It’s amazing how little we still understand about value in the NFL. Even casual football fans can recognize that Dallas’s offensive line is a force and Philly’s receiving corps is the exact opposite of a force. But quantifying an individual’s value remains immensely complex, because in football, every play is so interconnected that it’s disproportionately tough to isolate specific occurrences and contributions. The NFL doesn’t have WAR, like MLB, or the perfect marriage of advanced metrics and the eye test, like the NBA, and thus it’s challenging to confidently identify the most valuable player in the league. That means NFL observers have to rely on their gut and their eyes, leaving us in a place where the only certainties involve Blake Bortles being terrible.
It becomes a little easier to predict who’s going to win top honors when accounting for two factors, though: (1) The NFL MVP is now almost always a quarterback, with passers claiming eight of the last nine awards in this pass-happy era. And (2) narrative plays a huge role in who wins. With those variables in mind and an eye on lessons from the past, here are the four 2016 players who best embody the NFL’s modern MVP archetypes, plus a look at what those players need to do to complete their quest.
The Making-It-Count Man: Tom Brady
Arguing for or against Brady depends on how heavily a voter weighs a full 16-game season. The Da Vinci Code guy wrote more books than J.D. Salinger, but no one uses the “body of work” line to argue that Dan Brown is the better writer. Brady missed four games, but since returning from that Deflategate suspension, he’s gone 5–1 while completing a career-high 70 percent of his passes on a career-high 13.2 yards per catch. He’s 39, but he’s throwing farther and more accurately than ever. That’s almost unprecedented. Dan Marino limped into retirement at 38. Peyton Manning died in October of last year at 39, and was then awarded a Super Bowl victory posthumously. Brett Favre threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (22) when he was 39. Brady is, uh, the best quarterback in football.
The comp: Joe Montana in 1989. He missed three full games with a sprained knee, and backup Steve Young appeared in 10 games throughout the season, yet Montana shot to the top of the MVP race by being a complete boss in every game he played. The other top contender was freaking Don Majkowski, so the competition was admittedly thin, but it doesn’t obscure what Montana accomplished that year. Despite the abbreviated campaign, he led the league in passer rating and was fourth in touchdowns and eighth in passing yards. What’s more, when Montana played in prime time, he dominated, roughing up the Saints on Monday Night Football in November (302 yards, three scores, and no picks in a 31–13 win), cruising past the Giants in prime time (three TDs, no picks), and toasting the Rams on Monday night a month later (458 yards).
The path: Like Montana, Brady needs those marquee moments when everyone is watching. His recent Sunday night loss to Seattle didn’t help his case, but he’ll have a few more chances to impress in high-profile December outings, with the Pats set to face a good Ravens defense on a Monday night and then the Broncos in the late-afternoon window. If Brady can pull off Montana-like passing performances in those outings, he’ll lap the field and silence the “body of work” contingent.
The Young Gun Candidate: Derek Carr
Quarterback MVPs tend to hover around the wrong end of 30. Last year’s winner, Cam Newton, was the youngest quarterback to win the award in the past 20 years, at 26 years old. The most recent QB winners before that — Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning — were all older than 30 when they last claimed the prize. The result is that the MVP often seems like a lifetime-achievement award. So for Carr to win, he’ll have to play even better than he already has and hope that none of the old guard dominates over the season’s final weeks. After beating the Texans on Monday night, Carr has thrown 20 touchdowns and just four interceptions. But his biggest advantage will be in the narrative department, since his improvement has sparked a resurgence for his team, something voters love. When uncharacteristic players like Brian Sipe and Ken Anderson won their MVPs in the 1980s (what a decade), it was because they were the face of a rebound from also-ran to contender. That was also true for Newton last year. Carr’s role as the best and most charismatic player on the squad bringing the Raiders franchise back to relevancy gives him the best shot to win the award if Brady’s four-game absence proves to be too big of an obstacle. It’s almost eerie how similar Carr is to …
The comp: Favre in 1995. That year, the Green Bay passer established the template of the confident second-round pick making the leap from “good young passer” to “one of the best in the NFL” from one season to the next. Like Favre, Carr is emerging in the season after an all-time great left the league (Montana retired in 1994, Manning retired after last season). Like Favre, Carr has shown a massive improvement in the fourth quarter: Favre improved from a fourth-quarter passer rating of 78 in 1994 to 101 in 1995. Carr has improved from 68 last year to 119 this year, earning him a reputation as one of the best closers in the sport. Favre’s yardage totals also shot up, from 243 passing yards per game in 1994 to 276 in 1995, and Carr has jumped from 249 last season to 280 this year.
The path: The Raiders have to keep winning, and that probably means that Carr and Co. need to top the Broncos and Chiefs for the division title. In addition, Carr has to maintain his current numbers and, like Favre, make some marquee plays late. He’s already well on track.
The Game-Changer: Ezekiel Elliott
A vote for Elliott is also a vote for the Cowboys offensive line. That’s not a bad thing, exactly, but it’s worth remembering that many analysts predicted before the season that Elliott would dominate because he would be running behind the likes of Tyron Smith. Still, no matter how much respect voters have for the line, Elliott’s 1,102 yards on 223 attempts have put him firmly in the MVP conversation. The narrative could change slightly if Dak Prescott continues to excel now that he’s officially no longer just keeping Tony Romo’s seat warm, but this is still Elliott’s team. And as with Carr, Elliott’s role in returning a supremely popular team to relevance will help him with voters.
The comp: LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. It’s natural to want to compare Elliott to Jim Brown (who won the MVP as a rookie in 1957) and Walter Payton (who carried a young Bears team to relevance in 1977), but it’s not exactly right. LT’s outstanding 2006 campaign came with first-time starting QB Philip Rivers replacing popular former starter Drew Brees. Rivers made his mark, but Tomlinson’s absolute dominance (and 348 attempts) led the Chargers to a 14–2 record and a playoff appearance.
The path: For Elliott to win, Prescott can’t have more games like Sunday’s, when he threw for 301 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. It gets harder and harder to reward Elliott for putting his team on his back when the damn quarterback is playing his way into the MVP race as well. What’s more, Elliott has to keep up the carries. If the Cowboys get shy about making him the focal point of the offense in an effort to save him for the playoffs, he won’t reach the 2,000 yards needed for him to start stealing votes from Brady and Carr. No matter what happens with his carries, though, he’ll be the MVP of Twitter:
The Good QB, Good Team Guy: Matt Ryan
Guys who aren’t legendary names need some luck to earn MVP consideration, and the clearest path for pretty good players opens when the supporting cast improves, sparking a nice bump in their numbers. Look at Boomer Esiason, whose 97 passer rating in 1988 wasn’t far off from his numbers in previous seasons, but who looked like a viable MVP candidate because the 12–4 Bengals improved so much around him. Ryan, who’s been to three Pro Bowls, has always been good. But this year his supporting cast has seen a boost, and so have his numbers. In Ryan’s age-31 season, Atlanta’s running game has clicked, its offensive line has solidified, and its top receiver, Julio Jones, has been better than ever, which has helped us all notice how good Ryan is. He’s currently on pace for career bests in quarterback rating, yards per game, yards per catch, and interception percentage.
The comp: John Brodie in 1970. Plenty of guys see their numbers spike in their 30s: After bouncing around for awhile, Rich Gannon got the chance to start for the Raiders at age 34, and delivered years like Ryan is having now. But Brodie, the 49ers’ quarterback from 1957 until 1973, had a truly Ryanesque career. He long put up decent numbers (for his era), and at age 35, he delivered one of his best seasons, leading the NFL in passing touchdowns (something he had done five years earlier with little fanfare) and passing yards (for the third time in his career), earning acclaim at long last as his team finally won big, going 10–3–1.
The path: The Falcons have to get better: They’re just 6–4, putting them one game up on the Buccaneers. If they can get to 11 wins, voters will at least consider rewarding Ryan for his career year. If they can’t, at least Ryan will have the chance to deliver another career year down the road.