Quarterbacks have won the past 10 NFL most valuable player awards and 15 of the past 16, and their monopolization of the honor is utterly justified. Within the offensive environment created by rule changes and modern strategy, the position’s preeminence is inherent. In 999 seasons out of 1,000, it would be folly even to consider the candidacy of a non-quarterback. But the collision of stylistic trends and the outlandish impact of Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill makes it necessary. Hill is a one-in-a-thousand player, and this might be a one-in-thousand season.
Hill is the player most responsible for the AFC’s highest-scoring offense, an attack that fell into disarray Monday night when he was sidelined by, and then intermittently played through, an ankle injury suffered in the first quarter. With a return to health, Hill will challenge the record for receiving yards in a single season and might not need a 17th game to break it. But his statistical production comprises a fraction of his MVP case.
In the spring of 2022, not long after he was hired to coach the Dolphins, Mike McDaniel learned the Kansas City Chiefs had opened their minds to trading Hill. McDaniel could barely contain himself. He went to General Manager Chris Grier with impetuous, only half-joking advice: Give the Chiefs anything they ask for.
“I quite honestly thought he was one of the untouchable guys that you couldn’t get,” McDaniel recalled in an interview with “The Dan LeBatard Show” in the summer of 2022. “When he comes in and tells me that the Chiefs have talked to him, I said, ‘Chris, that’s one of the only non-quarterbacks where you do whatever it takes.’ ”
McDaniel understood Hill was an outlier: a non-quarterback who could manipulate the defense on every snap. In recent seasons, defenses have decimated explosive plays by deploying multiple deep safeties in a shell-like formation. Hill may be the one player who can break that strategy, running past defenders and opening giant swaths of space underneath the deep routes he runs.
Speed matters because it alters the geometry of the field. A fast offensive player enlarges the space a defense must cover, and a fast defensive player shrinks the space in which an offense can operate. Hill is the fastest player in the NFL, and he reaches his top speed immediately, with full control of his body and an underrated understanding of defensive coverage. He effectively allows the Dolphins to play on a different, larger field than any other offense.
When the Dolphins’ offense sputtered without Hill on Monday night, it was not just because it missed his production. More crucially, Miami missed the way he contorts coverage, opens space and forces defenses to devote resources to him. Even when the Dolphins handed off, the absence of defensive attention to Hill made them less effective.
Hill is operating in a climate that has slightly flattened the influence of quarterbacks. While defensive coordinators have defused long passes with deep safeties, more athletic, better-trained pass rushers have further forced quarterbacks to throw quicker, shorter passes. Quarterbacks leaguewide are averaging 10.8 yards per completion, the lowest ever. They still matter much more than any other position, not just in football but in all professional sports. But they are more reliant on the skill players around them.
The two best quarterbacks this season — and the betting favorites for MVP — are San Francisco’s Brock Purdy and Dallas’s Dak Prescott. If the season ended today, either would be a worthy winner. Prescott’s average throw travels 8.6 yards past the line of scrimmage, per Pro Football Focus, which ranks 13th in the league. Purdy is right behind him at 8.5. Five years ago, Prescott’s average depth of target would have ranked 18th. Ten years ago, it would have been 27th.
The stylistic differences in quarterbacks is enough for a unique non-quarterback to nudge the MVP window open. Hill is doing things that don’t make sense, things that scramble the established context of professional football. Third and seven is the bane of offensive coaches. Bill Walsh once said that when he tried to fall asleep at night, it was what play to call on third and seven that kept him awake. This year, on third downs with between seven and nine yards to go, the Dolphins threw Hill eight passes. He caught six, all for first downs and two for touchdowns, with an average of 26.7 yards per reception.
Sixty-nine of Hill’s 97 receptions have gained a first down, most in the NFL. The gap between Hill and second place is larger than the gap between second and 10th place.
This season, the Dolphins have frequently blown out opponents, which prompts them to either preserve Hill or run the ball to drain the clock. Despite mostly taking the fourth quarter off, Hill has been the NFL’s most prolific wideout. If you count only what Hill has done in the first three quarters, he still leads the NFL with 1,429 receiving yards. That is 171 yards clear of second-place A.J. Brown.
The stats of prolific receivers typically balloon in the fourth quarter, when pass rushers wear down and trailing offenses pass to come back. Of Brown’s 1,258 receiving yards this season, 348 (27.7 percent) have come in fourth quarters. When Calvin Johnson set the receiving yardage record in 2012 for the 4-12 Detroit Lions, 31.9 percent of his 1,964 yards came in the fourth quarter. It’s 7.3 percent for Hill this year. And yet Hill was outgaining Johnson’s 2012 pace, 123.4 yards per game to 122.8, before Monday night’s injury limited him. Hill is now averaging 118.6 yards per game, which ranks fifth-most of all-time.
When Hill returned in the third quarter of Monday night’s game, he caught a 25-yard pass at the Tennessee Titans 6-yard line. The crowd at Hard Rock Stadium chanted, “M-V-P! M-V-P!” Most years, it would have sounded absurd. But this is not a normal season, and Hill is nothing close to a normal player.