No receiver has ever won MVP, but Saints' Michael Thomas has a case

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METAIRIE, La. -- On top of everything else Michael Thomas has accomplished in this season with the New Orleans Saints, he has shed light on an historical anomaly: No receiver has ever won the NFL’s MVP award.

That’s right. Not even Jerry Rice, who finished second in both 1987 and 1995. In fact, no receiver has received a vote since Randy Moss in his rookie season of 1998.

So even though the Thomas is on pace to break Marvin Harrison's NFL record of 143 catches in a season, he has his work cut out for him.

“If Jerry Rice didn’t win an MVP, it’s not possible,” said Rice’s former quarterback, Steve Young.

Young then detected a chuckle after his blunt response and replied, “I’m not joking about that.”

“My sense is that Michael Thomas is worthy, but I don’t know how he wins it,” said Young, who is now an ESPN analyst. “Maybe it’s because the receiver has to have somebody else for him to be prolific. And there’s no question there’s a bias toward the quarterback as the MVP versus the receiver.

“Maybe it’s just the receivers, for all the things they do get, this is one of the things that is kind of a bummer for receivers.”

Unfortunately for the sake of drama and debate, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is threatening to take all the fun out of this year’s MVP argument. Nevertheless, Thomas might be making the most compelling case of any receiver since Rice.

He already has 110 catches, 1,290 receiving yards and six touchdowns, putting him on pace for 146, 1,720 and eight -- despite playing nearly six full games with backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

And Thomas is posting monster numbers on a weekly basis, even though defenses know he is the only receiver they have to worry about. No other Saints receiver has more than 24 catches.

“Has anybody done what he's doing? In history?” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who said Thomas should be a candidate. “Fastest to 400 [career] receptions, all that stuff, right? So when you're the first to do something, I think that should grab people's attention.”

But when asked if he plans to throw the ball to Thomas even more to help him break Harrison’s record, Brees laughed and said, “Is that possible?”

Thomas has a chance to make a statement in the next two weeks, with a showdown looming against the San Francisco 49ers and their top-ranked defense (allowing 134.3 passing yards per game) on Sunday, followed by a national prime-time showcase against the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football in Week 15.

But he isn’t interested in campaigning.

“Yeah, I was surprised [to hear that no receiver had ever won the award]. But I feel like it’s more about championships,” Thomas said. “It’s cool, I mean, it’s a blessing I guess to be in that category. But the individual awards don’t last as much as a championship and being able to celebrate with your team and just that whole experience.”

Thomas has maintained the same approach toward the possibility of breaking Harrison’s record.

“When you play at a high level, a lot of good things come with that,” Thomas said. “So my overall goal is helping this team win football games and playing in the championship and correcting our mistakes from last year and improving on my play from last year.”

Saints coach Sean Payton has stressed the focus on winning championships and that “you can’t control the other things,” such as award voting. But he did break down the argument in a recent interview with Pro Football Talk, pointing out that New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman was named the Super Bowl MVP. So if it can happen in a big game like that, it could probably happen over the course of a full season.

“It starts with you’ve got to win,” Payton said. “You’ve got to be, generally speaking, having success. And he’s been a huge part of that for us. And then you have to have production, and he’s on pace to have more production at that position than anyone in the history of the game.”

Young did acknowledge Thomas has some compelling factors in his favor -- starting with the 49 catches, 598 yards and three touchdowns while Bridgewater was at quarterback. Thomas also has two catches for 35 yards from third-string QB Taysom Hill.

“It is [more possible to win MVP] if you don’t have a Hall of Fame player throwing you the ball,” said Young, who pointed out that Rice was probably hurt by playing with two former Hall of Fame QBs in himself and Joe Montana -- while Thomas is probably hurt by playing with Brees.

That was never more true than 1987, when Rice finished six votes behind MVP John Elway (36 votes to 30) -- while Montana finished third with 18 votes.

Young is also impressed by Thomas’ ability to keep producing without other prolific pass-catchers around him.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Thomas has accounted for 35 percent of the Saints’ receptions and 40 percent of their receiving yards this year, both of which are the highest rates in the league.

Thomas again leads all NFL receivers this year with a catch rate of 82.7 for the 10-2 Saints. Last year, he caught 85 percent of all passes thrown his way, which was the highest rate of any receiver since at least 1986, according to the Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz.

When Thomas dropped a pass last week, it was his first since Week 7 of last season -- ending a streak of 198 catches without a drop.

“I always feel like the greatest test for a receiver is when everyone knows you’re getting it, and you still get it. And that’s the way Jerry was,” Young said of Rice. “You’d think there’s a way to take a receiver away -- and I think generally there is. But there’s some guys you just can’t. And I think that’s a great compliment to Michael, that it feels like he can’t be stopped.

Young also compared Thomas to former NFL standout Steve Smith. Although the 5-foot-9 Smith was obviously built differently than the 6-3 Thomas, Young said both are “so strong and yet quick.”

“Steve Smith was uncoverable in some ways. And I just think there’s a quickness in coming out of breaks, like with Jerry,” Young said. “So much of receiving is someone starting and stopping and changing directions and everything. And some guys can just change directions and stop and start better. Jerry wasn’t the fastest guy in the world, but nobody could start and stop faster. And so in that way, you can’t be a spectacular receiver unless you can be one of these freakish stoppers and starters.”

Thomas wasn’t quite as descriptive when asked how he gets open. But he did vow to keep doing it.

“I’ve been getting open this whole year. So, s---, keep getting open,” Thomas said. “I play for the Saints and I’m the receiver for Drew Brees. So when the play’s called, I’m supposed to make him right. I’m supposed to do my thing and get open.

“I’m not really worried about the names on jerseys or who’s following me. If I look up at you and you’re in front of me, I’m about to beat you. That’s it.”