In QB-centric NFL, Rodgers clear MVP favorite
The history of the NFL's most valuable player award is a history of the league's evolution over the last six decades.
Dating to the four seasons (1957-60) when The Associated Press called it the most outstanding player award, before changing it to MVP, the first two winners were running backs (Jim Brown and Paul Hornung). So were four of the first six.
But since 1986, when Lawrence Taylor became only the second defensive player to win, the MVP has become almost as quarterback-centric as the game.
In that time, 21 quarterbacks have won the award, and only eight running backs (two seasons had co-winners). Of the last six MVPs, five were quarterbacks and one was a running back.
So if you think that makes Aaron Rodgers the favorite to win the MVP award, you're probably right.
"The quarterback position, to me, is always the most valuable position," one MVP voter said in an email late this week. "So unless somebody goes nuts, I will always pick a QB."
A panel of 50 media members picks AP's award, which is the NFL's official MVP. Each team's media has one voter, plus there are 18 at-large votes. In a survey this week of 11 voters, 10 picked Rodgers as their leading candidate.
That doesn't quite mean he has it in the bag. With two games to play and several plausible candidates, there's time for something big to change voters' minds, especially after Rodgers had one of the worst games of his career last week. But Rodgers is the clear front-runner.
"A player like J.J. Watt has been about as valuable as a defensive player can be," said Dan Pompei, an MVP voter and columnist for Bleacher Report and Sports On Earth. "But when a quarterback has the type of year that Rodgers is having, it's almost impossible for a player at any other position to be more valuable than him, in my opinion. The combination of the importance of the quarterback position and the excellence of performance gives a player like Rodgers an advantage."
This year is rare in that a defensive player, Watt, is a legit candidate. Only two have won the award: Taylor in '86 and Minnesota's Alan Page in '71.
The AP allows only one vote per voter rather than a ranking and point system, but we asked voters for a top three to find out who else they are considering. Watt (one first, three seconds and 2½ thirds), Dallas running back DeMarco Murray (zero, three and 2½), New England quarterback Tom Brady (four seconds and two thirds), New England tight end Rob Gronkowski (one second), Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck (one third) and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (one third) also received votes.
Bill Polian, the former Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis general manager and current analyst for ESPN, isn't a voter and declined to pick an MVP front-runner. But he sees three viable players: Rodgers, Watt and Murray.
Polian sounded more than open to the possibility that Watt deserves to win even though quarterbacks have such a profound impact on games.
"The hardest commodity to find," Polian said, "even harder than a quarterback, is an inside pass rusher, a guy who can win one-on-one inside on a consistent basis. … He's the best in the league at it."
Watt is third in the NFL in sacks with 16½, which is exceptional for an inside rusher (though he's listed as a defensive end, he plays in a 3-4 scheme, which means he plays primarily inside). According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Watt already is the NFL's single-season sacks leader for an inside rusher with 20½ in 2012, so he has an outside shot at reaching or exceeding that this season. Next on that list is Minnesota's Keith Millard with 18 sacks in 1989.
Watt also has five fumble recoveries, one interception and two defensive touchdowns (one fumble return, one interception return). He also has three touchdowns as a goal-line receiver.
And there's another unofficial stat that might be most impressive of all. Though no outside source can stake claim to being definitive, especially on subjective calls such as quarterback hurries, Watt's pass-rushing stats as tabulated by Pro Football Focus are stunning.
He has 99 combined sacks, quarterback hits and hurries. Next on the list is Kansas City's Justin Houston, an outside rusher who has 78. The highest inside rushers after Watt are Detroit's Ndamukong Suh and Tennessee's Jurrell Casey with 48 each, or less than half as many as Watt.
Some and perhaps many voters find it hard to vote for a player whose team currently is .500 and with only long-shot playoff hopes. It's hard not to agree. Watt, for all he's done, still doesn't dominate a game like Taylor.
But he's having an exceptional season.
"The Texans won't make the playoffs, but there's no way that's a 7-7 team based on the talent surrounding Watt," said Ira Kaufman of The Tampa Tribune and the voter who rates Watt as his front-runner for MVP. "Without Watt, I think it's reasonable to say Houston would be 4-10. He has gotten zero help from first overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, yet he continues to set the standard for defensive players."
Murray is the NFL's leading rusher and with 1,687 yards has a chance to become the eighth player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, though he just had surgery on his left hand this week and will be playing with a large protective wrapping on it. Four of the previous seven 2,000-yard rushers won or shared the MVP in their 2,000-yard seasons: Adrian Peterson (2012), Barry Sanders (1997), Terrell Davis (1998) and O.J. Simpson (1973).
The Cowboys also are 10-4.
"(Murray) accelerates better than anybody in the game," Polian said. "He's up in that hole and gone in a heartbeat. When you see him up close and personal it's even more arresting than when you watch him on television or on tape."
If I were a voter — Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has the vote from the Packers' media market — my concern would be comparing a player I see every week with anyone in the rest of the league. Familiarity makes it easy to overestimate or underestimate a player, depending on your inclinations.
But in the end, I find it hard not to agree with the overwhelming majority of voters who took part in the survey. Passer ratings go up almost yearly in part because NFL rules keep making it easier to succeed in the passing game, but Rodgers still is having a huge season statistically.
His 111.2 rating leads the league, and if he maintains, it will rank as eighth best in league history. His 1.1 interception percentage is lowest in the league among the quarterbacks who qualify for league passer rankings. And the Packers are 10-4 and one of the leading Super Bowl contenders. There's a reason Bovada.lv has Rodgers as a 2-to-5 favorite to win the MVP, ahead of Watt and Brady (5-to-1 each).
Basically, if Rodgers plays near the level he has all season, he's going to win. As another MVP voter put it, "Rodgers better not have another stinker while one of the others goes nuts."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty