In the past 15 years, only three non-quarterbacks won the league’s official MVP award. All three were running backs.
LaDainian Tomlinson, who won the award in 2006, said Ezekiel Elliott’s season was good enough for the Cowboys running back to join him, Shaun Alexander and Adrian Peterson. But Tomlinson expects Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to take the MVP award when it’s announced at NFL Honors the night before the Super Bowl.
“It is difficult, because at the running back position, you’ve got to really stand out if you want to win the MVP,” Tomlinson said. “You’ve got to really do something special that has never been done before and your team has to be doing well also. That’s to me, that’s the only way you can win the award as a running back.”
For part of the season, Elliott was on pace to break Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record. Dickerson rushed for 1,808 yards for the Los Angeles Rams in 1983. Elliott rushed for a league-leading 1,631 yards despite sitting out the regular-season finale as a precaution.
“I thought it was phenomenal,” Tomlinson, a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist who rushed for 1,236 yards as a rookie in 2001, said of Elliott. “The one thing that you can’t measure in a runner is the heart, the determination of a runner. I quickly saw that in Ezekiel in the preseason when he went against the Seattle Seahawks [and ran over safety Kam Chancellor]. He was out there to send a message that, ‘You know what, I am here, and I’m going to be here for a long time, and this is what you have to deal with for a long time.’ So he already has a natural ability. He has the instincts. He has the vision, the jump cuts, the power, all that stuff, but what takes you to the next level is your determination to be the best and your determination to do it over and over again.”
What hurt Elliott’s MVP chances more than anything, Tomlinson surmises, is teammate Dak Prescott. Prescott set several rookie quarterback records in leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 regular-season record. So could the 50 voters differentiate which player was most important to the Cowboys?
“[Elliott] deserves it, but I think the problem is Dak is going to take some of the votes from him, because Dak had such a phenomenal year as well,” Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson won the award in 2006 after rushing for 1,815 yards while setting NFL records for rushing touchdowns (28) and total touchdowns (31). His 186 points surpassed the previous single-season record of 176 set by Green Bay Packers halfback Paul Hornung in 1960.