Handicapping the 2011 NFL MVP Race

Is Week 8 too early to start breaking down the NFL Most Valuable Player race? Heck no. We’d start handicapping the 2014 MVP race now if we could. (Andrew Luck won’t be ready yet. Just throwing a name out there: Tyrod Taylor. Why’d you throw it back?) The 2011 season is just about at its halfway point, but there’s an obvious candidate left as the favorite and several interesting options waiting in the wings for him to slip.

In 2008, I wrote a story for ESPN the Magazine that used history to set three “rules” for the MVP vote. Ironically, nobody qualified under the rules that year. This season, though, has given us a handful of candidates who qualify under our three MVP rules:

  • Your team must win a division title.
  • You’ve got to lead your position in fantasy points.
  • If you’re not a quarterback, you have to set a statistical record or have an otherwise transcendent season.

Those rules have combined to successfully predict virtually every MVP winner since the bizarre strike season of 1982 that saw kicker Mark Moseley somehow win the prize despite missing three extra points. Applying them to the 2011 season as it currently stands leaves six feasible candidates. We’ve sorted out their hopes and slapped some (totally nonbinding) odds on each.

6. Eli Manning
Odds: 25:1

The six-game stretch Eli put together before the Giants’ bye week was probably the best six weeks of his entire career. His completion percentage has risen during each of the past four seasons, and at 63.8 percent, he’s slightly up from his 62.9 percent rate of a year ago. He’s averaging 9.1 yards per attempt, an incredible figure when you consider that his career yards per attempt rate before the year was a middling 6.8. Most impressive, though, after leading the league with 25 interceptions last season (many of them tipped by his own receivers), Manning has just five picks on 196 attempts this year. He’s on pace for just 14 interceptions this year.

The problem? Eli plays for the Giants, who make a habit of collapsing in the second half of the season. And while the Giants have already played three games against the dregs of the NFC West and get the Dolphins this week, their schedule after that is gruesome. Patriots! 49ers! Jets! Packers! Saints! Eagles! Redskins! A home-and-home with the Cowboys finishes off their slate. It’s hard to imagine that the Giants will actually be in first place by the end of the season. Sorry, Larimer.

5. Calvin Johnson
Odds: 22:1

He may not be one of the four best receivers in football, but Johnson leads the league in touchdowns, has more fantasy points than any other wide receiver, and is on a team that’s still in contention to win its division.

Johnson’s on pace for 93 catches, 1,552 receiving yards, and 23 touchdowns. That’s not very different from Randy Moss’ 2007 line (98-1,493-23), and Moss didn’t sniff the trophy. The touchdowns are his ticket to an MVP award. If the Lions can sweep the Packers during the second half and Johnson can approach 30 touchdowns, he would be a legitimate MVP candidate.

4. Wes Welker
Odds: 20:1

Welker’s actually averaged more fantasy points per game (19.3) than Megatron (18.3), but he rates behind him in total points because the Patriots just had their bye week. He’s on pace to put up 136 receptions, 2,093 receiving yards, and 16 touchdowns. That would break the yardage record by an impressive 13 percent, but it would be only the second-most receptions in one season and be tied for 13th among receivers for touchdowns.

The problem with giving a wide receiver the MVP Award is that the electorate is far more likely to just credit the yardage to the quarterback and give him its votes instead. For Welker to win the MVP and not Tom Brady, he needs to set records across the board and have a disproportionately high percentage of Brady’s numbers. (A Brady injury would also work.) If Welker can finish with a monstrous line like 150-2,100-25 and set every receiving record available to him, he would have a legitimate shot at winning the award. But that’s what it’s going to take.

3. Tom Brady
Odds: 12:1

It’s always foolish to rule Brady out of an MVP race. Brady is on one of the league’s best teams, among the league leaders in virtually every passing category, and will likely be peaking during the final five games of the season, when voters will have his best performances fresh in their mind. After the Patriots travel to Philadelphia in Week 12, they play the Colts, Redskins, Broncos, Dolphins, and Bills.

Brady’s just not having a transcendent season, though, the way he did in 2007 and 2010. He’s already got eight interceptions this year after throwing just four picks all season in 2010. Brady’s completion percentage, touchdown rate, and yards per attempt figures are all very impressive, but none rank among the league leaders. Those rules above apply to everyone, but players also get compared to themselves, too. It’s hard to imagine that Brady could win the MVP while having a clearly inferior season to the one he put up a year ago.

2. Drew Brees
Odds: 6:1

If we had done this list a week ago, Brees might not have even appeared on it. After that 62-point performance against the Colts on Sunday night, though, Brees is all the way up to no. 2. Keep in mind that Brees leads the league in completions (and attempts) and passing yards. His seasonal line, scaled for 16 games, is 485-of-683 for 5,661 passing yards, 41 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. That would be a new record for completions and passing yards, and it wouldn’t be particularly close, as Dan Marino’s record is at 5,084 yards. Marino would be closer to 22nd on the all-time chart than he would be to first if Brees finished there.

Of course, we also know that Brees is almost surely coming off of the biggest game of his season, and that he’s extremely unlikely to keep up that pace. With eight interceptions already on the board this season, it’s going to be hard for him to keep his total below league average. He would become the favorite only because of an injury to …

1. Aaron Rodgers
Odds: 1:2

This isn’t rocket science. His team is 7-0. Rodgers is completing 71.5 percent of his passes, which would beat the record of 70.6 percent set by Brees in 2009. (It should also be noted that Brees is currently beating that figure himself, at 70.9.) Rodgers also leads the league in passing touchdowns, yards per attempt, and passer rating. Did we mention he’s the starting quarterback on the only undefeated team in football?

The other factor going in Rodgers’ favor is that he hasn’t won the award already. In all sports, award voters tend to be loath to give the MVP trophy to the same player over and over again. Given a choice between a player who hasn’t won the award before and a similar player who has, it certainly has seemed like most voters would choose the former. It’s anecdotal, but it’s one of the many reasons why Rodgers is the clear favorite to claim his first MVP trophy this February.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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Filed Under: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, NFL, Tom Brady

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell