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Brace Yourselves for the Most Entertaining—and Informative—NFL MVP Chase in Decades

The criterion for winning football’s highest individual honor is predictable at this point: Be one of the best QBs in the league on a playoff team. That remains true in 2019, but players like Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson are teaching us so much more about what value means in the modern NFL.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL’s Most Valuable Player award is not particularly useful. Unlike in the NBA or MLB, it does not necessarily tell the story of a season or of the era. Drew Brees will have spent more than a decade pushing the upper limits of passing efficiency and will likely never win MVP. Jerry Rice might be the best player ever and never won the award, even as his quarterbacks won it four times in part because they had so much success throwing to him. All-time talents like Randy Moss were barely even serious candidates. There’s often a general consensus about the best player in the sport at any given time, and those talents do not automatically become MVP candidates. There has never been serious discussion that Aaron Donald should win the league’s Most Valuable Player award, despite his incredible performances.

There’s a small pool of candidates for NFL MVP, and it is getting smaller. Not since O.J. Simpson’s win in 1973 has a player from a non-playoff team won. In baseball, a great player can force his way into the MVP discussion even if his team isn’t in playoff contention. Barring some unpredictable surge, a seventh straight quarterback will win MVP this season, the longest streak since the Associated Press award started in 1957. The decade will come to a close with only one non-quarterback MVP, the lowest for any decade. Every other complete decade had at least three non-quarterback winners. In the ’80s, the MVP ranks included not only a linebacker but also a kicker. It seems impossible, in the midst of a historic passing boom, to imagine that a non-quarterback will win the award in the foreseeable future. If the winner must be a quarterback, then that limits the pool of candidates to 12 players—one for every playoff place. Since not every playoff quarterback is considered good, the MVP pool really consists of about five players each year. Say what you will about voters awarding the 1982 award to Washington kicker Mark Moseley—the trophy should have gone to Dan Fouts or Wes Chandler—but at least they were thinking outside the box.

The reason there is far less debate each year about the NFL’s MVP race than there is in other sports is that the system’s set up to make the choice obvious by the end of the season: a team wins, the great quarterback gets credit. It’s by far the most important position in the sport, and likely all of sports, but there are a lot of unexamined questions within this process: Should a quarterback get more recognition if he has a bad coaching staff, because he’s actually showing his value? If a passer has a great receiver to throw to, should the signal-caller be penalized? Or if the opposite is true, should he be rewarded? Shouldn’t we at least have had a discussion in 2013 when wide receiver Josh Gordon snagged 1,646 receiving yards with Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, and Brian Hoyer as his quarterbacks for a 4-12 Browns team? What about a player like Eagles offensive lineman Lane Johnson, who creates a 20-point swing in his quarterback’s passer rating when he’s on the field? Should wide receiver Allen Robinson get some sort of lifetime achievement award for putting up solid numbers while playing with Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky as his quarterbacks? And this discussion is limited to offensive players, since defensive players have been non-starters in the MVP debate in the past three decades. Context has meant very little when it comes to handing out awards.

What we have in 2019, then, is rare: A genuinely fun MVP race, even by the narrow parameters of the award, featuring two players who are probably the most valuable in the league, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. The MVP race has probably never been this fun, and the process of deciding a winner just might change the way we think of the award.

It is, to borrow a Simpsons joke, a fireworks factory of an MVP chase. If you enjoy football, this is what you want: two elite talents in Super Bowl contention trying to win MVP, and making plays that shouldn’t be possible on an NFL field. This is it, chief.

But it will not just be aesthetically pleasing. I think we are going to learn a lot about football in the next few weeks. We know more about the sport than ever, and this will continue to be true. NFL tracking data, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, and a ton of smart analysts are providing more context than ever before to evaluate player performance. For instance, this stat about Jackson struck me this week:

Defenders get close to Jackson but simply cannot tackle him. Most of the defenders he passes on the field look like they picked up the sport for the first time earlier in the day. A defender being within 1 yard of a quarterback means the end of the play for nearly every signal-caller. For Jackson, it means gaining 518 additional yards.

This is the MVP race for the information age. I won’t overstate how much of a role analytics plays in the NFL—despite the huge advancements some teams have made, it’s still very much a work in progress leaguewide—but we talk about player value with more depth than we ever have, and that impacts the MVP race. This means stats like this from Pro Football Focus’s George Chahrouri:

This is not to say that either Wilson or Jackson is a runaway MVP choice by the numbers—that’s yet to be determined—but rather that this is probably the moment when we start talking about the MVP with more scope. These players still fit the very narrow parameters required to win the award (quarterbacks on winning teams), but the conversation around them might change, if the candidates themselves don’t. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott should be included in the discussion, as my colleague Riley McAtee wrote this week. Sadly for Prescott, the Cowboys haven’t won enough games, due to certain factors outside of his control. And a winning team is the barrier to entry for the MVP race. Still.

The NFL has not had an MVP race like this one. In baseball, advanced numbers have played a role in awards for a while. Seattle’s Félix Hernández won the 2010 Cy Young award despite winning only 13 games, an achievement that was considered a watershed moment at the time. The NFL is not there yet: Quarterback wins, despite not being an actual statistic, are given massive weight. But this is as exciting as it can get within the existing parameters.

This MVP race is a celebration of the sport. Never forget how bad MVP races could hypothetically be. In a brief moment of hysteria earlier this year, gamblers (and optimistic Bears fans) backed Trubisky to win at 200-1. Nearly a quarter of all money for NFL MVP bets went to Trubisky at one sportsbook, the Chicago Tribune reported. This, in some ways, makes some sense: There is no way Trubisky was ever going to be the most valuable player in football. But if he’d actually taken a step forward, he could have, in theory, ridden the coattails of his defense and supporting cast to MVP contention. He could have been a figurehead of a successful Bears season, and those types of players get farther than they should in these debates. Of course, Trubisky did not take a step forward, nor did his defense or supporting cast, and he probably can be considered among the least valuable players in football this year. Next time you wonder why Vegas is rich, remember that Trubisky was the top gambling pick over the summer for MVP as a long shot. Meanwhile, VSiN reports, sportsbook William Hill wrote only 16 tickets for Lamar Jackson at 100-1 earlier this year. Westgate wrote 23 for Jackson at 50-to-1. The same story said Baker Mayfield was the “hot ticket” while these odds were available on Jackson. With all of this in mind, Jackson-Wilson is the MVP race we deserve.

MVP winners can seem preordained, like the selection was always clear as it was unfolding. If you think of the 2015 season, you think of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. You think Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes when you think of 2018. This is not actually the case as it is happening. It is obvious by the end of the season, but far from it in the moment. At this time last season, Brees was branded the “clear MVP favorite”—five weeks later, he was trounced 41-9 in the voting by Patrick Mahomes. The year before, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was running away with the award before a December knee injury that eventually led to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s win. In 2016, despite Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan running one of the most efficient offenses in league history, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was the November MVP, before Ryan pulled away (Carr was also hurt in December). Newton, who eventually won 48 of 50 votes, was met with skepticism late in his dominant 2015 season. On November 13 of that year, Sports Illustrated said he wasn’t even a candidate. In December of that same year, an SI article by my now-colleague Robert Mays mentioned Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton as an MVP candidate. In October of that season, when oddsmakers made Dalton the third favorite for the award, Newton was still 25-1, behind Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Newton eventually won all but two votes—Brady and Carson Palmer got one each.

All of this is to say that MVP talk before Thanksgiving is useful to sort out the candidates and not the winner. Right now, we know the candidates: Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson are on the top tier. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was on that tier until Jackson’s Ravens torched Houston last week, leaving him in a larger secondary group that includes some combination of himself, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and Prescott. Oddsmakers have Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins as the sixth favorite to win, and Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, at 20-1, is the only non-quarterback among the top 10.

Barring injury or someone like Prescott or Cousins running the table with historically good numbers, the award will come down to the December performances of Jackson and Wilson. This is very Heisman-y, but it is a reality (Jackson will likely score some points for beating Wilson earlier this year). There are a handful of traditional factors that I think are important in the next six weeks. One is exposure. Wilson has a marquee matchup against the Eagles and prime-time games against the Vikings and Rams left. The Ravens have Monday Night Football matchups against the Rams and the Jets.

These sorts of things matter, even if they shouldn’t. The more important part when making my decision (I don’t have an AP vote) is the information wars: which factors can be contextualized well enough to sway my decision. Because “value” is so subjective, there is no real guideline to separate the two based on the name of the award. Should Wilson get an edge because he plays for a coaching staff that has historically not accentuated his talents, while Jackson’s coaches have built a near-perfect scheme around him? Should Wilson get a bonus for playing behind a worse offensive line? How much value should be assigned to Jackson’s historically good rushing numbers? I don’t know the answer, because it’s rare to have a quarterback like Jackson in such a close MVP race. Michael Vick was in contention with Brady in 2010, but Brady ended up as the unanimous winner.

I also think, now that it’s firmly established as a quarterback award, that there should be an adjustment to the system. Adam Schefter said, correctly, that Saints receiver Michael Thomas, on pace to shatter receiving records, should receive some MVP support. He won’t because he’s not a quarterback or running back, even though he has more receptions than the Philadelphia Eagles.

Like the Heisman Trophy, wide receivers need not apply for the MVP. Quarterbacks and running backs have won each of the past 22 Heismans. The last time a non-quarterback or running back won the MVP award was 1986, when it went to Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Offensive Player of the Year is set up sort of as a fail-safe to award non-quarterback performances, but that, too, often goes to quarterbacks, and failing that, running backs. A wide receiver hasn’t won that award since 1993, despite that position being far more valuable than running back.

The league should find a way to reward players like Thomas. Perhaps Offensive Player of the Year should branch off and stop including quarterbacks, or a separate, non-quarterback award should be created. Defensive Player of the Year is the safe haven for players like J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald to collect hardware, and more offensive players need something like that.

The MVP award, as it is currently set up, is strange. It is an award for good quarterbacks on good teams. This becomes a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: If you are a valuable quarterback, do you automatically make your team good? The answer depends on your definition of value, and that can become so murky it’s not worth exploring here. The award could use some opening up, and that might happen in the future, but given the realities of the award, this is the best we could possibly hope for: Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson with five weeks to go, their teams in contention, and an MVP on the line. We’re going to the fireworks factory.