The Associated Press has handed out the award for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player since 1961. For the most part, its winners have been quarterbacks and running backs. And for much of the 2017 season, it seemed that the former would again win the honors for the fifth year in a row. The New England Patriots’ Tom Brady and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Carson Wentz were both among the top contenders, but after Week 14, it’s possible this year’s MVP could be a member of the Black and Gold — and not Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Both Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown are making strong MVP cases for themselves. Bell is the league’s leading running back in both carries and yards, while Brown leads the league in receptions and receiving yards. However, the pair’s gaudy stats may not be enough to increase either of their odds of being named MVP this season; they will need some help.
Some of that help came in the form of Brady struggling in his team’s Week 14 loss to the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots did not convert a single third down, and Brady threw two interceptions after coming into the game having thrown three all season. However, he did not have the services of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was serving a one-game suspension. And he opened the week as the heavy favorite to win the AP’s MVP award; OddsShark had Brady ranked first at -500 on the morning before Monday’s contest.
Wentz, meanwhile, is no longer in the running after the impressive second-year passer suffered a torn ACL in the Eagles’ Sunday victory over the Los Angeles Rams. The No. 2 on OddsShark’s list is thus the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, at +750. Wilson, too, is coming off of a loss and though he threw three touchdowns in a losing effort against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he also threw three interceptions.
Two more quarterbacks round out the top four—New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who leads the league in completion percentage but has thrown only 19 touchdowns to six interceptions this year and Roethlisberger, who has had a good season, albeit an inconsistent one, and one that would not be as impressive without the help provided by Brown and Bell. Though the two skill players are in OddsShark’s top six, both appear to be statistical long-shots; Brown has odds of +2500 and Bell, +3300.
The pair’s accomplishments this season are undeniable and will, at the very least, make it hard for the Steelers to name their in-house MVP for the year. Bell is the central figure of Pittsburgh’s run game and, arguably, of its whole offense. Of the team’s collective 350 rushing attempts for 1,296 yards and seven scores so far this season, 283 carries, 1,105 yards and all seven touchdowns are Bell’s.
Bell has also caught 75 passes on 92 targets for 579 yards and two touchdowns, and leads the team with 564 yards after the catch. He’s earned the Steelers 89 first downs this year — 64 rushing and 25 receiving.
Brown, meanwhile, has accounted for a massive chunk of the Steelers’ passing offense this season. Of Roethlisberger’s 502 pass attempts, Brown has been targeted 160 times, with 99 receptions for 1,509 yards (Roethlisberger has 3,744 total passing yards). He has nine scores, 70 first downs and 398 yards after the catch.
But for all the players who have won the league’s MVP nod over the decades, no receiver has been among them.
There has been a kicker (Washington’s Mark Moseley in 1982) a linebacker (the New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor in 1986) and a defensive tackle (the Minnesota Vikings’ Alan Page in 1971). But otherwise, the award has only gone to running backs and quarterbacks. Receivers are, evidently, too dependent on the quarterback throwing them the football, and it is the passer and not the catcher who reaps the greatest rewards in this particular vote.
Plus the specter of Brady still looms, despite his struggles against the Dolphins. He went into the week significantly more heavily favored than any other player to be the league’s MVP this year, and a bounce-back performance on Sunday (interestingly enough, against the Steelers) would wipe away any tarnish on his season and keep him firmly as the No. 1 option to win the award. Historically speaking, Brown also has the most difficult path to MVP honors, given his position has never won it. Only Bell makes a truly strong case between the two of them and it wasn’t that long ago that a running back — namely Adrian Peterson, in 2012 — has been named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
But for either to win the award, both Bell and Brown must continue to perform at a high level while the likes of Brady, Wilson, Brees and, yes, even Roethlisberger, put forth increasingly pedestrian performances. It’s not impossible for either Bell or Brown to emerge atop the AP’s list once the season wraps, but it’s more likely the two will be in a heated battle for Offensive Player of the Year while Brady (or some other quarterback) is named MVP for 2017.
Andrea Hangst is a national sportswriter who covers the NFL. She has written for Sports on Earth, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, among other publications, and is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association.