Who’s The NFL MVP?

Before we start talking the NFL playoffs, we’ve got some business to close out with the regular season and that means handing out some hardware for MVP and Coach of the Year. Today the Notebook starts with a look at an MVP vote that deserves to be a lot closer than it’s been portrayed.

Aaron Rodgers has been the odds-on favorite to win the award all season. He was my preseason pick to win the honor and he’s been even better than I expected, but due diligence requires thoroughly vetting other candidates. Drew Brees has gotten increased love in the voting and I wouldn’t be surprised if he snuck in and won a close vote, and we also need to get give a look at Tom Brady and Eli Manning.

When you dig into the numbers, it makes you realize two things—just how bad pass defenses were this year, and also why it’s important to do your due diligence. Not only is Rodgers not a slam dunk choice, but you can come up with a credible reason to vote for all four. Let’s pretend we’re in a courtroom and we’re going to hear the arguments pro and con…

Aaron Rodgers: The case for Rodgers’ attorneys is this: 45-6. That’s the number of touchdowns Rodgers threw compared to the number of interceptions. Now I’m a Brett Favre fan, but my first reaction to those numbers was that Favre once threw six picks in a single playoff game (2001 in St. Louis). Furthermore, Rodgers did it without adequate pass protection, without support from a good defense and with a running game that was 26th in the league in yards-per-carry. He can credibly claim to have led his team to a 15-1 record, not just been along for the ride.

The prosecution will point out that among the four contenders , Rodgers 4,643 yards is the lowest,  and that he had a dazzling corps of receivers to work with. Furthermore, the problems with the Packer defense don’t account for the fact that same defense could force turnovers seemingly at will and produce points, easing the pressure on the Green Bay passing game.

On redirect, Rodgers’ attorney points out that you can also make a credible case that it’s Rodgers who makes the receivers, not vice-versa and that perhaps only Greg Jennings would be as good in another offense. The judge (in this case me) agrees with this position and instructs the jury to ignore the high praise of Packer receivers. It’s also pointed out that Rodgers was the lone quarterback among the four to sit his last game, thus hurting his yardage totals. The judge acknowledges this, but also reminds the jury that Rodgers would still have had to throw for 300 yards just to get up to third, so the critique there is allowed to stand.

Drew Brees: Ladies and gentleman of the jury, my client threw for 5,476 yards and set a new NFL single-season record. In spite of what you hear from NFL announcers about how the previous record was set in an era that was defense-friendly, this is demonstrably not true. Dan Marino’s 1984 mark came in a year when analysts were also pointing out how tough the rules were on secondaries. Brees hit 71% of his passes, the best in the game and the raw yardage totals, as well as the fact the Saints have a good running game, demonstrates that completion percentage didn’t come from quick “passes” that are really sweeps in disguise.

The prosecution takes pains to remind the jury that pointing out the strength of the New Orleans game is in fact an argument against Brees’ candidacy, as he is the only one of the four to have a running game even in the top two-thirds of the NFL—and again, these numbers are based on yards-per-carry, which don’t penalize teams that throw the ball a lot.

Tom Brady: Jurors, you can’t hold it against my client that he’s so consistently good that we take it for granted. He’s either the most valuable or he’s not. And consider that he threw for over 5,200 yards himself, while the running game was terrible and the defense lousy. Unlike Brees, his yardage didn’t come in the climate-controlled environment of a dome and he still only missed him 200-plus yards over a 16-game schedule.

Moving to the prosecution’s side of the table, we note that at 65.6%, the completion percentage is lower than Brees or Rodgers, the 39-12 TD-INT ratio trails the first two quarterbacks covered. And at this point, the prosecution realizes that Brady’s attorneys fell into a trap when pointing out the weather conditions in comparison to Brees. Maybe it wins that battle, but it loses a larger war, because Rodgers doesn’t exactly play in a dream passing environment down the stretch.

Eli Manning: The jury might not be aware of this, but the once-powerful New York running game collapsed and became the worst in the league. The vaunted defense that carried Eli to a Super Bowl ring in 2007 finishes in the league’s lower third. New York’s a lousy place to throw the ball year-round because of the wind currents in the stadium And yet the Giants won the NFC East, with Eli throwing for more yards than Rodgers.

The prosecution compliments Eli on his season, noting that many, including the judge laughed uproariously in August when the quarterback compared himself to his brother and to Brady. But 61% completions is the lowest among the contenders, the 16 interceptions are the highest, the 29 TDs are the lowest. And that whole winning the NFC East thing? They went 9-7 and lost to the Redskins at home three weeks ago to nearly shoot themselves in the foot. Ladies and gentleman, let’s not get carried away with a breakout year and call it better than any of the three quarterbacks above. In fact, the judge rules that the Manning attorneys have failed to meet their minimum burden of proof and removes him from consideration before deliberations begin.

Is it Rodgers, Brees or Brady? The jury recesses and gets set to vote. The judge watches them, feeling that while the cases for Brees and Brady should’ve received more attention than they get, #12 in Green Bay is still the winner when all is said and done.