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How Khalil Mack Can Become the NFL MVP, in Six Not-So-Easy Steps

The Bears’ pass rusher has been incredibly dominant through four games, but a defender hasn’t taken home the league’s top award since 1986. What would Mack need to do the rest of the season to be recognized as the best player in the NFL?

Getty Images/Elias Stein

Predicting the NFL’s MVP four weeks into the season is a wildly difficult—usually fruitless—endeavor. This time last year, Kareem Hunt seemed like the favorite. In 2016, the MVP after four weeks was Sam Bradford. Sammy Sleeves! Throughout the course of a full season, the quirks of the first few weeks get ironed out and the MVP award almost always ends up going to the best quarterback on a great team—i.e., definitely not Bradford. So I’ll forgive you if you look at an article about a defensive player winning MVP and initially dismiss it.

Still, through four weeks, Bears pass rusher Khalil Mack has been as valuable as any player in the NFL. His stat line is absurd: five sacks, four forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, an interception, and a touchdown in four games. His play has helped lift the Bears to an NFC North–leading 3-1 record. And those numbers may even sell Mack a bit short: In the Bears’ 48-10 dismantling of the Buccaneers—who came into Sunday boasting one of the league’s most prolific offensive teams—Mack forced another turnover that won’t show up on the stat sheet.

Mack is beginning to get some MVP buzz, yet no defensive player has won the award since Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor did in 1986. Here’s the full list of every defender to receive a vote since that season:

Defensive Players MVP voting

Year Player Position Team Team Record Votes Finish
Year Player Position Team Team Record Votes Finish
2014 J.J. Watt DL Texans 9-7 13 2nd
2014 Bobby Wagner LB Seahawks 12-4 1 T-5th
2008 James Harrison LB Steelers 12-4 3 T-4th
2003 Ray Lewis LB Ravens 10-6 2 6th
2002 Derrick Brooks LB Buccaneers 12-4 1 T-4th
2001 Brian Urlacher LB Bears 13-3 2 5th
2000 Ray Lewis LB Ravens 12-4 1 T-5th
1997 Dana Stubblefield DT 49ers 13-3 2 T-4th
1997 Carnell Lake S Steelers 11-5 1 6th
1994 Deion Sanders CB 49ers 13-3 1 T-3rd
1992 Cortez Kennedy DT Seahawks 2-14 1 T-5th
1991 Seth Joyner LB Eagles 10-6 1 5th
1990 Bruce Smith DE Bills 13-3 11 4th
1989 Keith Millard DE Vikings 10-6 2 3rd
1986 Lawrence Taylor LB Giants 14-2 41 1st

That list is pretty sparse, both of names and of real contenders. In the 32 years since L.T.’s win, only one defender has come even close to winning MVP: J.J. Watt, who had a once-in-a-lifetime season in 2014. Almost every other vote for a defender has been the result of a voter going rogue—Watt is the only player to have a real crack at the award since Taylor’s win.

In a modern era dominated by elite quarterbacks and high-flying offenses, it seems nearly impossible for a defender to win MVP. But, after a careful look back at Taylor’s and Watt’s MVP and near-MVP seasons, I’ve determined that if a defender can put together a confluence of specific factors—including incredible play, a successful team, the right narratives, and a wide-open field—it could happen. This year, through four games, it appears those factors may be coming together in Mack’s favor. Here are the boxes he’ll need to check the rest of the way:

1. Mack continues to dominate statistically.

This is the most obvious box to be checked: Mack needs to be really, really, really good.

In 1986, Taylor finished with 20.5 sacks, which led the league and was 1.5 away from the then-single-season record that Mark Gastineau had set two years prior. The NFL had only begun keeping sacks as a statistic in 1982, but 20.5 was an incredible number, especially given how infrequently teams passed in the 1980s.

But that was really the only thing of note Taylor did that year. He had no interceptions, no fumble recoveries, no safeties, and not even a single touchdown (Pro-Football-Reference’s Play Index only tracks forced fumbles back to 1993). Sacks alone are no longer enough to sniff the MVP award—Michael Strahan set the current record with 22.5 in a season in 2001 and he didn’t earn even a single vote that year.

Watt’s 2014 season shows just how much a defender has to do in this century to even be considered. He matched Taylor’s 20.5 sacks and added four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown), an interception—which he returned 80 yards for a touchdown, 10 passes deflected, and a safety. Hell, Watt even had three touchdown receptions that season as head coach Bill O’Brien got him involved on offense. Watt’s 2014 may be the most statistically eye-popping season ever for a defender—and he still came in second.

To approach Watt’s numbers, Mack will need to maintain his historic levels of production—if he were to keep up his current pace, he’d finish 2018 with 20 sacks, 16 forced fumbles (which would shatter the current record of 10), four fumble recoveries, four interceptions, and four touchdowns. That pace seems impossible to keep for an entire year, but the impossible is what it will take for a defender to win the MVP award.

2. The Bears become one of the NFL’s best teams.

MVPs virtually always come from the league’s best squads. Excluding seasons where there was a strike, 37 of the 40 winners since 1978 (when the league moved to a 16-game schedule) have been on teams that recorded at least 11 wins. This is no doubt part of what doomed Watt in 2014—the Texans went just 9-7 that year.

The 1986 Giants finished 14-2, and the Bears would likely need a similar record to put Mack in contention. That’s a long shot for a team that entered the season with middling expectations, but it’s possible if quarterback Mitchell Trubisky can maintain a semblance of the level of play he exhibited on Sunday. That presents its own problem, though—if Trubisky plays too well, his success may overshadow Mack’s. The Bears don’t just need to win, they need to win because of Mack. That brings us to step three ...

3. The Bears defense shuts down everyone.

In 1986, the Bears had the best defense in the NFL by far—they were just as dominant as they were in that 1985 season you’ve surely heard stories about. But the Giants’ unit was close behind, ranking second in both points and yards allowed.

Watt’s defense wasn’t nearly as successful. In 2014, the Texans allowed the seventh-fewest points and 16th-fewest yards. Maybe they would have been a bottom-of-the-barrel unit without Watt on the field, but the MVP award has not typically gone to players who improve their team from bad to decent—it goes to players who make a good team exceptional.

That’s good for the Bears, since they have arguably the best defense in the NFL. Chicago is tied for third in points per game allowed (16.3) and are fourth in yards per game (294.5). The team came into Sunday ranked first in defensive DVOA, and a large part of that can be attributed to Mack, as the Bears ranked first in adjusted sack rate. They’ll need to keep that up for Mack to have a shot.

4. Mack shines on the biggest stages.

In 1986, Taylor came through in the biggest moments. He had a three-sack performance against Washington in Week 8 on Monday Night Football, back when MNF was on ABC instead of ESPN. Then in Week 14, the Giants met the Redskins again with both teams at 11-2 and vying for the NFC East crown, and Taylor had another three-sack game. Taylor didn’t dominate every primetime event (the Giants had matchups in Weeks 13 and 16 in which he recorded zero sacks), but his domination of stacked NFC East teams in high-stakes matchups surely had an impact on his MVP campaign.

Mack is doing well in this regard. In Mack’s Bears debut—Week 1’s Sunday Night Football game against the Packers—he recorded a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception, and a touchdown in one half before Aaron Rodgers did Aaron Rodgers things and the Packers won the game. Mack had another highlight-reel-worthy performance in Week 2 on Monday Night Football with a sack and a forced fumble against the Seahawks. Listen to ESPN announcer Joe Tessitore pump up Mack after this strip sack of Russell Wilson:

The Bears will play the Lions on Thanksgiving, the only primetime matchup left on their schedule. Outside of that, they also have dates with the Patriots (Week 7), Rams (Week 14), and Packers again (Week 15), giving Mack plenty of chances to show he can stifle some of the best quarterbacks and offenses in the league.

5. The Oakland-Chicago trade stays a relevant story line.

The narrative around Mack’s season could be the wild-card factor that puts him over the top. The September 1 trade that sent Mack from Oakland to Chicago put a spotlight on Mack before he even played a down with the Bears, and it’s continued to be one of the biggest story lines of the early season.

And the story isn’t just of Mack’s play with the Bears, but also the gaping hole he left behind in Oakland’s pass rush. This trade will largely define how we evaluate the early part of Jon Gruden’s tenure with the Raiders (especially since he keeps bringing up his team’s lack of a pass rush in press conferences), the value of superstar pass rushers, and the Bears’ resurgence as a defensive powerhouse. There’s simply no way to avoid talking about him. I mean, these jokes are going to have legs for a while:

There’s no doubt that, despite how incredible Mack has been so far, he wouldn’t be getting quite the same attention without the blockbuster trade that put his name at the forefront of people’s minds.

6. Offensive frontrunners stumble down the stretch.

This is ultimately the most important factor, and it’s the one that, paradoxically, has the least to do with Mack. In order for a defensive player to be the MVP, he doesn’t just have to be incredible, he also has to have perfect timing. That was certainly true in 1986, when there were no strong offensive frontrunners to dethrone Taylor.

Ten players received MVP votes in 1986, which is an abnormally high number that indicates it was a wide-open year. The second-place finisher in 1986 was Rams running back Eric Dickerson (he received 17 votes), who led the NFL in rushing with 1,821 yards and 11 touchdowns as the Rams went 10-6. Dan Marino (nine votes) led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns, but his Dolphins went just 8-8 and missed the playoffs. Giants running back Joe Morris (five votes) amassed 1,516 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, but he was never going to win when he was overshadowed by Dickerson at his position and Taylor on his team. John Elway (3 votes) was the last player who received multiple votes, but while his Broncos went 11-5, his passing stats were fairly modest, especially in comparison to Marino’s.

That field gave Taylor the perfect opening to win. But in 2014, Watt wasn’t so lucky. That season, Aaron Rodgers won the award after amassing 4,381 passing yards and 38 touchdowns against only five interceptions, good for a 112.2 passer rating as his Packers went 12-4. Those numbers won’t make any heads spin, especially given the passing figures QBs have been putting up so far in 2018, but Rodgers was the league’s best quarterback on a surefire Super Bowl contender. There was no player like that in 1986.

This is the conundrum for Mack. In order to win, he needs to put up one of the best defensive seasons we’ve ever seen, and he needs would-be frontrunners on the other side of the ball to have a down year. That will be particularly tough this season, given that passing offenses are having their best statistical year ever.

But that may also create an opening for Mack. If quarterbacks are more efficient than ever, Mack’s ability to shut down passing games will stand out all the more. If the Bears can consistently destroy high-scoring teams like the Bucs, they’ll emerge as one of the few defenses worth a damn in a season that may be an all-time bonanza for offenses. And if there are a glut of deserving passers, maybe none will separate themselves from the pack.

So far, the usual suspects for the MVP award aren’t in any position to win it. Rodgers hasn’t been nearly as efficient as he was in 2014 (or 2011, when he won for the first time) as he battles a knee injury, Tom Brady is stumbling (though who knows if that will last), and other recent winners like Matt Ryan and Cam Newton feel unlikely to repeat. The early competition is likely coming from the Rams’ Jared Goff—who is averaging 351.5 yards per game and has 11 touchdowns with an absurd 127.3 passer rating in the Rams’ 4-0 start—and Patrick Mahomes II in Kansas City, who has looked like a god in his first four games. But those guys are both young and could regress at any time.

When it comes to the MVP award, there is no greater disadvantage than being a defensive player. Whereas quarterbacks control their own destinies and running backs just need the right level of production to stand a chance, defensive players need a miracle. Through four weeks of the season, the stars have aligned for Mack—the only question now is if they can stay that way the rest of the year.