Who is the NFL MVP?
With the regular season over, the Sports Gazette puts together MVP arguments for five quarterbacks who had brilliant seasons.
The season is done, the play-offs well underway and for the lucky remaining teams the focus now turns to reaching (and then winning) Super Bowl LI.
Of the twelve play-off teams, almost all - at some point this season - received stellar quarterback play to help guide them into the post-season but five signal-callers in particular have stood out above the crowd. The five MVP cases I will make today will be for Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, Aaron Rodgers and Dak Prescott.
Stand-out rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and vastly improved Lions QB Matthew Stafford can both feel aggrieved not to get at look-in, but for the purpose of this exercise we are narrowing the list down to five in what looks set to be the tightest MVP race in several years.
Brady missed the first four games for the Patriots, suspended for his role in the highly-protracted 'Deflategate' incident. Missing a quarter of the season would put most players out of the running for a season award but then most players aren't Tom Brady.
Brady was about as efficient as a quarterback can be in 2016, throwing 28 touchdowns to just two interceptions, the best ratio in NFL history. Brady's interception percentage - that is, percentage of passes that he throws that ends in an interception - was also an all-time best 0.46%. Given that throwing interceptions is about the worst thing a quarterback can do, that is pretty impressive.
Tom Brady earned the highest overall grade among all NFL quarterbacks from Pro Football Focus at 99.3, over six points clear of Matt Ryan in second place. In fact, that 99.3 mark would make Brady the highest-rated quarterback that PFF has ever graded, making his season historically great.
The one knock against Brady, if you can count it as a knock, is his lack of speed and mobility but what Brady lacks for in speed he more than makes up for in guile and pocket awareness. His 10.6% sack percentage - the number of times a quarterback is sacked when under pressure - was number one in the NFL. His ability to feel pressure, move around the pocket and release the ball quickly made him the most difficult player in the league to bring down - at age 39!
There is an argument to be made that the Patriots would have cruised to the AFC East title with or without Brady, and their 3-1 record before his return suggests as much. However, given the stratospheric increase in the offense's productivity with Brady (30 points per game with Brady compared to 20.25 without, 288.8 passing yards per game with him, 210.8 without) that argument doesn't hold a whole lot of sway.
The talented quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons elevated himself - and his team - to be one of the very best in the league this season. Ryan threw for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns, both top-two in the league, whilst his 117.1 QB rating was comfortably best in the NFL. Where Brady was PFF's top-rated quarterback, Ryan was snapping at his heels in second place at 93.1 whilst throwing considerably more.
As William Brittain outlined in his excellent post-season preview, the Falcons had one of the greatest offenses in NFL history in 2016. Their 33.8 points per game was comfortably best in the league and put them equal with the 'greatest show on turf' - the 2000 Rams.
The success of the offense relied greatly on Ryan's willingness to throw the ball deep. His 9.3 yards per pass attempt is number one in NFL history whilst his 136.1 passer rating on passes thrown at least 20 yards was the best in ten years. And despite throwing the most deep passes in the league, Ryan was the only QB not to be intercepted once on such throws.
Ryan and the Falcons success came despite a shallow crop of receivers and a leaky defense. Ryan hit an NFL record 13 different receivers for touchdowns, proving effective even without star wide-out Julio Jones whilst he carried a defence that was 25th in total defense and 27th in scoring defense. There is no question that the Falcons wouldn't be in the post-season without Matt Ryan.
The case for Derek Carr is not as clear-cut as those for the aforementioned quarterbacks, as he did not boast the counting stats or efficiency of the other two passers. In terms of value to their teams however, there is little question that Carr was one of the top players in the league.
The third year quarterback threw for 3,937 yards, 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions, all of which are impressive statistics even if Ryan and Brady outpace him. Perhaps the most impressive statistic to bear in mind with Carr however, is the 12-4 record that his Raiders ended the season with.
Yes - the Raiders didn't even win their division and numerous quarterbacks every year lead their team to strong records. But not the Raiders. The 2016 season marked the first time since 2002 that the Raiders posted a winning record. Not just making the post-season, but managing to win more than eight games. The Raiders had been perennial losers, the laughing stock of the NFL but under Carr they became feared opponents and genuine Super Bowl contenders.
Carr did struggle to end the season, not passing for more than 260 yards in his final four contests but these games all followed a serious (and gruesome) injury to his throwing hand pinky finger that was recently revealed to be a break and not a dislocation. Alongside playing through pain, Carr was also forced to contend with a horribly inconsistent receiving corps:
Derek Carr has had the most passes dropped (31) and the most air yards lost due to drops (278) of any QB in the league— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) December 5, 2016
In week 15, Carr suffered an unfortunate season-ending leg-break that not only cruelly blew his chances to lead Oakland in the play-offs but also doomed his team in the post-season. Carr may not boast the stats and pedigree of other quarterbacks on this list, but his value to the Raiders cannot be denied.
Aaron Rodgers has long been accepted as one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks, posting some obscene statistical seasons since he first took the league by storm in 2008. This season, however, something felt off. The Packers weren't clicking on either side of the ball and after a humbling week 11 loss to the Redskins that left them 4-6 they seemed destined to miss the play-offs for the first time since 2008. Suddenly, Rodgers was under a whole lot of pressure.
Time to panic? Not for Rodgers who claimed that his team could "run the table" and win their remaining six games to make the play-offs. By now, you probably know that the Packers did exactly that, finishing the season 10-6 and returning to their rightful place as NFC North champions.
Over the course of those six games, Rodgers threw for 15 touchdowns without a single interception, making some miraculous plays to carry his team into the play-offs. At season's end, his 40 touchdowns led the league and his 4,428 yards were a personal best since his MVP-winning 2011 campaign. His 369 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns also place him amongst the best in the league from the signal-caller position.
Rodgers was not at his vintage best for much of 2016, playing with make-shift receivers behind a patch-work offensive line with a non-existent running game. Yet Rodgers seems to be at his absolute best when there is chaos around him. No quarterback in the league is as good on broken plays, his ability to turn disaster into triumph virtually unparalleled. And when the Packers season was broken down, with chaos all around him, it was only fitting that Rodgers did what he does best.
The wind in the sails of the Dak Prescott argument has rather died down in the last few weeks as more experienced signal-callers have put up their usual huge numbers in taking their teams into the play-offs. The very attribute that thrust Prescott into the MVP conversation has threatened to take him out of it: consistency.
It's not just that Dallas went 13-3, a remarkable turnaround from their 4-12 effort in 2015 and their best record in almost ten years. It's not that Dak Prescott, a rookie fourth-round draft pick was thrown into the fire that is the starting Dallas QB job in week one after incumbent quarterback Tony Romo was injured in pre-season. It's not even that he managed to de-throne a healthy-again Romo - who is fourth all-time in passer rating - by putting together one of the finest rookie seasons in NFL history.
It's that he was so consistent, so cool, calm and collected in the pocket and so good at winning games for the Cowboys that we've all gotten bored of it.
The list of knocks against Prescott are substantial. His 3,667 passing yards and 23 touchdowns both place him a long way down a list of quarterbacks in the league. He was lucky enough to play behind a historically good offensive line, alongside a historically good rookie running back. Anyone could have won games with those weapons around him, or so the rhetoric claims.
Except that Prescott didn't just hand the ball to Elliott on every play. He didn't just throw five yard passes and quick screens and 'game-manage'. He passed for 23 touchdowns and ran for six more whilst throwing for just four interceptions - only two players ever have thrown for 3,500 yards with fewer than five interceptions: Prescott and that Tom Brady guy. He led fourth-quarter game-winning drives against the Redskins (week two), Eagles (week eight), Steelers (week ten) and Buccaneers (week 15).
Throughout the entire season, Prescott made the quarterback position look easy. And it's not! It's really, really hard as the rookie performances of Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Cody Kessler among others proved. Dak Prescott was so consistently brilliant for the Cowboys that we've all started to take him for granted and although he won't win the NFL MVP award you can make an excellent case that he deserves it.
Who is the favourite? It's hard to say, especially given how much opinions of all five quarterbacks have fluctuated during the season. Using google trends, we can accurately and quickly see in which weeks our five candidates excelled as the momentum of their individual seasons shifted with some consistency.
Ultimately, it'll be down to the voters, and as we have found out this year, that can quite often throw up a surprise or two.