Guess who has slipped into the NFL’s MVP conversation?
Just this week, Mike Freeman, NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report, consulted five unnamed general managers in the league for their MVP choice, and he found the results “highly surprising.” All chose Rodgers.
In fact, Rodgers has looked like an MVP for the past month, so I can see why he’s now in the conversation.
His ascent reminds me of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactic. Ali used it for two reasons: to wear out his opponent and to steal rounds. He’d wait and wait, and then try to close the final 30 seconds or minute with a flurry of punches on the theory that what happened last would stand out in the judges’ minds.
Rodgers is closing with a flurry.
His 114.5 passer rating during the Packers’ four-game winning streak is best in the league over that span. That has raised his season rating (100.3) to fifth in the NFL.
If he’s lights out against Minnesota and Detroit, and the Packers win the NFC North title, he’ll have made a big final impression. (After the regular season ends, the Associated Press’ 50-person panel of local and national media members votes for the NFL’s official MVP. They each get one vote, and the player with the most votes wins.)
My guess is that even with a great finish, Rodgers will have come on a little too late to win his third MVP. Remember, as recently as a month ago the Packers were 4-6, and Rodgers' 96.0 passer rating ranked No. 13 in the NFL. But you never know. He's hot, and so is his team. We see weekly how quickly perceptions change.
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To get a better sense of how Rodgers is registering in the league, I asked seven pro scouts for their top five MVP candidates, in order. I didn’t get a unanimous top vote for anybody and had no Rodgers’ votes for first place.
Using the AP system, Ezekiel Elliott (three firsts) was the winner, followed by Tom Brady (two), and Matt Ryan and Dak Prescott (one each).
Using a scoring system of five points for first place, four for second, etc., Brady won with 28 points (two first, four seconds and a fourth). Elliott was second with 25 (three firsts, two seconds and a fourth); Ryan was third with 16 (one first, one second, one third and two fifths); Prescott was fourth with 13 (two firsts and a third); and Rodgers was fifth with nine (three thirds).
Derek Carr (five points) and Khalil Mack (three points) also appeared on multiple ballots.
This seems like a wide-open year for MVP, as the scouts' votes suggest. There also are two games to play, and the final two weeks could sway some AP voters’ minds.
If I had to vote today — I’m not a voter; Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel represents the Packers’ market — it would come down to Elliott and Brady.
Brady’s four-game suspension hurts him, because the whole season counts, and that’s a lot of games for an MVP to miss.
So I’d go Elliott. The first-round draft pick has changed the Cowboys’ franchise from Week 1. Yes, Prescott deserves plenty of the credit for the team’s 12-2 record as well. But the Packers saw first-hand at Lambeau Field on Oct. 16 the difference Elliott makes. Everything the Cowboys can do on both sides of the ball revolves around his ability to grind out yards and drives like no other back in the league.
So I’d have gone Elliott first, Brady second, Ryan third, Carr fourth and probably Rodgers fifth. But if Rodgers dominates the next two weeks, there’s no telling what that might to do to my thinking. Or the voters’.
But more than anything, Freeman’s column reflects the regard NFL top decision-makers have for Rodgers’ talent and ability to rally his team. Rodgers’ body of work for the season might not be enough to get him the MVP even with a spectacular finish, but he’s a player they fear as much as any.
“He's better than everyone else,” one GM told Freeman.
Said another: “Best quarterback I’ve ever seen.”
One of the scouts I consulted happened to have seen the video of the Packers’ recent wins over Philadelphia, Houston and Seattle while studying the upcoming free-agent class. He wondered if the fallout from the Packers’ brutal four-game losing streak in late October and November shook Rodgers out of a stagnancy that dated back to last season.
“He’s awakened,” the scout said. “He’s a dangerous (expletive). I’m watching going, Okaaaaaay, big boy, that’s what he’s supposed to be doing. And he’s doing it without a run offense. ‘Holy (expletive), look at that.’ All the guys in the room watching it, you can hear them go, ‘Holy (expletive).’”
So no, I wouldn’t bet on Rodgers’ winning the 2016 MVP. He hasn’t been the dominant player start to finish like in 2011 and ’14.
But you never know. Ali pulled out his share of rounds with rope-a-dope and a flurry.