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Niners could have deactivated Aldon Smith without a fight from NFLPA

FILE: 49ers Aldon Smith Arrested Getty Images

As the 49ers embark on their first game without linebacker Aldon Smith, who has taken an indefinite leave of absence due to substance abuse rehab, one question that keeps coming up is whether the team could have and should have benched Smith on Sunday against the Colts.

The team believes that it had no ability to take punitive action against Smith, under the labor deal. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, however, the NFLPA would not have objected to a benching of Smith, as long as he received his paycheck for the week.

Technically, teams can’t suspend players with pay. Prior to 2006, that was a permissible tactic. After the Terrell Owens case (which came after the Keyshawn Johnson case), the union inserted language into the CBA preventing teams from sending players home with pay.

But teams still have discretion when it comes to decisions made in the best interests of the team and the player. In this specific case, if the 49ers had decided that Smith shouldn’t play two days after an arrest for suspicion of DUI, the NFLPA would have respected that.

Every week, seven players on the 53-man roster are paid to not play. They’re on the team, they’re paid, but they don’t suit up for the game. In Smith’s case, having him not play due to the Friday arrest would have been viewed as being as legitimate as having him not play due to a Friday injury.

The 49ers didn’t consult with the union on that point, we’re told. Instead, it seemed that the 49ers relied, as a knee-jerk reaction, on the presumption that great players always play.

In the team’s defense, the timing wasn’t conducive to making a deliberate and well-reasoned decision. The issue arose on a Friday, the hay was in the barn for the contest against the Colts (with Smith firmly in the game plan), and great players always play.

The quick exit Smith made from the team after Sunday’s loss shows that major life decisions were made by Smith in a tight time frame, regarding both the admission that he has a problem and his willingness to spend roughly a month in an in-patient facility to beat it. As he made these decisions, he also had to be ready to play a pro football game — and then he had to play it.

With the benefit of hindsight, we suspect that the 49ers would have handled the situation differently. Though the right thing ultimately was done, a man in need of in-patient treatment of a chemical dependence issue shouldn’t have been playing football on Sunday.

While there’s no playbook for situations like this, Smith’s situation could provide a useful precedent if/when similar circumstances arise in the future.

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All indications are Jim Harbaugh is heading to Michigan

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Jim Harbaugh appears poised to take the head coaching job at the University of Michigan after coaching the 49ers for the last time today.

Although an official announcement has not been made by Harbaugh, by Michigan or by the 49ers, several reports indicate that Harbaugh has already made up his mind to accept the offer from his alma mater, which will reportedly pay him $8 million a year. Joe Pequeno of CBS reports that a verbal agreement is in place between Harbaugh and Michigan. College football author and longtime Michigan insider John U. Bacon reports that the deal is done. And Dave Feldman of CSN Bay Area, a high school friend of Harbaugh’s, reports that it will be officially announced on Tuesday.

Harbaugh and the 49ers have been heading for a divorce all year, with Harbaugh and G.M. Trent Baalke simply unable to get along and 49ers owner Jed York siding with Baalke over Harbaugh. There was never any question about whether Harbaugh would return to the 49ers next year, the only question was where Harbaugh would be in 2015.

If Harbaugh wanted to stay in the NFL, he would have options. The Raiders are thought to be very interested in Harbaugh’s services, and the Bears would likely be interested as well. And if a coach with Harbaugh’s track record became available, some surprising NFL suitor might come out of the woodwork.

But Harbaugh has apparently decided that he’d rather take a great offer to coach his alma mater than wait to see which NFL jobs will be open to him, and whether any of those NFL teams will be able to work out a deal with the 49ers that allows him to coach elsewhere. Instead, Harbaugh — who was a very successful coach at Stanford before the 49ers hired him — will return to college, and head home.

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Oddsmaker: Betting public backing Steelers in AFC North championship

Martavis Bryant AP

According to one of Nevada’s major sports book operators, the betting public is siding with the favorite in the AFC North title game.

As of late Saturday afternoon, 71 percent of the betting tickets written on Sunday’s Bengals-Steelers matchup at the William Hill U.S. books had been on host Pittsburgh, the company said. The Steelers are 3.5-point favorites at the William Hill books.

The Steelers will capture the AFC North with a victory. Cincinnati will repeat as division champs with a win or a tie on Sunday night (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

The loser of Steelers-Bengals will grab one of the AFC’s two wild-card spots. The Chargers, Ravens, Chiefs and Texans are competing for the other wild-card berth.

In Chargers-Chiefs, 79 percent of the tickets written have been on San Diego (+1). Bettors have also preferred the Ravens (59 percent) and Texans (58 percent) in their games. Baltimore (-9) hosts Cleveland, while Houston (-9.5) plays visiting Jacksonville.

Five NFC games have playoff ramifications: Lions-Packers (-7.5), Panthers-Falcons (-3.5), Cowboys-Washington (+6.5), Rams-Seahawks (-12.5) and 49ers-Cardinals (+4). William Hill bettors have fancied the Packers (74 percent), Falcons (65 percent), Cowboys (79 percent), Seahawks (66 percent) and 49ers (54 percent).

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Legal fights looming over Gordon suspension

Gordon Getty Images

With the Browns suspending receiver Josh Gordon for the final game of the 2014 regular season, a fight is now looming over whether Gordon will be an unrestricted free agent or a restricted free agent following the 2015 season.

Acquired by the Browns via the 2012 supplemental draft, Gordon currently is completing his third NFL season.  But because (per a league source) the Browns have decided to suspend Gordon without pay for Sunday’s game against the Ravens, the NFL is now expected to take the position that Gordon has not gained a third “accrued season” for the purposes of becoming a free agent.

The league will contend that Gordon did not acquire a third accrued season (he needs four to become an unrestricted free agent) because the league believes that a player obtains an accrued season for each season in which he spends six games on the Active List or Inactive List or on Reserve/Injured or Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform.

Article 8(1)(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, however, provides a different definition: “For the purposes of calculating Accrued Seasons under this Agreement, a player shall receive one Accrued Season for each season during which he was on, or should have been on, full pay status for a total of six or more regular season games, but which, irrespective of the player’s pay status, shall not include games for which the player was on: (i) the Exempt Commissioner Permission List, (ii) the Reserve PUP List as a result of a nonfootball injury, or (iii) a Club’s Practice Squad.”

The first legal fight will focus on whether a suspension without pay was justified. If the player wins round one, round two becomes irrelevant; if it’s determined he should have been paid for Week 17, Gordon will have been on full pay status for six games.

The second round, if there is one, will center on the meaning of the phrase “during which he was on, or should have been on, full pay status for a total of six or more regular season games.” When combined with three specific types of categories that do not count toward the six-game minimum, the phrase “should have been on . . . full pay status” seems to include, based on its common-sense meaning, players who aren’t on full-pay status for reasons such as a team-imposed suspension or a league-imposed suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy.

The phrase “should have been on” has meaning, or it wouldn’t have been included. Without the phrase “should have been on,” it would be an easy decision; Gordon wasn’t on “full pay status” for six or more regular-season games.

The NFL will offer, at the appropriate time, an interpretation of the phrase that excludes players who are suspended by the team or the league. The NFLPA will tender an interpretation rooted in the common-sense application of the phrase and the listing of three types of exempt categories other than a player on suspension by the team or suspension by the league for violating the substance-abuse policy.

If the suspension without pay is upheld, at some point an interpretation of Article 8(1)(a) will be needed. The plain language suggests that the NFLPA and Gordon should prevail.

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Polian could return to Buffalo and still get to Canton in 2015

Bill Polian AP

The New Year could end up being a very good one for Bill Polian.

He could end up rejoining the Buffalo Bills as soon as Monday, and he could end up being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite his return to the NFL.

Unlike coaches and players, who must endure a five-year waiting period before consideration for the Hall of Fame, contributors have no such requirement, according to Pro Football Hall of Fame Executive V.P. of Museums, Selection Process & Chief Communications Officer Joe Horrigan.  Examples cited by Horrigan include Ralph Wilson, Pete Rozelle, Al Davis, and Lamar Hunt.

The impact of a return by Polian on his candidacy is unknown, primarily because the creation of a new contributor category for 2015 entails layers or unknowns.Plenty of unknowns regarding the 2015 football season will begin to be known as of Monday (if not sooner), when some of the 20 teams that fail to qualify for the postseason begin to make changes.

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NFL Weather Watch — Week 17

New England Patriots Training Camp: Day One Getty Images

Rain could be a common theme linking several games played early on the final regular-season Sunday of the NFL season.

Per WeatherUnderground.com, precipitation is likely to fall in five contests: Browns-Ravens, Cowboys-Washington, Bills-Patriots, Eagles-Giants and Colts-Titans. Browns-Ravens and Cowboys-Washington have playoff ramifications.

Here’s a rundown of the conditions expected in the 14 outdoor games to be played on Sunday. All games have 1 p.m. Eastern kickoffs unless otherwise noted.

Cleveland at Baltimore

Temperature: 49 degrees.

Wind: Five mph out of the west.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: 89 percent.

San Diego at Kansas City

Temperature: 33 degrees.

Wind: Three mph out of the south-southwest.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: None.

N.Y. Jets at Miami

Temperature: 83 degrees.

Wind: Seven mph out of the southeast.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: Eight percent.

Chicago at Minnesota

Temperature: 21 degrees.

Wind: Five mph out of the north.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: Three percent.

Buffalo at New England

Temperature: 46 degrees.

Wind: Five mph out of the west.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: 60 percent.

Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants

Temperature: 49 degrees.

Wind: Six mph out of the west-northwest.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: 80 percent.

New Orleans at Tampa Bay

Temperature: 75 degrees.

Wind: Six mph out of the south-southwest.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: Three percent.

Indianapolis at Tennessee

Temperature: 44 degrees.

Wind: Six mph out of the north.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: 80 percent.

Dallas at Washington

Temperature: 49 degrees.

Wind: Five mph out of the west.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: 88 percent.

Detroit at Green Bay (4:25 p.m. ET)

Temperature: 25 degrees.

Wind: Six mph out of the west-northwest.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: Six percent.

Oakland at Denver (4:25 p.m. ET)

Temperature: 33 degrees.

Wind: Three mph out of the west.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: Four percent.

Arizona at San Francisco (4:25 p.m. ET)

Temperature: 56 degrees.

Wind: Six mph out of the north-northwest.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: Three percent.

St. Louis at Seattle (4:25 p.m. ET)

Temperature: 41 degrees.

Wind: Two mph out of the north-northeast.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: 22 percent.

Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Temperature: 35 degrees.

Wind: Four mph out of the north-northwest.

Precipitation chance at kickoff: Ten percent.

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Patriots put Alfonzo Dennard on IR

Dennard AP

The Patriots have lost some of their enviable cornerback depth.

The club placed reserve corner Alfonzo Dennard on injured reserve on Saturday. To replace Dennard on the roster, the club called up wide receiver Josh Boyce from the practice squad.

The 25-year-old Dennard has started 20 games in three seasons with New England, but he had fallen down the depth chart in 2014. Nevertheless, he was an experienced option to call upon if needed. Dennard had been ruled out of Sunday’s regular-season finale vs. Buffalo with a hamstring injury.

Boyce, 23, appeared in nine games for New England in 2013, catching nine passes for 121 yards. However, New England waived him after the 2014 preseason, then re-signed him to the practice squad. A TCU product, Boyce was a fourth-round pick in 2013.

Boyce’s promotion comes with wide receivers Julian Edelman (thigh, concussion) and Brandon LaFell (shoulder) questionable for Sunday. The Patriots have clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC and are in a position to rest starters if they so choose — and it appears they will, at least to some extent.

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Gordon may appeal suspension

Gordon Getty Images

It’s known that Browns receiver Josh Gordon won’t play in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Ravens.  It isn’t known whether Gordon will simply accept the suspension.

Per a league source, Gordon will explore all options — including the possibility of an appeal through the NFL Players Association.  According to the source, it’s not yet known whether Gordon’s suspension applies with or without pay.  If unpaid, it’s far more likely that Gordon will appeal.

The suspension, if unpaid, limits Gordon to five regular-season games in 2014.  Some league insiders believe that prevents him from adding an accrued season toward free agency; the plain language of Article 8 of the 2011 labor deal seems to suggest that Gordon will get a year of credit toward free agency, since Article 8 says nothing about losing a year of credit due to substance-abuse suspensions or team-imposed suspensions.

The question becomes whether Gordon will receive credit for the third year of his four-year contract by playing in only five games.  The Joey Galloway decision suggests that credit will be applied, despite the lingering language of paragraph 16 of the standard player contract, which suggests that any failure or refusal to perform a player’s duties results in a one-year extension of the deal.

None of it matters unless the Browns decide to suspend Gordon without pay and then take the position that he remains under contract through 2016.  If that happens, there apparently will be two separate squabbles to resolve between player and team.

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Browns WR Phil Bates won’t play Sunday

Seattle Seahawks v Denver Broncos Getty Images

The practice-squad player whom the Browns called up to take the place of suspended wideout Josh Gordon will not play Sunday.

According to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, the Browns announced wideout Phil Bates has been ruled out of tomorrow’s game against the Ravens. It’s unclear why Bates won’t play, but the club did say it was not an injury-related decision, per the Beacon Journal. Bates did not accompany the club to Baltimore, according to the report.

The 25-year-old Bates appeared in one regular season game with Seattle earlier this year. He has spent about two months on Cleveland’s practice squad.

With Gordon and Bates out, the Browns have five available receivers: Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel, Andrew Hawkins, Marlon Moore and Rodney Smith. However, Hawkins is questionable with a thumb injury, though he did put in a limited practice on Friday after not practicing Wednesday. (The club had Thursday off.)

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Report: Browns fine Johnny Manziel for being late for treatment

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

Josh Gordon isn’t the only high-profile player in trouble with the Browns.

Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel has been fined by the team for being late for treatment on his injured hamstring, Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports.

That news was broken just hours after the Browns announced that Gordon is suspended for the regular-season finale for missing today’s walk-through practice. Manziel is on injured reserve and was not expected at the walk-through, but the report that he didn’t show up on time for treatment is concerning.

Manziel’s tardiness today comes just days after he vowed to take his work more seriously. Apparently taking work seriously doesn’t include showing up to work on time.

So now the Browns, at the end of a season that showed some promise, are ending the season on a low note: Their best offensive playmaker is such a troublemaker that his future with the team is in question, and their franchise quarterback doesn’t show up to work on time.

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Rolando McClain to miss regular-season finale with illness

Delanie Walker, J J Wilcox, Rolando McClain AP

Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain didn’t make the trip to Washington for Sunday’s regular-season finale.

The Cowboys have announced that McClain has an illness and will not play.

Sunday’s game is not particularly important for the Cowboys, as they’re likely to be the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs regardless of whether they win or lose. As a result, it makes sense to rest McClain and any other player who’s less than 100 percent healthy.

It’s been a rough week for McClain, who also lost his Alabama home to a suspicious fire.

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Buffalo shakeup could result in Polian reunion

Image (1) billpolian200_blog.jpg for post 72610

The silence has become deafening in Buffalo regarding the intentions of new owners Terry and Kim Pegula regarding the future of the franchise.  There’s growing speculation and rumor in league circles that the team’s immediate future could include a blast from the past.

Some in league circles firmly believe that, as soon as Monday, former Bills G.M. Bill Polian could be returning to the team.  It’s unclear what his role and duties would be; Polian and the Bills could try to engineer the job title and description in a way that doesn’t re-set the clock on his looming election to the Hall of Fame.  Nominated for the first time in the new contributor category, Polian’s candidacy will be debated and determined on January 31.

It’s also unclear what would happen after Polian’s return, if that indeed occurs.  Some think that G.M. Doug Whaley and CEO Russ Brandon would be in jeopardy, based on factors such as the ill-advised decision to use a first-round pick on quarterback EJ Manuel in 2013 and the surrender of a first-round pick and fourth-round pick in 2015 to move up five spots in the 2014 draft for receiver Sammy Watkins. Some saw the trade as a way to get to the postseason right away, increasing the chances of sticking with the franchise under new ownership.

Brandon, who was hired by the team in 1997 and who rose to a key level of influence in 2006, doesn’t have much to show for his time in Buffalo.  More importantly, he has no pre-existing connection to or allegiance with the Pegulas, who may want their own people to run the team.

The wild card moving forward is coach Doug Marrone.  Polian recently praised the second-year coach, which could be a sign that, if Polian gets the reins in Buffalo, Marrone won’t get the boot.

“Doug Marrone, the Bills’ head coach, should be very much in the running for coach of the year,” Polian said on ESPN earlier this month.  “The Packers are a much better team, but they weren’t yesterday in Ralph Wilson Stadium, and that’s to Doug Marrone’s credit, that’s to [defensive coordinator] Jim Schwartz’s credit and that team’s credit.”

Some think Polian would find a role in Buffalo for his son, Chris, who currently serves as the director of pro personnel in Jacksonville.  At one point, it was believed that Bill Polian was trying to set the table for Chris to become the G.M. of the Colts.  Then came the disastrous 2011 season, which resulted in owner Jim Irsay cleaning the decks.

While 2014 was hardly a disaster for the Bills, it’s been 15 years since the franchise last qualified for the postseason.  Which means that whatever they’ve been doing hasn’t been working.  Which means that a guy whose work helped the team to four straight Super Bowl appearances could soon be back in the fold.

UPDATE 6:07 p.m. ET:  Joe Horrigan, the Executive V.P. of Museums, Selection Process & Chief Communications Officer for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, tells PFT that the clock does not reset for contributors.  So Polian can return to the NFL and be elected to the Hall of Fame.  Which would make 2015 a pretty good year for Polian.

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Browns suspend Josh Gordon for violating team rules

Cleveland Browns v St. Louis Rams 8-8-2013 Getty Images

Josh Gordon is suspended again.

Gordon, the wide receiver who began this season on a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, has now been suspended by the Browns for violating team rules.

The Browns have not revealed what Gordon did, but PFT has confirmed the multiple reports that he missed today’s walk-through practice. Whatever the reasons, this suspension provides Gordon’s detractors with one more reason to think that he simply doesn’t get it. Gordon has phenomenal talent — as much talent as almost any wide receiver in football — but his history of off-field problems stretches back to college and may end up derailing his career.

If Gordon ever gets himself straightened out and dedicates himself to being a professional, he’ll be among the league’s elite players. If not, he’ll be remembered as a player who let his great talent go to waste.

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Brady, Gronk, Revis likely won’t last long on Sunday

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots Getty Images

Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady both said this week that they take Sunday’s regular-season finale seriously, even though they’ve already clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. But the reality is that the Patriots likely won’t approach this game like any other regular-season game.

Instead, top players like Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis are likely to start but get pulled early to avoid risking an injury.

That’s the word from the Patriots’ website, which notes that Belichick’s usual approach is to play the starters just long enough so they don’t get rusty, but then pull them fairly early in the game.

Belichick did famously keep playing his starters into Week 17 in 2007, when the Patriots were en route to the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history. But without a historical accomplishment like that on the line, it seems unlikely that Belichick would want to leave Brady and Co. on the field for long. The Patriots know first hand that a Week 17 injury can be costly, as Wes Welker suffered a torn ACL in Week 17 of the 2009 season.

So expect to see Brady throwing to Gronkowski early in the game on Sunday. But not after halftime.

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League has no comment on report of Casserly contacting Jets candidates

charley_casserly_82879286 Getty Images

On the surface, the report from NJ.com that former NFL G.M. Charley Casserly has begun contacting potential coaching and G.M. candidates for the Jets seems reasonable and expected.  At a deeper level, the report (if true) creates potential problems.

If Casserly is indeed contacting candidates currently under contract with other teams, he’s engaging in tampering.  The potential violation becomes more glaring in light of the fact that he currently works for the NFL, through its in-house media conglomerate.

The league has no comment on the situation.  One league source with knowledge of Casserly’s efforts tells PFT that he’s making calls about candidates, but that Casserly is not directly contacting candidates.

What makes the situation a bit more complicated is the report from the New York Daily News that Casserly has been doing background work on candidates in connection with his role as a member of the NFL’s Career Development Advisory Panel.  That connection makes Casserly more attractive to the Jets as a potential consultant, because he’s in position to provide much more meaningful input given his role on the panel that identifies the best candidates for the looming wave of vacancies.

Whether individual teams should be in position to purchase the information and access obtained by members of the advisory panel by hiring them as consultants is a philosophical question the league needs to address, if it so chooses.  For now, Jets owner Woody Johnson’s decision to retain a consultant who is in a unique position to provide consultation is one of the smartest moves Johnson has made in a long time.

Then again, when it comes to smart moves made by Johnson, the bar is pretty low.

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Watt could be first defensive player since 2008 to get an MVP vote

Watt Getty Images

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt probably won’t win the Most Valuable Player award. But if he even gets a vote, he’ll be doing something rare for a defensive player.

The league MVP award is voted upon by 50 members of the media, chosen by the Associated Press. And those 50 members of the media almost never vote for a defensive player.

In fact, no defensive player has received even one MVP vote since 2008, when James Harrison of the Steelers got three votes. Here’s how the MVP votes have broken down this century, with the AP sometimes having fewer than 50 voters and some voters occasionally splitting their votes between two candidates:

2013: Peyton Manning 49, Tom Brady 1
2012: Adrian Peterson 30.5, Peyton Manning 19.5
2011: Aaron Rodgers 48, Drew Brees 2
2010: Tom Brady 50
2009: Peyton Manning 39.5, Drew Brees 7.5, Philip Rivers 2, Brett Favre 1
2008: Peyton Manning, 32, Chad Pennington 4, Michael Turner 4, Adrian Peterson 3, James Harrison 3, Philip Rivers 2, Chris Johnson 1, Kurt Warner 1
2007: Tom Brady 49, Brett Favre 1
2006: LaDainain Tomlinson 44, Drew Brees 4, Peyton Manning 2
2005: Shaun Alexander 19, Peyton Manning 13, Tom Brady 10, Tiki Barber 6, Carson Palmer 2
2004: Peyton Manning 47, Michael Vick 1
2003: Peyton Manning 16, Steve McNair 16, Tom Brady 8, Jamal Lewis 5, Priest Holmes 3, Ray Lewis 2
2002: Rich Gannon 19, Brett Favre 15, Steve McNair 11, Priest Holmes 1, Derrick Brooks 1, Michael Vick 1
2001: Kurt Warner 21.5, Marshall Faulk 17.5 votes, Brett Favre 5, Kordell Stewart 4, Brian Urlacher 2
2000: Marshall Faulk 24, Donovan McNabb 11, Eddie George 8, Rich Gannon 5, Peyton Manning 1, Ray Lewis 1

As you can see, it’s virtually impossible for a defensive player to win the MVP award, or even to come close: Only Harrison, Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher have received any votes at all, and they were distant also-rans.

If Watt gets four MVP votes this year, he’ll have the most of any defensive player in the 21st century. That’s a major accomplishment. Just not an accomplishment that comes with a trophy he can put on his mantle.

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