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How Did Brock Purdy Become an MVP Front-Runner?

The 49ers’ second-year quarterback has the second-best odds to win MVP, but he’s not the best offensive player on his own team. What does it say about the award and the NFL’s quarterback play in 2023 that Purdy could win anyway?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Depending on who you ask, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy is either the second coming of Joe Montana or the fifth-best player on his own offense. Purdy is +175 to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award, the second-best odds behind only Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. Purdy’s candidacy is a football Rorschach test. In a strange season in which offense is down across the league, injuries are impacting the starting quarterback pool, and players who were the preseason MVP favorites are struggling, the 2023 MVP race may become a referendum on how to separate the value of a single player in a team sport.

The numbers that usually predict MVP winners help explain why Brock Purdy is a front-runner. Through 14 weeks, Purdy ranks third in the league in passing yards (3,553) and tied for second in passing touchdowns (25), with just seven interceptions. He leads the NFL in:

  • completion percentage (70.2)
  • passer rating (116.9)
  • ESPN Total Quarterback Rating (74.7 )
  • yards per completion (14.1)
  • yards per attempt (9.9)

But the real number that matters, whether people admit it or not, is the #QBWinz. The 49ers are 10-3, first place in the NFC West, and currently ahead of Dallas and Philadelphia for the no. 1 seed in the NFC after dropping 42 points on the Eagles and Dallas this season. Winning the conference matters. Since 1996, every quarterback to win MVP has led a team that won at least 12 games or earned a first-round bye. The only non-quarterbacks who won in that span were running backs who either:

A. Rushed for more than 2,000 yards (Barry Sanders in 1997, Terrell Davis in 1998, and Adrian Peterson in 2012), or

B. Broke a single-season touchdown record (Marshall Faulk in 2000, Shaun Alexander in 2005, LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006).

For all the peacocking about this award, the winners are quarterbacks on teams that won three out of every four games, or a running back who posted a cool number. And running backs don’t post cool numbers anymore.

No single statistic captures a player’s value, but a couple of quarterback stats do an excellent job of matching the eye test and predicting the MVP. The most predictive statistic for MVP-caliber seasons is adjusted net yards per pass attempt, a fancy way of saying yards per attempt while adjusting for touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks (because we can agree that a 1-yard touchdown pass should be worth more than a 1-yard completion, and negative plays should be factored in, too). Here is a list of the quarterbacks with at least 350 attempts who have surpassed 8.5 ANY/A—an average of at least 8.5 yards gained per dropback—in the 21st century:

  1. Peyton Manning, IND, 2004 (when he broke Dan Marino’s single-season passing touchdown record)
  2. Aaron Rodgers, GB, 2011 (the best year of Rodgers’s career)
  3. Brock Purdy, SF, 2023 (!)
  4. Matt Ryan, ATL, 2016 (like Purdy, he put up big numbers in a Kyle Shanahan offense)
  5. Patrick Mahomes, KC, 2018 (50 touchdown passes)
  6. Aaron Rodgers, GB, 2020 (48 touchdown passes, five interceptions)
  7. Tom Brady, NE, 2007 (50 touchdown passes and a 16-0 regular-season record)
  8. Peyton Manning, DEN, 2013 (NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 passing yards)
  9. Tom Brady, NE, 2016 (28 touchdowns, two interceptions)
  10. Aaron Rodgers, GB, 2014 (the other best year of Rodgers’s career)

Nine of these players won the MVP or lost to someone else on the list. The 10th is Brock Purdy.

If that isn’t enough for you, another statistic that often matches the eye test is expected points added per dropback (Manning’s 2004 season ranks first since 2000; Tom Brady’s 2007 is second). By this metric, Purdy’s current EPA per dropback (0.29) ranks just behind Matt Ryan’s 2016 MVP season but just ahead of three other MVP seasons: Patrick Mahomes (2022), Rodgers (2020), and Kurt Warner (2001).

When measuring passers by EPA per dropback this season, Purdy is peerless. The gap between Purdy and the second-place Prescott (0.19) is the same as the gap between second place and C.J. Stroud in seventh place (0.09). But quarterback stats are a function of the offense. EPA per dropback is essentially a team statistic assigned to individual quarterbacks and requires context. Giving Manning the majority of the credit for Indy’s offensive production in the 2000s made sense based on how Manning commanded that offense. Ditto for Rodgers in the 2010s. But to blindly give Purdy the same level of credit in 2023 would be to dismiss the talent and coaching around him.

Purdy provided an immediate upgrade over Jimmy Garoppolo for San Francisco in 2022. He was calmer in the pocket, better at extending plays, and smarter with the ball. San Francisco won Purdy’s first seven starts, including two playoff games, before he injured a tendon in his throwing elbow in the NFC championship game. And this season, Purdy has developed and gotten better. San Francisco tackle Trent Williams said on Sunday he was tired of people doubting Purdy. “I don’t get why people say he’s a system quarterback who’s gotta show you more,” Williams said. “Because no system quarterback makes tight-window throws before they’re there. Throwing people open. Putting the ball into a window and trusting his receiver to get there. Layering balls over linebackers who are in good position and still getting the ball over their head, getting it to the playmakers.”

Williams is talking about throws like this one to Brandon Aiyuk against Seattle on Sunday, where Purdy reset his feet and eyes and then threw a laser between two defenders:

Or this throw against Seattle where Purdy scrambles left, steadies his feet and throws downfield to an open Aiyuk:

Or this throw in the Dallas game earlier this year to wrong-foot a linebacker and put the ball on Aiyuk mid-stride (there’s a theme here that these deep balls are all going to Aiyuk):

The only other quarterbacks in TruMedia’s database to complete 70 percent of their passes while still throwing their average pass as deep as 8 yards downfield, as Purdy is doing now, are Drew Brees in 2009, Ryan Tannehill in 2019, Deshaun Watson in 2020, and Joe Burrow in 2021. While none of those players won an MVP, Brees finished second in the voting to Peyton Manning—then beat Manning in the Super Bowl that same season. Burrow emerged as Burrow in 2021 and made the Super Bowl. Tannehill led the Titans to the AFC championship game. These may not be famous seasons, but they were wildly successful ones.

Ironically, the reason Purdy is the most valuable player in the NFL is almost never considered in the award for Most Valuable Player: his salary. The NFL has become obsessed with finding cost-controlled rookie quarterbacks, and not many players get paid less than the last pick in the draft. Brock Purdy’s cap hit this year is $889,252. For context, Purdy’s cap hit does not rank in the top 1,000 players in the NFL (Purdy’s average salary is $934,252, tied with Rams safety Russ Yeast). By cap hit, Purdy is the 66th-most expensive QB in the NFL this season. Considering there are 32 teams, Purdy’s salary essentially ranks 34th among backup quarterbacks. The 49ers are spending nearly 10 times more of their budget to not have Trey Lance than they are on Purdy.

Meanwhile, Prescott’s cap hit this year ($26.8 million) is more than 30 times higher than Purdy’s. In terms of actual cash, Prescott gets paid more than $1.8 million per game. Purdy gets paid under $52,000 per game. For context, when the 49ers made the Super Bowl in February 2020, there were individual tickets selling for as high as $70,000. If NFL players were paid by the minute, Prescott made more before halftime of Week 1 than Purdy does in an entire season.

Thus, the real stat we should be looking at for Purdy is not EPA per play, but rather, to borrow a concept from Fantasy Points’ Scott Barrett, we should be looking at EPA per pay.

How much are teams paying quarterbacks per point added? This is extremely back-of-the-napkin math, but it serves a strong point on the extremes. Patrick Mahomes has produced 58.7 expected points added this year and has accounted for a shade under $29 million so far, meaning the Chiefs are paying just under half a million dollars for each point Mahomes has added to the team. The Ravens are paying Lamar Jackson almost $1.5 million for each point added in their offense this year. The Cowboys are paying Prescott a more palatable $219,000 per expected point added. But Purdy breaks the scale. As we’ve laid out, he ranks first in EPA (by a lot) and is the cheapest star quarterback (by a real lot). So doing this same math, for each expected point the 49ers add this season, the 49ers are paying Purdy $5,886.

Amount Paid per EPA Among Star Quarterbacks

Player Name MVP Odds (via FanDuel) Cap Hit Through Week 14 Dropback EPA Through Week 14 Total Dollars Spent per Dropback EPA
Player Name MVP Odds (via FanDuel) Cap Hit Through Week 14 Dropback EPA Through Week 14 Total Dollars Spent per Dropback EPA
Dak Prescott 150 $20,869,836.54 94.9 $219,913.98
Brock Purdy 200 $691,640.46 117.5 $5,886.30
Tua Tagovailoa 800 $7,492,406.46 82.5 $90,817.05
Lamar Jackson 800 $17,227,777.84 11.4 $1,511,208.58
Jalen Hurts 800 $4,786,666.92 37.8 $126,631.40

Again, this is back-of-the-napkin math, not exactly cutting-edge analytics. But it demonstrates the larger point: Purdy is one of the most underpaid starting QBs of the salary cap era, and—separately—the 49ers offense is also one of the best offenses of the 21st century. Together, Purdy is probably the most valuab—or, uh, cost-effective quarterback ever, surpassing the efficiency of Prescott’s rookie contract or Russell Wilson’s relative value for the Legion of Boom–era Seahawks, when Wilson’s rookie deal paid him less than Seattle’s long snapper.

This is essentially the definition of “value,” yet cost hasn’t really ever factored into the “valuable” part of the “Most Valuable Player” award. The MVP is probably a much more fun award when we are assessing on-field play rather than judging a player’s performance relative to his pay. And yet, as long as Prescott and Purdy are nearly tied in the betting odds, this may be the strongest argument the Purdy supporters have. Not everything in life should be determined by dollars and cents, but one player being 1/30th the cost seems like a pretty good tiebreaker. If you add up the cap hits of San Francisco playmakers Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Aiyuk, and Christian McCaffrey, it comes out to $25.6 million. Throw in $900,000 for Purdy, and you get $26.5 million, which is just shy of Prescott’s 2023 cap hit. The strength of the 49ers’ roster, often used as a way to discredit Purdy’s accomplishments, is subsidized by Purdy.

Purdy might have one of the best supporting casts in NFL history. McCaffrey is the league’s best running back. Kittle is the league’s most complete tight end (receiver and blocker) since Rob Gronkowski. Samuel is the best … whatever position he plays. Aiyuk, the 49ers’ “no. 2” wide receiver, would be the no. 1 option on a third of the teams in the NFL. Williams is not only the league’s best left tackle, but also a future Hall of Famer who may be the best tackle of the decade. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has designed one of the NFL’s best offensive schemes and his elite play-calling has elevated quarterbacks like Ryan and Garoppolo for years.

Some of the issue of determining MVP, and quantifying Purdy’s importance to the 49ers, is tied to the NFL’s lack of imagination with awards.

College football has an award for the best at each position (why the NFL doesn’t do this is beyond me). If the NFL did this in 2023, McCaffrey would win the Jim Brown Award for the best running back. Williams would win the Anthony Muñoz Award for best offensive lineman. As Bill Simmons and Bill Barnwell wrote at Grantland, the NFL should have something called the Most Valuable Unit (last season, for example, we could have debated if the Eagles offensive line was more valuable than the 49ers defensive line). If the 49ers pass catchersSamuel, Aiyuk, Kittle, McCaffrey, and fullback Kyle Juszczykwere named the Most Valuable Unit, and McCaffrey and Williams won individual awards too, would there be pressure to argue that, on top of all those awards for the 49ers offense, Purdy is also the single most valuable player in the NFL? Probably not.

Two things can be true at once. Purdy is a lot better than we have given him credit for. We’re biased against Purdy because he was the last pick in the 2022 draft. We didn’t expect him to play, let alone be good.

“With him being a Mr. Irrelevant, everyone is slow to give him his flowers,” Williams told reporters after Sunday’s game. “If he was Zach Wilson, I think we’d probably be (saying) unanimous MVP and the next coming of Aaron Rodgers or someone like that.”

But it’s also true that accepting the 49ers have the best offensive roster in the NFL, the best play caller in the NFL, and the best quarterback might be triple-counting the successes of a team who nearly won a Super Bowl four years ago with Garoppolo at QB.

Back in 2012, Bill Simmons wrote for Grantland that some MVP awards should be different sizes to communicate the impressiveness of a given season. By that metric, this 2023 season should garner something like the sad silver platter given to the Wimbledon runner-up. Ten different starting quarterbacks are injured, meaning a third of the teams that played in Week 14 were without their starting quarterback. Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Jalen Hurts are all having worse seasons in 2023 than they did in 2022. Tua Tagovailoa is +2000, but he may not be the MVP of his own team. (That would be Tyreek Hill, who is a long-shot MVP candidate in his own right, as he has a chance at 2,000 receiving yards, which is the kind of nice, round, record-breaking number voters rewarded for half a century with running backs and that voters may begin rewarding wide receivers for in this new, pass-happy era.) Jackson in Baltimore may still emerge from the pack, especially if the Ravens fulfill one of the basic (and unspoken) criteria of getting the best record in the AFC. But the Ravens also play the 49ers on Christmas Day. A bad game for Jackson in a head-to-head loss to Purdy could seal the deal, especially if the 49ers have the top record in the NFC and the Ravens don’t get that first-round bye.

The NFL MVP is a weird award. Identifying the most valuable player in football is trickier than other sports. Baseball is a team game of individual performances. Basketball is a team game where players play offense and defense and individuals have more control over the flow and can imprint their identities onto the games. Assigning credit in football is messier.

But now MVP voting is going to get trickier. In the NFL, MVP voting did not include ranked choice, allowing voters to pick a first-, second-, and third-place option, until 2022. The change in voting systempreviously, each of the 50 voters could pick one name onlywas irrelevant because Mahomes received 48 of the 50 first-place votes. But this year’s race is likely to be much, much closer, meaning the second- and third-place rankings could influence the ultimate winner.

It’s easy to say that Prescott has had a better individual season than Purdy and is being forced to play on a harder degree of difficulty. But just how far down the list should Purdy really fall? With what the 49ers are paying him, Purdy is the most valuable player—even if he doesn’t win the Most Valuable Player.