I probably shouldn’t have gone as strong as I did in declaring Patrick Mahomes the MVP in November—comparing him to Michael Jordan, in illustrating the point that he could legit win the award every single year based on what he means to the Chiefs. And in my defense, it was always going to take something pretty spectacular to overtake a reigning Super Bowl MVP who came back with a 14–1 record as a starter, 4,740 yards, and a 38 to 6 TD to INT ratio.
Well, something pretty spectacular happened.
Aaron Rodgers’s 2020 became otherworldly.
Since Green Bay’s last loss, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Rodgers has completed 75.9% of his passes (132-for-175) for 1,410 yards, 19 touchdowns, a single pick and a 133.1 passer rating. Those numbers were suppressed a little, too, by the fact that the Packers had five of those six games well in hand late, leading to the coaching staff taking the air out of the ball in spots where some stat-padding could’ve taken place.
Simply put, Rodgers has been as good as he’s ever been, and that’s saying a lot for a guy who was an all-decade quarterback, has won two league MVPs already and will be in the Hall of Fame as soon as he’s eligible. His 2020 numbers set new career standards for completion percentage (70.7%) and touchdown passes (48) and marked the second-highest passer rating in a season ever (his rating of 121.5 has only been bested by his own 2011 mark of 122.5).
And this is less than two years after questions dogged him about his fit with new coach Matt LaFleur, and less than a year after the selection of Jordan Love in the first round called into question how much longer Rodgers would be in Lambeau. As it turns out, LaFleur and Rodgers were a fit, and if anything, having his potential heir in the building has done nothing but further stoke the fire under No. 12.
"The level at which he's playing week in and week out is …” LaFleur said to me a couple weeks ago, when I asked him if he’d make the case for Rodgers as MVP. “I don't know who's doing better. And it consistently shows up on the stat sheet. He's the guy that's leading us. I know this: We certainly wouldn't be where we are without him. He's the guy that makes everybody around him better. And it shows every week."
Sure has. So when I went back to NFL evaluators this week, it was pretty clear their answer matched mine on the question, and just about everyone else’s too.
Rodgers is the 2020 NFL MVP.
The playoffs are here, and so are we with this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• What the NFL’s planning to do in the wake of this week’s events in D.C.
• A breakdown on why coaching salaries are not outrageous.
• Power rankings!
But we’re starting with our final awards poll for the 2020 season.
As predictable as the result of the MVP vote was, and you’ll see in a second how handily Rodgers won it in my polling, it’s actually pretty remarkable that it went that way considering where we were at midseason. Ahead of Week 10, I ran this same sort of poll, and out of 31 ballots I sent out, only one had Rodgers as MVP, and two had him as Offensive Player of the Year—and one of those OPOY votes was split.
And it was hard to blame the voters. Rodgers was playing great, but with the Chiefs and Seahawks buzzing along at the time, it’s easy to see how he might’ve been lost in the QB shuffle, in a Ho Hum, the Packers are 7–2 and Aaron’s dealing again kind of way.
The signs, though, were there of a player still ascending, somehow, at 37 years old. At the time, through nine games, Rodgers was leading the NFL in passer rating (117.5) and had thrown 24 touchdown passes against two picks. In most years, that would be a pretty MVP-worthy start, and it was this year too, in that it set the stage for an even better finish that put him in position to win his third MVP.
When the AP makes it official, it’ll be Rodgers’s third MVP, making him the sixth guy ever to win it that many times (Peyton Manning, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Brett Favre and Tom Brady are the others). And it’ll be deserved in a way that transcends his talent, and goes to his willingness to defy any doubts that the old-dog-learns-new-tricks football marriage with LaFleur could work.
“The numbers kind of speak for themselves,” LaFleur said. “He's been doing that all season long. Like, there's so many plays—some of them are run plays, you know? Where he gets us into the right look, and you can't take that for granted. It definitely makes it easier calling plays when the other guy's going out there and getting us into good looks. Making sure it's the right play call.
“It increases your odds, your probability that that's a successful play."
Which, of course, defines value.
And based on the fact that this has been going on for quite some time, maybe the Jordan comparison works for Rodgers too.
Here, then, are our 2020 Executive Awards. My process was pretty simple this time around: I sent texts out to a few dozen evaluators a couple days ago. I got 32 ballots back. These are the results, along with reasoning for the winners, a look back at our midseason winners, and my own personal pick for our MMQB ballots. (Plus, you can also check out the MMQB’s staff poll, where eight of us voted on these same awards this week with a top-five ballot and points system.) Enjoy.
1. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, 23 votes
2. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, 4 votes
3. Bills QB Josh Allen, 3 votes
T-4. Buccaneers QB Tom Brady, 1 vote
T-4. Titans RB Derrick Henry, 1 vote
My vote: Rodgers
Our midseason winner: Mahomes
Why an AFC exec voted for Rodgers: “It was close between him and [Mahomes]. [Mahomes] had a couple bad games down the stretch, and Rodgers has been consistent all year—what’s the TD to INT ratio [44 to 6]? Yeah, guy’s been on fire all year. He hasn’t had a bad game, other than maybe the Tampa game. … He’s settled into that offense, and this is the best he’s played since 2010 or ’11 and maybe ever. He’s ridiculous. We played him. Thing is, he doesn’t have weapons like the other guys. He has Davante [Adams], and the tight end [Robert Tonyan]’s become a good player, but it’s not a bunch of All-Pros out there. He looks really comfortable and in control. Last year, you could almost see him saying, ‘O.K., why are we doing this?’ Now he’s in total command of the offense. He looks f---ing scary.”
Offensive Player of the Year
1. Titans RB Derrick Henry, 15 votes
2. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, 5 votes
3. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, 4 votes
4. Saints RB Alvin Kamara, 3 votes
T-5. Bills WR Stefon Diggs, 2 votes
T-5. Chiefs TE Travis Kelce, 2 votes
6. Buccaneers QB Tom Brady, 1 vote
My vote: Henry
Our midseason winner: Vikings RB Dalvin Cook
An NFC exec on why he voted for Henry: “Really, since Week 10 of last year to now, it may be one of the greatest runs a running back’s had in league history. He hit 2,000 yards, he’s a consistent touchdown producer, he wears defenses down. … It’s about those four things—the big, long stretch of historic rushing production; 2,000 yards, and 2,000 is hard to do in this day and age; the touchdowns; and wearing down defenses. They run that offense through him. … It’s [Mike] Vrabel’s identity of toughness and physicality come to life, and that whole play-action game with Arthur Smith and [Ryan] Tannehill. It’s a lot like [Todd] Gurley with [Jared] Goff a few years back, they ascended together.”
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Rams DT Aaron Donald, 17 votes
2. Steelers OLB T.J. Watt, 12 votes
3. Dolphins CB Xavien Howard, 3 votes
My vote: Donald
Our midseason winner: Donald
A second AFC exec on why he voted for Donald: “You have to account for him with at least two blockers on every play or he’s going to ruin the play. Just a complete difference-maker. As highly-ranked as that defense is, the personnel is not great in every spot—Pittsburgh’s better. They’re where they are because of a guy like that, a true Hall of Fame game-wrecker that lines up over the ball on every play. You take him out, I really believe they drop to the middle of the pack defensively. He’s got exceptional first-step quickness and explosion, and his ability to redirect and find the ball and finish is just so rare. He’s a mismatch against every interior offensive lineman in the league.”
Offensive Rookie of the Year
1. Chargers QB Justin Herbert, 23 votes
2. Vikings WR Justin Jefferson, 8 votes
3. Buccaneers OT Tristan Wirfs, 1 vote
My vote: Herbert
Our midseason winner: Herbert/Bengals QB Joe Burrow
A second NFC exec on why he voted for Herbert: “His transition to the NFL—he was thrust into the game five minutes before the game, and he just took off and owned the position, and had maybe the greatest rookie season ever for a quarterback. He put them on the map as the second team in L.A. He looks like the real deal, and I think he may saved some jobs there in how he helped that organization. He’s a real guy going forward. … The one question you had on him coming out was leadership, and that doesn’t seem to be an issue at all. … [His play] does surprise me, I thought his accuracy really improved. He’s always been a big, athletic kid with a strong arm, but the ball would get away from him at times. So he’s really improved his accuracy. He’s really poised. The transition from college to the pro game looked easy for him.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1. Washington DE Chase Young, 28 votes
2. Panthers S Jeremy Chinn, 3 votes
3. Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield, 1 vote
My vote: Young
Our midseason winner: Ravens LB Patrick Queen
A third NFC exec on why he voted for Young: “He was the best player coming out last year that I scouted, and he’s already the best player in the league at his position—the most dominant defensive end in the league, him and T.J. Watt. … I’d say Chase is already someone everyone has to be aware of when he’s in the game, and should become a multi-year All-Pro and future Hall of Famer. … We talk about sure things all the time, he’s a sure thing. The fact that he was made a captain during the season, that’s he’s established himself as a leader that quick, it’s evident on the field when you play against him. You can see how that team rallies around him.”
Coach of the Year
1. Brian Flores, Dolphins, 12 votes
2. Kevin Stefanski, Browns, 10 votes
3. Sean McDermott, Bills, 8 votes
T-4. Matt LaFleur, Packers, 1 vote
T-4. Bruce Arians, Buccaneers, 1 vote
My vote: McDermott
Our midseason winner: Flores/Mike Tomlin, Steelers
A third AFC exec on why he voted for Flores: “Really, he’s shown it for two seasons now. Last year, that was one of the worst rosters in the league, and he took it and won five games. His energy, his leadership, it permeated through the team. He had the tough decision to make, to take [Ryan Fitzpatrick] out and go with the rookie, and he made it a positive. He just managed it so well. He’s really done an outstanding job. … He just seems to have a good feel for the job, and his team has good energy, a belief. They play hard, they’re disciplined, it’s just a tough, competitive team, and that’s him.”
Comeback Player of the Year
1. Washington QB Alex Smith, 30 votes
T-2. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, 1 vote
T-2. Cowboys DE Aldon Smith, 1 vote
My vote: Smith
Our midseason winner: N/A (not asked)
NFC GM on why he voted for Smith: “Might be the best comeback ever.”
And that’s pretty much the perfect way to finish our awards, with the best story giving us the most obvious winner—and a succinct explanation on why that one was so easy.
1) Kansas City Chiefs (14–2): You can regard them as a 15–1 team that mailed in Week 17. The champs remain the NFL’s best team, though they could have an interesting challenge coming, with the Ravens and Titans potential divisional round opponents.
2) Buffalo Bills (13–3): Their finish was otherworldly—six straight wins, all by double-digits, by a cumulative score of 229–110, which averages to a margin of victory near 20 points. And that average was close to 30 over the season’s final three weeks, with the wins coming over San Francisco, New England and Miami.
3) Green Bay Packers (13–3): At some point, they’ll stop being under the radar, right? Finally, now, they get a shot to make up for last year’s ugly playoff exit—and they certainly have the team to do it with.
4) New Orleans Saints (12–4): This is still the best roster in football, for my money. Making the quarterback position work has been a challenge for Sean Payton this year, but one he’s been up to. The stakes are about to be raised, with this likely being the final run for this particular group of players.
5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11–5): This weekend’s going to be sneaky challenging for the Bucs—the formula to beat Tom Brady in January and February has always been to get to the quarterback with four rushers, and that’s one thing Washington can do at an elite level.
THE BIG QUESTION
Will Wednesday’s events in our country affect this weekend’s games?
I don’t think the possibility of player demonstrations should be ruled out, but other than that, my sense is the difference we see in how the games are run will be minimal. And that’s in part because of the pandemic.
The limits of fans in the stands for Saturday and Saturday are as follows …
Nissan Stadium (Titans): ~14,000
Bills Stadium (Bills): ~6,700
Mercedes-Benz Superdome (Saints): ~3,700
Heinz Field (Steelers): Friends and family of team only
FedEx Field (Washington): No fans
Lumen Stadium (Seahawks): No fans
For obvious reasons, that’ll make security, for both the teams and the league, a lot easier.
How about Washington? Well, that’s an interesting question that our editors posed to me on Thursday, given that FedEx Field is located just 26 miles from the U.S. Capitol. And in talking to those with the team, they feel good that they’ll be able to prevent anything from happening ahead of or during their game on Saturday night, and for two reasons.
One, they’re one of two teams hosting games this weekend that will be playing in front of completely empty stands. Two, the setup of FedEx Field is such where securing the property will be remarkably uncomplicated. During this most unusual season, the team has been using just one gate for players, coaches, staff and media to come on and off the property, locking up other access points to the stadium, and the stadium is surrounded by a gigantic parking lot off a commercial surface road in suburban Maryland.
And as is the case with the Washington Football Team, the league office feels like it’s well-positioned to deal with any sort of threat.
“There are no changes to the status of this weekend’s NFL games,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy texted. “The safety of our fans, stadium personnel, and teams at all NFL games is our priority, and security plans at stadiums are robust and comprehensive. We continue to be in communication with clubs hosting games to reinforce our standard procedures and the league’s best practices. The clubs will make any adjustments as necessary.”
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
What coaches should be making.
Earlier in the week, there was some noise over Urban Meyer potentially wanting $12 million per year from the Jaguars. My reaction: He should be asking for at least that much.
We can argue until we’re out of oxygen over whether Meyer would be right for Jacksonville. Fact is, a coach with his resume—he’s won three national titles at two schools, has a career record of 187–32 at four schools, and had an 83–9 record at Ohio State, his last stop—is and should be expensive. And lifting Meyer up into the stratosphere of NFL coaches making eight figures isn’t out of whack.
Right now, my understanding is that roughly eight of the NFL’s 32 coaches (Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, John Harbaugh, Jon Gruden and, depending how you look at the contracts, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay) are making in eight figures. So all paying Meyer in that sort fashion would do is put him in the top quarter, which I think he’d be reasonable to expect.
Then, there’s this: These guys probably should get more. And I’ve got a good story to illustrate my point on this one. I was told a story recently of how a coaching agent, locked in negotiations, emailed an owner a list of the highest-paid players at a position (and it wasn’t quarterbacks) to show the sort of deal he, and everyone, is getting on coaches.
Let’s take that $12 million number as an example. The salary tracking site Spotrac compiles these numbers, and their data shows that a player making $12 million would be the 145th-highest paid player in football. Here are the players who make that much:
• Bengals RB Joe Mixon
• Colts DE Justin Houston
• Saints WR Emmanuel Sanders
• Chiefs OT Eric Fisher
• Bears DL Akiem Hicks
• Ravens DE Yannick Ngaukoe
These guys are good players, of course. But more valuable than bringing someone like Meyer into your organization? From a business or football standpoint?
So yeah, to me, a coach with pelts on the wall like Meyer has wouldn’t be out of line asking for that much. After all, most people regard the head coach and quarterback as the two most important pieces to building a winning team, and we all know what quarterbacks make.
THE FINAL WORD
I know you’ll think I’m out of my mind for saying this: Taylor Heinicke isn’t a horrible option for Washington to have for Saturday night. This is the third place he’s been with OC Scott Turner, with Turner having advocated for his signing in Minnesota, before bringing him to Carolina and now Washington.
And I’m not saying Heinicke’s gonna light the world on fire, or go throw-for-throw with Tom Brady. But I think he can be O.K. if Washington plays well around him, and he’s a nice option to have if Smith if hobbled.
Smith’s calf locked up on him after Washington jumped to a 10–0 lead on Philly last week, and the fear, of course, would be that happens again. That’s why Rivera conceded earlier this week that he and Turner could get creative with the quarterbacks on Saturday night and, again, my sense is Heinicke’s given those guys enough reason to feel O.K. about it.