For several weeks my inbox has been bombarded with requests for me to write an NFL MVP rankings blog.** And why shouldn’t I write about that? It’s an easy subject to tackle and it’ll get me plenty of page views. But I’ve been putting it off because I have this sneaking suspicion that people don’t really care that much about the leading candidates for regular season MVP. In boring, individual-stat-focused sports like basketball and baseball, I can understand the MVP hype. But aren’t there so many more interesting things to talk about in football than a meaningless award?
I’d rather talk about the ever-changing “best team in football” because that title seems to jump around weekly. I’d rather talk about the four best AFC teams jockeying for playoff seeding in the final quarter of the season. I’d rather talk about three rookie quarterbacks with a legitimate shot to lead their teams to the playoffs. And I’d certainly rather talk about the “anything can happen in the playoffs” slogan being truer this year than it ever has before.
But fine, if it’ll stop clogging my inbox,** then let’s quickly run through my top five MVP candidates.
Oh, and in my opinion, the only position other than quarterback that has a chance to crash the MVP voting is running back. And for a running back to get any mention, he has to not only be one of the best at his position, but he also has to have a pretty bad quarterback on his team. Any running back on a team with a competent QB is disqualified because so much of the offense runs through that QB. There’s just no way the RB can be more valuable. Make sense? In other words, only running backs who carry their team in spite of constantly being sabotaged by their quarterback are qualified.
By the way, strange year in the MVP race. Neither team with the two best records in the NFL have a top-five MVP candidate. On Atlanta, Matt Ryan is probably in the top 10, but it would take a miracle for him to crack the top five. And go ahead and try to nominate an MVP candidate from Houston. On top of that, you can safely assume Baltimore, San Francisco, Chicago and the Giants won’t have a player towards the top of the MVP voting. And all of those teams have a great shot at making the playoffs, maybe even getting one of the top two seeds in their respective conference. Of the guys on my top five list, two of them are in real danger of missing the playoffs…and I still think they’ve been good enough to win the award.
Before we jump in, let me just say that I hate doing this kind of list because any person who wants to argue long and hard enough could make the case that any of these top five are more deserving than the others. And you could probably even argue that none of my five should be in the overall top five. There is no one set of criteria to figure this out. You might value yards, touchdowns and passer rating over all else, and your buddy might decide whoever’s responsible for his team’s incredible wins increase from 2011 to 2012 is the winner. You’re both right, and you’re both wrong (until the actual winner is announced, at which time only one of you could be right, but both of you could still be wrong).
** – No one has actually been clogging my inbox. I think I got one request three weeks ago from a friend to rank my MVP candidates, but it just sounds so much better to say I’m getting overwhelmed with requests.
Let’s go in reverse order from 5th to 1st:
5). Peyton Manning: The elder Manning is #2 in the NFL in passer rating, touchdown passes and completion percentage. So why is he the lowest-ranked of the Holy Quarterbacking Triumvirate (you’ll see the other two members of the HQT in a second)? Quite simply, because he’s had the most defensive help and the healthiest receiving corps out of the three of them all year. Yes, he’s a HUUUUGE upgrade over Tim Tebow, but the defense alone might have carried this team to a .500 record. You can’t say that about the other teams who have representatives on this list. Another factor working against Manning: Denver’s divisional rivals currently rank 25th (San Diego), 29th (Oakland) and 31st (Kansas City) in ESPN.com’s Power Rankings. I’m not saying that’s his fault or anything, I’m just saying he basically got six extra bye weeks built into his 2012 schedule. What he can do to leapfrog the other four contenders and win the damn thing: Well, the fact that his name’s Peyton Manning and there’s a nice dramatic comeback narrative to attach to his 2012 stats is a good start. But I think he’d have to run the table in Denver’s final four games (getting them to 13-3 and possibly a first round bye in the playoffs), come very close to the 40-touchdown mark, and have a couple vintage “Peyton’s absolutely carrying this Broncos team today” moments.
4). Aaron Rodgers: Let’s quickly cover the reason why Rodgers isn’t number one: After leading the NFL in scoring last year, Green Bay is averaging a middle-of-the-pack 24.7 points per game this year. I’ve been saying all year that something’s wrong with their offense, and it’s true. They haven’t been as explosive nor as efficient as we’ve come to expect from a Rodgers-led group. In his defense, Rodgers has been missing key wideout Greg Jennings for most of the year, and for some reason Packers management decided running the ball wasn’t allowed in 2012. So it’s not all the quarterback’s fault. Rodgers might end up leading the league in passer rating for the second consecutive year, but I just can’t get over the drop-off in points per game. And if you look closely into his numbers, there are a few things that jump out at you, and not in the good way. He has 29 touchdowns, but 16 of them actually came over a four-game stretch. He threw only 13 touchdowns in his other eight games. He’s also had seven games this year (or 58% of his season to this point) with less than 240 passing yards. He had an amazing cluster of games in October, but everything else has been merely above average. A Pro Bowl season for sure, but not the MVP year we saw in 2011. What he can do to get back to the top by season’s end: Replicate his four-game stretch that began on September 30th and ended on October 21st over the final quarter of the season.
3). Tom Brady: When Brady won the MVP award in 2010, it was largely due to his incredible touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9:1 (that year, no other quarterback even had better than a 4:1 ratio). Well in 2012 if you’re willing to add his three rushing touchdowns to his passing totals (which I am because it helps my argument), he once again leads the league with a 7:1 TD-to-interception ratio. He leads the league’s best offense (the Patriots are averaging nearly seven points per game more than the next closest team) without having a fully healthy group of receivers together for more than one game this year. And if you’re the type of person who puts added importance on the second half of the season (see: Matt Ryan, Plummeting Stock) like me, all the Patriots have done since week 8 is average 42 points per game. They get better as the season goes on, and that’s largely because of the third member of the Holy Quarterbacking Triumvirate. Why isn’t he #1? A great complimentary running game and guys named Gronk and Welker to throw to. And also because he’s not having the type of season we’ll be talking about 10 years from now, like the next two guys are doing. How he can take over the top spot (aka his rightful place in life): Out of the three guys mentioned in these rankings so far, Brady has by far the toughest closing schedule. And that’s mostly due to his next two opponents. If Brady can put up Brady-like numbers in back-to-back games against Houston and San Francisco starting on Monday while leading the Patriots to the #2 seed in the AFC playoffs, he deserves the award.
2). Robert Griffin III (RGIII, Black Jesus, RG Three-sus, Bobby Three Sticks): First of all, before I launch into my reasons why he’s the most qualified MVP candidate at his position, I need to share a shocking discovery I made about RGIII. Did you know he was born in Okinawa, Japan? Does this make him the best Asian football player in history? At the very least he’s the greatest Japanese-born NFL player of all time, right? So weird, the guy barely looks Asian to me. Anyway, if you only look at pure passing statistics when comparing QBs, you might miss out on how important Lobert Gliffin has been to his team (Get it? I wrote his name like the stereotypical Asian would say it). Go ahead and add his 714 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns to his already-impressive passing stats and he measures up to any of the top QBs. Including his rushing TDs, he has a 5.75:1 touchdown to interception ratio, second in the NFL only to Tom Brady’s 7:1 rate. So why Griffin ahead of Brady? Because the Redskins’ defense is actually worse than the Patriots’. And because RGIII has been throwing primarily to Santana Moss, Josh Morgan and Leonard Hankerson all season…not Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. And because Washington wasn’t even supposed to compete this year (some experts even had them winning only four games). The guy’s got a chance to throw for 3,500 yards, run for 1,000 yards, put up a combined 30-35 touchdowns and finish in the top three in passer rating. All while being a rookie with a TON of expectations and historical baggage being thrown on him from Washington fans. They have a not-so-slim chance at winning their division, and I’ll reiterate: That roster has no business doing anything better than 6-10 this year. RGIII might be the most important player in football already.How he can jump from #2 to that elusive top spot in my rankings: Well, the guy above him could just stumble down the stretch. That would be the easiest way. But also if he fulfills those projected numbers I mentioned above while leading the ‘Skins to their first playoff appearance in a long time, he’ll deserve something more than the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
1). Adrian Peterson: Are you supposed to take the “this guy wasn’t even supposed to be fully healthy until the final quarter of the season” factor into account when voting for the MVP? Fine, let’s throw out the Peyton-esque comeback storyline when evaluating the league’s best running back. We don’t need it because there are so many stats to support AP’s candidacy for this award. His 1,446 rushing yards lead the league by a long shot (next closest guy is over 300 yards behind him). He averages about 25 rushing yards per game more than the next best running back. For players who will get at least 200 touches this year, Peterson’s 6.2 yards per attempt easily lead all runners (next closest qualifier has a 4.9 average). His 17 runs of 20+ yards are six more than the next closest guy. Peterson’s in the midst of a six-game streak where he hasn’t run for less than 108 yards in a game. And he’s only had two games all year where he put up less than 100 total yards (those happen to be weeks 1 and 2, probably when he shouldn’t have even been playing at all).
You want more? Peterson is on pace to finish the year with 1,928 rushing yards. Only two people have topped that number in a single season since the start of 2002: Chris Johnson in 2009 (2,006 yards) and Jamal Lewis in 2003 (2,066 yards). In the two seasons prior to this one, with passing numbers way up, no one has topped 1,620 yards rushing. AP is on pace to obliterate that number. Over past 10 years, the top RBs who have at least 200 attempts generally have a yards per attempt average between 5 and 5.7. I already mentioned that Peterson is averaging 6.2. He’s not just having a great year, he’s having a historic year.
I can’t believe I just spent the first 300 words of the Adrian Peterson argument without mentioning the polar opposite to Peterson’s MVP year: Christian Ponder. This guy (dubbed a sleeper and “the next great thing” by some expert bloggers) ranks 25th in passer rating, 24th in passing yards, 32nd in yards per attempt and 21st in touchdown passes. What I’m trying to say is that opposing defenses can literally spend the full week of practice game-planning for Peterson and Peterson alone, and he’s still doing all those things I wrote in the previous paragraphs. Peterson is the sole reason why a Vikings team that finished 3-13 in 2011—and may have actually gotten worse at quarterback and wide receiver since then—has an outside shot at sneaking into the playoffs. What he can do to lose his top spot: Unfortunately, he just has to let nature take its course. It’s extremely difficult for a non-QB to win this award now, and with Minnesota fading towards 8-8 or 7-9, his contributions may start to get overlooked outside of the fantasy football world.
-Andrew Luck – Overall numbers aren’t great, but he’s taking 2011’s two-win team to the playoffs.
-Russell Wilson – Coming on strong as the important part of the season gets going.
-Matt Ryan – Somewhat a victim of our short memories, somewhat a victim of Atlanta looking bad in most of their 11 wins
-Jim Harbaugh – Name a single skill player on the 49ers that’s having an outstanding season. No one deserves a mention for MVP on that team, and yet they might end up with the #2 seed in the NFC. Someone has to be valuable for them.