Midweek Musings: A Weak Year For NFL MVP Candidates

I follow Scott Kacsmar on Twitter, who has debated with many people about who should or shouldn’t be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player this year. One observation he has made is that there aren’t any strong candidates for MVP.

Much of his debate surrounds those who argue that Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is an MVP candidate, which Kacsmar strongly disagrees with. One example:

Regardless of what you think about Carr’s MVP merits or Kacsmar’s thoughts, I concluded that Kacsmar has a valid point about this being a weak MVP race, something that isn’t the case with awards other than MVP. First, let’s review major awards other than MVP:

Coach of the Year: There are three obvious candidates: Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio. I lean toward Garrett given that nobody expected Dallas to be a playoff contender, much less the leader for the No. 1 seed in the NFC, with the Cowboys starting a rookie quarterback and having so many question marks on defense. Belichick merits consideration given that the Patriots have weathered subpar defensive play to post a strong overall record, even when missing Tom Brady for four games to a suspension and Rob Gronkowski for several games to injury (this includes games before Gronk was placed on IR). Del Rio’s Raiders were expected to contend for the playoffs but not many people expected the Raiders to be in the hunt for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, so yes, you have to put Del Rio in the conversation. Who gets it will be determined by what each of these teams do in the remaining four games.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: There aren’t a lot of standouts among rookies on the defensive side of the ball, but the Chargers’ Joey Bosa is playing well enough to deserve consideration and will likely get the most votes. Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue has quietly put together a good season and leads all rookies in sacks with six (though Bosa has closed the gap with 5.5). The Chiefs’ Chris Jones has improved as of late, though he might not do enough to draw attention away from Bosa.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: At this point, nobody is going to debate that this isn’t a two-man race between Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, both of the Dallas Cowboys. In fact, I’d be happy if the vote went down the middle between the two and they shared the award.

Defensive Player of the Year: Von Miller is having the best all-around season of all defensive players and merits strong consideration, though you have to examine the case for Oakland’s Khalil Mack. Atlanta’s Vic Beasley Jr. and Seattle’s Cliff Avril have also been great at rushing the passer and may get some votes, too.

Offensive Player of the Year: If you think it should go to a quarterback, you can pick from Drew Brees (leads in passing TDs with 30 and yards with 3,913), Aaron Rodgers (second in passing TDs with 29) and Matt Ryan (second in passing yards with 3,813 and third in passing TDs with 27). If you prefer a running back, Ezekiel Elliott enters the conversation (leads all RBs with 1,285 yards and is second in rushing TDs with 12 touchdowns), though David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals is making a case (third in rushing yards with 1,005 and third in rushing TDs with 11) and so is New England’s LeGarrette Blount (leads all RBs with 13 TDs and is just 43 yards shy of a 1,000-yard rushing season). Or if you want a wide receiver, you have Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (leads all WRs with 11 touchdowns, fourth in yards with 1,052) and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (third in yards with 1,058 and second in receiving TDs with 10).

When it comes to MVP, though, you are looking for somebody who is having a strong season overall that is more than just statistical marks. It’s a combination of dominating in a certain statistical category, plus proving yourself a dominant player by any form of advanced statistics, plus being so instrumental to your team’s success that it would be hard to imagine the player’s team making the playoffs without the player in the lineup every week. That’s why quarterbacks tend to get favored because of their importance to the team. But running backs have entered the conversation many times, especially when they have dominant seasons and their performance is so high that it becomes clear their team wouldn’t have made the playoffs or been as successful without the player in the lineup. With wide receivers and defensive players, though, that’s a tougher argument to make, unless you have a player who is so dominant in a category, the player demands a spot in the MVP conversation.

Now, a confusing part of the MVP award is that the Associated Press give its own award, but in 1975, the Pro Football Writers Association started handing out its own MVP award and the two organizations have differed from year to year. Case in point: The AP named John Elway MVP in 1987, but the PFWA gave it to Jerry Rice, the only WR to get the award from either organization. The only time both organizations gave it to a defensive player was Lawrence Taylor in 1986, but when the AP was the only organization naming an MVP, it gave that distinction to Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971.

Let’s examine the defensive players first. Taylor recorded 20.5 sacks in 1986 and the Giants finished 14-2. Although tackle stats are hard to come by when he played, it’s hard to argue Taylor wasn’t dominant. When Page got the award, sacks weren’t kept as an official statistic and tackle stats are even harder to come by in 1971, so it’s difficult to say what Page did from a statistical standpoint. (However, Page did win the Defensive Player of the Year award, the first year the AP gave that award.) But Taylor’s performance indicates that, in order for a defensive player to be named MVP, he must have a dominant season by any definition and his team must perform at a high level. To put this further into perspective, Michael Strahan set the NFL record for sacks in a single season with 22.5 in 2001, but he didn’t get MVP that year. The AP gave the award to Kurt Warner (who threw for 4,830 yards with 36 touchdowns) and the PFWA gave it to Marshall Faulk (more on him later). In 2001, the Rams finished 14-2 while the Giants finished 7-9, so it’s not that surprising Strahan didn’t win MVP.

As for the two defensive players I’ve mentioned, Mack has played well, but not dominant, and it’s not a given that he’s the biggest reason for the Raiders’ success. One might argue Von Miller is the biggest reason for the Broncos’ success, but he’s not having what one would call a dominant season by any definition – certainly not when compared to Taylor in 1986 or Strahan in 2001. More importantly, it remains to be seen where the Broncos will finish in the playoff picture (and a 12-4 record, which is the best the Broncos can get, wouldn’t be considered as strong as, say, if the Cowboys finish 15-1). Had either of these players threatened the NFL sack record, they’d get consideration, but with four games left, it’s going to be difficult for either player to reach even 20 sacks.

As for wide receivers, when Rice got the PFWA award, Rice set an NFL record with 22 receiving touchdowns, easily the reason why PFWA leaned his way – and he scored those touchdowns in just 12 games (this was a season in which a strike shortened the NFL season by four games). A receiver who, in a 16-game season, might have had nearly 30 receiving touchdowns is easily called dominant in that season. But even then, the AP disagreed and named Elway its MVP, so it’s not hard to see how difficult it is for even the greatest WR of all time to be considered the unquestioned MVP. As for the likes of Brown and Evans, while they are playing well, their chances of reaching even 20 receiving TDs at this point are slim to none (with slim leaving town), so take them out of the MVP conversation.

That leaves the quarterbacks and running backs. I don’t think anyone is going to argue for David Johnson for MVP, nor will they do so for LeGarrette Blount. Ezekiel Elliott, though, might cross your mind. But how does he compare to past players who have received the award? For Elliott, we’ll stick to the most recent running backs who have won MVP, going back to 1990. Here they are:

2012: Adrian Peterson – 2,097 yards, 13 total touchdowns, 6.0 yards per carry
2006: LaDainian Tomlinson – 1,815 yards, 31 total touchdowns (three receiving), 5.2 yards per carry
2005: Shaun Alexander – 1,880 yards, 28 total touchdowns, 5.1 yards per carry
2003: Jamal Lewis* – 2,006 yards, 14 total touchdowns, 5.3 yards per carry
2001: Marshall Faulk * – 1,382 yards, 21 total touchdowns, 5.3 yards per carry
2000: Marshall Faulk – 1,359 yards, 26 total touchdowns, 5.4 yards per carry
1998: Terrell Davis – 2,008 yards, 23 total touchdowns, 5.1 yards per carry
1997: Barry Sanders + – 2,053 yards, 14 total touchdowns, 6.1 yards per carry
1993: Emmitt Smith – 1,486 yards, 10 total touchdowns, 5.3 yards per carry
1991: Thurman Thomas – 1,407 yards, 12 total touchdowns, 4.9 yards per carry

* – PFWA award only (AP award to Kurt Warner in 2001 and to Peyton Manning and Steve McNair in 2003)
+ – Shared AP award with Brett Favre

One thing to keep in mind about Smith and Thomas is their seasons came about prior to a surge of running backs who put together dominant or arguably dominant seasons. With that said, nobody is going to say that the likes of Davis, Alexander and Tomlinson weren’t dominant the years they won MVP, nor would they say that about Faulk in 2000. Faulk also had a strong case in 2001, though given that AP’s award went to Kurt Warner, you can say it’s debatable. The same applies to Lewis in 2003 (when AP split between Peyton Manning and Steve McNair). The years Lewis, Peterson and Sanders got the award – that depends on whether you think 2,000 rushing yards by itself is enough to be called dominant (keeping in mind that AP differed the years PFWA named Lewis MVP and split with Favre when PFWA named Sanders MVP).

With all that said, Elliott has a chance to reach at least 20 total touchdowns – he’s at 13 (12 rushing and one receiving), though he would need to score twice in each of the four remaining games to get there. But will that be enough to get him MVP? That’s hard to say. Faulk got it thanks to being recognized as the best pass-catching RB at the time. But does Elliott fit that description? And I think we can all safely conclude that Elliott isn’t going to reach 2,000 yards rushing this season.

So it’s hard to say that Elliott should be a leading MVP candidate. That leaves us with the quarterbacks. Let’s roll out who could be in the running:

Tom Brady: He’s playing extremely well with 19 touchdowns and just one interception in eight starts. But he missed the first four games of the season because of a suspension, when the Patriots went 3-1 and did just fine with Jimmy Garappolo starting in those three wins. Plus, LeGarrette Blount is having arguably the best season of his career and should be considered just as important to the Patriots offense this season.

Ben Roethlisberger: He’s fourth in passing touchdowns with 25 and it’s clear the Steelers need Roethlisberger in the lineup to have a shot at the playoffs. But Roethlisberger isn’t what you would call the key piece of the Steelers’ offense. Many would argue that Antonio Brown is just as valuable and some would say the Steelers need a running game for the offense to do well. And it’s no guarantee the Steelers will win the division or even make the playoffs.

Derek Carr: On paper, he looks pretty good, with 3,375 yards passing and 24 touchdowns. And there’s no doubt that the Raiders would take a major hit with Carr not in the lineup. But the same could be said if the Raiders lost Khalil Mack. Also, would Carr be able to carry the load without Amari Cooper or Michael Crabtree, who have formed one of the better receiving duos in the game? On top of that, Carr averages 7.4 yards passing per attempt, which ranks him behind 10 quarterbacks who have played in at least 10 games.

Dak Prescott: Among quarterbacks who have played in at least 10 games, Prescott ranks second in yards per attempt with 8.3. He’s also done a great job of taking care of the ball, with just two interceptions on 358 attempts. But his 19 touchdown passes are the same as Brady’s and Brady played in four fewer games. Plus Elliott has been just as valuable to the Cowboys. And then there are those who will argue about how good Prescott would be if he played behind a weak offensive line. (One could make that argument about Carr and our next candidate, too.)

Matt Ryan: Leads all quarterbacks with at least 10 games played in yards per attempt with 9.2. Third in passing touchdowns with 27. Second in passing yards with 3,813. No doubt the Falcons would take a major blow if Ryan weren’t in the lineup. But the same could be argued about Julio Jones, even if he isn’t dominating this season (he does lead the NFL in receiving yards but has just five touchdowns). And the Falcons could easily lose the NFC South title to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Russell Wilson: I don’t think anyone would argue that the Seahawks would be doing as well as they are without Wilson in the lineup – after all, their offensive line is terrible and they’ve missed Thomas Rawls for much of the season. But Wilson has had a few poor outings this season. On top of that, his 7.8 yards per attempt doesn’t suggest that he’s dominating the league, and how many people do you know would give an MVP award to a quarterback who has thrown just 12 touchdown passes?

Drew Brees: He’s the best QB from a statistical standpoint but nobody expects the Saints to make the playoffs. Plus, he’s not threatening a major single-season record. Without a record to break or a playoff trip, MVP voters will look elsewhere.

As you can see, there is a “yeah, but” for every quarterback you might consider for the MVP award. Not one of them stands out from the pack. None of them would be considered dominating the league. For most of them, we fall back on the tired “QB WINZ” argument or the game-winning drives, even if they happened to come in games in which they weren’t playing well for the entire game.

If my hand were forced, I guess I’d go with Matt Ryan, though that won’t happen if the Falcons miss the playoffs (and there’s a real chance they will). If Ezekiel Elliott gets to 20 touchdowns, I’d consider him. Failing those two, I’m probably flipping a coin in picking between Derek Carr and Dak Prescott. Of course, if the Raiders and Cowboys both collapse down the stretch, I’m probably forced into giving it to Tom Brady – but what would happen if the Patriots collapse down the stretch, too?

Simply put, Scott Kacsmar isn’t kidding when he says that this isn’t a good year for MVP candidates.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.