clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

There’s a Lot More Than a Trophy Riding on This Year’s NFL MVP Race

The 2023 race is less about who’s best in any one category, and more about what you value most: Clutch play? Statistical dominance? There’s an option for every preference—even non-quarterbacks.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been awhile since we’ve had a good MVP debate. I don’t mean a good race, because we’ve seen a few go down to the wire in recent seasons. In 2021, for instance, Aaron Rodgers entered December with the third-best odds to win the award, behind Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, but by the end of the season, he had helped the Packers secure the top record in the NFL and finished atop the league in most major passing statistics. It was a thrilling race to the end, sure, but with all things being similar statistically—and they were for Rodgers, Mahomes, and Brady—team success was a clear tiebreaker. The Green Bay quarterback took home 78 percent of the votes. No debating was necessary.

That’s not the sort of resolution we seem to be headed for in 2023. There’s a lot of football still to be played between now and the time ballots are due, but as of this moment, there is no neat and tidy way to separate this year’s batch of candidates. Jalen Hurts is the current favorite, mostly thanks to Philadelphia’s 10-1 record, but he doesn’t have the statistical profile of your typical MVP candidate. He’s not alone, either:

It almost feels as if Hurts is being used as a placeholder at the top, while the oddsmakers patiently wait for someone to seize control of the race.

Given the current state of things, that makes a lot of sense. The Eagles are the NFL’s best team, and even if Hurts has put up some uneven performances in Philly’s most high-profile wins, he’s made enough plays in crunch time to cover up the slow starts. His game-winning touchdown run against Buffalo on Sunday will be the only play from the contest we remember a month from now.

Meanwhile, the candidates who do have the numbers that typically garner MVP consideration don’t have that clutch factor going for them. We’ve seen Brock Purdy, who is starting to widen the gap between himself and other quarterbacks at the top of the league’s passing leaderboard, throw away games for the 49ers. Josh Allen’s team has a 15 percent chance of making the playoffs, per The New York Times. Tua Tagovailoa’s turnover luck has flipped this season, leading to some brutal missteps in big games. And despite Dak Prescott’s season-long brilliance, his woeful Sunday Night Football performance against San Francisco early this season will be hard to forget.

Complicating matters is the fact that a number of non-quarterback candidates have legitimate claims to the award this season. Miami’s Tyreek Hill is on pace to win the NFL’s receiving triple crown while serving as the obvious focal point of the Dolphins’ passing game. Christian McCaffrey has had a similar impact on the 49ers offense. And Myles Garrett was even getting some attention as a sleeper candidate, but after suffering a shoulder injury in Cleveland’s loss to Denver, he’s probably out of the running.

No matter how you view the MVP award—whether you value QB Winz, a convenient narrative, big numbers, impressive film, or a combination of those factors—there’s a candidate in this race for you. There’s really no wrong answer in a season like this. Instead, this year’s MVP debate is largely a philosophical one—and the winner could change the way we view the award going forward. With a dearth of standout options at quarterback, this could be the year a non-QB breaks the position’s decade-long dominance of the award. Or, if a quarterback does run away with it, we could be forced to have some conversations about what this award has become. Either way, there’s a lot more than a trophy riding on this year’s race.

It’s fitting that Hurts is the face of this year’s jumbled MVP race because his candidacy is the hardest to put into a single bucket. Philly’s record is driving his campaign at the moment, he’s surrounded by talent, and he plays in what many would describe as a quarterback-friendly scheme. But to call him a system quarterback is reductive—especially since he can create so spectacularly with his legs and makes nearly $50 million a year.

But when you compare Hurts’s production, and how it’s being generated this season, to that of the other MVP candidates, he comes out looking more like a Purdy or Tagovailoa than an Allen or Mahomes. Hurts is at his most effective on plays when he throws in rhythm—when he hits the back of his drop and the ball gets out—or when he’s not forced to move in the pocket. On in-rhythm and schemed-up throws, he ranks fourth in expected points added per play, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Purdy, C.J. Stroud, and Jared Goff rank ahead of him. On plays in which the quarterback isn’t forced to move, only Purdy, Stroud, Goff, and Tagovailoa rank ahead of him.

When you look at the plays that fall on the other end of the spectrum—plays in which the quarterback is forced to move or isn’t able to throw in rhythm—you’ll find names like Mahomes, Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Justin Herbert at the top of the EPA leaderboard. Those are the names we typically associate with Hurts, who has emerged as a true franchise quarterback over the past two seasons. But those guys are producing in far different ways—out of necessity. Their statistical production may not be overly impressive this season, but the way Allen, Mahomes, and Jackson have almost single-handedly kept their flawed offenses afloat certainly has been.

The duel between Allen and Hurts on Sunday perfectly illustrates that. Allen dragged the Bills offense up and down the field with impressive displays of creativity, while Hurts served as more of a calming influence over the Eagles unit. In key moments, the ball almost always ended up in both quarterbacks’ hands, but it felt as if Allen and Hurts were playing two different sports. Even Allen’s opponents were impressed by how he sustained the Bills when so much of the playmaking burden fell on him. Eagles corner Darius Slay went out of his way to defend Allen after the game.

Unlike quarterbacks like Tagovailoa, Purdy, and Goff, though, Hurts also serves an ancillary function in Philly’s offense as the focal point of the run game. And I’m not sure there’s a team that utilizes its run game quite like the Eagles. Only the Falcons have a lower pass rate when trailing in games, and only the Ravens and Bills perform better by rushing EPA and success rate while behind on the scoreboard, per TruMedia. When other teams get down, they turn the game over to their quarterbacks. The Eagles do too, but in a different way.

But while Hurts’s gravity holds a lot of sway over NFL defenses, so do the Eagles’ other stars. Having DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown on the outside keeps defenses honest. Having a center who can carry out any block assignment, no matter how challenging, has also made the run game a pain to defend.

Besides, Hurts’s designed QB runs, outside of the Brotherly Shoves, haven’t been all that effective. He’s averaging exactly 0.0 EPA per run on attempts from the gun—which cover all of his designed rushes that weren’t sneaks—with a 40 percent success rate. By comparison, Jackson is averaging 0.12 EPA per attempt with a 52.8 percent success rate on those plays. Allen’s designed runs from the gun have also been more effective based on EPA and success rate, and the same is true for his under-center runs.

That’s not to say that a player like Allen deserves more credit for what he did in a losing effort than Hurts deserves for his winning effort. While I tend to prefer quarterbacks who can elevate an offense even when it has a talent or coaching disadvantage, there is a lot to be said for guys who consistently color inside the lines. I’m still not sure who to blame for the miscommunication between Allen and Gabe Davis on what should have been the game-winning touchdown in overtime, but I know that sort of thing is less likely to happen in an offense that’s predicated on timing and precision than in one built around the vibes of the quarterback.

Having a quarterback who puts the ball in the right spot at the right time is incredibly valuable. It’s not a coincidence that Hill has put together the two best seasons of his career after trading in the best quarterback of all time for Tagovailoa. It’s not a coincidence that Purdy smoked Trey Lance in a quarterback competition this offseason. It’s also not a coincidence that that kind of quarterback has led the best offenses in the league this season.

In 2023, being a system quarterback has been a good thing—and expectations for that kind of passer are starting to change, as the Hurtses, Purdys, and Tagovailoas have developed their own unique superpowers. This isn’t the kind of race we saw in 2021, when Rodgers, Mahomes, and Brady were all lighting up the stat sheet in similar ways. This year, we mostly have questions about how to properly dole out credit.

Is Miami’s quick passing game lethal thanks to Tagovailoa’s quick release, Hill’s unprecedented speed, or Mike McDaniel’s system, which ties it all together? Is Philadelphia’s “break glass in case of emergency” run game the product of Hurts’s mobility, Jason Kelce’s dominance in the interior, or a pragmatic approach to play-calling? Would the 49ers offense work without Purdy’s quick release, or is McCaffrey’s ability to turn any play into an explosive the key to it all? These are all genuine questions. I’m the analyst, but even I’m struggling to find definitive answers.

That’s what makes this year’s MVP debate so interesting: There are so many different quarterbacks providing value to their respective offenses in different ways—not to mention the non-QBs, who are adding a complicated third dimension. Hell, you could even make a compelling case that Jason Kelce (a center!) is the most valuable player on the NFL’s best team. All options are on the table.

This year’s jumbled race will almost certainly produce a hotly contested winner. We’ll spend the next two months screaming at one another about this, and we’ll probably still be screaming years after the award is settled. It won’t be productive, but it’ll be a lot of fun.