Early NFL "MVPs"

Early NFL "MVPs"

Postby JameisLoseston » Sat Nov 27, 2021 12:05 am

In 1938, the NFL unveiled its first ever most valuable player award, the Joe Carr Trophy. In the ten years it was actively awarded, I feel that most of its picks were well justified (though I can't understand Bob Waterfield over Sammy Baugh in 45...). But how about before that, which candidates would have been worthy of being designated "MVP" from the start of the NFL through 1937? I decided to take a crack at exactly that. See what you think about these picks:

1920. Who knows. Maybe it was Al Mahrt (TB, Dayton). And maybe it wasn't. I mean, it's not like Dayton was that good.
1921: Also highly speculative, but I really like Elmer Oliphant (TB/K, Buffalo) as the clear best player on the (disputed) champs. His passing was unbelievable for the time, although I'm sure it's missing a lot of negative details, and he made 26/26 XPs when kicking was more important than ever. Anyone have a clue what happened to him after this? Maybe Fritz Pollard (TB), who accounted for 7 TDs on third-place Akron, is a safer pick.
1922: Jimmy Conzelman (TB, Rock Island/Milwaukee) carries the highly peculiar historical distinction of possibly having led two teams in passing and rushing in the same season. Not that these were great teams or anything... but I couldn't find a better candidate.
1923: Canton was an absolute beast this year. They had 4 of the top 6 rushers in the league, 3 of the top 4 in rushing TDs, the best passer, and 2 of the top 4 in defensive INTs. Lou Smyth (TB) is a member of every one of these clubs, so it has to go to him. Paddy Driscoll (TB/K, Chi Cards) is a fairly close second, mainly on account of his kicking.
1924: Tex Hamer (FB, Frankford) is our first runaway winner. He might have been as good as Feathers '34.
1925: Red Dunn (QB, Chicago Cardinals) has a case to be called the first true championship quarterback... but not if Pottsville fans have anything to say about it.
1926: Barney Wentz (FB, Pottsville) seems like a strong pick for a still excellent Maroons team. Seems to be an underrated player here. Was he even better than Latone? Paddy Driscoll again challenges with his best all-around season.
1927: Benny Friedman (QB, Cleveland Bulldogs) needs no further introduction.
1928: Benny Friedman (Detroit Wolverines), the year he likely led the league in every major passing and rushing stat.
1929: Benny Friedman, bought by the New York Giants along with his entire Detroit franchise, delivers his magnum opus. Ernie Nevers (FB, Chi Cards) had the unfortunate luck of his own best season aligning directly with this masterpiece; he could have snatched one away from Friedman if it had been a different season.
1930: Benny Friedman, but Red Dunn (Green Bay) is a closer second than you think. I think Friedman's Giants deserve the NFL title this year, though; the records are indistinguishable and they split the H2H, so point differential takes it.
1931: Johnny Blood (HB, Green Bay) scores another runaway by producing 13 TDs, 11 as a receiver.
1932: In one of football's worst ever passing seasons, Arnie Herber (QB, Green Bay) stepped up to replace the retired Dunn seamlessly, and prove to modern observers that his legacy didn't completely depend on Don Hutson.
1933: Pretty tough year. Very close race between Harry Newman (QB, NY Giants) and Glenn Presnell (TB, Portsmouth). Presnell may have been more statistically impressive, but I give it to Newman by a hair because the Spartans weren't that good.
1934: Beattie Feathers (HB, Chi Bears) missed some games in his ultimate pyrrhic victory, but he was the clear engine behind an utterly dominant team. And that, of course, is why they lost.
1935: Newman faded out quickly, paving the way for Ed Danowski (QB, NY Giants) to take the reins. I would say it was for the better.
1936: Arnie Herber returns to the winner's circle with his best overall season, providing the launching pad for Hutson to become a trailblazer. Dutch Clark (TB, Det Lions) may also have been at his best this year.
1937: It's Sammy Baugh's rookie year, but his teammate Cliff Battles (FB, Washington) is my pick. He retired too soon, should have stuck around for the Slingin' Sammy experience.

Disagree with any of these selections? Fire away in the comments.
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Re: Early NFL "MVPs"

Postby TanksAndSpartans » Sat Nov 27, 2021 5:44 pm

Great idea for a post @JL! You may not know this, but Chris Willis did a bunch of these seasons for PFJ. These are the ones I could find easily:

'29: Verne Lewellen
'30: Verne Lewellen
'31: ?
'32: Dutch Clark
'33: Ken Strong
'34: Nagurski
'35: ?
'36: Dutch Clark

Let me know if anyone can fill in the gaps. His arguments are pretty convincing and he also discusses the top contenders, so he may have some of your picks 2nd or 3rd or wherever.

I'll start with 1920. For me, it has to be someone from Akron. They had never really been in the race and everyone probably expected Canton to win again, but they shut them out twice, and put the title on the line twice at the end. They shut Dayton out twice, so Mahrt isn't my MVP. I wouldn't quibble if someone said Bob Nash, or Al Nesser, or Rip King, but personally I'd go with Fritz Pollard. They already had a bunch of low scoring slugfests, without Pollard, I don't think they go undefeated.
Last edited by TanksAndSpartans on Sun Nov 28, 2021 5:50 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Early NFL "MVPs"

Postby JameisLoseston » Sat Nov 27, 2021 7:22 pm

My runners-up for the Friedman years are:

1927 - McBride
1928 - Lewellen
1929 - Nevers
1930 - Dunn

All felt very obvious to me. If one is to legitimately dispute a Friedman year, it would have to be 1927, so McBride could have an argument for that, although you're pretty much just sacrificing some productivity to pick someone from the title team, so meh.

I have Dutch Clark the runner-up in 32, 34, 35, and 36. 34 and 36 he legitimately went off, 32 and 35 just didn't have anyone better. Unfortunately, 34 and 36 are the years with stronger winners of the four.
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Re: Early NFL "MVPs"

Postby Bob Gill » Sun Nov 28, 2021 12:20 am

The original list puts far too much emphasis on passers. That's today's thinking, but it doesn't reflect the way the game was played in the 1920s and '30s.

I'll take a shot at this, for what it's worth:

1925: Paddy Driscoll. His team won the championship, cheesy or not, and he may very well have been the league's best player, as a quality runner, a good receiver and easily the best kicker. A fairly easy choice for me.

1926: I think I'd choose Driscoll again, because this might have been his very best season, as his league-leading 86 points indicate. But I suspect Ernie Nevers might have won a vote at the time, and that wouldn't have been a bad choice. I'd say he and Nevers were probably the NFL's two best players at this point.

1927: Friedman was great, but I think I'd vote for Jack McBride.

1928: If they actually had stats at the time and Friedman managed to lead the league in rushing to go along with passing and scoring, he might have won this year. But with no stats to go on at the time, I suspect Wildcat Wilson would've won, and he wouldn't have been a bad choice either, as the best and most prominent player on the team that won the championship.

1929: Friedman might be the best choice this year, given the stats David Neft has provided for us, but contemporary voters might well have picked Nevers, who also had a hell of a year (and dragged the Cardinals, winners of ONE game in 1928, to a fourth-place finish). Lewellen is an interesting choice and not a bad one, either, but I don't think he would've stood a chance at the time.

1930: This year looks like a choice between Friedman and Lewellen to me.

1931: Though I don't know if observers at the time paid that much attention to receiving numbers, Blood might really be the best choice this year.

1932: I think it would've been one of three: Dutch Clark, Nagurski or Clarke Hinkle. The league's three best backs, playing for the three best teams. As for who would've actually won, I'd just say it's a tossup.

1933: Harry Newman and Ken Strong were the two key acquisitions that turned the Giants from also-rans into an 11-3 juggernaut, and I think one of them would've won. From my perspective, Newman is a slightly better choice.

1934: Feathers is a reasonable choice, but I think the popular idea at the time was that his amazing 1,000-yard season was attributable to Nagurski as much as him. And Nagurski was still the best ball-carrying fullback in the league. I think he'd probably win, with Dutch Clark a pretty close second.

1935: Danowski would be a reasonable choice this year, in part because all of the usual suspects had statistically subpar seasons and he had a fine one.

1936: Herber would be a good choice here, though Tuffy Leemans might have been the choice of contemporary voters. And really, Hutson might have been the best choice.

1937: Battles might have been the Redskins' best player, but Baugh was a very famous college player who led the league in passing and his team to the championship, so I think he would've won. And I'd probably vote for him myself.

Of course, all of our picks are coming from the backfield, because that's where the stats are and we can't really evaluate the impact of a great lineman like Mel Hein or Cal Hubbard. It's certainly possible that one or more of these awards would've gone to somebody like that. But from this vantage point there's no way to tell.
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Re: Early NFL "MVPs"

Postby Reaser » Sun Nov 28, 2021 2:16 am

We've had this thread before, a couple times, but it was years ago so nothing wrong with a fresh look.

The first time we did it I made the case for Jack McBride in 1927. A while later, in another thread, Moran posted a couple articles that said McBride was chosen as the "most valuable player in the national football league." Bob and I were both interested in who exactly selected/awarded that but, at least for myself, could never find anything other than the actual articles. Nothing about who voted or if there was a vote, or how 'official' it was, or anything. Just the articles that say he was chosen as MVP of the NFL.

For 1937, there was the Gruen Award, which Dutch Clark was awarded. Same award Mel Hein won in 1938 as the first "official" NFL MVP.

So, to me 1927 and 1937 are already taken care of and the fill-in-the-blanks are for 1920-1926, 1928-1936. My view, at least.
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Re: Early NFL "MVPs"

Postby JameisLoseston » Sun Nov 28, 2021 9:11 am

Thanks, Reaser! I didn't think Clark had anywhere near his best year in 37, so that one's interesting. But it is taken care of.

As a side note, since Bob alluded to this a few times, I am intentionally voting as a voter with all information in front of me. Not trying to put myself in the place of someone who only would have had what was available then. Friedman's awards likely would have been a lot closer with the poor statistical accessibility of the time.

Re: overemphasis on passers, take a look at the Joe Carr Award. For this exercise, actually, I imagined myself as a Carr voter, had the award been around from the beginning and with all the resources a Carr voter had. I happen to endorse almost every pick in its decade-long run; they seem very well educated and hold up great today, as I intended these to. Even Mel Hein; passing and rushing were both for the birds in 38, with Battles and Clark retired, and Danowski was again about the only decent season, who had Hein blocking for him, so it's the kind of pick one can't concretely argue against. Who knows, maybe all the Harry Newman and Strong and such was really just Mel Hein years. I'd pick Baugh and SVB over Waterfield in 45, and maybe Andy Farkas over Parker Hall in 39, but that's really about it, and Hall wasn't a bad pick (and it's not like the AP hasn't made worse picks). Anyways, aside from the inevitable Don Hutson, almost every awardee was a QB, and Farkas and SVB's snubs were probably a product of the QB bias you're saying didn't exist yet. Several were tailback-style dual-threat passers like Hall, Ace Parker, and Sinkwich, but in the same spirit, I picked a lot of these guys too, especially when they approached top rushing stats while also passing. I think the only primary rusher who won at all was Bill Dudley, but even he seemed to get it more for his defense and overall versatility, and 46 was a bad passing year. (And if you want to make it even more obvious how not-so-different the Carr voters were, Waterfield over Baugh is a clear reflection of the volume>efficiency bias that's still pervasive today.)

Speaking of Baugh, he couldn't buy a win from the voters his whole career, so I highly doubt he'd have caught a break in 37 of all years. And it seems he didn't.
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Re: Early NFL "MVPs"

Postby JameisLoseston » Wed Dec 01, 2021 12:11 am

Having done more research into Elmer Oliphant, I've come to find out that he's actually a very inner-circle College Football HOFer, and one of the best football players of the 1910s. Looking at his stats, I figured he was probably a highly regarded college player who left pro football for all the reasons guys left back then, and that is precisely the case; it definitely wasn't because he wasn't good enough. The same goes for Benny Boynton, another player who caught my attention while rummaging through these seasons, and another CFB HOFer who had a brief but fascinating journey through the NFL. Both of them were first-team All-Pros in their respective seasons, so clearly not cases of ordinary players who simply look good because of poor and unbalanced stat recording. They were definitely PFHOF talents, I guess they just didn't have the desire to keep playing that others did.

Comparatively little seems to be known of Lou Smyth and even Tex Hamer; I couldn't find much detail on their college careers, which is unexpected especially in the case of Hamer, since he had the best pro football season up to that point in history as a rookie. I would have expected him in particular to have come in with much more of a pedigree. I can't find a ton of evidence that they were nearly as highly regarded as Oliphant and Boynton in their own era; while they were of course All-Pros as well, and their big production is acknowledged, it doesn't seem to come with the same level of contemporary recognition.
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Re: Early NFL "MVPs"

Postby TanksAndSpartans » Wed Dec 01, 2021 10:27 am

Hamer played at Penn, was named captain, but to the best of my recollection, it was reported that he left the team because he felt slighted and turned pro joining the Yellow Jackets. In those days, Frankford played a pretty grueling schedule. They not only often played on Saturday and Sunday, but they were playing 5-6 pre and post season exhibitions as well. And the starters played those games! I recall several times Hamer made the headlines for games that you won't find on the PFR site because they don't count in the NFL standings. He got hurt early in '27 and never played in the NFL again. He did play football again though in a circuit with mostly NJ and PA teams, teams that competed against NFL teams, but for the most part were a notch below. There is even a CC article about that league, but the details escape me. I had an article about his '24 season you mention and I was able to find this article which mentions Millville, one of his post-NFL comeback teams:


Some have said he did enough for HOVG, but it was a short career for sure and given the difficulty pre war players have with HOVG, I've been hesitant to say much.

P.S. Did you look into Doc Elliot at all? Could he have been an early MVP? He played for 3 straight NFL championship teams (22-24) and also played for some interesting non-NFL teams, Millville above sparked my memory and one in Grange's AFL comes to mind.
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Re: Early NFL "MVPs"

Postby JameisLoseston » Wed Dec 01, 2021 11:21 am

Yeah, I don't know if Hamer has the resume to warrant HOVG nomination; he really only had the one amazing season ane a couple good ones. There are other, more recent short-career players who are more deserving. He's right around where Feathers would be on my priority list; a guy I wouldn't mind to see get in, and might vote for him on a weak ballot, but not someone I'm actively campaigning for. If both were on, I'd probably break the tie for Feathers because he's a little more iconic and fueled an all-time great team.

Doc Elliott seems to be a victim of weird stat recording. For example, in 1924 he is credited with 9 carries for 82 yards and 6 TDs. I don't think it's possible in such a state to say with any confidence how valuable he actually was. Another odd thing about him: he randomly reappeared in 1931, after 5 years out of the NFL... for one carry for a one-yard touchdown.
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Re: Early NFL "MVPs"

Postby TanksAndSpartans » Wed Dec 01, 2021 2:03 pm

JameisLoseston wrote:Doc Elliott seems to be a victim of weird stat recording. For example, in 1924 he is credited with 9 carries for 82 yards and 6 TDs. I don't think it's possible in such a state to say with any confidence how valuable he actually was. Another odd thing about him: he randomly reappeared in 1931, after 5 years out of the NFL... for one carry for a one-yard touchdown.

I wouldn't call it weird - it's the best available information - it's just incomplete. Looking at what other information is available, we see he got the first team All-Pro nod at fullback over Hamer, which to me is impressive and that his team won the title. Did you look at the article I linked to? The NFL wasn't the only game in town. :). We know he played elsewhere at least one of the seasons.

You mentioned it's not possible to say how valuable he was, but I would suggest looking at the weekly newspaper accounts. That's what I did for Pollard to decide I liked him in 1920. But, yeah - it's super subjective - which I thought was allowed for this thread :). No one is happier than me we have those stats, but I wouldn't start throwing out All-Pro selections, testimonials, etc. - whatever can be found is useful especially given the incompleteness of the statistics.
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