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The Offensive Player of the Year Race Is Coming Down to the Wire

The margin between Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor couldn’t be slimmer. And who wins the award will say a lot about what type of football voters find impressive in the modern NFL.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

When it comes to the NFL’s postseason awards, usually there’s a clear pattern to the victors. MVP? That goes to a quarterback, sure—everyone knows that. But the leader in Next Gen Stats’ total expected points added on passing downs has won the award each season since 2016—and, you guessed it, that’s Aaron Rodgers this season. Defensive Rookie of the Year? Seventeen of the past 21 winners have been selected in the top half of the first round, and Micah Parsons is about to make it 18 out of 22.

But Offensive Player of the Year is tricky. Some years, the league MVP—that is, the quarterback leading the league in total passing EPA—is so good that he wins the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. Such was the case in 2018, in Patrick Mahomes’s first season as a starter. Matt Ryan and Cam Newton also double-dipped in 2016 and 2015, respectively. There have even been times when two quarterbacks are so good, the OPOY award becomes a sort of consolation prize for the MVP runner-up. Drew Brees drew that straw twice, in 2011 and 2008.

All that is well and good. Quarterbacks are important, yadda yadda. But Offensive Player of the Year is most fun when it recognizes a non-passer. One of those absurdly talented playmakers who make their quarterback look oh so good. To qualify, you pretty much have to make history. Derrick Henry won it last year with a 2,027-yard season, the fifth-highest total ever—he was the eighth running back to clear 2,000, and six of the previous seven had won the award. The year before him, Michael Thomas hauled in a record 149 receptions in one season, and became the first receiver to win the award since 1993.

Thomas’s record is pretty important to this conversation. Cooper Kupp might break it this week.

In his first year with quarterback Matthew Stafford under center, Kupp has gone absolutely nuclear. He has 138 catches for 1,829 yards and 15 touchdowns—all three are season-best marks among wideouts. That leaves him just 11 receptions short of tying Thomas’s number—and 135 yards short of another, even greater record: Calvin Johnson’s 2012 season of 1,964 yards.

Eleven catches for 136 yards would be a great day at the office for any receiver—for Kupp, it’d be just a bit above his average. Over the past eight weeks, Kupp is averaging 9.4 catches and 113.1 yards; against the 49ers, whom he faces in Week 18, he had 11 catches for 122 yards in a Week 10 loss. He may not hit both records, but he’ll certainly come close. And with the Rams’ position atop the NFC West secured and Stafford’s recently inconsistent play taken into consideration, Kupp is soundly the best receiver in the league, and the best player on his playoff-bound offense. That’s a strong case.

But Kupp isn’t the clear favorite to win the Offensive Player of the Year Award. In fact, at most sportsbooks, Kupp is in a dead-even race with Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor.

This would be an appropriate recognition for the season that Taylor has produced for the Colts. He sits at 1,734 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns, both of which are good for the franchise record. He doesn’t have a chance of hitting LaDainian Tomlinson’s 28 total rushing touchdowns from 2006, and he has maybe the thinnest chance of hitting the 2,000-yard mark (277 rushing yards has been done in only four games in NFL history, but Taylor is playing the Jaguars this week, against whom he had a 253-yard game almost exactly one year ago). Even without the record chase, Taylor’s production has placed him right next to Kupp in one of the most interesting and competitive NFL award contests we’ve seen in a while.

Now, we shouldn’t put too much stock into the winner of this award. I’d love to tell you that NFL award voting makes sense—it doesn’t. Most recently, Chicago-area sports commentator and MVP voter Hub Arkush said he wouldn’t vote for Aaron Rodgers as the league MVP because he thinks he’s “the biggest jerk in the league,” which is something that cannot be captured on box scores and record sheets. Jason Garrett won the NFL Coach of the Year Award in 2016 because rookie quarterback Dak Prescott was really good; since then, Garrett has been fired twice, and Prescott is still really good. NFL Executive of the Year is a cursed award: Every general manager who won it from 2009 to 2016 was fired within five years of winning it, save for Jerry Jones in 2014.

Reality can be hard to capture in the NFL. Blazes of glory are not uncommon. It’s really hard to become elite; it’s really easy to fall off that shelf. The NFL isn’t just unpredictable, it’s haphazard and frenzied. That’s what makes it fun.

But even if we should caution ourselves against an overinvestment in the 2021 NFL Offensive Player of the Year … it’s an incredibly interesting race, especially in what it tells us about what the voters value in football. Kupp is 12 receptions off the record, yes—but of the eight seasons of 125-plus catches in league history, seven have come since 2014. Marvin Harrison’s 143 receptions, which was the record before Thomas broke it, stands as the lone exception in 2002. A similar, but less drastic, swell is seen in the receiving yardage record: Johnson set the record in 2012, and since then, Julio Jones (2015) and Antonio Brown (2015) have both come within 150 yards, as Kupp is now. Kupp would still be a top-five finisher in both receiving yards and receptions across a 16-game season—but he gets that 17th game, which now moves these stratospheric receiver benchmarks closer to regular NFL expectations.

Volume cheapens records—at least, it feels that way. Teams are throwing more than ever before, because offenses have been optimized by the advent of advanced football analytics; and the throws and catches themselves are optimized, because film study has become easier, recovery has become quicker, and passing offenses are built more smartly. When multiple players push the top of the leaderboards in succession, that leaderboard suddenly seems more like a ticker tape.

Kupp’s efforts, as admirable as they are, start to blend into that background; Taylor’s stand in contrast to it. With 317 carries, Taylor is squarely at … 154th on the NFL leaderboard for all-time single-season carries. Through 16 games, he’s below Doug Martin’s 2012 season (319), Cedric Benson’s 2010 season (321), and Alfred Morris’s 2012 season (335). But 1,734 rushing yards is 29th among all rushing seasons; he joins only Henry, Adrian Peterson, and DeMarco Murray as players to rush for at least 1,700 yards since 2010. What Taylor’s done this year really isn’t done in the modern NFL that often.

I’m not sure that truth alone should win Taylor the award. Just because a running back sees high volume doesn’t mean that he’s any better than a back that sees less—just that his team is adhering to seemingly stale principles, perhaps because of philosophical inflexibility, poor quarterback play, or a legitimate competitive advantage. Success in the running game is so predicated on offensive line play that attributing all of the credit for Taylor’s production to Taylor is willfully ignorant.

But in the same way that improving football data tells teams to hand it off less and throw it more, it also tells us that Taylor is having a stellar season. He averages 1.46 rushing yards over expected per attempt, according to Next Gen Stats—only Rashaad Penny of the Seahawks is higher, and he has 96 attempts on the year to Taylor’s 317. Taylor is third in yards after contact per attempt at 3.83—that means Taylor has more yards after contact (1,213) than Cincinnati RB Joe Mixon has total rushing yards (1,205). Mixon is second in the league in total rushing yards.

So what do we do with all of this? These advanced stats and context put Taylor’s counting numbers into an even more impressive light, relative to Kupp’s counting stats. But Kupp’s counting stats may end up as actual records—even if they are aided by a 17th game and may soon be wiped away as the league continues to churn out high-volume receivers.

Remember what makes the league fun? It’s the haphazard, frenzied, zany, unpredictable. It holds our attention not only because we don’t know what’s going to happen. It holds our attention also because a myriad of things could happen, and we all have our different proclivities. My dad loves a good, old-fashioned, Steelers-esque three-’n’-out on defense; I’d rather see a T.J. Watt strip-sack or Minkah Fitzpatrick interception. I think it’s cool when Brandon Staley goes for it on fourth-and-goal against the Kansas City Chiefs; my mom, frantically texting me from her living room, does not. And the differences aren’t just generational. They’re individual, shaped by whatever irreplicable concoction of factors were present when our league fandom was born. We all like football in different ways.

But everyone likes watching Kupp and Taylor play. They fill out weekly highlight reels and win fantasy leagues. But when it comes to voting, this is really just a matter of taste. Does the effortlessness, the inevitability of the league’s most versatile receiver butter your biscuit? Vote for Kupp. How about the unfettered dominance of the runaway freight train in Indianapolis? Vote for Taylor. The winner of this year’s award will certainly be deserving.