The 2014 NFL MVP award winner will be announced on Saturday night, as part of a two-hour awards show (9 PM ET, NBC), and it’s expected that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will win his second MVP trophy. But before we do the easy thing and anoint the top quarterback, let’s look at the good arguments that exist for Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
I want to begin with a core premise that among “conventional” candidates, which is to say primarily quarterbacks with the occasional running back considered, Rodgers is clearly the best choice.
I respect the case for Tony Romo in Dallas, but he had Demarco Murray running for him. I love Tom Brady, but he had a better offensive line and better defense to work with than Rodgers did. If the Packer quarterback is going to be denied the MVP, the only credible alternative is Watt.
The case for Watt is simple—he dominated his position at a level far beyond what any other player in the NFL did, and he lifted his team into contention. The website Pro Football Focus grades every player in the league in every game and the level at which Watt outperformed the rest of the league is simply stunning.
PFF’s grades for each play run a spectrum of (+2.0) to (-2.0), with each play being added up through the course of the year. Rodgers was the top quarterback and sixth-best overall with a sharp grade of 40.4. The players in the 2 thru 5 spots saw the grades ascend to the mid-50s. They were Baltimore guard Marshal Yanda, and linebackers Khalil Mack (Oakland), Von Miller (Denver) and Justin Houston (Kansas City). Then comes Watt.
Watt’s grade was 107.5. He graded out more than twice as good as any other player in the NFL! That’s called domination. The Texans’, playing without a consistent quarterback, still lifted their record from 2-14 to 9-7 and stayed in playoff contention to the final week of the season.
There are two common arguments against the Watt case, one of them good, one of them foolish. The good one says that the NFL is a quarterback’s league and the primacy of the position means that they should get the overwhelming benefit of the doubt in any MVP discussion. The foolish one says that Houston missed the playoffs so Watt can’t qualify.
I’m going to dispense with the stupid argument quickly. The logic “they missed the playoffs with him as easily as they could miss without him” was obviously invented by fans of teams fortunate enough to be consistent playoff contenders. There’s a world of difference between a season like Houston had and the ones the league also-rans lived through.
I root for the Washington Redskins. If bringing J.J. Watt to town could ensure the following—I would be in a good mood more often than a foul one by late Sunday afternoon, that I could approach every game with a realistic hope of winning, and that I could spend the entire regular season thinking about playoff scenarios rather than internal drama, I’d do just about anything to make that happen. Watt is the reason the good people of Houston at least have that much, rather than living through what we in Redskins Nation endure each season.
Now let’s move to a better argument and it’s that the NFL is a quarterback’s league. That’s undeniably true and the reason I respect the argument. But it can be flipped on its head—is it possible that the NFL has become so obsessed with making life easy for its quarterbacks that they’ve drastically reduced the comparative value the great ones have?
To pick a couple examples from the Redskins season, RG3 threw for 336 yards in the season finale against Dallas, a game he was mostly mediocre. Colt McCoy threw for 392 yards in Indianapolis, a game he was mostly mediocre. Passing has become so easy that the stat lines can make mediocrity look great. But if everyone is great than no one is great.
That’s an extreme analogy and there’s certainly a big gap between Rodgers and the quarterbacks on the bottom of the league. But how big is the difference between Rodgers, and say Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Romo, Brady, Peyton Manning, etc? The very fact that the NFL is a quarterback’s league could mean that the real differentiation at the highest level has to come from other positions.
And that brings us back to Watt’s dominance at his position. He graded out as far and away the best player in the NFL and did it from a defensive end spot that can dramatically impact the game, while also providing real separation between himself and others at his spot. He was the difference between his team being lousy and being a contender. That’s why I’d vote for him for the 2014 NFL MVP.