Is an NFL MVP as good as his best performance, as bad as his worst or somewhere in between? Is the award based on the body of work – a full season of steady, solid production – or the brief-but-dizzying peaks achieved throughout a campaign? Does it matter if player threw 12 of his touchdown passes in a two-week span, or lead the league in rushing yards while also fumbling in half of his games?
These are the questions voters will ask themselves at the end of the NFL season, when one player (most of the time) is named MVP. Or they could just take the easy route and give the award to Peyton Manning again. After all, that seems to be the theme of this NFL season through 10 weeks: Each of the usual suspects has taken the lead in the MVP race at one point or another, and in a field full of sure things, it’s usually smart to bet on the surest of them all.
Which means that Manning – already the all-time leader with five MVP Awards – could be in line for number six. But that brings us to another theme of this season: Every time a player seems to separate himself from the pack, he quickly falls back to earth.
This past Sunday, it was Aaron Rodgers’ turn to “solidify himself” as the frontrunner, based on the strength of six first-half touchdown passes against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. That career day gave him the league lead in touchdown percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating, and he’s got the resume – MVP of Super Bowl XLV and the NFL in 2011, unquestioned leader of a perennial powerhouse, most chillaxed dude in the league – to prove it wasn’t a fluke. So let’s give the award to him, right?
Not so fast. Hours before he picked apart the Bears, at least one site ranked Rodgers fourth in this year’s MVP race. And that’s pretty much par for the course: It took a record-tying performance for Rodgers to suddenly “surge into MVP lead,” and one can assume that he’ll only hold that lead until someone else comes along and bombards a defense. After all, going into Sunday night, Rodgers had thrown 19 touchdowns to go along with a paltry 3 interceptions – and that wasn’t even good enough for him to make the MVP podium.
Remember Philip Rivers and the 5-1 Chargers? Less than a month ago, San Diego stood as the league’s biggest surprise, with Rivers tossing 15 touchdowns against only two interceptions, despite having an average supporting cast of skill players. It would have been hard not to vote for Rivers as MVP after six games, so it’s probably a good thing that the NFL season isn’t six games long: The Chargers have lost three in a row, with Rivers throwing five touchdowns and six interceptions in those games. From frontrunner to also-ran, in the span of three weeks.
That made way for Manning.
Always the safe choice, the ageless QB is having another tremendous season, leading the NFL in passing TDs and ranking in the top five in yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. But the Broncos were 6-1 (and Manning had thrown 22 TDs) heading into an early November showdown with Tom Brady and the Patriots, and not only did Denver lose by 22, but Manning was outplayed by his old nemesis, who threw for 333 yards and four scores.
Which paved the way for Brady to take the lead in the MVP race. Besides reminding voters that Brady tends to have his way with Manning, that performance capped a resurgent run by Tom Terrific, who has thrown 18 TDs (against one interception) since being embarrassed by Kansas City in late September. And he’s done it with a supporting cast that pales in comparison to Manning’s – enough to make him the clear-cut MVP choice…by the always-impartial Boston Herald.
But that was before Ben Roethlisberger’s two-week, 12-touchdown blitzkrieg, which lifted the Steelers back into playoff contention and put him into the MVP conversation. Of course, that conversation was brief: After Big Ben’s poor performance against the Jets – which happened on the same day as Rodgers’ six-touchdown first half – he’s fallen to the back of the pack.
So who’s currently chasing Rodgers? Andrew Luck continues to hang around, and once he gets ahold of the MVP, he might not let go of it for the next decade. Luck has backed up his potential with huge numbers, leading the NFL in passing yards in an offense bereft of a solid ground game. A third playoff appearance in three years would also enhance his chances of winning the award at the age of 25, two years younger Manning was when he first did it.
DeMarco Murray has rushed for 100 yards in nine of his 10 starts this year and he’s so far ahead in rushing yards (1,233 to Arian Foster’s 822) that if he quit now he might still end up as the league leader. Fortunately, he’s showing no signs of stopping, and he’s got a shot at hitting the 2,000-yard mark this season. Of the seven players to make it to 2K, four won the AP MVP award, a fifth won the PFWA MVP award, a sixth was the Offensive Player of the Year and the seventh – Eric Dickerson, whose 2,105 rushing yards in 1984 are still a single-season record – lost the MVP award to an even more historic season by Dan Marino.
But Murray has fumbled in five different games and isn’t exactly a presence in the Cowboys’ passing attack (he’s caught 36 balls this season, less than folks like Fred Jackson and Andre Ellington), leading some to believe he’s not even the most valuable back in the NFL: That could be Le’Veon Bell or Marshawn Lynch.
How about some guys who should win but won’t? A defensive player hasn’t been named MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986, and even if J.J. Watt is a modern-day L.T., the Defensive Player of the Year award makes it simple to overlook his accomplishments this season. The same goes for standouts like the Chiefs’ Justin Houston or Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh.
So where does this leave us? Well, in the middle of the season, with a new “MVP of the Week” serving as a reminder that most of the people who would vote for Rodgers today wouldn’t have a week ago – and might not do so a week from today. Right now there are a number of players building a resume, though you can bet that more than a few of them will fade from contention. Sometimes in the space of a single game.