This is the last entry in our first NFL Thursday miniseries, as we have caught up to the present day. Amazing that this journey started back in late March 2020 when pandemic times first hit us all very hard. And now, the end of the road has been reached for our revisionist analyses of the NFL MVP awards in professional football. What’s next? Tune in next week to find out!
In the meantime, enjoy our final (for now) entry in this exciting analytic journey through the past …
2020 MVP: Aaron Rodgers (original AP & PFWA, confirmed)
Let’s hit the defenders first: Houston Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham was the only player to average double digits in tackles (164 in 16 games), but he didn’t do much else. Only Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt reached the sack-a-game plateau (15.5 in 15 games), and he also topped the NFL in QB hits (41). But the rest of his stat sheet is limited.
Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard reached 10 interceptions while also leading the league in passes defended (20). You think people would stop throwing at him halfway through the season, right? But as a secondary player, the rest of his “production” was underwhelming. So again, we move on to offensive players.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, probably the best player in history at his position, won both MVP votes, as he posted the second-highest QB rating ever (121.5)—trailing only his prior best (122.5) from the 2011 season when he was everyone’s choice for MVP, including ours.
Overall, 10 QBs posted 100-plus ratings, though, including these playoff-bound guys: Kansas City Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes (108.2), Buffalo Bills dual threat Josh Allen (107.2), Tennessee Titans veteran Ryan Tannehill (106.5), New Orleans Saints legend Drew Brees (106.4), Seattle Seahawks workhorse Russell Wilson (105.1), and Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheater Tom Brady (102.2).
Mahomes won the 2018 MVP votes, although we gave that award to Wilson. Brees would retire after the season, with our 2009 MVP tucked under his arm. And remember, we also gave this trophy to Wilson last year, too. Can he make it three in a row? Well, let’s start with Brees: As good as he was, he missed four games, and the Saints went 3-1 without him. That makes him less valuable, despite his own 9-3 record as a starter.
Brady is out for obvious reasons, so we have 5 signal callers still in the running for now: Rodgers, Mahomes, Allen, Tannehill, and Wilson. This can change, as we all know, based on the skill-position players still remaining to be looked at more closely, and on that note, we move on to the running backs.
Tannehill had the help of a 2,000-yard rusher in Tennessee: RB Derrick Henry, who ran for 2,027 yards and topped the league at 126.7 yards per game. He led the league in rushing by 470 yards over Minnesota Vikings RB Dalvin Cook, whose team missed the postseason despite having good QB (our 2015 MVP pick, Kirk Cousins and his 105.0 QB rating). The Vikings were betrayed by a terrible defense, and both Titans are out of the MVP running.
That’s our rule on teammates, as everyone should know by now. That is not to minimize Henry’s season, but it’s the way it is with offensive skill players (and occasionally a top-notch defender, too). Our list of potential candidates grows shorter by the paragraph …
When it comes to receivers, Buffalo wide receiver Stefon Diggs topped the league in receptions (127) and yards (1,535), meaning Allen is now out, too, for our MVP analysis. That may not seem fair, considering Allen added 421 yards rushing and 8 rushing TDs to his passing stats, but having a dominant, reliable threat like Diggs to bail you out when necessary really helps the QB rating. When the league’s leading receiver is your best buddy, life is easy.
For scrimmage yards, Henry (2,141 yards) and Cook (1,918 yards) were atop the list, followed by Saints RB Alvin Kamara (1,688 yards wit 21 TDs and 1 turnover). Kamara could be an MVP candidate with that touchdown total, and with Brees out of the discussion, we will toss Kamara into our final round of analysis.
Here it is, then, our final four contestants:
- Rodgers: RB Aaron Jones (1,459 yards with 11 TDs and 2 TOs), WR Davante Adams (1,374 yards with 18 TDs and 1 TOs), seventh-best NFC defense (369 PA)
- Mahomes: TE Travis Kelce (1,416 yards with 11 TDs and 1 TO), WR Tyreek Hill (1,399 yards with 17 TDs and 1 TO), RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (1,100 yards with 5 TDs and zero TOs), fifth-best AFC defense (362 PA)
- Wilson: WR D.K. Metcalf (1,303 yards with 13 TDs and 1 TO), WR Tyler Lockett (1,054 yards with 10 TDs and 1 TO), RB Chris Carson (968 yards with 9 TDs and 1 TO), seventh-worst NFC defense (371 PA)
- Kamara: QB Brees (106.4 rating), RB Latavius Murray (832 yards with 5 TDs and 1 TO), WR Emmanuel Sanders (738 yards with 5 TDs and 1 TO), third-best NFC defense (337 PA)
Rodgers did have a lot of help, but the defense was barely average, so he still had to work at it. Mahomes had even more support than Rodgers did, including a slightly better defense, comparatively speaking. So, he won’t be overrunning Rodgers for the top spot. Wilson had broader, varied support with a slightly worse defense than Rodgers, and we have to factor in his 513 rushing yards and 2 rushing TDs as well. Hmmmm.
Finally, no one else on the Saints had more than 555 total yards. That is stunning, and Kamara only got to play with Brees for 12 games. The other 4 games were quarterbacked by Taysom Hill and his 98.8 QB rating, so it’s clear that Kamara was some glue that held the Saints together on the way to the NFC South Division title.
Thus, it comes down to Rodgers, Wilson, and Kamara: This is tough. Rodgers had a near-historic season, throwing 48 TDs and just 5 interceptions which is insane, although the Packers played an easy schedule as the only team in their division to finish over .500 on the year. Wilson tossed 41 TDs, but he threw 13 INTs, as well; yet, we have to add in his legs, too. He had support in Seattle, albeit less “star” support than Rodgers had in Green Bay.
It’s hard to separate Rodgers and Wilson, in truth, but … Kamara, despite a lower yardage total than we usually expect from an MVP candidate, was clearly a big reason the Saints made the postseason. He literally doubled up the next-best, skill-position player on his team, while leading the NFL in scoring and fumbling just once.
But here is our issue with him: He scored 6 TDs in a relatively meaningless rout of the Vikings in the 15th game of the season and then caught Covid to miss the final game of the year. Take out that random performance against a terrible defense (second worst in the NFC, with 475 PA) where maybe New Orleans ran up the score, and his season isn’t as special. We don’t like the imbalance of the other 14 games in comparison.
Kamara was actually pretty inconsistent, with performances ranging all over the spectrum (7 games under 100 total yards, 8 games over 100 total yards). We have to give the Saints defense some credit, too, for holding the team together when Brees was out. In those four games Brees missed, New Orleans gave up just 52 points total, for an average of 13 points per game. On the season, the Saints gave up 21 points per contest.
So the defense, more than anything else, stepped in Brees’ absence. Kamara was just too inconsistent, upon closer inspection, to warrant the MVP. Now, we are back to Rodgers and Wilson. And what makes us confirm this for Rodgers is the fumble/sack factor: Green Bay’s star was sacked just 3.7 percent of the time, while fumbling only 4 times. He also did run for 3 TDs himself.
Meanwhile, Wilson was sacked more than twice as much (7.8 percent sack rate), and he fumbled 7 times on top of that. That’s 20 turnovers for Wilson and just 9 turnovers for Rodgers, and when we throw in the sacks (negative yardage, obviously), it’s clear that’s why Rodgers was superior in QB rating.
Wilson’s supporting cast was wider, too, even if not as top heavy: Rodgers did have two more skill-position players topping 700-plus total yards, however, and Wilson’s running meant he was more prone to fumbling. But overall, the doubling up on turnovers is what decides this for us. Rodgers gets to keep his MVP, but this was a lot closer than we though it would be going in. Wilson has been that good at carrying Seattle for almost a decade now.
This is Rodgers’ third MVP nod from us, after 2011 and 2016. That is the most by QB ever in our corner here.