MVP race gets interesting in unpredictable final week to season
Despite Drew Brees' amazing finish, Aaron Rodgers still deserves to be MVP
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Just when you think you've seen it all, Week 17 happened. Matt Flynn happened. An MVP race that could go either way, Brees or Rodgers, went kablooey. As did Tim Tebow, the Texans, the Jets, Carson Palmer and the Raiders.
This is going to be a different column. Hang on through the opening bit, and you'll see why.
Five stat lines, all telling a story of the season:
From a veteran who might have played his last regular season game, to a struggling quarterback, to historic tight ends, to a precocious instant-star wideout, to a quarterback who we're going to have pay attention to right now:
Hines Ward's career stat line
Seems like the Steelers were doing everything they could to get him his 1,000th catch, when Ben Roethlisberger began the game in Cleveland Sunday throwing to him on two of the first three plays, and finally got him number 1,000 early in the fourth quarter, a shovel pass for minus-three yards, tackled immediately by linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. "The best minus catch of my life,'' Ward said, grinning, afterward. He's the eighth receiver to be in the 1,000-catch club, and it'll be interesting to see if that's all there is to his career -- I doubt the Steelers bring him back next year -- and if the Hall of Fame voters think that Ward, catching and blocking, has done enough to get a bust in Canton.
Tim Tebow's recent stat line
This isn't good, not with Dick LeBeau coming to Denver Sunday for a playoff game, not with the Steelers being the best in the league at disguising defensive looks. Tebow's going to have to be more efficient running the ball, and Willis McGahee, who knows the Steelers well from his time in Baltimore, is going to have to make Troy Polamalu pay when he comes down to be the eighth man in the box to stop the run. But you usually don't win a physical game against the Steeler defense.
Does it really matter who catches the ball as long as they catch it?
What this season may have proven once and for all is it's not important who catches the ball for a team, as long as that receiver (or receivers) can move the chains and be threats the defense has to gameplan for. Darren Sproles has shown that in New Orleans, catching the ball in space. And the tight ends in New England have shown the same thing. Comparing the New England tight ends with the Detroit wide receivers, both duos catching the ball from a 5,000-yard passer:
Victor Cruz went on IR last year for the Giants after catching no balls in three games. Has any receiver ever burst onto the New York scene like this? Ever? Maybe Homer Jones with his speedy explosiveness compares, but that's about it. And he emerged slowly over two seasons before impacting the league with Bob Hayes in the '60s for a few years. New York hasn't been a haven for receivers, but it's doubtful Frank Gifford, Don Maynard or Al Toon had the impact overnight Cruz has had on one of the Gotham offenses. Put simply, he's nearly as vital to the Giants entering the playoffs as Eli Manning. What he's done in his first contributing season:
|# Franchise record; * Best in the league among receivers with at least 50 catches|
You have spoken: You think Drew Brees should be MVP. I asked for your votes Sunday night between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. Eastern time, and more than 1,800 of you voted. The results:
|Who's the MVP|
|(Thirteen players received 10 votes or less.)|
Interesting, but not surprising. After the last week, I expected Brees to win the popular vote, in part because of his greatness this year, and in part of what Bill Barnwell wrote about on Grantland.com recently. He called it "recency,'' as in "what have you done for me lately?'' Brees, in the last seven games, is 7-0 with 25 touchdowns and three interceptions; he has set NFL records for passing yards in a season (5,476) and completion percentage (71.2). In the last three weeks, Rodgers has lost to Kansas City, beaten Chicago with a five-touchdown night, and sat (coach's decision) against the Lions.
Amazing that sitting Sunday would do so much to affect the race. Or might do so much to affect the race. As @joshbickford wrote with his vote for Brees: "Matt Flynn changes my vote to Drew Brees.''
In other words, the sick performance by Flynn in relief of the resting Rodgers could well have the effect of leaking votes from Rodgers and giving them to Brees. If a rusty backup like Flynn can throw for 480 yards with six touchdowns piloting the Green Bay offense, doesn't that diminish what Rodgers has been able to do all season?
"That shouldn't be the case at all,'' Flynn told me after his shredding of the Lions. He seemed upset to think it might be. "The numbers today were just because we went back and forth all day. Nothing I did today should do anything to diminish what Aaron's done. He's the MVP, for sure, for what he's done from the start of the season.''
Let me weigh in on just that topic ...
The MVP dilemma. Brees made it a horse race, and more than that. In the end, early this morning, I struggled with what to do with my vote, one of 50 for the annual Associated Press NFL awards and All-Pro team. I could go Brees, or I could go Rodgers, or I could, as I've done before, split my vote half and half. I thought a lot about doing that, and I can see why some voters might do that. Unlike baseball, the football MVP is done by voting for first place. Not first, second and third, or more than that. Just one vote. So that was a consideration in a very tight race.
Brees has had, arguably, the greatest statistical offensive season a quarterback has ever had, with the most passing yards, the best accuracy, and the fourth-most touchdowns in a season (46). Rodgers set the NFL mark for passer rating, became the first passer to have 12 straight games with a rating over 105, led the Packers to the best record in the league, and had the best passing season the Packers have ever seen -- which is saying something, considering their Hall of Fame heritage (Arnie Herber, Bart Starr and soon Brett Favre).
Sometime after 5 this morning, I finalized my call. I decided not to split the vote, because I thought it would be a cop out. I felt I had to make a decision. And I picked Rodgers. Four reasons:
1. I thought Rodgers was better for the full season. Rodgers was 14-1, Brees 13-3. So much can go into wins and losses, and each man did more than any on his team to lead to those wins. But in the two midseason losses that ultimately cost the Saints the second seed in the playoffs, Brees was less than perfect, and it hurt his team. In a six-point loss to Tampa Bay in Week 6, Brees threw one interception late in the first half that Josh Freeman turned into a touchdown three plays later. Late in the fourth quarter, down six, Brees threw an interception in the end zone. Two weeks later, New Orleans went to St. Louis and lost by 10 to A.J. Feeley and the Rams. Brees threw one interception that was returned for a touchdown, and the other was turned into a touchdown pass by Feeley. In Rodgers' first 12 weeks of the season, he ground up every opponent with remarkable efficiency, throwing 37 touchdowns with just five interceptions ... almost the same way Brees played at the end of the season. In the last eight games, Brees was as brilliant as Rodgers was for the first 12. The Saints were 8-0, and he threw 27 touchdowns with four interceptions, and was a paragon of accuracy. But those two losses to, as it turned out, 4-12 and 2-14 teams, with Brees mistakes a factor, weighed on my decision. In the end, it was like watching two almost perfect skaters, and one lands the quad and one has a perfect program except for double-footing the landing on one jump.
2. Brees had five multiple-interception games, Rodgers none. Not decisive, but a factor. I also thought the TD-to-interception differential (plus-39 for Rodgers, plus-32 for Brees) and the yards per attempt (9.25 to 8.33, in Rodgers' favor) was a factor.
3. I wanted to respect statistics but not be overwhelmed by them. I have tremendous respect for Brees the team player, and I couldn't care less that he was throwing the ball up 22 with three minutes to play against Atlanta. All he's doing is executing the plays that are called. But I don't want numbers, some of which are exacerbated in blowouts like the 62-7 rout of the Colts (Brees) and 45-7 rout of the Vikings (Rodgers), to affect the vote unduly, particularly since Brees threw 155 more passes than Rodgers.
4. Rodgers won the head-to-head matchup. Again, not overwhelming. But a brick in the wall.
As for the Flynn performance, I think it could be evidence that it's the system and the supporting cast as much as the player that makes the quarterback in Green Bay. But how much stock do you put in one game? Is it anecdotal or absolutely proof? I think it's more of the former, but I just don't think we have enough proof. How do we know that if Chase Daniel, Brees' backup, started against the Panthers Sunday with all that talent around him in the passing game, and with a superb play-caller in Sean Payton who knows what Daniel does well and what he doesn't, that he wouldn't have thrown for 330 and four touchdowns? We don't.
One of the things that bothers me about not voting for Brees is that I think, overall, he's been the best quarterback in football over the last six years, with a phenomenal record of achievement. And he hasn't won an MVP. I sincerely hope he does before he retires, and if he wins it this year, I won't be bothered at all, because Brees has been a great difference-maker this year. I just think Rodgers has been a little better for the full season.
Maurice Jones-Drew and his rushing title. I don't know why I find such justice in that. I think it's because this was a year when the game was turning to the air so much, and the Jaguars had a chance to win only when the ball was in Jones-Drew's hands. There were only two teams in football that had the running game as their primary means of ball-movement: Jacksonville and Denver. And Jacksonville faced a packing of the line of scrimmage in a different way than the Broncos. Because Tim Tebow was a running threat, the eight-man boxes he faced had to be alert for option pitches and end runs, when safeties and linebackers needed to be set wide to be prepared for anything. In Jacksonville, Blaine Gabbert was not a runner, and he was no threat to pass the ball efficiently. This is why the title felt so good for Jones-Drew. He was facing the most concentrated defense he felt in his six-year career, and he was all of the Jaguar offense, for good and for bad.
"First time in my life I saw 10-man boxes,'' Jones-Drew told me. "Last week against Tennessee, we came out with two tight ends and two backs, and they had 10 in the box. That's unheard of in this league. The guys in front of me, I'm so happy for them, because they don't get the attention they deserve. I am lucky to play with them.''
For the season, Jones-Drew had 1,606 yards, 10 yards behind Arian Foster's league-leading total last year. And it was significant to him that the winning effort came against Indianapolis. He hates the Colts, and always will, because they drafted Joseph Addai over him in 2006. "Every game I ever play against the Colts will be special, and I don't care what's at stake,'' he said. "I always have something to prove against them.''
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