The problem with the NFL’s MVP debate is that it plays out like the chase for the college football championship: It’s all subjective. It’s all supposition, and inference, and who did what against who, and in the end there can be several different options for No. 1.
Our seven voters were asked to pick their top 20 choices for MVP, and there were 44 different players mentioned – including four different players as MVP: Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. Cases can be made for all four as deserving of the crown, which we’ll detail below, and trying to decide between them is nitpicking on an epic scale.
But what does it all mean? Considering the fact that only one of our top 10 finishers (Philip Rivers) won’t be in the postseason, the true MVP won’t be crowned until February.
Whichever one of these superstars actually ends up with the Vince Lombardi Trophy will be 2010’s real MVP – and there’s nothing subjective about that.
1. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons (125 points, three first-place votes)
The case for: Just as the formula most are using to anoint Brady (i.e., best passer rating + 14-2 record = MVP) makes a lot of sense, so does ours for Ryan (best PFF grade among quarterbacks + 13-3 = MVP). While Ryan might have had a better cast around him on offense than Rodgers or Brady did, he made the most clutch plays and had the worst defense supporting him. He had a passer rating of 86.0 under pressure, just ahead of Brady and way ahead of Rodgers (58.8). Says our Ben Stockwell: “Ryan has been simply exceptional when it counts this season and that’s what you want from an MVP — to be good enough to give you leads or put you into positions to win, and then come up with the big plays when it counts. Ryan has done that all season for the Falcons, and the MVP award would be more than deserved for him.”
The case against: Ryan didn’t really throw downfield much, and his passer rating (91.0) wasn’t even in the top 10. His yards-per-attempt wasn’t even in the top 25. We don’t rely on raw numbers, but those are a little worse than you’d expect from an MVP with so many other QBs putting up big ones.
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (124 points, one first-place vote)
The case for: Rodgers passed with accuracy and aggression, ran when he needed to, and had a stellar passer rating of 101.3 for a playoff team that was decimated by injury. Our Khaled Elsayed notes this: “There was an interesting stat before the Bears game that Rodgers had thrown 1 interception in 7 games – and that INT was a dropped pass that should have been a TD. Yet how much press did that get? I’m a big believer in Rodgers, who has really carried that team in my opinion.”
The case against: The Packers needed to win in Week 16 just to make it as the No. 6 seed, and they only scored 10 points doing so. They also lost all six of their games by single digits (one-and-a-half of them with Matt Flynn in there) – doesn’t an MVP win those games?
3.Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (116 points, two first-place votes)
The case for: Do you have to go much further than 36 TDs to four interceptions for the league’s most productive offense? Perhaps too much was made of his “weak supporting cast” – he got plenty of help – but a quarterback’s job is to score points and get wins, and he did that as well as any QB has ever done.
The case against: Did he do a brilliant job of executing Bill Belichick’s plan on offense? Absolutely. But he made fewer tough throws than any top QB in the league, and we can’t overlook his grading No. 7 in the passing game. He really only had a handful of games where his performance matched his raw numbers, and it’s all there to see if you’re willing to look. “Brady has had a very good season,” says Ben Stockwell, “but in terms of individually winning games he hasn’t done quite as much as some of the others and hasn’t been quite as good as the others. Another excellent season for Brady, but he wasn’t in a class of his own this year.”
4. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts (114 points, one first-place vote)
The case for: Manning’s three-game interception bender took him out of the running nationally, but our Neil Hornsby looked at the bigger picture and made Manning No. 1. “Dodgy O-Line, no defense, no halfbacks, hurt go-to tight end … still in the playoffs. He’s still the best there’s ever been, despite not being at his absolute best this year.” Manning had 12 games graded +3.0 or higher, most of any QB, and his raw stats weren’t helped by a league-high 46 drops from his receivers.
The case against: How about those 17 picks? In an average year, maybe you get away with that and win MVP, but when your big rival only threw four, it seems like a pretty clear choice.
5. Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago Bears (104 points)
The case for: The Bears certainly didn’t get a first-round bye on the strength of their offense, and Peppers was the clear leader of that defense in 2010. He was just good as a pass rusher, but stopped the run as well as anyone, broke up passes with those long arms and was a spectacular and consistent three-down performer.
The case against: Chicago had a lot of nice performances on defense, and Peppers’ 60 total QB disruptions (in 559 attempts) was behind less-heralded guys like Charles Johnson, Chris Clemons and Ray Edwards.
6. Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (101 points)
The case for: The play of the Eagles with Kevin Kolb did a whole lot to make Vick look like an MVP. Kolb finished the season 36th out of 37 qualifying QBs – he was outright bad for four of the six games he started (or played most of). Meanwhile, Vick had more impact as a runner than any running back (+26.5) despite playing 10.5 games, and his passing was more than adequate.
The case against: Only playing 10.5 games doesn’t help his case, and over his last five starts he was only +3.0 as a passer. Had he played a full season and not tailed off a bit in the second half, he would have been hard to keep out of the top spot.
7. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (100 points)
The case for: From Week 8 on, no one was better than Brees (+46.6 in nine games). He was brilliant passing the ball downfield, probably the best of any QB this year, despite getting poor play from both tackles. Asked to drop back 685 times – about 200 more than Brady – Brees was more or less required to single-handedly win it for the Saints every week. Without Brees, the Saints collectively graded -33.9.
The case against: Brees threw an incredible number of picks on balls thrown less than 10 yards – 11 of them, in fact, which is more than Manning, Brady, Ryan and Rodgers threw combined (7). Said our Sam Monson, who had Brees ranked lowest at No. 13): “The Drew Brees of ’09 was a lot like the Tom Brady of 2010 – an uncanny ability to find the open guy, often underneath, and get him the football. The Drew Brees of 2010 just wasn’t as careful with the football.”
8. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (92 points)
The case for: What’s a running back got to do to win MVP? Last year, Chris Johnson hit 2,000 yards and barely got a sniff, and this year Charles turns in the best per-carry average since the 60s (6.3!) and will almost surely get no votes. He finished as our No. 1 graded RB (+25.9), and the fact that his time-sharing friend Thomas Jones finished 53rd out of 58 is a pretty compelling argument for Charles.
The case against: The Chiefs had an awful lot of top performers this year – Tamba Hali, Brandon Flowers, Matt Cassel – and how valuable can a guy be if he doesn’t even lead his team in carries?
9. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers (75 points)
The case for: Absolutely no single player was more consistently good than Rivers was in 2009. No matter who he had blocking for him or running pass routes, he produced – not a single negative grade, even in the Week 2 game where he was pressured a still-shocking 43 times. At midseason, Rivers was a clear choice for MVP, and while his performance dipped a bit in the second half it was still very strong.
The case against: Can’t be the MVP if you don’t make the playoffs, no matter what the circumstances. And you certainly can’t lose a must-win game in Week 16 against Cincinnati (although Rivers did his part that day).
10. James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers (52 points)
The case for: For the usual reasons – laziness, reputation, inability to look past SportsCenter – it’s Troy Polamalu getting the most support as the token defensive candidate for MVP. But while Polamalu has his moments, Harrison is the heart of that defense. Few players are asked to do more than he does, and he does everything well … except avoid penalties, of course. But if James Harrison wants to be MVP, we’re not going to tell him no – we’re not crazy.
The case against: Really, all of those Pittsburgh linebackers are Pro Bowlers – if not All-Pros. Harrison is the best of them, but not by much.
Also receiving votes:
Kyle Williams (47), Trent Cole (44), Tamba Hali (42), Peyton Hillis (35), Adrian Peterson (30), Josh Freeman (27), Terrell Suggs (24), Lawrence Timmons (24), Matt Cassel (17), Justin Smith (16), Charles Johnson (14), Bart Scott (13), Haloti Ngata (13), Arian Foster (11), Nick Mangold (11), Brandon Lloyd (11), Maurice Jones-Drew (10), Carl Nicks (8), Matt Birk (6), Chris Clemons (6), Jason Witten (6), DeMarcus Ware (5), Jake Long (5), Desmond Bishop (5), Calvin Johnson (4), Ben Roethlisberger (4), Matt Schaub (4), Logan Mankins (3), Kamerion Wimbley (3), Kareem McKenzie (2), Eric Weddle (2), Cameron Wake (2), Antoine Winfield (1), Andrew Whitworth (1)