Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, left, throws around St. Louis Rams' James Laurinaitis during the fourth quarter of the game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
If the vote were today, Aaron Rodgers almost surely would be the NFL’s most valuable player for 2011.
Since we’re not even halfway through the season, there’s still plenty of time for, say, New England quarterback Tom Brady to go on a vintage run that could get him in contention with the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback. If Detroit’s Calvin Johnson stays on his pace for touchdown catches and breaks Randy Moss’ record, and the Lions finish with one of the NFL’s best records, the league’s breakout receiver also could have a shot at MVP.
But Rodgers has to be the early front-runner because he’s off to one of the best statistical starts of any quarterback in NFL history and the Packers are the league’s only unbeaten team.
Yes, Rodgers is on the kind of run on which MVPs are made.
His league-leading passer rating of 122.5 is fifth best in league history through the first six games of a season, dating to 1960. Ahead of him are St. Louis’ Kurt Warner (131.5 in 1999); Brady (128.9 in 2007); Minnesota’s Daunte Culpepper (124.0 in 2004); and Chicago’s Rudy Bukich (123.8 in 1965).
Two of the four who started better, Warner and Brady, won the MVP. Culpepper had a huge season and finished with a 110.9 rating, but Peyton Manning won the MVP in ’04 by setting a passer rating record (121.1) that still stands. Bukich finished with a 93.7 rating for a Bears team that finished third in the Western Conference in ’65.
Keep in mind that passer ratings skew toward quarterbacks today as opposed to those who played most or all of their careers as recently as in the ’80s and ’90s because of evolving rules that favor the passing game. Still, the numbers suggest Rodgers is having the kind of season that the pre-eminent quarterbacks of the current generation, Brady and Manning, had in their best years. Brady and Manning have combined to win the last four MVPs, and Manning has the most MVPs in league history with four.
Here are some numbers to chew on:
Rodgers’ 122.5 rating is the second-best six-game stretch in his career — the other was a 127.1 rating over six games last year that included his game-ending injury in the first half against Detroit. The 122.5 rating is the 34th-best six-game, regular-season stretch in league history dating to 1960, based on statistics provided by pro-football-reference.com. Brady and Manning are responsible for 17 of those 34 six-game stretches.
The best six-game run was in ’60 by Cleveland’s Milt Plum, whose 136.5 rating edged Brady’s 136.2 over Games 3-8 in ’07. Manning’s best six-game rating was 132.9 in ’04.
Rodgers’ start this season is comparable to the best six-game run in Brett Favre’s career. In 1995, Favre won his first MVP with great play down the season’s stretch and had a 123.1 rating in Weeks 10-15.
Going back to the playoffs last season, Rodgers’ rating over his last 10 games is 117.6 points. Favre’s best 10-game stretch was in ’95, playoffs included, with a rating of 118.1. Brady’s best 10-game stretch was 134.0 in the first 10 games of ’07; Manning’s, 128.8 in ’04. The only other quarterbacks with better 10-game stretches than Rodgers — the numbers for the rest of the league were available for the regular season only — are Steve Young (127.9 in ’94) and Plum (119.9 in ’65).
This year, Brady and Johnson are Rodgers’ strongest competition for MVP, though with more than half the season remaining there’s always the chance a player comes out of nowhere, such as Favre did in the second half of ’95.
Brady has the second-highest passer rating in the league at 104.8 points, which is well behind Rodgers. But as the numbers above suggest, Brady is capable of going on sustained runs of excellence, plus he plays for a Patriots team that at 5-1 looks like a Super Bowl contender.
Johnson is the best player on the resurgent 5-1 Lions, and leads the league with nine touchdown receptions. He’s on pace for 24 touchdown catches for the year, which would break Moss’ NFL record of 23 set in ’07. The award is quarterback-centric — quarterbacks have won or shared 16 of the last 22 MVPs — but if Detroit makes the playoffs and Johnson keeps scoring, he would have a chance.
Still, Rodgers is the early front-runner. Besides the statistics, he’s been on the voters’ radar since leading the Packers to the Super Bowl last season — a panel of 50 reporters chooses The Associated Press’ MVP, which is the league’s official award.
If the Packers carry the league’s best record late into the season and Rodgers plays even close to how he has in the first six weeks, he probably will join Paul Hornung (1961), Jim Taylor (1962), Bart Starr (1966) and Favre (1995, 1996 and 1997) as Packers players to be named the league’s best player.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.