Labriola On

Labriola on my MVP, comparing 2 trades

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Jack Ham never won, but Gary Anderson did. Dwayne Woodruff won as many times as Mel Blount, and Neil O'Donnell and Kordell Stewart each won as many as Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Greene. Lynn Swann never won, but Roy Jefferson, Ron Shanklin, and Louis Lipps all did.

• The subject is the Steelers MVP Award, which was born in 1969 – when Jefferson was the inaugural winner – and has been presented to a deserving winner every season since, except for 1988, 2002, and 2005 when there were co-winners. And the winner is deserving whether we all agree with the choice or not, because it's a team award voted on by the members of the team.

• I often have been amused when critics of a particular winner dismiss the process as "a popularity contest," because it seems that any process that involves a group of people voting for one individual over other individuals is – any election – by definition a popularity contest.

• But what's intriguing about this process is that I believe it tells us more about the voters than it tells us about the winner. Since there are no specific guidelines about what constitutes "most valuable," each individual voter is left to determine what those words mean and then cast a vote accordingly. Some may see "most valuable" meaning the best, others may view it as synonymous with "indispensable." Who knows that other may think "most valuable" means.

• There was a time during a portion of the 1980s when it appeared that the annual winner of the Steelers MVP Award was the individual soon to emerge as the team's next star contributor, and then during a more recent time it seemed as though the winner would either be Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell on a rotating basis.

• There are many deserving candidates this season, a year that has seen many guys step up and make significant contributions for a team dealing with a lot of adversity created by a series of injuries to players who were expected to be critical components during the 2019 season. There also are players who have been starters throughout and have done nothing but perform and produce at a high level since the first week of September.

• For the purpose of this column, we're going to pretend I have appointed myself the campaign manager for an individual I believe is deserving of being recognized Steelers MVP. This will not be a negative campaign in any way, because to disparage the other candidates or discount their bonafides would be the antithesis of the way my candidate conducts himself both as a professional and as a teammate.

• My candidate is Cam Heyward.

• We'll begin with his on-field production to this point in the 2019 season. Heyward has played in every game, which normally might not be considered a big deal but during this season of so many injuries for the Steelers it actually is a big deal. His 61 tackles are fourth on the team and first among defensive linemen; his seven sacks are third on the team and first among defensive linemen. He's second on the team with 17 hits on the quarterback, and he also has batted down four passes at the line of scrimmage, forced one fumble, and recovered one fumble.

• And being that those statistics have come while a part of a defense that is carrying the Steelers in their push for a playoff spot with them currently the sixth seed in the AFC, a unit that currently ranks in the top seven in the NFL in eight significant defensive categories and ninth in another, Heyward should be in the running for his third Pro Bowl and maybe his second appearance on the Associated Press' All-Pro team.

• In addition to being productive, Heyward also has been reliable and available. In the team's 12 games, Heyward has played 660 of a possible 829 defensive snaps (79.6 percent), and from the time Stephon Tuitt was injured in the game against the Chargers in Los Angeles, he has taken on more of the load by playing 341 of a possible 396 snaps (86.1 percent).

• Those are the statistics, but it's only part of why Heyward is deserving of his teammates' support. One of the Steelers captains, Heyward does more than just represent the team at the coin toss, because it was his voice that was prominent during the two most critical stages of this season. In either instance, the Steelers could have lost their focus and imploded, but when it came time to stare down the cameras and microphones and say the right thing, Heyward stepped to the front, as always.

• The first instance came in the aftermath of the loss to the 49ers in San Francisco that dropped the Steelers to 0-3. It was 0-3 with Ben Roethlisberger facing elbow surgery that would end his season, 0-3 with nothing going right, 0-3 with more than three more months left of what had been to that point pure agony. Was this going to be the year when the Steelers started pointing fingers and cannibalizing each other?

• "It's really easy not to point the finger," Heyward all but growled. "You look at our tape, there are mistakes everywhere. So for any guy pointing the finger, I'll break that damn thing off if they do."

• Since that loss to the 49ers, the Steelers are 7-2 and everyone in the locker room has all of their fingers.

• The second instance came in the aftermath of the Thursday night in Cleveland, which included a loss to the Browns and a melee at the end lowlighted by Myles Garrett ripping off Mason Rudolph's helmet and the assaulting him with it. Emotions still were running high after the Steelers returned to Pittsburgh, and there was a lot of potential for losing focus what with a game in Cincinnati in between the rematch with the Browns in Pittsburgh.

• First, Heyward addressed the events in Cleveland without pandering to the foolishness. "The most important thing is we lost that game. I know it got overshadowed by a lot of things, but as a defense, we didn't play well. We were on the field too much. That's our fault. They drove the ball and had a lot of success. You've got to learn from that. I'm not going to hide from that."

• And then he followed up by using the media to tell his teammates to keep their eye on the prize, which at the time was a division game in Cincinnati. "I like the fact that we lost to them, so we get another shot to play them. I don't care who we lose to, if they're in our division, we get our shot (again). We've got to right the ship. I know we get (the Browns) at home, and we're thinking we have this great aura at Heinz Field, but we've got to put in the work. Only way that game means anything is if we win this game, so our focus has got to be on Cincinnati right now."

• I don't get to vote for the Steelers MVP, but if I did I would cast mine for Cam Heyward.

• Man, Browns General Manager John Dorsey is so smooth. Working the New York Giants to acquire Odell Beckham in a trade. What a shrewd operator.

• Boy, did Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert get fleeced. Trading away his team's future for Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Miami Dolphins sure saw him coming.

• So, which of those contentions is correct?

• Well, let's take a look. Start with Beckham to the Browns. To acquire Beckham, Dorsey traded the Browns' No. 1 pick (17th overall) and a third-round pick that was the 98th overall, and both of those were in the 2019 NFL Draft. Also going to the Giants was Jabrill Peppers, Cleveland's second of three No. 1 picks in 2017. A hybrid safety, Peppers had 57 tackles, three passes defensed, and one interception as a 22-year-old rookie, and 79 tackles, one sack, two fumble recoveries, five passes defensed, and one interception in 2018. Peppers turned 24 in October 2019.

• Beckham, 27 in November, is a three-time Pro Bowl selection who had 35 receiving touchdowns over his first three seasons, and then nine in the two seasons after that. He was due a salary of $16.5 million in 2019, and his contract calls for $14 million in salary in 2020, $14.5 million plus a $1 million roster bonus in 2021, $13.75 million plus a $1 million roster bonus in 2022, and $13.75 million plus a $1 million roster bonus in 2023.

• For Fitzpatrick, the Steelers gave up their first-round pick in 2020, their fifth-round pick in 2020, and their sixth-round pick in 2021. In addition to Fitzpatrick, the Steelers also received Miami's fourth-round pick in 2020, and its sixth-round pick in 2021. With the Dolphins at 3-9, that fourth-round pick in 2020 is looking like it will be high in the round, and at 7-5 the Steelers first-round pick isn't looking like it's going to be as high as the Dolphins hoped and Steelers' fans feared.

• Fitzpatrick, who turned 23 on Nov. 17, was the 11th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and in 11 starts for the Dolphins during his rookie season, he had 80 tackles, nine passes defensed, and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He will be paid $956,000 by the Steelers for his time with the team in 2019, he is due $1.975 million in 2020, $2.7 million in 2021, and the Steelers hold an option for him in 2022.

• And if you find it difficult/confusing trying to compare a wide receiver and a safety, allow me to help: In 2019, Fitzpatrick has scored two touchdowns through 12 games, the same number as Beckham.

Related Content