Thursday, October 25, 2018

Comparing J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor's Defensive MVP Seasons

Bu John Turney
Credit: David Marquez, YouTube
Both Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt have won the AP Defensive Player of the Award three times each, the most by any players in the history of that award. However, there are other major Defensive Player of the Year awards that are or were recognized by the NFL/NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL Official Record & Fact Book, and Total Football:  The Official Encyclopedia of the NFL which is the reference book used by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So, are Taylor's accomplishments in this are rivaled by Watt? Or even surpassed?

Yes, we know, there will be the screams of partisans who will call L.T. the "GOAT" (greatest of all time) which he is. But that is beside the point, really. He can be the premier rush backer in the history of the league but also have his record looked at closely so as to give JJ Watt's accomplishments their fair due.
Let's begin with the AP Defensive Player of the Year.

Here are the vote totals for 1981, 1982, and 1983—
Taylor edged Joe Klecko in 1981 22 to 20 in the vote total. Kelcko's total was likely affected by Mark Gastineau getting 10 votes. Bot Klecko and Gastineau totaled over 20 sacks in 1981 as the Jets recorded 66 sacks and made the playoffs for the first time since the Namath era.

In 1982 Taylor dominated the AP voting with 34 votes and the nearest competitors received 8 votes.

In 1986 Taylor again dominated the MVP and Defensive Player voting. There was no question as to who the best player was, according to the voters.

Now, here are Watt's totals. He was dominant in all three—

So, in terms of the votes, you have to give the edge to Watt, being the overwhelming leading vote-getter and Taylor doing that twice and also winning a close tally.
Now for the other major, recognized awards at the time. For Taylor it was the AP, Pro Football Weekly and NEA (the player's voted)

Taylor was the consensus choice in 1986. In 1981 and 1982 there were other winners preventing a true consensus status for Taylor.

In Watt's era, the major awards were the AP, the PFWA and Sporting News.

As can be seen, Watt swept them all in all three years and Taylor did not.

Finally, here are the stats for the relevant seasons—
Playing different positions does make comparisons somewhat difficult. But Watt's sack totals and stuff totals are impressive. The Giants didn't have good records for run stuffs (tackles for loss) in the first couple of seasons, but from available data they weren't near what Watt did. 

So, does all this make Watt the better player? No. Of course not. Does that give him the edge when looking at who was, at the time, recognized as having the more dominant season? Maybe. It means Watt was more widely recognized in terms of votes and awards in his three great seasons than Taylor was at the time.

We are very aware of "recentism", a phenomenon that gives bias to recent events over things that happened further in the past. However, this is also something called "golden age thinking" which has a bias towards things in the past that causes folks to overrate or "misremember" how things actually were at the time.

Regardless, it could be all moot if Watt wins another DPOY award which is possible, even this season. And in no way are we lessening what LT did. It's just that when we hear "Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt are the only two players to win the AP DPOY award three times" we know that's true but we also know there more to the story and if one looks at the accomplishments of the seasons in question one would have to rate Watt's accomplishments slightly higher.

We look forward to your angry comments!


  1. John who do you think was a better run defender between LT and Watt? How do you rate LT's best seasons?

  2. LT was great at plays going away from him, like Deacon. But you could run at both of them/ Jones harder because Olsen next to him cleaned up a lot of messes. Watt, IMO, better at plays at him and broke free and made tons more run stops in backfield. Watt better vs run

  3. I've always found LT's 1981 win a bit mystifying. I think the best explanation is the two Jet teammates splitting the ballot. The defensive player who probably most boosted his teams' prospects that season was Fred Dean after being traded to the 49ers.

  4. The other interesting side-note to Watt's dominance is that Donald and Mack each won DPOY in seasons that were not their best, but coincided with Watt's injury. May change this year as Donald is unstoppable.

  5. Isn't Lawrence Taylor's 1981 DPOY award impressive since Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau both had 20-sack seasons? You can't expect Taylor to win the award unanimously with such competition. Also.....Taylor's presence lifted the Giants' defensive unit's rank from 27th in 1980 to 3rd in 1981.

  6. LT changed the game. Teams had to redesign their offences in order to beat the Giants.
    JJ Watt (whilst certainly needed game planning) did not have the same effect

    1. Has nothing to do with this particular discussion. And when you make statements like that, let us know if you are a Giants fan or if you are interested in non-partisan discussion.

      "Rah-Rah" stuff is very boring.

  7. No disrespect to JJ Watt, he's unnaturally talented and his performance as a 3-4 defensive end speaks volumes. I think to dilute Lawrence Taylor's DPOY achievement in his rookie year by asserting that Gastineau took votes from Klecko is a specious argument. Taylor entered the NFL and not only was he the best player on his team......but his presence made a difference in the Giant's fortunes and the improvement in the defense's ranking by 24 spots from 1980 -1981 demonstrates this. Name another player that has been considered the best defensive player his first two years in the NFL.

    Phil Simms is on record stating that in Taylor's first scrimmage with the Giants they had to sit Taylor down because the Giants' QB getting reps on the other side of the ball couldn't get anything going with Taylor generating so much pressure.

    1. It's accurate. Remember Joe Klecko, not LT, was the NEA Defesnive MVP. LT got 22 votes. Klecko 20 and Gastineau 10. There is no doubt that Gastineau took votes from Klecko.

  8. Per Ray Perkins, Bill Parcells, and Bill Belichick...Lawrence Taylor was the best player on the Giants the minute they selected him in the draft and it was confirmed in the first camp held subsequent to the draft. After the first 6 pass attempts by the offense were thwarted by Taylor, Parcells pulled him so the Giants' offense could get their reps in. Taylor was THE main reason behind the Giants making their first playoff appearance in 18 years.

    Klecko and Gastineau's performance was the main reason the Jets were able to overcome a 0-3 start to the 1981 season, make the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, and the Jets' defense improved from 24th to 8th from 1980 to 1981. So of course the votes for Klecko and Gastineau would be split.

    The only other studs on the Giants' defense was CB Mark Haynes and ILB Harry Carson who came off the field on passing downs.

    This reminds me of the early 80s when the Jets were the sexy football choice in New York because of Namath's legacy and the Jets making it to the AFC Championship Game vs the Dolphins in 1983. In 1986.....the Jets started the season 10-1....then dropped their final 5 games to finish 10-6 and back into the playoffs.

    You can formulate statistics to promote whatever narrative is favored. Lawrence Taylor won an MVP award during the prime career years of RB Eric Dickerson, QB Joe Montana, QB Dan Marino, RB Marcus Allen, QB John Elway, and QB Jim Kelly.

  9. Klecko should have won 1981 period. He was a pro bowler at 3 diferent positions I believe. Someone check that for me. Klecko had 8 more sacks than LT as an interior lineman. Not an edge rusher or OLB.