Kartje: Aaron Donald makes a case, but no defense allowed in NFL MVP race

LOS ANGELES – Since 1957, when the Associated Press first began awarding a Most Valuable Player, the interpretation of what’s “most valuable” in the NFL has skewed unwaveringly toward players who consistently touch the ball.

It’s an understandable shortcoming in an age when quarterbacks shatter records on the regular. But even before two high-powered offenses could combine for more than 100 points and 1,000 yards in a single Monday night, we struggled to quantify the value of defenders in relation to their flashier offensive counterparts.

Truth is we’ve never really known where defensive players fit in the MVP conversation. Over six decades, 42 quarterbacks, 18 running backs and one kicker – don’t ask – have shared or been named MVP. That’s not a lot of positional diversity.

Even as legendary defenses reigned in the 1970s and ’80s, only twice in NFL history has a defensive player been named Most Valuable. Hall of Fame Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page won in 1971 in one of the more wide-open votes ever, narrowly edging Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who’d started only 10 games. Fifteen years later, Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor had the most dominant season by a defensive player in league history, racking up 20.5 sacks while literally redefining modern defenses as an edge rusher.

But since … nothing. Since 1986, when Taylor became the only consensus winner ever on defense, only J.J. Watt has even finished second in voting, and that vote wasn’t all that close. Watt received just 13 votes to Aaron Rodgers’ 31 in 2014, despite one of the most statistically impressive seasons for a defender in NFL history.

It’s not difficult to imagine circumstances in which Page or Taylor might’ve come up short in their own MVP seasons. If Staubach hadn’t alternated with Dallas backup Craig Morton at the beginning of the 1971 season, the narrative power of a Cowboys quarterback probably would’ve crushed Page’s chances. If Taylor’s Giants hadn’t gone 14-2, on their way to a Super Bowl, maybe his unmatched dominance wouldn’t have overshadowed Dan Marino’s eye-popping passing numbers in Miami.

Those numbers have only skyrocketed since. As many as 20 (!!) quarterbacks could throw for 4,000 yards this season. A quarterback has won MVP in nine of the last 10 years. For a defensive player to subvert that trend, it would take more than just historical dominance. It would take a miracle of circumstance.

In Los Angeles, Aaron Donald is in the midst of perhaps the best season for an interior defensive lineman in NFL history. He leads the league in sacks (16.5), tackles for loss (20) and quarterback hits (32). He has forced four fumbles in 13 games, each of which resulted in a Rams touchdown. Week after week, he has taken over games single-handedly from his spot on the interior, in a way few players in NFL history have.

And yet, even that won’t be enough.

Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips lobbied for Donald to win MVP at this time last season. He has marveled about him on a weekly basis this season, whenever asked. But even as the L.A. media championed the cause of Donald’s MVP campaign over the past week, Phillips was realistic when asked about Donald’s actual chances.

“They’re not going to give it to a defensive player, in my opinion,” Phillips said. “Quarterbacks are always the guy that – and probably well deserved – they cause a lot of points. It’s harder on defense to say, ‘Hey, man, he stopped him from scoring how many times or how many points he’s accounted for.’ But, (Donald) has actually accounted for a lot of points because he’s stopped drives or he’s caused fumbles – all those things. But, you don’t see that in the defensive player stats. So it’s always going to be an offensive player, pretty much.”

That narrow definition is so ingrained that it seems, at this point, inescapable. We’ve come to tacitly accept this notion that only offensive players – and, really, only quarterbacks – are worthy of winning MVP, since the ball is most often in their hands. “People want to see points,” Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers told me. “They want to see those guys win MVP.”

I asked Brockers what it might take for a defensive player to win for the first time in three decades.

“You would have to make something spectacular happen,” he said.

It’s the answer everyone gives, but no one quite knows what it means. How much more spectacular can you get than what Donald has done this season? With four games remaining, the man is just six sacks away from Michael Strahan’s all-time record.

And if he gets there, at the end of an extraordinary, historic defensive campaign, maybe then, Aaron Donald can look forward to a respectable second-place finish in the MVP race.

BEST BET OF WEEK 13

Chiefs (-6.5) over Ravens. The Chiefs had a bit of a close call in Oakland last weekend, but as they return home, there’s no reason to overreact. The Ravens are a good defense, but their offense is predicated on a steady, clock-eating run game – something that doesn’t tend to work against a high-powered offense like the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes has been unstoppable at home, and it’s a safe bet he bounces back from an iffy effort a week ago.

Season record: 5-8

Last week: Colts (-4) over Jaguars — LOSS

FANTASY PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Keenan Allen, WR, Chargers. For the past two seasons, Allen has gone absolutely bonkers down the stretch. In 2017, he had 797 yards and five touchdowns over his last seven games. This season, beginning in the same week, Allen has had a truly remarkable month, scoring one touchdown per game and averaging 91.5 receiving yards. That’s even better fantasy production than last season, and with a porous Bengals defense on tap, Allen should rake in targets from start to finish. He may not receive 19 targets like he did last week, but he may not be that far off, either.

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Packers. OK, so you probably haven’t ever benched Rodgers this season. But this week, freed from the chains that are Mike McCarthy’s play-calling, Rodgers will be unleashed on a Falcons secondary that’s been scorched all season. Your investment should finally pay off.

Running back: Jaylen Samuels, Steelers. Without Le’Veon Bell and James Conner, Pittsburgh is down to Samuels, who in some fantasy leagues is listed as a tight end. If you’re lucky to expose that situation, good for you. But even if not, the Steelers have leaned heavily on bellcow backs. Samuels should get plenty of chances.

Wide receiver: Courtland Sutton, Broncos. With the terrible news that Emmanuel Sanders tore his Achilles, Sutton is now the de facto No. 1 in Denver’s passing offense. That doesn’t exactly guarantee he’ll perform like a No. 1 wideout down the stretch. But the opportunity is there, especially this week against a bad 49ers secondary.

Tight end: David Njoku, Browns. Tight end continues to be a wasteland beyond Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, George Kittle and Eric Ebron, but Njoku has quietly had at least five targets in nine of 12 games this season. This week, he gets a Panthers defense that’s allowing more points to tight ends than any other team.

TOP 5 … MVP CANDIDATES WITH A MONTH REMAINING

5. Philip Rivers, Chargers. Rivers, who turned 37 on Saturday, is having the best season of his career. He’s throwing more touchdowns and fewer interceptions than ever and ranks in the top five in pretty much every major passing category.

4. Todd Gurley, Rams. Gurley won Offensive Player of the Year last season, and this season his numbers have gotten better. Through 13 weeks, he already has 19 touchdowns – equal to his total from last season. He’s also on pace to break 2,000 all-purpose yards again. No big.

3. Aaron Donald, Rams. Here’s a stat that puts Donald’s MVP case in perspective: On drives when Donald has a sack, the Rams haven’t allowed a single touchdown this season.

2. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs. His numbers are downright insane in his first season as starter. His 327 passing yards per game already ranks sixth all-time, and with a full month of games left, his passing touchdowns total is already in the top-10 all-time.

1. Drew Brees, Saints. It’s criminal that Brees has never won an MVP, considering he’s arguably top-five all-time at the position. But he’s never deserved it more than this season, as his completion percentage (75 percent) is three points higher than the NFL single-season record. His mastery of the Saints offense has been at an all-time level.

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