The NFL is supposed to be a game of parity, but the race to be its best player is run on rare air. An award titled Most Valuable Player self-selects players chasing legendary status, names like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
And although one historic season can change things — like a running back winning the award on a wild-card team — being considered for MVP is usually reserved for players in the legendary tier.
The past nine MVP trophies belong to a group of five players. Manning, Brady and Rodgers have each won two in that span, and Adrian Peterson turned out a league-defying season in 2012 to earn his first crown. They are four players bound for the Hall of Fame, based in part on those trophies but more on the careers that have kept their names on the short list.
This was the standard trajectory until last season when Cam Newton rose above the run-first quarterback he was for four years prior to total 35 passing touchdowns on a 15-1 Panthers team. Perhaps last season changed things in the MVP race, extending like a bridge to a new group of superstars to do battle as Manning, Brady and Peterson fade from the league.
After spending his first four seasons in the second tier of quarterbacks, playing as a runner more than a passer, the Panthers quarterback threw, ran, jumped and laughed his way to a near-unanimous MVP trophy. His victory was valid and yet unconventional all at the same time. It was Newton leaping over yet another pile in a way most players never have.
The question facing Newton is what he does for an encore — what his abilities, environment and competition will allow of him? Even for established MVP candidates, it fluctuates on individual factors every season.
Manning, Rodgers and Brady combined for seven of the eight trophies handed out between 2008 and 2015, with Peterson winning the other. The three quarterbacks have simply traded off crowns during that span, with all three winning at least two and only Manning taking three, including back-to-back in 2008 and 2009.
A five-time MVP, Manning made it easy to forget how hard it really is to win back-to-back titles. Only two other players ever have — Joe Montana in 1989-1990 and Brett Favre in 1995-1997 — and for all their steady challenges, Brady and Rodgers never have.
The most obvious roadblock is injury. Even in an era that has protected quarterbacks more than it had before, each of Manning, Brady and Rodgers lost a shot at the crown due to a major blow. Brady tore his ACL the game after his 2007 crown, the one for the then-record 50 touchdown passes he threw in a single season.
If he were healthy and playing with Randy Moss again, perhaps he’d have that repeat award. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Seasons become record-setting because they’re really hard to accomplish, let alone repeat. Peterson was the MVP in 2012 because his 2,097 rushing yards challenged the all-time record and carried a Vikings team without a passing game to the playoffs. The next year, 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns in 14 games certainly fit his Hall-of-Fame-worthy resume but didn’t get him anywhere close to a second award.
Sometimes the production slips because the circumstances around the reigning champion become worse. Rodgers saw it last season, with vertical threat Jordy Nelson hurt and running back Eddie Lacy overweight and unproductive. Even though he led the Packers to the divisional playoffs, his career lows in completion percentage and yards per attempt on a 10-6 team gave him no shot at beating Newton.
Sometimes even maintaining performance isn’t enough because the challengers are great, too. Brady discovered that in 2011, when his 39 touchdown passes were three more than his MVP total the year before but fell short of Rodgers’ 45-score season.
All signs point to it being unlikely for Newton to raise or even meet the bar he set in 2015, although nothing about last year’s leap felt likely either. He’ll return former No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to supplant the unreliable Ted Ginn, but the Panthers’ Super Bowl loss to the Broncos might supply somewhat of a blueprint for the pressure and midfield coverage schemes that can pull the old Newton back out again.
He could get hurt, continuing to play with that rugby running style that invites so many hits.
And, of course, someone else could rise above him, such as Rodgers or Brady again or perhaps a newcomer such as Russell Wilson or Carson Palmer. With Manning retired and Brady nearing age 40, Rodgers will have new regular challengers to the crown that has become so hard to hold for multiple years in a row.
On that front, 2016 won’t be about repeating for Cam Newton as much as showing he’s here to stay.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.