a 20-TD season in 1964 en route to a third-place MVP finish.
Brown offered the superior peak; his 2011-18 run as a Steelers starter resulted in Roethlisberger's stats spiking. Big Ben has, however, been a franchise QB since the mid-2000s and ventured to six Pro Bowls -- including four from 2014-17 when the Steelers morphed into an offense-powered contender. A four-time first-team All-Pro, Brown was on pace to make a strong case to be the first wideout to win the award in 2017 but went down with a Week 15 injury and missed the rest of the regular season. A two-time passing leader, Roethlisberger has never received an MVP vote but has been one of the game's best for many years.
Aikman has fallen to 39th on the career passing yardage list and 74th in career TD passes, and the Cowboys' offensive line certainly gave him an advantage. But fellow dynasty QBs Joe Montana and Tom Brady enjoyed superior amenities and are not docked for them. Aikman was not asked to be a gunslinger like era contemporaries Dan Marino or Brett Favre, but 1989's No. 1 overall pick guided the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles and displayed the accuracy necessary to (mostly) fend off loaded 49ers and Packers teams in January and to ensure those Dallas offenses represented the NFL's standard for many years.
It is debatable if Jones belongs, since his upper-middle-class QB (Matt Ryan) won an MVP award during the Canton-bound wideout's historically consistent stretch. But the Falcons' top gun has milked being an alpha receiver in the league's premier passing era, recording 9,388 yards from 2014-19 -- 1,500 more than anyone else in that span. Atlanta's do-everything receiver is a seven-time Pro Bowler and was the 2010s' most reliably great pass catcher. Had Cam Newton not submitted his monstrous outlier season in 2015, Jones had MVP numbers (1,871 receiving yards -- third-most ever) but lacked an MVP-caliber team.
While injuries intervened beginning in the Texan defensive end's sixth season, Watt's dominance should not be overlooked. The future Hall of Famer was unstoppable when healthy. The NFL's only player to record multiple 20-sack seasons -- despite being used often as an interior pass rusher -- Watt joins Lawrence Taylor as the lone three-time Defensive Players of the Year. And since the NFL has tracked tackles for loss (since 1999), Watt has the top three such seasons -- including an absurd 39 in 2012. With 20.5 sacks, two defensive TDs and three receiving scores in 2014, Watt had the best MVP case of any 21st-century defender.
Jerry Rice is the greatest postseason wide receiver ever, but Fitzgerald nearly carrying the 2008 Cardinals (20th in DVOA) to a title may be the best single playoffs by a wideout. His 546-yard, seven-TD playoffs are not discussed enough. Fitz delivered 1,000-yard seasons with Kevin Kolb and Derek Anderson at quarterback, and while QB play limited the 11-time Pro Bowler (second-most in wideout history) from crafting a lengthy statistical peak (one first-team All-Pro honor), he has thrived outside and in the slot, and as a blocker, and will retire with the second-most catches and receiving yards.
Never playing with an All-Pro quarterback, Owens was one of the great physical mismatches in NFL history. Although he has a strong grip on being his era's top diva, T.O. caught 153 touchdown passes -- third-most in NFL history -- and delivered more seasons with 12 TD catches than anyone but Jerry Rice. Owens' most dominant run came with the 49ers, but his 2004 Eagles season was his -- in a non-Peyton Manning world -- best MVP case. He elevated the Philadelphia offense a level and posted 1,200 receiving yards and 14 TDs in barely 13 games before breaking his leg. Owens was a first-team All-Pro with three teams.
Had Patrick Mahomes needed the seasoning most thought he did in 2018, the Rams' wall of muscle would have received MVP consideration. Donald posted 20.5 sacks in 2018, repeated as Defensive Player of the Year and was the best player for a team that earned the NFC's No. 2 seed. Donald can aim higher. Already a surefire Hall of Famer, Donald is the only post-merger defensive tackle to earn five first-team All-Pro honors through six seasons. Barring a major injury, the 29-year-old guard destroyer will be this generation's representative in the "best defender ever" debate.
This requires a bend to the "realistic MVP path" guideline. Gonzalez's best statistical years came for non-playoff Chiefs teams, and tight ends garner little MVP attention. But the position's statistical kingpin not only delivered in his prime; he played 17 seasons and was productive in Year 17, walking away after an 859-yard, eight-TD season. Gonzalez boosted a developing Matt Ryan in Atlanta and helped save the Falcons in a 2012 Round 2 win. In Kansas City, he drove some innovative attacks in the early 2000s. Gonzalez's 14 Pro Bowls are tied for the all-time record; no tight end is within 2,000 yards of him on the all-time list.
The 1984 season featured two of the greatest individual performances in NFL history, with Dickerson's still-standing rushing record dueling against Dan Marino's obliteration of multiple passing marks. Marino won a 52-18 vote, but Dickerson was also worthy in 1983 and '86. The goggled superstar cleared 1,800 rushing yards in each but lost out to Joe Theismann and Lawrence Taylor, respectively. Dickerson's five first-team All-Pros trail only Barry Sanders among running backs since the merger, and the Hall of Famer did well to maximize his opportunities in Los Angeles and (briefly) in Indianapolis.
The Bears finished first or second in total defense from 1984-88 and, despite their 1985 squad being arguably the most celebrated in NFL history, had enough ingredients to have won multiple Super Bowls -- had the team enjoyed more QB stability and not peaked in the premier NFC era. While Walter Payton was still elite in part of this era, Singletary's troops drove the Bears to their modern-era zenith. The fiery middle linebacker made 10 Pro Bowls and was a seven-time first-team All-Pro. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Singletary was the irreplaceable piece in the middle of one of the best defensive runs ever.
The youngest player enshrined in Canton, Sayers only played double-digit games in four NFL seasons. But he was a first-team All-Pro in each campaign, and the Bears legend added a fifth such honor in his 1968 nine-game slate. "The Kansas Comet" would have been an elite backfield talent in any era; his combination of speed and open-field elusiveness creates a must-watch YouTube catalog for younger NFL fans. Sayers scored a then-NFL-record 22 TDs as a rookie in 1965 and, more remarkably, he surmounted the first of his injuries -- a 1968 knee malady -- to win the 1969 rushing title. He received MVP votes from 1965-68.
Although Staubach saw Fran Tarkenton, Terry Bradshaw and Ken Stabler win MVP awards during his time as the Cowboys' starting quarterback, he was the defining 1970s passer. However, like Steve Young, Staubach's career carries a "what if?" component. The ex-Naval officer was only Dallas' full-time starter from 1973-79, leading the 1971 Cowboys to a title after a midseason promotion. He finished second to Purple People Eater Alan Page for MVP that year. Staubach did not get Dallas' QB1 keys until he was 29, but he was a remarkable 4-for-8 in quarterbacking the Cowboys to Super Bowls during his starter years.
Known more for his passing records, Brees has another, less discussed place in NFL history. The enduring Saints superstar has finished second for MVP acclaim four times -- in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2018. However, he was never particularly close in voting. This has dogged Brees, even as he lapped his peers in 5,000-yard seasons and completion percentage titles en route to holding the career passing yardage and touchdown marks. Voters left Brees off the All-Century team, likely because of his one Super Bowl appearance. But the 20th-year legend has meant more to one team than almost any player ever.
The NFL's sack kingpin played at a high level longer than just about anyone. He landed on eight All-Pro first teams, with Nos. 4-8 coming from his age-30 to age-34 seasons. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Smith anchored the Bills defense during the team's late-1980s AFC ascent and well beyond its early-'90s Super Bowl runs. Smith's 200 sacks are 40 more than anyone else not named Reggie White. The 1985 No. 1 overall pick registered 13 10-sack seasons, tormenting left tackles into the 2000s with supreme agility. Though Buffalo's offense featured three Hall of Famers, Smith was that dynasty's top talent.
One of the all-time great athletes to set foot on the gridiron, Sanders dazzled on defense and special teams -- while moonlighting as a wide receiver. The flashy speed demon scored 22 career TDs (three offense, nine defense, 10 special teams) and was one of sports' most effective hired guns. The ex-Falcon delivered MVP-caliber work for the 49ers in 1994, besting the NFL in INT return yards (303) and returned three of his six picks for TDs. Steve Young beat his teammate out, but "Primetime" was his era's defining cornerback and easily the most famous corner ever. His Cowboys agreement in 1995 swung the NFL arms race back to Dallas.
The total package at DB, Woodson was one of the NFL's best players for nearly 20 years. He excelled into his late 30s as a safety, starting for the 2000 Ravens' Mt. Rushmore defense and notching his sixth and final All-Pro season (eight INTs, 225 return yards, two TDs) to help the 2002 Raiders to the Super Bowl, and went stride for stride with Sanders as a corner. Woodson's 12 pick-sixes are the most ever, and he outflanks his top peer in tackling acumen (20 forced fumbles) and INTs (73-53). In 1995, Woodson tore his ACL in Week 1 but returned to play in Super Bowl XXX. Also a top-tier return man, Woodson has become a bit underrated.
It is quite something to be regarded as an all-time great with zero playoff snaps. The Bears went 1-13 in 1969, but Butkus garnered an MVP vote. The menacing middle linebacker played just nine seasons but landed on two All-Decade teams -- despite playing on a bad knee during the four 1970s seasons of his career. While he is known for the vicious hits that populate NFL Films archives, Butkus was regarded as a deft maneuverer to find the ball. Tackle stats are not available from this period, but Butkus forced 49 turnovers (22 INTs) and thrived despite the Bears lacking much talent around him.
Illustrating how little MVP respect defenders receive, Lewis received three votes. But the relentless inside linebacker enjoyed scant time with an upper-echelon quarterback, leading a Raven defense that was forced to prop up the likes of Tony Banks, Trent Dilfer, Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco. Lewis was great longer than almost any defender, earning his seventh first-team All-Pro honor in Year 14. Lewis anchored arguably the greatest single-season defense ever in 2000 and helped a Boller- and Anthony Wright-quarterbacked team to 10 wins in '03. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year was his team's centerpiece for over a decade.
Exemplifying the futile exercise in defenders earning MVP consideration, Reed never received a vote. He is the greatest playmaking safety in NFL history. Reed's 1,590 interception return yards lead the field by over 100, and three eight-plus-INT seasons appear on Reed's resume. The Raven icon/object of Bill Belichick affection broke his own record for longest INT return and in 2004 dropped a nine-INT, 358-yard, two-TD line. That came opposite Peyton Manning's first record-breaking season, but in 2008, Reed went 9/264/3 for a Ravens team that lifted rookie Joe Flacco to the AFC title game. Counting the playoffs, Reed posted 73 INTs and 14 total TDs.
Jones was wrecking right tackles' souls over a decade before the skill he mastered became officially recognized. Jones' "sack" term did not become a stat until 1982, well after his retirement, but the Rams' left defensive end unofficially is credited with 173.5. That would rank third all time. Ruthless user of his since-banned head-slap maneuver, Jones joined Merlin Olsen in anchoring the Rams' Fearsome Foursome defensive line. The Hall of Fame defensive end presented a uniquely terrifying blocking assignment and actually received MVP votes in 1967 and '69, finishing second in the latter season.
Tom Brady was 2007's unanimous MVP, but Moss' offseason arrival created that Patriots monster. And Moss' record -- 23 touchdown catches -- has not been approached since, despite rule changes igniting passing games. While his antics led to multiple trades, Moss is probably the greatest talent in wide receiver history. He has three 17-TD seasons -- with three QBs -- and played on two teams (the '98 Vikings and '07 Patriots) that broke the single-season scoring record. Moss' Raiders tenure dings him slightly, but he impacted playoff pictures in most of his 14 seasons and changed quarterbacks' careers.
The 49ers had two top-10 all-time players powering their dynasty on offense. Their defensive leader is not far off that level. The 49ers of the 1980s are known for offensive flash, but Lott led eight top-eight scoring defenses from 1981-90. Lott presented a historic combination of playmaking ability, ferociousness and maniacal dedication. He used this package to dominate the '80s. It is hard for a defensive back to get more from a career. Lott morphed from decorated cornerback (four Pro Bowls) to an all-time safety (six) to finish his career with six All-Pro honors, 63 INTs, four Super Bowl rings and 9 1/2 fingers.
A few Steel Curtain alums could make this list, but its representative is not up for debate. The first of the Steeler dynasty's Hall of Famers to arrive in Pittsburgh, "Mean Joe" was an unblockable defensive tackle who keyed those defenses' statistical dominance. The 1969 first-round pick's combination of strength and inside-rushing quickness places him on any defensive line Mt. Rushmore. A 10-time Pro Bowler, Greene won Defensive Player of the Year acclaim in 1972 and '74 -- well before sacks were official -- and helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls.
The "Minister of Defense" retired with the sack record (198). It took Bruce Smith 275 games (to White's 238) to break it. White did that despite spending his age-22 and age-23 seasons in the USFL; he played 31 games in 1985 (18 for the Memphis Showboats, 13 for the Eagles). The greatest D-line pass rusher ever, White made 13 Pro Bowls and paired freakish longevity with an astonishing peak (57 sacks from 1986-88). The Eagles' 7-8 record in 1987 prevented an MVP run; White recorded 21 sacks in the 12-game, strike-shortened season. The power rusher stuck around long enough to take over Super Bowl XXXI with the Packers.
As the NFL keeps unleashing offenses with rule changes, passing records keep falling. Rice's are safe. Arguably the greatest player ever, Rice buried every relevant career receiving record. And his NFL-record 10 first-team All-Pros are unlikely to ever be threatened by a receiver. Rice's best MVP shot came in 1987, when he caught 22 touchdown passes in 12 games. But he split votes with Joe Montana, leading to a John Elway MVP. Rice received votes many times, finishing second to Brett Favre in 1995. Rice not winning an MVP provided grim foreshadowing for future receiver generations -- this position remains shut out for MVPs -- because there is no NFL resume that approaches his.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.