By Daniel Thompson
With the season officially 75% of the way done, the MVP race is about as hot as it gets right now. Every team has 4 games remaining, meaning there’s plenty of time for any of the front runners to improve their resume or ruin their shot at earning the MVP. This year’s race is particularly interesting to me because there has been a bit of a changing of the guard at the top of the QB position. Tom Brady has still been a top 10 quarterback this season, but is finally beginning to look like the years have caught up on him. It’s irrefutable that Brady hasn’t been less dominant since the early 2000s, and 2018 has been debatably the worst season of his career barring injury and his rookie season as a fourth-string QB. All signs are pointing to 2018 being the first year in which Brady doesn’t receive a vote for MVP since 2012. Likewise, Aaron Rodgers has been good, but has failed to live up to his lofty standards so far as well. His team’s record certainly keeps him out of the MVP conversation, and in all likelihood have to win out and get lucky to make the playoffs. While Rodgers has been out of the picture in two of the previous five seasons due to injury, this is the first season in a while where Rodgers doesn’t seem to be able to will the Packers to victory. Of course, the other QB who has been consistently been at the top of the QB hierarchy for the past half-decade is MVP contender Drew Brees -- but more on him later. Of course, the 2018 NFL season cannot be discussed without Patrick Mahomes. His performance this year has exceeded the wildest dreams of Chiefs fans and it looks like Mahomes will be in the MVP conversation for years to come. Jared Goff leads the team with the best record in the league and is fourth in yards, TDs, and passer rating. Andrew Luck has quieted the critics this season after disappearing for nearly three years, but he’s not in the MVP race this year. Five first round rookie QBs all have multiple wins under their belts now, and Mitch Trubisky and DeShaun Watson lead a pair of 8-3 teams. It does finally feel like the long anticipated transition from the old-guard of NFL QBs is underway, and with it a new batch of players to award MVPs. Every player I will consider has never won the award previously, so voter fatigue will not be an element in this conversation for the first time in years. With all the pieces set up for the most interesting MVP race in years, I’ll be breaking down the campaigns for the four QBs and two RBs who still have a chance.
Patrick Mahomes, QB Kansas City Chiefs
Of course, this race has two heavy favorites: Mahomes and Brees. QBs have won 5 consecutive MVPs, and these two QBs have been the two best all season, and in almost every way have put together near carbon copy resumes this season. Statistically, these have definitely been the two best QBs with both QBs leading in several categories. Winningly, both command 10-2 teams, with the slight advantage going to Mahomes, whose Chiefs are currently in first place of the AFC and control their seeding destiny. Mahomes’ real advantage comes in how much he has transformed this offense from last year. Brees has been the starter for nearly every game in New Orleans since 2006, so no one really has any clue what this offense would look like without him. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have undergone a nearly unprecedented offensive explosion from 2017 to 2018. This metamorphosis is especially impressive when you consider that Mahomes took over for a respectable starter in Alex Smith, who clearly had been keeping the Redskins afloat prior to his injury. Of course, both the Saints’ and Chiefs’ offenses are loaded with talent outside of QB, but the Chiefs have gone from an elite offense in 2017 to being an all-time great offense in 2018 thanks to Patrick Mahomes. Using Football Outsiders’ DVOA offensive efficiency metric, the Chiefs had the 4th best offense in the NFL in 2017 with a 15.7% offensive efficiency. In 2018 their offensive DVOA has soared up to 39.0% (+23.3%), good enough for 4th highest of all time. I tried to find a similar positive jump in recent years, and there just isn't one. The best comparison I could find is Peyton Manning falling from elite in 2014 to a bad back-up QB in 2015. In 2014 the Broncos came in at an even 20.0% DVOA and then fell off a cliff along with Peyton Manning in 2014, with a -8.7% (-28.7%) DVOA. Of course, neither of these changes were entirely in the QB, but Mahomes has made Alex Smith look like a back-up quarterback, which speaks volumes to how good he’s been this season, and would suggest Mahomes’ play style has spread the field and allowed everyone in offense to shine. In more traditional stats, Mahomes leads the league with 41 TDs (9 ahead of second) and is only 22 yards behind Ben Roethlisberger in passing yards with 3923. The only real blemish on his resume is his 10 INTs, five of which came in the Patriots and Rams games.
Drew Brees, QB New Orleans Saints
Brees, has just about every reason to vote Mahomes going for himself as well. His impact on his offense might be easier to overlook due to his consistency for over a decade, but that also plays out in his favor in the sense that votres may be compelled to vote for the best QB to never win MVP while they still can. Make no mistake, if Brees wins this year, the MVP will not be a lifetime achievement award. He has been debatably the best QB in the league and plays for debatably the best team. His lack of bad plays and bag games probably would have made him the favorite. Until he had a bad game filled with ugly plays. This award was Brees’ to lose until his no-good very bad Thursday against the Cowboys. He still has debatably the best statistics in the league, but Mahomes has not been contained like that once this season. Brees was limited to 39 first half passing yards, and 127 passing yards total, including an interception that may have been the worst of his career. Brees still has plenty of time to recover, but he may need some help. Ultimately, I think MVP voters think more about season storylines than stats, but Brees has certainly avoided the negative plays that may have cost an already talented team. While Brees has thrown for 11 less touchdowns and over 600 less yards, he has thrown three interceptions to Mahomes’ 1o and taken 12 sacks to Mahomes’ 20. A criticism of Brees could be that he throws more screens in the backfield to great athletes, making his job easier than Mahomes’. However, Brees ranks 11th in air yards per completion while Mahomes ranks 6th, per NFL Next Gen Stats. So neither QB has been remarkable in that department, but both are good. Eclipsing Peyton Manning in all-time passing yardage will certainly only do Brees favors come voting time. Statistically, these two QBs are close enough that I think most voters will come down to picking whichever narrative they like best: the sophomore QB who has transformed his team, or the reliable legend who is flourishing while he has a competitive team again.
Jared Goff, QB Saint Louis Rams
The argument for Goff comes down to him being one of the best QBs and playing for the team with the best record in the NFL. There is no doubt that the Rams are a great team, if not the best in the league and Goff has had a fantastic season. I don’t believe that many voters out there think Goff is the best QB in the NFL, but he is 4th in passing yards, 6th in TDs, 4th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, and probably most importantly, tied for first in 4th quarter comebacks and game winning drives. Only DeShaun Watson also has four of each. I definitely anticipate Goff to receive a few votes for making a ton of crucial plays for the team that will probably be the Super Bowl favorites by the time the ballots are cast. Maybe any other QB wouldn’t have gotten the Rams to this record, nor made them the favorites to win to win the Super Bowl. More certainly, Goff will need to either have an out of this world final quarter to the season, or the other top QBs will have to fall apart.
Philip Rivers, QB Los Angeles Chargers
The last QB in this race is a long-shot for now, but has an outside chance of wiping out a front-runner and boasts an incredibly similar profile to Drew Brees. The Chargers are a very good and complete team this season, as everyone knows but no one seems to care about. The national indifference to the Chargers is reasonable as they are stuck in the fast lane to a wild card bid thanks to a Week 1 loss at home to the Chiefs, but they’ve remained within striking distance. At one game behind, their biggest blunder was picking the Broncos to end a six-game winning streak against. Even if the Chargers got a potential record-tying win in Kansas City Week 15, they’ll still be in second in the West because of division winning percentage, barring a KC loss to Oakland. After beating the Steelers on Sunday night, if the Chargers can beat the Chiefs they will have a legitimate argument for being the best team in the AFC, and a real shot at earning that all-important first seed. Should the Chargers win the AFC West, it would become a lot more difficult for voters to pick Mahomes over Rivers. In fact, the last time a QB won MVP without winning his division was Peyton Manning in 2008. The, “if not now, then win?” effect would neutralize one of Brees’ biggest advantages. Should the Chargers win the AFC West, Rivers would not have to up his game much at all to post near-identical stats on the season as Brees and ride a recency bias to a blindside MVP win.
Todd Gurley, RB Saint Louis Rams
Todd Gurley suffers from the same burden that most of these candidates. His offense is so good, that it would still be great with an average player at his position, which is why I see his campaign is doomed. Although nearly everyone would agree that Gurley is a better RB than Goff is a QB, I just can’t see a running back winning MVP in today’s NFL while a part of such a good team. Gurley's numbers He’s first in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards from scrimmage this season. However, his numbers aren’t really any better from last season and he still lost to the best QB in the league in 2017. Gurley’s numbers are still about on par for the best RB in the league any given season, meanwhile the bar has been raised for QBs by this year’s performances. There is a running back, however; that I think really has posted numbers that could earn him the MVP should the quarterbacks fall apart.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB Dallas Cowboys
At a quick glance, Elliott has been nearly as good as Gurley. He’s rushed for 26 less yards and produced 77 less yards from scrimmage as Gurley. It’s quite astonishing to me that he hasn’t received more nominations from the media, especially since he wears a star on his helmet. Elliott's yards per touch numbers are worse, but that’s where I believe his value lies. The one thing Elliott has that Gurley doesn’t, is that his team needs him, and needs him badly. The Rams are a playoff team without Gurley, no doubt about it. The Cowboys were a laughing stock for half the season, and it’s widely believed that Dak needs Zeke to keep defenses honest if he is to have any success throwing the ball. Before the trade for Amari Cooper, he was the only threat on Dallas’ offense beside linemen. Accordingly, Zeke has been trusted with seven more carries and receptions than Gurley this season. The Cowboys are 7-5 and will probably make the playoffs, with the biggest offensive contribution coming from their RB. The last RB to win the MVP was of course Adrian Peterson who accounted for 41.6% of the Vikings’ yards from scrimmage that season. Elliott hasn’t been nearly that good, but he has produced 37.0% of the Cowboys’ total offense. Compare that to Gurley, who has only accounted for 30.3% of the Rams’ total yardage. Zeke is just objectively more important to his team, and if the quarterbacks this year were to collectively blow it down the stretch, Elliot deserves serious MVP consideration. This Cowboys team is red-hot and needs Zeke like Jerry Jones needs media attention. I’m not sure how his season isn’t more publicized. He ticks all of the boxes.
The stats used in this article all come from the following sources