Jerry Rice scored more touchdowns than anybody in NFL history. But he never won the AP MVP, which has become the officially recognized NFL MVP. Why didn't Jerry Rice ever win MVP? Because he plays Wide Receiver, so he's virtually ineligible. Since the AP started naming an MVP in 1957, no Wide Receiver has ever won it.
Receivers have won other MVP awards, though rarely. Don Hutson won the Joe F. Carr Trophy twice playing End. And Jery Rice was named MVP in 1987 by other organizations, such as Pro Football Writers of America. and Newspaper Enterprise Association. But the AP MVP is the recognized NFL MVP, and no Wide Receiver has ever won it. That includes the greatest scorer of touchdowns in NFL history.
Rice led the league in receptions twice, in receiving yards six times, in receiving touchdowns six times. He had 10+ TDs nine times and 14 1,000 yard seasons. Obviously there are a lot of great seasons when Rice could have, and probably should have, won MVP. For me, three seasons stand out.
In a strike shortened season, Jerry Rice only played in 12 games. In those 12 games, he set the record for receiving touchdowns with 22. He scored 23 touchdowns total for a team that finished 13-2 ; to put this in perspective, the 1987 AP MVP John Elway threw for 19 touchdown passes on a team that finished 10-4-1. Rice scored more touchdowns than Elway threw, but Elway won MVP. It was a nice season, and I have the sense that Elway dragged those '80s Bronco offenses around on his back. But Rice made history in 1987.
Rice won the receiving triple-crown in 1990: he led the league in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. This is a fairly impressive and rare feat: it has also been done by Ray Flaherty in '32, Don Hutson in '36, '41, '42, '43, and '44 (Hutson was far ahead of his time: if Rice isn't the greatest receiver in NFL history, it is Hutson), Elroy Hirsch in '51, Pete Pihos in '53, Raymond Berry in '59, Johnny Morris in '64, Dave Parks in '65, Lance Alworth in '66 (in the AFL), Sterling Sharpe in '92, and Steve Smith in '05. There were fewer teams before the merger, thus fewer players (and certainly fewer elite pass catchers) to challenge for the different statistical categories. It simply becomes more difficult to lead the league in multiple categories the more players you add to the league. When Rice did it in 1990, it hadn't been done since the merger. But Rice's teammate Joe Montana won MVP, which highlights the problem for a Wide Receiver's MVP case: if a Wide Receiver is playing great football, it's very likely his quarterback is also playing great football too. Montana won MVP in 1989 with one of the best passing seasons of all-time; in 1990, his numbers declined in most categories (some categories significantly). It was still a great passing season, but I don't think it was enough to overshadow the league's first receiving triple-crown since the mid-'60s.
In 1995 Jerry Rice set a record for receiving yards in a season with 1,848 yards (and this without Steve Young for five games). The previous record was set by Charley Hennigan in the AFL in 1961. But it was, admittedly, a pass-happy season. Isaac Bruce also passed Hennigan with 1,781 yards. Herman Moore had 123 catches (besting teammate Brett Perriman's 108), breaking Cris Carter's year old record of 122 (Carter again had 122 catches in '95). And Michael Irvin had 11 100-yard receiving games in his best statistical season. The passing numbers in 1995 were dizzying, so I can hardly blame MVP voters for overlooking Rice's record season. Furthermore, '95 AP MVP Brett Favre was very deserving. Injuries forced Green Bay's top receiver Sterling Sharpe to retire after 1994, and still in '95 Favre led the league with 4,413 yards and 38 touchdowns, leading the Packers to an 11-5 finish. And if Favre hadn't won MVP, it would have been hard to overlook Emmitt Smith, who had gargantuan numbers leading the league in rushing yards (1,773), touchdowns (25), and yards from scrimmage (2,148). Smith averaged 4.7 yards per carry and had 62 receptions, the 25 TDs was a record, and Smith's Cowboys finished 12-4 (eventually winning the Super Bowl). Think about 1995: the WR with the most touchdowns ever, the QB with the most touchdown passes ever, and the RB with the most rushing touchdowns ever was each in his prime and had arguably his best season!
The Quarterback Problem
If you really want to know how great Jerry Rice is, just look at his quarterbacks. FIVE TIMES Jerry Rice was a primary pass catcher for the league MVP: Joe Montana in '89 and '90, Steve Young in '92 and '94, and Rich Gannon in '02. According to the AP MVP voters, Jerry Rice was never good enough to win MVP. However, three different quarterbacks throwing passes to Jerry Rice were good enough to win MVP.
And that's why I don't think a Wide Receiver will win MVP: anything the Wide Receiver does to merit the MVP will be outdone by his own Quarterback. Most recently, Randy Moss scored a record 23 touchdowns in 2007, but was of course overshadowed by Tom Brady who threw 50 touchdowns. A Wide Receiver will always hurt his own MVP case by helping his own Quarterback. A great Wide Receiver may help his QB to an MVP, or he may not even get the attention, allowing a Quarterback or Running Back on a different team to win the award.