The Final MVP Debate: So many deserving candidates

| January 7, 2011

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)

  • bmacfarland

    I don’t watch all the games as PFF does, so feel free to disregard my comment. Plus I’m a bit of a homer for Brady. With those disclaimers in place, I think it’s worth re-evaluating your grading system a bit.

    I’ve read in the past that weather doesn’t factor into the ratings. I think this was used to discount Brady’s performance in the Chicago game (that and Brady “almost” threw 3-4 picks, but the Bears couldn’t make the play). I think weather should be factored in. Clearly, it is harder to throw a ball in the snow than in a dome (for example).

    The other thing that I’d argue is the logic behind penalizing Brady for “making few tough throws.” In Bill Simmons’ article today, there is a great quote at how spectacular Brady is at reading coverages by Mike Lombardi. When you have that talent, you don’t have to make the tough throws. You can lead the NFL in scoring while setting records in avoiding interceptions.

    An ounce of prevention (recognizing the defense and avoiding tight coverage) is better than a pound of cure (constantly trying to make tough throws and having a higher interception percentage).

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Jonathan Comey

    I’ve had similar debates with our anaylsts, and have watched the past 3-4 Pats games through their eyes a bit and seen some of what they’re talking about. Brady hasn’t been put in the same positions that the other top QBs have — which he was last year, and didn’t fare as well. I voted for Brady No. 1, but certainly see where they’re coming from as well.

  • Rai

    Reading defenses and how quickly you read them is hard to grade and mark out. I think Brees is the fastest at reading defenses and going through his reads during the play. I’m not sure who I’d give it to before the snap. Could be Brady, could be Manning but I have no evidence to back up what I say.. And no one will.

    Also with the weather, you’ve also got to take into account that the Bears defenders were also struggling in the conditions, not just Brady and his receivers.

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Sam Monson

    The problem with things like weather is that it acts as a built-in excuse. Anything bad that happens is down to the weather, and any good plays are made twice as good because they were battling the elements. The simple point about the Bears game is if you go back and watch every throw he made in isolation, they weren’t great overall, but they added up to a set of raw statistics and QB rating that make you think he had an amazing game.

  • Nathan Jahnke

    I’m a little surprised James Harrison made it on the list for I believe the first time, while players like Trent Cole, Kyle Williams and Tamba Hali who have all been on for a number of weeks just barely missed out. It was nice to see Josh Freeman make the list. He was never able to make it to my top 10 because of the number of other quality QB’s, but with 20 at least for me I could include more QB’s, so Freemen could make my ballot.

  • theslothook

    While yes Brady does deserve alot of credit for making the most of the system given to him, as cassel showed, it is an incredibly qb friendly system of low risk but somehow extreme reward type of offense. Does that mean brady is bad? No, but it does go to show that he was given a much easier path to success than say manning or brees or rivers or rogers. Imagine all of them are having a race and the others have to run over snowy terrain while brady gets to run over a clean paved road. Again, put brady behind a leaky offensive line, terrible defense, no running game and make the onus of every win and loss ride solely on his shoulders and I think we realize he isn’t the mvp. Nor is ryan either, but thats my 2 cents. Breaking it down that way and you realize the mvp falls to manning, rivers, brees, and rogers.

  • bmacfarland

    I hope I didn’t put too much of a spotlight on that one Chicago game for Brady. As I said, he had some bad throws that were nearly intercepted.

    I would love to see some analysis of QB ratings (or Aikman Ratings, which I think are better) of quarterback performance in snow games vs. dome games. I know the naked eye lies sometimes, but I don’t know if I believe quarterback perform just as well in the snow as they do in a dome, just because the defense has to play in the snow as well.

    I remember one game in Buffalo in the last week of 2008 where Cassel threw 8 passes all game because it was so windy. Edwards ended up passing to catch up at the end and got to 25 passes, but when it was close it was all running. They two teams combined for 200 passing yards total.

    I’m not saying that there were games this extreme this year, but certainly weather conditions should pay a factor of some kind.

    I don’t know how to measure reading the defense either, but I think the interception numbers tell a story.

    As for Brady making the most of the system given to him, remember that other teams can implement the system as well. Brady lost his #1 WR (Moss), had his #2 with a bad knee (Welker), acquired a guy who had done nothing in 3 seasons (Branch), lost his 3rd down back early in the season (Faulk), and leaned heavily on two rookie TEs. Any other team could have put these pieces together (draft the TEs, get Branch, Woodhead, etc.). Perhaps it is Brady’s accuracy that makes Branch so good.

    As for the offensive line, the Patriots were pretty beat up there talent-wise all year. The Patriots advantage here is in Scarnecchia. I’ll concede the point that Scarnecchia does a great job at getting Brady protection.

    I think the Patriots’ defense was soundly criticized for being one of the worst in the league. It is also the youngest. Rivers, on the other hand, had the #1 defense, I believe.

    As for running game, the Patriots relied on former practice squaders BJGE and Danny Woodhead. The reason why those running backs are good are because Brady sets up the run with the pass. Many of those runs come on draws, where the defense has to respect Brady.

    It’s interesting that the article pointed out the 46 drops by Manning’s receivers. Going into the last week of the season, I saw that Brady had 40. It was just a couple of weeks ago that PFF trounced Welker for his three drops.

    Finally, I think that Cassel’s success this year, shows that it wasn’t simply the Patriots system in 2008. Sure it helped Cassel, but it seems reasonable that Cassel is a good quarterback. Perhaps he learned it from Brady. How’s Jim Sorgi doing nowadays? ;-)

  • thek1d

    The offensive line argument is just plane offensive.

    Brady CLEARLY makes that line better. This year they’ve had four different guards start, and they played the first half of the season without their All-Pro. Nick Kaczur was lost to IR before the year and they’ve had to rely on 2nd year player Sebastian Vollmer to solidify the RT spot.

    During the 2008 season, Matt Cassel was sacked 47 times… that’s nearly 3 times a game! Brady hasn’t been sacked more than 32 times since 2003 and averages roughly 23 sacks a year over his last six full seasons. That comes out to less than 1.5 sacks a game, twice as good as Cassel.

    People like to blame Brady for being in a successful system and pointing to Cassel’s numbers. In comparison to Brady’s 2007 season (when Randy Moss and Wes Welker were brand new to the team), Cassel threw less passes, had a worse completion percentage, 1,100 less yards, 29 less touchdowns, 3 more interceptions, and had an almost 28 point lower passer rating. Not to mention losing five more games.

    In fact, you can point to the rushing game that year as the primary reason for Cassel’s success. The Patriots rushed for nearly 2,300 yards and averaged 4.4 yards/carry. Both of those numbers are easily better than any during Brady’s seasons starting, and even better than the 2004 season featuring Corey Dillon. So if you want to give credit to the offensive line, maybe you should talk about their run blocking. Although most Patriots fans will laugh at that argument.

    In fairness to Matt Cassel, he has shown this year that he can be a starting QB in the NFL. I believe his TD/INT ratio is 2nd in the league. Behind only Tom Brady.

  • thek1d

    Matt Ryan for MVP? Is that a joke?

    6th in attempts
    12th in completion percentage
    9th in yards
    6th in TD
    8th in INT
    7th in sacks
    11th in passer rating

    Aaron Rodgers only beats him in completion percentage, yards, and passer rating, while throwing the same amount of TD. Also, Rodgers rushed for over 350 yards and 4 TD, while fumbling three less times. Aaron Rodgers arguably has more weapons in the passing game, but the Packers ranked in the mid-20s in rushing. He also plays with the 2nd best scoring defense.

    But the real MVP is Tom Brady, who beats Matt Ryan in every category except attempts and sacks. He also led his team to a better record in worse weather with a 9/1 TD/INT ratio… are you kidding me?! The Patriots rushing game was just barely better than Atlanta’s, with 5 more yards/game and 0.5 more per carry. Call it a wash. Look at Matt Ryan’s weapons though. Roddy White, one of the best receievs in the game, and Tony Gonzalez, probably the greatest TE of all time, at least in terms of receiving. Most “experts” said Randy Moss made Wes Welker, which has turned out to be absurd. Brady got his old friend Deion Branch back which was nice. But other than that, he’s thrown to two guys off of major knee injuries (Wes and Brandon Tate), two rookie TEs, and a new 3rd down back who replaced the injured Faulk. Atlanta has the 5th ranked scoring defense at 18.0 pts/game with New England a little behind at 8th and 19.6 pts/game.

    The Falcons averaged 25.9 pts/game while playing 10 games indoors. The Patriots averaged 32.4 pts/game while only playing one game indoors. Atlanta also had an easier schedule with their opponent’s average win% at 0.484 and New England’s at 0.504

    Matt Ryan has had a great season and he’s going to be a great QB for many years. But this year has been all Brady and he’s more than deserving of MVP.