Aaron Rodgers, as you may know, is my choice for the MVP of the National Football League. I talked about how he was having a historically great season earlier, and also how the MVP race wasn’t really a race a few weeks ago. Then Drew Brees happened – or I should say the pursuit of milestones happened with Drew Brees. This is not to diminish Drew Brees, who is a sure Hall of Famer and one of the best quarterbacks of the last decade.
I have no problem with Brees going for yardage record late in the game against Atlanta. The Falcons just went for it on fourth down, so they thought the game was in doubt and were still trying. Those yards and the touchdown did little to impact winning, though. Most teams would have run the ball there if not chasing a number. Last week, the fourth quarter touchdown pass that gave him the league lead and allowed him to surpass Rodgers, happened with the Saints already up 38-17. At that point, the Saints were locked into the third seed, and there was no benefit to playing Brees other than establishing the record.
It’s fine to put up those marks, by the way. I have no problem with that happening. I have a problem with then taking those marks as the impetus to now make Brees the MVP over Aaron Rodgers. This isn’t baseball. Raw totals aren’t as vaunted. Did you actually know the exact yardage that Marino had in 1984 before last week? We have not had some grand chase with media following Brees around, like with McGwire and Sosa in 1998. It was a one night event last Monday to see if he could break a record, before Brady and Stafford.
The MVP of the National Football League has never been about specific milestones, at least at the quarterback position (you can make a case that Shaun Alexander won because of the touchdown record in 2005). It’s also never been about raw totals and who had the most volume. I went back through every quarterback who was selected MVP or co-MVP since the 1978 season, when the league went to 16 games. I looked at where the MVP ranked relative to his peers in a variety of categories: total pass attempts, total passing yards, total passing touchdowns, completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, sack rate, passer rating, and adjusted net yards per attempt rating (yards per attempt minus sack yards, with adjustments for value of touchdowns and interceptions).
I don’t think the voters do a specific look at these categories necessarily, but it does show what measures (and what the measures reflect about the player) are more important in MVP voting.
Here’s the order, from best average rank to worst, of the ten categories
- Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (avg. rank: 1.7)
- Passer Rating (avg. rank: 1.8)
- Touchdown Pass Percentage (avg. rank: 2.5)
- Total Touchdown Passes (avg. rank: 2.5)
- Yards Per Pass Attempt (avg. rank: 2.6)
- Completion Percentage (avg. rank: 3.2)
- Total Passing Yards (avg. rank: 3.9)
- Interception Rate (avg. rank: 5.4)
- Sack Rate (avg. rank: 6.7)
- Total Pass Attempts (avg. rank: 7.3)
As we can see, the total number of passes is relatively unimportant in MVP voting. Only twice has the MVP also led the league in pass attempts (Marino, 1984; Gannon, 2002), while over half (14) have ranked outside the top 5 in pass attempts. In football, passing well can often result in playing with the lead, which in turn results in usually passing less late. Voters account for this, and rate stats reign supreme. Total Passing Yards also ranks toward the bottom: Only 6 of the 24 led the league in yards.
At the other end, the MVP is usually the player with the best passer rating and adjusted net yards per attempt rating, and if not the leader, they are usually close to the leader. Four guys won the award win not leading in passer rating: Theismann in 1983 (he was a close 2nd), Elway in strike-shortened 1987 season (5th), Montana in 1990 (4th), and Peyton Manning three times (2003 as co-MVP with McNair, who was 1st in passer rating, and in 2008 (5th) and 2009 (6th).
So, let’s size up the candidates in the categories, from what has been most to least important for past MVP voters:
Rodgers dominates the five most important categories, finishing 1st in four of them, and 2nd only in total passing TD’s to Brees because he sat in week 17. Brees prevailed in completion percentage, though Rodgers had the lead there entering December before playing games in New York, Green Bay, and Kansas City, while Brees played in domes (this, of course, matters, as dome conditions have historically improved YPA by +0.4 while playing in December cold weather depresses it by -0.6) .
The categories that have not mattered as much in MVP voting are the only ones where Rodgers trails the other two candidates.
Those arguing for Brees (and they honestly must overcome Brady in my opinion, who is a wash with Brees except for total attempts and thus raw numbers), have three main arguments:
1. How can someone who set the passing yardage record not win MVP? Because it is not about milestones. We could similarly ask how someone who set the all-time passer rating record for a season cannot win it.
2. Matt Flynn was incredible on Sunday, proving that Rodgers is a system quarterback. Matt Flynn had a career game. Rodgers didn’t throw for 6 touchdowns in any game this year, because he didn’t need to. I don’t doubt that had he wanted to name a score against someone, he could have. Flynn’s own error–an interception where he stared down a receiver, and a fumble early where he held the ball–helped contribute to him continuing to score late. For contrast, Rodgers’ interception numbers may be unreal given how much he passes, but even more amazing is that only 2 interceptions occurred in either the first half of games or when the Packers were trailing or in a one score game in the second half (403 attempts). He didn’t put himself behind to then get to chase in a shootout.
But you can believe what you want. I don’t think Matt Flynn does anything close to what Rodgers did over 15 other games. Could he have been a top 10-15 type QB like Cassel was in 2008? Yes. We then get into hypotheticals about what the Saints would do without Brees, or the Patriots without Brady, rather than just going by what did happen.
3. Related to that, Aaron Rodgers is less valuable if his backup is competent. This is a ridiculous argument. If a team decided to sign me as a backup (I could probably throw a screen pass occasionally), would that make their starter the MVP? Joe Montana won multiple MVP awards with Steve Young coming off the bench for a few games, and throwing to Rice, Taylor, and Craig.
I’m not saying don’t account for supporting cast at all. I think Elway won it in 1987 because that team had very little talent and no running game besides Elway, and he carried them to many wins. I don’t see the argument about Green Bay’s offense versus New Orleans’ versus New England’s being so extreme that it should overcome the massive differences between Rodgers and everyone else.
4. Recency Effect, Brees finished strong. You need to be aware of your cognitive biases, people. This is a season long award. Rodgers didn’t play in the final game because he was so good that his team went 14-1.
If Aaron Rodgers loses the MVP award this year, it would be the second largest difference between the leader in Passer Rating+ and the ultimate MVP, behind only Jim Kelly losing out to Joe Montana in 1990. It’s hard for me in retrospect to say that was the right choice, just as I don’t think giving it to anyone but Rodgers would be appropriate. Montana got the reputation award in a down year, while Kelly was the league’s best. The 49ers replaced Montana with Young the next offseason as the starter. Here’s a list of the best seasons since 1978 by Rate+ and ANYA+. Rodgers 2011 ranks 3rd in ANYA+ and 5th in Passer Rating+. He would have the best season to not win an MVP award. Now, how can we have that?