2016 is finally over, and the NFL postseason is about to begin. Before the twelve qualifying teams compete for the Lombardi Trophy, MS Blog is focusing on the regular season MVP race. So far, there are only five remaining players with at least a considerable shot at the MVP award, but before we cover the final five, we'll run through the players that were at one point seen as MVP candidates before dropping out of the race, for whatever reasons (injuries, poor play, lack of team success, the other candidates running away, etc.):
Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
He's already accomplished more in three seasons than his fellow quarterback brother David did in ten, and I'm excited to see what he and Amari Cooper can do to rejuvenate Oakland (or L.A., or Vegas, or San Antonio, or wherever the Raiders will be in 2017 and beyond). This is not the season, however, for Carr (his Week 16 leg injury killed his chance to win the MVP and the AFC West) or the Raiders (who now have either Matt McGloin or Connor Cook leading them in Saturday's game against Houston). This does not, however, take anything away from Carr, who was voted into the Pro Bowl by throwing for 28 touchdowns and cutting his interceptions total from 2015 (13) by more than half in '16 (6).
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
I didn't expect Stafford to have this kind of season, especially after losing one of football's greatest wide receivers in Calvin Johnson. Still, Stafford (4,327 passing yards, 24 TDs, 10 INTs) made Detroit the new Comeback Kids by winning eight of nine games after starting the season 1-3, while also setting the record for most fourth-quarter comebacks in a single season (those 8 wins). With the Packers struggling mightily in the first half of the year, the Lions seemed to have the NFC North wrapped up, but losing their final three regular season games (including Week 17 at home against the Packers) dropped Detroit to a wild card spot and booted Stafford out of MVP discussion. He didn't even make it into the Pro Bowl, though it would have been difficult to get voted in over the three that did make it; those three quarterbacks are all still in discussion for the MVP.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Johnson is starting to creep out of his status of "The Best Running Back Nobody Talks About", especially after the year he had (1,239 rushing yards, 16 rushing TDs, 4.4 rushing average). He may be the number one offensive weapon for the Cardinals now that Carson Palmer is beginning to show his age and Larry Fitzgerald eventually will show his. Johnson was the high point on a team that underachieved in 2016 (7-8-1, three games behind Seattle in the NFC West, and losses to Buffalo and Los Angeles). The Cardinals' mediocre finish likely hurt Johnson's chances in the race, but with only two seasons under his belt, don't count Johnson out for the MVP in future seasons.
The Dallas Cowboys' Offensive Line (Ronald Leary (LG), Tyron Smith (LT), Travis Frederick (C), Doug Free (RT) & Zack Martin (RG))
I would have never included a candidate (or candidates) like this if they hadn't generated so much buzz for a period of time. After Dallas' Nov. 13 win against the Steelers at Heinz Field (the game that proved the Cowboys were for real), ESPN staff writer Bill Barnwell highlighted the O-line of the Cowboys for their great play, in protecting and creating gaps for two of my final four MVP candidates (one of which rushed for 209 yards and three touchdowns that day in Pittsburgh). Eight days later, Sports Illustrated wrote about the same unit and promoted the same message: the MVP award should go to the entire offensive line.
Let me say that again: Writers from ESPN and SI, two of the biggest sports media sources on the planet, believed that a football team's entire offensive unit should win the league's Most Valuable Player award. The idea of that actually happening is Greek to me, and thankfully, it doesn't look like it's going to happen. I am not going to sit here and say that the O-line didn't play phenomenally: Frederick, Martin, and Smith were voted to the Pro Bowl, Dallas' 26.31 points per game was fifth in the NFL, and two of my five MVP candidates flourished in their respective rookie seasons behind said line.
That being said, it would be ridiculous for multiple players in a unit to win an MVP award. It's why the award is called the Most Valuable Player, not Most Valuable Players, and though the O-line is doing the dirty work, offensive and defensive lines come and go because they are made up of multiple players. Singular MVP players are one in a million. This would be like in Major League Baseball, an entire five-man pitching rotation - or worse, an entire bullpen - winning the Cy Young Award. I'm already against closers winning the Cy Young Award unless they are a transcendent pitcher (which is why Mariano Rivera should have a Cy Young Award and Eric Gagne shouldn't).
To make my point, I will put the Cowboys' O-line on this list because many others would possibly do the same. But I can't seriously consider them for the MVP. I do wish them luck in the playoffs, however.
MS BLOG'S FINAL FIVE MVP CANDIDATES
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
311-459, 67.8% complete, 3,667 pass. yards, 23 pass TDs, 4 INTs, 81.7 QB rating
Record: 13-3, 1st in NFC South (1st in NFC)
After he was announced as Tony Romo's replacement at quarterback during Romo's recovery from a vertebral fracture, I realized I hadn't even thought about Dak since his days at Mississippi State, where he was hailed as the man who would bring the Bulldogs a national title after beating LSU, Texas A&M & Auburn in his junior year, making MSU the number one team in the country. Then he lost to Alabama and Ole Miss in two of his last three regular season games, dropping Dak out of the Heisman Trophy race (he finished eighth with two first-place votes) and Miss. State out of the College Football Playoff. In the Orange Bowl, they lost to Georgia Tech, 49-34. For the season, Dak threw for 3,449 passing yards, 27 TDs, and ran for 986 yards with 14 rushing TDs.
Dak's senior year was better stats-wise (3,793 passing yards, 29 passing TDs, 5 INTs, 10 rushing TDs) but worse record-wise (8-4, 4-4 in the SEC). The Bulldogs actually won the Belk Bowl (51-28 over North Carolina State), and Dak won the game's MVP award by throwing four touchdown passes. Still, the Cowboys, in desperate need of a young quarterback to succeed Romo, missed out on Paxton Lynch (Denver) and Connor Cook (Oakland) and had to settle for Dak in the fourth round. Dak even struggled as a backup, sitting behind Kellen Moore and Jameill Showers before developing after being named the starter for the beginning of the year.
It turns out that Dak may have been a wise fourth-round steal. He has played so well in the Cowboys' high-octane passing-oriented attack that he became the first rookie to start a full season and lead his team to the playoffs since Russell Wilson in 2012. He hasn't just put the Cowboys back in the playoffs; he's been a part of the best team in the NFC (maybe the NFL) and established himself as one of the NFL's potential elite QBs, as well as one of the league's best dual backfield threats. He even made the Pro Bowl as an alternate, along with heavyweights like Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.
THE CASE FOR DAK: Most veteran quarterbacks would yearn for the statistics the rookie Prescott put up this year, and most of those statistics became rookie records. Some of Dak's freshman accomplishments included the most wins (13, tied with Ben Roethlisberger), least interceptions thrown (4), highest quarterback rating (104.9), highest completion percentage (67.8%), and the most pass attempts without an interception (176) this may persuade the voters enough to make Dak the first rookie MVP since Earl Campbell in '78. Also, Dak made a huge impact on this Cowboys team; would you think Romo could post a similar record and statline with the same backfield, O-line, and receivers? I'm sure he'd be alright, but it would be hard to think he could pull off what Dak pulled off.
THE CASE AGAINST DAK: It's sort of like being a Heisman Trophy voter who picks a college football player that already won the Heisman. There's an uneasiness to making a rookie the Most Valuable Player in the NFL, especially when there's other veterans putting up numbers that make the rookie look like a high school freshman. I mean, 20-4 with 3,667 passing yards is great for a number of capable QBs and outstanding for a developing rookie, but when you have vets like Drew Brees throwing for 5,000 yards and Aaron Rodgers scoring 40 touchdowns, it's difficult to look away from those monster numbers. Dak's passing yards total was only 19th among starting QBs, and his touchdowns were only 16th.
MVP MOMENT: Dak's biggest game came in his biggest win of the season: Week 10 in Pittsburgh, a 35-30 come-from-behind win that originally looked like a Steelers victory with only 42 seconds left. Though his teammate stole the show with a game-winning touchdown run, Dak made up the bulk of Dallas' final drive, completing three of four passes for 28 yards (including a facemask penalty), but that doesn't fully represent the great game Dak had: 22-32, 319 yards, 2 TDs.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
373-534, 69.9% complete, 4,944 pass yards, 38 pass TDs, 7 INTs, 83.4 QB rating
Record: 11-5, 1st in NFC South (2nd in NFC)
I never truly envisioned Ryan as an MVP candidate, even this year. I think it had to do with him playing in Atlanta, a city that hasn't fully embraced its football team like it has with the Braves or even the Hawks (but certainly more than the Thrashers), even with the Georgia Dome being one of the city's crown jewels. Still, Ryan has made football life in Georgia at least somewhat interesting and competitive. I originally believed his peak came in two different years: his rookie season (when he made Atlanta forget about Michael Vick and got the Falcons back in the playoffs), and 2013, where he posted former career highs in passing yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage, and well as wins (the Falcons still lost to the 49ers in the NFC Championship). Other than that, I never saw Ryan as great. I saw him as really, really good, but not great. Even his 13-3 season in 2010 ended up with him practically crapping himself against Green Bay in the divisional round (186 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs).
Now, Ryan has rebounded from three consecutive non-winning seasons (a combined record of 18-30 from 2013-2015) with his finest statistical season yet. It also established him as one of the NFL's most consistent quarterbacks. Back in October, Ryan set the NFL record for most consecutive games with at least 200 passing yards (a record that is still running at 55 games). That doesn't mean he won't break out for the big game, however; he threw for 503 passing yards and four touchdown passes in a win over Carolina in Week 4, while also providing 12 throws worth over 300 yards for fellow Pro Bowler Julio Jones, a single-game record for receiving yards.
THE CASE FOR RYAN: Consistency is the key word here. It would be boring if Ryan had played on a Falcons team that went 4-12 or 8-8, but Atlanta's breakthrough in the NFC South has bolstered Ryan's odds to win. I've always believed that if the Falcons had been the San Antonio Spurs of the NFL and had much more postseason success (in a small football market, somewhat bland yet fully functional), Ryan's legacy would be greater than it is at this point. He'd be like the Tim Duncan of football. Regardless, Ryan's numbers were still fantastic in their own right: his 38 touchdowns were second in the league, as were his passing yards (4,944). One stat he did lead in, however, was QBR (83.4).
THE CASE AGAINST RYAN: His "boring" consistency hinders him due to the fact that he's the least attractive MVP candidate. He's going up against not one, but two Dallas Cowboys, Wisconsin's golden boy, and the man considered to be a football god in Boston. You're going to tell me you'd pick the vanilla quarterback from Atlanta, a team that never scratches at the postseason surface, before any of those other candidates? Fortunately for Ryan, the voting process is held after the regular season, so if he bombs in the divisional round, it won't affect the outcome.
MVP MOMENT: The Week 4 win over the Panthers (48-33), with Ryan's team-record 503 yards and 4 TDs. This was the game that showed Atlanta was ready to compete for the NFC South. Even though the Panthers were only at 1-2, they suffered an unexpected blowout loss, and worse, they had to endure Cam Newton's concussion, effectively hindering the rest of the year for a team that made the Super Bowl the year prior. Ryan proved he belonged among the NFL's elite in this game.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
322 carries, 1,631 rush yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 15 touchdowns
Record: 13-3, 1st in NFC East (1st in NFC)
I was ecstatic when Elliott was drafted fourth by Dallas in last year's NFL Draft, an Ohio State alum going to one of the NFL's most famous franchises, even if the team was in a dire state at the time. I hoped that Elliott's pro career most resembled his legendary Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama, as well as his national title game-winning effort versus Oregon.
So far, his career is looking more or less like those two games. Zeke's first year has resembled the freshman seasons of a few rushing greats, like Eric Dickerson in '83 and Barry Sanders in '89. Elliott hasn't reached the heights of those Hall of Famers quite yet, but with the pace he has set for a potentially long career, he could be on his way to Canton.
It also helps that he's part of the league's best quarterback-running back tandem under the age of 25. With Prescott being a young QB with time to develop, Elliott, being a first-round pick compared to Prescott (a fourth-rounder), Elliott has been able to dominate in what was originally a pass-heavy offense under Tony Romo. It's impossible to say if Romo would've affected Elliott's carry totals, but what we do know is that Dak and Zeke go together like PB&J in Dallas, and hopefully this duo dominates pro football for at least the next decade and a half.
THE CASE FOR ZEKE: Much like Prescott, Zeke is young with veteran-like stats. Unlike Dak, however, Elliott was high in many of his position's categories. Nobody in the NFL rushed for more yards, he finished 3rd in touchdowns (behind LeGarrette Blount and David Johnson), and he tied for fifth in yards per carry (5.1). The only time he rushed for less than 80 yards was in his first game, and in those other fourteen games, he rushed for over 100 yards seven times. He also runs the best Instagram page among all current/former/future NFL players, with crisp game shots highlighting his successes at Ohio State and in Dallas (okay, okay, this last stat doesn't affect his MVP chances. I just wanted to highlight his professional-grade photos. Have a look...)
THE CASE AGAINST ZEKE: We already covered this issue with Prescott, but Zeke has the same problem going against him: he's a rookie going up against veterans for the highest single-player award in pro football. You may be asking, "Didn't you say he led the league in multiple categories?" He did, but that's where the next issue comes into play: he's the only running back in an MVP race full of quarterbacks. Whether we like it or not, quarterbacks are always the most praised and most criticized position players at the same time. We will give our MVP attention to numerous quarterbacks unless an unbelievably skilled running back comes through, and even then, it may not be enough. We've only seen a handful of MVP backs over the past twenty years (Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, Shaun Alexander, LaDanian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson), and they were all veterans with prime seasons. It's hard to give a guy the MVP in his first go at the NFL, but hopefully this banner year won't be Zeke's peak (at least, I hope).
MVP MOMENT: Same game as Prescott, the 35-30 win over the Steelers. Elliott was already progressing as a quality running back throughout the first half of the year, but his insane performance in Heinz Field cemented his status, as well as his team's. With 114 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns, Zeke came up clutch and won the game with an epic 32-yard run with 0:09 to go, capping off Dallas' 33-second comeback drive. This game made everyone start to pay attention to "America's Team" (the title depends on who you ask).
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
291-432, 67.4% complete, 3,554 pass yards, 28 pass TDs, 2 INTs, 82.8 QB rating
Record: 14-2, 1st in AFC East (1st in AFC)
It's getting more and more difficult to come up with more things to say about Brady that hasn't already been said. He seems to only get better with age, and the idea that Brady could play into his mid-forties is not as extreme as originally thought. That is why when he returned from his four-game suspension for his alleged role in Deflategate, it was barely a surprise when he racked up the numbers accumulated this year. At his age, and at the point of the season in which he returned, he shouldn't be able to throw only two interceptions while throwing for over 3,000 passing yards and nearly 30 touchdowns, but he did. He also quarterbacked the league's best team (by record), and with the lack of elite quarterbacks in the AFC playoffs (the only AFC QB remotely near his caliber is Ben Roethlisberger), he's likely to lead the Patriots to his seventh Super Bowl appearance.
THE CASE FOR BRADY: If you were to take Brady's passing yards and touchdown averages, multiply them by four, and add them to his season totals (as the four games he missed), his totals for a 16-game season would be 4,738 passing yards (4th in the league instead of 20th) and 37 touchdown passes (T-3rd instead of 7th). That may seem like a pedestrian Brady season, but it's still MVP-caliber, especially considering that only one quarterback reached 40-plus touchdown passes this season. It shows Brady's eliteness and establishes that there is no real standout for MVP this year, which is important, considering my biggest issue with Brady's chances....
THE CASE AGAINST BRADY: ....which is Brady's odds of winning the MVP award from a league that focused hard on his alleged actions during Deflategate and suspended him for a quarter of the season for playing with deflated footballs during a blowout AFC Championship. Whether you believe Brady or not, you can't deny there was a long struggle between the Patriots and the league throughout the offseason. I doubt the league would make themselves look bad by honoring a man they worked to expose as a cheater. Even Brady's allegations of cheating may hurt him solely because some voters will not feel comfortable voting for a cheat. The Patriots won those four games with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Harris, though those four games at Arizona, at home against Miami and Houston, and at Buffalo, four teams that Brady probably would've mowed through as well. Will the voters use the backups' record against Brady's value?
MVP MOMENT: Though there hasn't been many must-win games for the Patriots as they mowed through the league this year, I'll highlight the best game Brady had against a somewhat-quality opponent: 406 pass yards, 3 pass TDs in a 30-23 win versus Baltimore. I could have highlighted his 406 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Browns, but it came against the Browns.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
402-610, 65.7% complete, 4,428 pass yards, 40 TDs, 7 INTs, 84.8 QBR
Record: 10-6, 1st in NFC North (4th in NFC)
With Green Bay's pass-heavy offense, I'm surprised they were able to slog their way to a 4-2 start to the season. Rodgers wasn't quite one of the liabilities, as he threw for 13 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, but he didn't reach at least 300 pass yards in a game until Week 6. The rest of the year saw Rodgers and the Packers look like Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, with Hyde (four-game losing streak) coming before Jekyll (six-game win streak to end the season, including a Week 17 win at Detroit to clinch the NFC North). Even during the four-game skid, however, Rodgers didn't look awful. Sure, he was losing to pretenders like Indianapolis and Tennessee, but he also fell to Washington (a playoff-bound team before falling flat on their face in Week 17) and Atlanta (actually made the playoffs).
During the skid, Rodgers' TD-INT totals were 12-3, with his best passing game coming in Washington (351 pass yards). More important than his numbers, however, were the wins, which weren't expected to come so swiftly to Rodgers after losing much of his backfield (receiver/running back hybrid Ty Montgomery eventually took over the bulk of the running game). Rodgers came through, however, with a stretch that included 15 TDs and zero - count them, zero - interceptions. Though Washington's Week 17 loss to the Giants guaranteed the Packers a playoff spot no matter what happened in their game against the Lions, if the Redskins win their game and seal a wild card spot, Rodgers' epic run would still have gotten Green Bay into the playoffs with a home field advantage.
THE CASE FOR RODGERS: Aside from everything I've already stated, he was consistently among the best in each passing category: passing yards (4th), touchdowns (1st), completion percentage (9th), completions (4th), passing attempts (4th), completion percentage (4th) and QBR (4th), among others. He also is probably the most valuable among all five players, as the Packers offense would be almost nothing without him.
THE CASE AGAINST RODGERS: If anybody is going to oppose Rodgers' candidacy, they'll target his four-game skid (which nearly got Mike McCarthy fired and led to some questioning Rodgers' leadership and character), and his off-the-field issues (involving his family, his relationship with Olivia Munn, his relationships with past teammates) that led to struggles on the field.
WHO SHOULD WIN THE MVP? Rodgers. He has proven that he is the meat of Green Bay's offensive attack, and has come through even when his most loyal supporters began to doubt him.
WHO DO YOU WANT TO WIN THE MVP? Zeke. All I want to see is a national title-winning Buckeye get paid a lot of money from the richest franchise in football, get to an elite playing level, resonate with others so much that his fame rises to nationwide status (maybe even worldwide status), win Rookie of the Year, win the MVP, win Super Bowl LI and hopefully many more. Is that too much to ask?
WHO WILL WIN THE MOST VALUABLE PLAYER? Rodgers. Normally I'd say Brady, but Deflategate will come back to bite him, even if some say he deserves it. Besides, Rodgers was better is value, numbers, and, depending on the Super Bowl outcome, team success.