- Tom Brady has the MVP locked up this year. But the award itself, reserved almost exclusively for quarterbacks, has to be rethought—mostly by removing the notion of ‘value’—to open up the field and clarify the arguments
The decision is all but made and it’s the right one: Tom Brady will be the 2017 NFL Most Valuable Player. There is no doubt about this eventuality, and if I had a vote, like my colleague Jenny Vrentas does, I would have no reservations about casting my ballot for The Pharaoh. (No, really, that’s apparently a nickname of his).
So this kvetch is more philosophical than any issue that could have cropped up had Carson Wentz stayed healthy or had Antonio Brown gone off last Sunday or if Russell Wilson’s Seahawks didn’t put together two clunkers in consecutive weeks. Even when the MVP winner is clear with two weeks left in the season, I still believe the award needs a reimaging.
It’s not that I find the award or the voting process to necessarily be flawed. It’s that I find the interpretation of the award itself to be an issue. We have only three words to go off of, and as such we place all importance on each of those words. Most modifies valuable—a word that speaks for itself—followed by player, which is necessary only to denote that we’re talking about those who play and not those who coach or provide treatment or prepare Gatorade coolers.
The problem, of course, is with the second word. Valuable. We in media always describe quarterback as the most important position in all of sports, not just football. You can’t win if you don’t have a quarterback. You can’t build a team without a quarterback. Draft the wrong quarterback as a general manager and you’ll be fired. One quarterback plays a decent season at the right time and he will earn the GDP of a developing nation in his next contract.
In the past 30 years only quarterbacks and running backs have won the MVP. And in the past two decades it’s been overwhelmingly quarterbacks—all of the six running backs who won in that span had to either establish a new record for touchdowns or rush for more than 2,000 yards.
So essentially, the only possible recipients of the greatest award in pro football are quarterbacks who have a great season (of the 32 starters, only half are capable of a great season) or a running back who has a historic year (and who is lucky enough to have a coach who favors the ground game). You can be a transcendent player at any other position and not even catch a sniff of the award.
Calvin Johnson tallied 1,964 receiving yards in 2012 and didn’t get a single MVP vote. (Adrian Peterson won the award and Peyton Manning was the only other to receive votes.) Julio Jones nearly broke Johnson’s record in 2015, but his Falcons team went 8-8 in a division with Cam Newton and the 15-1 Panthers. The great Jerry Rice, at age 32 in 1995, couldn’t beat out Brett Favre even after Rice smashed the 34-year-old single-season receiving record.
The argument here is that, hey, that’s what the Offensive Player of the Year award is for, to reward those who weren’t really in the running for MVP. That’s good and great and well, but here are three counterpoints to that. First, four of the past five MVPs also won OPOY that season. Second, it’s hardly a memorable award (good luck recalling the last non-MVP to win OPOY—it was DeMarco Murray in 2014). And finally, if there’s nothing wrong with the textual interpretation of the MVP award, why is this one not named Most Valuable Offensive Player of the Year?
Therein lies the issue with “valuable.” Is Ben Roethlisberger more valuable to the Steelers than Antonio Brown? 100 percent. Is A.B. having a far more outstanding year than Big Ben? Absolutely. Russell Wilson has had a historically bad offensive line and mostly scrap parts at wide receiver for years but consistently wins in December and has two NFC titles and a Super Bowl trophy to show for it. Without Wilson, the Seahawks wouldn’t be in the playoff hunt. His value is obvious, and yet he’s never gotten a single MVP vote in his career.
Or how about my favorite: Remember when Peyton Manning sat out the 2011 season with a neck injury and the Colts—led by Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins—went 2-14 and earned the first pick in the draft? There were calls for Manning to win the MVP award that year considering that Indianapolis had double-digit-wins and two Super Bowl trips in the previous nine seasons. It was as if people put so much emphasis on “valuable” that they forgot the “player” part of the award. The same can be said this season for Aaron Rodgers, who had the Packers at 4-1 during Week 6, broke his collarbone early in the Vikings game, and the Packers went 3-5 after the injury. What does it say about the voters’ imaginations if they can only understand value when it’s demonstrated by a player being injured for a third of the season?
And then try to reconcile that Brady, the most accomplished quarterback ever, has only two of the awards made in this day and age for quarterbacks. His first was earned after captaining a 16-0 team and passing for 50 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2007, and his second came in 2010 when he had 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions in a 14-2 season. This isn’t to say the NFL is the only league that has it wrong, either; LeBron James hasn’t won an MVP award the past four seasons (and only got one first-place vote last year) even though he’s made it to seven straight NBA Finals and is clearly a top-three player in NBA history.
When I began thinking about this piece, it was not my goal to come up with a solution, but rather point out some of the problems and ask voters to have a more open mind. And as I started writing, I realized that there would be a simple solution to all of this, and here it is:
In the spirit of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, an award that through a great marketing push over the years registers its import and meaning with football fans immediately, rename the MVP award the Peyton Manning Player of the Year award. Manning won five MVPs (three others won just three) in his career and deserves such an honor for the way he carried himself on and off the field.
If voters still want to cast their ballot based on perceived value, by all means. But by removing “valuable,” you give the voters more freedom and fewer constraints on how to vote. The NCAA got it right (amazingly) by naming its basketball tournament’s top player the Most Outstanding Player. Some Australian sports favor the “best and fairest” for its top athlete. No one could possibly be that tied to nostalgia of “MVP,” and if they are, they’re likely to love Manning and get over that rather quickly.
Brady—and the circumstances of this season—have ended the conversation for this year’s MVP, but the award still needs fixing or else we’ll find ourselves in this barbershop conversation next year, too.
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