As we approach this season’s finish line, one narrative truly crystallized in Week 14: the MVP race has become complete, utter chaos. This lack of clarity, of course, makes it all the more fun to debate (or excruciating, depending on your view of sports debates). A poll of eight random fans in my head elicited eight different selections. A poll of real people could very well produce a similar result.
2016 has been the year of the Cowboys, the year of anthem protests, the year of hexed kickers. But no singular player has owned 2016, at least not in a jaw-dropping week-to-week transformational way. A player will win the MVP award, though it’s impossible to conceive of said player garnering 48 of 50 votes like Cam Newton did last season. So instead of trying to figure out who will win, let’s consider why each candidate should not win.
Dak Prescott: The Cowboys’ rookie sensation has hit a dry spell—he hasn’t thrown for more than 200 yards or more than one touchdown since Week 11, and his worst performance came Sunday night at MetLife, where he gifted both Janoris Jenkins and Leon Hall with interceptions. The Giants defense, particularly its secondary, is one of the league’s best and clearly has Prescott’s number. But MVPs are supposed to step up against division rivals in critical games, particularly in the most nail-biting situations. Instead the Prescott-led Cowboys went one-for-14 on third-down attempts.
Prescott has regressed from rookie phenom to slightly above average. He’s clearly the franchise quarterback in Dallas, but from his decision-making and footwork to sheer accuracy, the quarterback has lost his luster. So forget the MVP talk—the more prevalent question is whether a 36-year-old mild-mannered backup is the better option for Dallas as the playoffs approach. (I don’t believe so given Tony Romo’s disastrous Week 17 history but the question is not illegitimate.)
Ezekiel Elliott: Oh the Cowboys’ glorious offensive line. Did you see Tyron Smith toss Eli Apple aside like he was flicking a crumb off his shirt? Travis Frederick could single-handedly block the sun. With the possible exception of RT Doug Free, these are not human beings; they are super heroes. Speaking of Free, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell offers a salient point about Elliott’s MVP candidacy.
Sure, Elliott leads the league in rushing (1,392 yards), boasts a lofty 4.9 yards per carry and has reached the end zone 13 times. But he’s still light years behind 2012 MVP winner Adrian Peterson who topped 2,000 yards and had a whopping 6.0 yards per carry, thanks in large part to regular display of electrifying long runs. Elliott is incredibly skilled at attacking any open hole and breaking tackles. But his lack of mind-boggling runs marrying dance moves and acceleration—he has just one run of over 40 yards—decreases Elliott’s MVP odds. If we’re giving this award to a non-QB, we should be able to settle in and watch a bevy of electrifying highlights. Everything about Elliott’s rookie campaign has been superb, but only a few runs have been classic.
As an aside, keep in mind that when the Cowboys were trying to orchestrate a come-from-behind win against the Giants late in the fourth quarter of their Week 14 matchup, it was Lance Dunbar on the field, not Elliott. Jason Garrett offered a half-explanation about Dunbar being in those two-minute situations before. That’s absurd. Elliott is your franchise running back, so get him on the field in the crucial moments. Any MVP is on the field in that situation.
Matt Ryan: Ryan was arguably the front-runner until Week 13 vs. Kansas City. The QB threw a clutch touchdown to Aldrick Robinson, giving the Falcons the 28–27 lead with 4:32 remaining. Then on the subsequent two-point conversion attempt, Eric Berry glided across the end zone and took Ryan’s errant pass to the house for two points, sealing the win for Kansas City.
No doubt, Ryan is having a career year, but he trails Drew Brees in a few major categories like touchdowns and passing yards (that honor currently goes to Drew Brees). Obviously tossing the ball up to 6' 3" beast Julio Jones has helped pad Ryan’s stats—he does lead in average yards per catch (9.2) and passer rating (113.2).
The Falcons currently hold the No. 4 seed, but barely. Despite a delicate remaining schedule (vs. San Francisco, at Carolina, vs. New Orleans) it is not inconceivable that the Falcons lose their own division to the emerging Buccaneers and miss the playoffs altogether as teams with more momentum like Washington and Green Bay make a final push.
Julio Jones: ... See Matt Ryan.
Matthew Stafford: Stafford is the king of the fourth-quarter comeback, but why isn’t he doing enough in the first three quarters to put games away? The Lions QB has no business being in that position, especially when playing a team like the lowly Bears at home. During their Week 14 matchup, Stafford threw a pick-six to Bears CB Cre’Von LeBlanc in the middle of the fourth quarter, making him directly responsible for his team’s deficiency. As a certain President-Elect would say, ‘Not very MVP like!’ (Too soon?)
Side note: AnquanBoldin has been a HUGE boost for Stafford and the Lions, somewhat reminiscient of the safety blanket that Boldin became for Joe Flacco in the 2012–13 playoffs.
Derek Carr: Carr’s candidacy all but vanished Thursday night when he put up a stinker against Kansas City in the biggest game of his career to date. He completed 17 of 41 passes, good enough for a passer rating of 49.1, and the Raiders promptly dropped from the No. 2 to the No. 5 seed. The Chiefs are as daunting as it gets for opposing quarterbacks, but still, Carr has had trouble stringing together many back-to-back MVP-worthy performances, and his stats have been too pedestrian to warrant a trophy.
Tom Brady: Brady is currently ranked No. 27 in passing yards, obviously the ramification of a four-game suspension. but he’s averaging over 300 passing yards per game and has been more flawless than not. But there is something a little salacious about handing the MVP to someone who was suspended for four games. And I’ll go there; the Patriots were 3–1 without him. Brissett? Brady? Does it really matter who’s under center?
The entire Cowboys offense line: Our Jonathan Jones has been a proponent of this movement. But as Barry Wilner, an AP editor who arranges the MVP voting, told Jones, “The award is Most Valuable Player, singular.”
Aaron Rodgers: This season, people have been talking more about whether a family rift has impacted Rodgers’s play than marveling at precise back shoulder throws and Hail Marys. However the Packers QB has found his dazzling form again, and it was especially on display when he was slicing the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas-less secondary Sunday. If my team was playoff-bound today and I could select any quarterback, it would probably be Rodgers. But that is the present. Too much of Rodgers’ season was spent on lazy throws, misreading routes and poor footwork, and at times it felt like Rodgers and his crop of receivers were not at all familiar with each other. Oftentimes MVP-esque quarterbacks are dragged down by perilous offensive lines and defensive holes; Rodgers’s situation was never that dire, and they should be better than 7–6 at this point. But let’s chat again if Rodgers bulldozes the Packers to a 10–6 record and a playoff berth.
Justin Tucker: Don’t laugh. It’s not inconceivable that a kicker would net a few MVP votes. Ray Guy, the Hall-of-Fame punter for the great Raiders teams of the 70’s Raiders, did just that. Fast forward to the present and the stunning disparity between Tucker, who is perfect on the year (including eight-for-eight from 50+ yards) and everyone else at his position. Many outlets, including this one, have dubbed Tucker the MVP of the Ravens. That moniker may well ring true but therein lies the issue with Tucker’s candidacy. The Ravens are 7–5 team and would fail to make the postseason if the season ended today. Also, he’s a kicker. Duh.
With all of that said, the MVP has to land somewhere and my money’s on Ezekiel Elliott. Aforementioned strikes against him aside, Elliott has been the singular most impactful player on the team that still has the inside track to a no. 1 overall seed in the playoffs. His stats are undeniable. Elliott has at least a touchdown or 96 rushing yards in every game this season. He has topped 100 yards six times and scored double-digit touchdowns in four games. The consistency. The showmanship. The number of eyeballs that are watching. Elliott is as MVP-like as we have in 2016.