There's a reason why no wide receiver has ever won the NFL's highest individual honor. It is tied to touches and steady contributions trumping spectacular catches.
The thinking goes that a wide receiver doesn't touch the ball enough to be the most valuable player in any given year. In 2016, for example, only three wideouts eclipsed the 100-catch mark. But there were 11 running backs with 250-plus carries and 20 quarterbacks who attempted 500-plus throws.
It would take extraordinary production and near-weekly heroics to even give a receiver MVP consideration. But what if we flipped that thinking for one season and were in awe of what a receiver accomplished despite his comparatively fewer touches?
It would take what Antonio Brown has done in 2017.
Stay with me here because I know his injury has slammed shut most of the minds that were open to Brown as MVP.
Yes, he suffered a calf injury in Week 15 against the New England Patriots and has likely played his final regular-season snap. He missed the Pittsburgh Steelers' 34-6 win over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on Christmas Day. With a first-round bye ahead of them in the playoffs, it's unlikely the Steelers will risk reinjury to their stud receiver against the winless Cleveland Browns in Week 17.
As ESPN's Adam Schefter reported, Brown is expected to return from his partially torn calf muscle in time for the postseason.
An absence of any length can torpedo MVP potential as others keep dazzling. But even if Brown hadn't suffered an injury, the Steelers likely would've scaled back his workload. Their remaining schedule had two teams on it with a combined four wins. He may have sat out Week 17 regardless.
But Brown has separated himself. Even if he doesn't make another regular-season catch in 2017 or gain another yard, the 29-year-old is still far ahead of his peers.
That applies first to his fellow wide receivers. Brown is set to finish his eighth campaign in the NFL with 1,533 receiving yards on 101 catches (he set a record in 2017 with a fifth straight 100-catch season).
He will likely lead the league in yards through the air. Brown is 155 ahead of Houston Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins with one week left.
|Top five receivers after Week 16|
In 2016, no receiver reached the 1,500-yard mark, yet Brown has cruised past it in 14 games.
He reached his 2017 perch with a stretch of brilliance that at times is hard to accept as something we saw.
The Steelers won eight straight games, starting in Week 6, and that streak ended with a heartbreaking 27-24 loss to the Patriots in Week 15. Brown finished with at least 100 receiving yards in five of those contests, but his four-game eruption that began in mid-November stands out.
|Antonio Brown between Weeks 11 and 14|
The totals from that stretch are staggering. Brown piled up 627 receiving yards on 39 catches, averaging 16.1 yards per grab.
That streak is about more than just the numbers, though. Whenever the Steelers needed Brown to come through, he was ready, often delicately tiptoeing along the sideline in order to complete a clutch play.
He caught a 23-yard deep heave from Ben Roethlisberger with 17 seconds left in a tie game with the Green Bay Packers. Brown separated with his usual intricate route running and then lunged while somehow keeping both feet in bounds, via the NFL on Twitter:
ANTONIO BROWN IS NOT HUMAN. Incredible catch. #HereWeGo #GBvsPIT https://t.co/DY6pskYGNB2017-11-27 04:31:58
He was also instrumental in a 40-17 win over the Tennessee Titans with three of the Steelers' four touchdowns.
The highlight of that performance was his best one-handed David Tyree impression:
Unreal, @AB84. #TENvsPIT https://t.co/tvViRfwUYp2017-11-17 04:14:55
Oh, and Brown made a game-defining play when the Steelers were trailing by one score and facing third down on their own 36-yard line against the division rival Baltimore Ravens with 1:08 remaining in the contest. He is at his best when hope is dwindling and made a 34-yard catch with just over a minute left to set up the game-winning field goal.
That's why the Steelers lean on him so much and why he accounted for 37.8 percent of their receiving yards and 27.8 percent of their offense before his injury.
Even more impressively, Brown ranks among the top five in yards from scrimmage, a space running backs often dominate. They have two paths to accumulate those yards, while wide receivers get only rare carries. (Brown has 31 career carries but none in 2017.)
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is second on that leaderboard with 1,946 yards from scrimmage, which gives him a strong MVP case as well. The Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley leads the group with 2,093 yards, and he has soared while averaging 175.4 total yards over his past five games.
The MVP conversation is always magnetized to one position, though.
"I play with a lot of great peers around the NFL—to even be mentioned with those guys is something special," Brown said recently after hearing the MVP chatter, per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler. "Obviously, it's a quarterback league."
New England signal-caller Tom Brady, who has a passer rating of 104.2 while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt—all remarkably at the age of 40—is in the lead by default. But he has uncharacteristically thrown six interceptions over his last five games, and a notable Week 14 dud in a loss to the lowly Miami Dolphins (5.4 YPA and only a 55.8 completion percentage) is still fresh.
That Brown's 2017 season seems to have ended early has stung his MVP case. That shouldn't matter much, however, if we focus on what he contributed to a championship-contending team that won the AFC North for the second straight year.
Brown finished his season with five 150-plus yard games. He maintained the Steelers' heavyweight status in the NFL with that blistering four-game streak and averaged 109.5 yards per game—many of those yards coming in spectacular, game-deciding fashion.
He vaulted his team toward the top of the AFC and should have done enough to give himself at least a shot at making MVP history.