What an enthralling season of individual performances. The shortened offseason stunted defenses early in the year and–outside of a small handful of units–they were playing catch-up all year long. This allowed a number of individuals to elevate their play which, in turn, saw long-standing records tumble.
Finding a single Most Valuable Player is tough in any one season, and this year was no different as an argument could be made for more than a few standouts. Whether they were making the difference for playoff teams or holding their team up from abject misery, many deserve recognition and they will receive it here.
Two players, though, separated themselves from the pack from the very first game and maintained that lead all the way through. It’s between those two that we have to choose who takes home the MVP trophy and, who knows, those they could ultimately decide Lombardi’s home at the end of the 2011 NFL Season.
In the season of the offense, we give our take on who has been the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
The Elite Pairing
Quarterback play has been in the ascendancy for the last decade and has culminated in this extraordinary season. Records have fallen and quarterbacks have helped passing games to fuel some of the league’s best teams without appreciable support from their run game or defense. For the first time since 2003, is there a realistic chance that we could have co-MVPs?
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
There is no doubt that Rodgers is at the forefront of the MVP discussion and when the Packers were unbeaten, he was the sole candidate. There have been suggestions after Matt Flynn’s performance against the Detroit Lions in the regular season finale that Rodgers’ 15-game résumé is somehow devalued in the MVP race. That anyone could seriously consider that is simply incomprehensible. Rodgers has been in the Packers offense since 2005 and, though the Super Bowl is the ultimate prize, the culmination of that work has been on display this season. As close to perfection as is possible, only four interceptions and the chemistry with an entire receiving corps that you simply cannot undersell. Whether you consider the MVP to be about importance to his team or reaching an individual performance level, Rodgers has personified the term all season long.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
After a somewhat sluggish start to the season, which included losses to the Buccaneers and Rams, it could be argued that the Saints are the hottest team in the league entering the playoffs. Drew Brees is the driving force behind that and, much like Rodgers, he ticks the boxes of importance to his team running the Saints’ fast paced attack. Brees is excelling individually and doing so to the extent that he ticks the extra box of taking the most coveted statistical passing record in the league. If you can separate Brees and Rodgers it isn’t by a great deal and it’s a purely individual choice. Steve McNair and Peyton Manning split the MVP award in 2003 in the same division and a similar result this season would not be a surprise or undeserving. However, for us at PFF, Brees is just edged this season for lack of a sub-par day by Rodgers’ which Brees had in those early-season losses.
Rising Above the Rest
3. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
No wide receiver has ever won the AP’s Most Valuable Player award since its inception in 1957. If not for the history-making individual seasons from Brees and Rodgers, Calvin Johnson might have been within a serious shout of writing his name into the history books for taking an award that even Jerry Rice did not (Rice won the PFWA MVP in 1987). Matthew Stafford got hot down the stretch, but for his full season body of work, Johnson was the single most important player for the Lions. He is the central reason that they will play their first playoff game since 1999 in New Orleans on Saturday. His performance in the Lions’ comeback win in Oakland–a result that would prove pivotal in reaching the postseason while assisting the Raiders in continuing their playoff-less streak–is his marquee performance in Detroits playoff run.
4. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
Choosing just one of the Patriots’ three offensive leaders; Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, is a tough ask and probably the reason that none of them is featured higher in this list. All three are central to the Patriots’ success, but the presence of the other two devalues each individual’s importance against other candidates in the race. In honesty, this place is reserved for all three players as they have carried one of the worst defenses in league history to a 13-3 record and homefield advantage in the AFC. The entire offense, though, runs with Brady–not to devalue Gronkowski’s history making season, but it is Brady’s work pre and post snap that makes this offense click. With the AFC playoffs now running through Gillette Stadium, a return to the Superbowl would be just reward for this triumvirate of Patriots.
5. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
None of the other quarterbacks in the Top 5 of our MVP rankings has had to do more with less (in terms of the help from his offensive line) than Eli Manning. The Giants may have snuck in the back door in a weak NFC East by clinching the final victory of the 2011 regular season, but this was by far Manning’s best season as an individual. He still had his occasional poor games and poor plays, but his consistency improved. Behind a deteriorating offensive line, he was able to create time, make throws on the run and make best use of a flourishing receiving corps even when those receivers were blighted by injury. A great quarterback always gives you a chance to win and with Manning delivering in the clutch, can you count the Giants out in the playoffs?
6. Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are one of the few teams in this year’s playoffs that is powered by its defense, breaking the modern mold in order to play “old school” football. In a defense full of stars, it’s the unheralded Justin Smith who makes this unit work. Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ray McDonald have all had excellent seasons but everything starts in run and pass defense with Smith. The havoc he creates in the running game aids the inside linebackers who find the football so well and clean up any plays that Smith can’t make on his own. In the passing game, Smith’s disruption aids the exterior pass rush by preventing quarterbacks from stepping up into the pocket. When Aldon Smith breaks inside it is Justin Smith who clears the path to the quarterback. Check out his game against Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football opening doors for Aldon Smith’s devastating performance.
7. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals tripped through the front door of the season stumbling and tumbling to a 1-6 record. That start made the oft-forgotten Cardinals largely an afterthought. As a result, one of the best seasons from any receiver in the league in very trying circumstances went unnoticed by many. Despite quarterback play revolving between the conservative (Kevin Kolb) and the wayward (John Skelton), Fitzgerald showed why he is the one receiver, next to Calvin Johnson, you would want on your team any day of the week. Sure hands, toughness and the ability to rescue the worst of throws shows why Fitzgerald is one of the few receivers who can excel on a bad team, not just when the offense is humming with a top-tier quarterback.
8. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
There hasn’t been much to cheer about in Jacksonville this season but the one constant for them (aside from a blip of two fumbles against Baltimore) has been Maurice Jones-Drew’s rushing. His first career rushing title was a just reward for his efforts in 2011. The fact that he was able to achieve such an impressive feat on an offense with no discernible passing attack is all the more remarkable. With Blaine Gabbert unable to spark the Jaguars’ passing game, it was all down to Jones-Drew who kept the team alive in tight games and carried them to five victories with a combined 570 yards on the ground in those wins.
9. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
There may have been a mid-season lull, but with the Jets’ locker room teetering, and ultimately collapsing after the final loss in Miami, Revis put forth his best season as a pro. Simply put, Revis has allowed more than five completions in his coverage in only one of his games this season. Outside of his two efforts against Stevie Johnson of the Bills, he never allowed more than 70 yards in a single game. His performance against the Giants on Christmas Eve was the cherry on the cake of a phenomenal season.
10. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
While Tim Tebow may have stolen the headlines during the Broncos’ winning streak that earned Denver their first playoff berth since 2005, there is little doubt that it was the defense driving that run with a string of exceptional performances. The man who led that defense–and whose injury coincided with the slump of the Bronco defense–was rookie phenom, Von Miller. Miller has brought a new definition to the term three-down linebacker; providing stout run defense and solid coverage in the base D, he has also exploded as one of the league’s most dangerous and dynamic pass rushers in sub-packages. The Broncos will be hoping that an upturn in Miller’s form coincides with them rediscovering that magic touch on Sunday.
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