Monday 2 January 2017

The NFL has an MVP Problem

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a sports fan is the debating with other sports fans. Gretzky or Orr? American League vs. National League? Was the Dream Team the best sports team ever assembled?

The NFL is no different: Best quarterback of all time? ’85 bears or ’72 Dolphins? How does Jeff Fisher keep getting work? As the calendar rushes toward January, the hottest topic of debate becomes who deserves the MVP? And that's a big problem.

Why? Because half the debate surrounding the MVP deals with how we define Most Valuable Player. And everyone’s definition is different.

The whole process has become an intellectual exercise wherein value is assigned to an individual player based on their specific situation in an attempt to determine which player holds the most value to their team. Unfortunately, there are far too many ways to evaluate this.

There’s the “if-we-took-this-player-off-their-team” game. Or the “if-we-swapped-Player-A-with-Player-B” method of deduction. Voters are asked to make assumptions and predict imaginary win-loss records based on these scenarios.

This leads us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole as everyone tries to simply figure out the relative value of an individual within the ultimate team sport. It’s a process that leads to more questions than answers.

Look at Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. How can two players on the same team be in the running for MVP? If one is supposed to be a more valuable player to their team than any other single player in the entire league, then how can the other even be considered? Shouldn’t they cancel each other’s value out?

How can Tom Brady possibly be MVP if his team went 3-1 without him? Is that something that should be considered? Would his chances of winning be greater if the Patriots had gone 0-4 without him?

More importantly: Should they?

In 2011, Peyton Manning missed the entire season with a neck injury. The Colts went from a team that consistently averaged 12 wins to a pathetic 2-14. Dead last. ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser publicly advocated for Manning to win the MVP -- despite not playing a single game -- because of the enormous, tangible impact he had on that team’s record. Sounds silly. But, by Kornheiser’s definition of “most valuable”, Manning was the MVP.

Recently, I’ve heard it suggested that Quarterback-A was more valuable than Quarterback-B because Quarterback-A’s backup is better than Quarterback-B’s backup. Is this really something we should be trying to gauge?

Quarterbacks have won or shared in the NFL MVP 40 times in 58 years. That might not even be as unwarranted as the numbers might suggest. The reality is that quarterbacks are the hardest players to replace on most football teams. Their value is skewed based on their impact on a game. Especially in today’s NFL, which has seen a greater emphasis placed on the passing game.

In 2014, J.J. Watt made a serious run at the MVP. And while he was far and away the defensive player of the year, making the leap to NFL MVP was something that only two defensive players had ever done -- and not since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

The biggest knock against Watt was his team’s record, which ended up being 9-7 and not good enough to make the playoffs that year.

The question was: How valuable could he be? Without him, they would be what? 6-10 and missing the playoffs instead of 9-7 and missing the playoffs? The end result? Here’s your second MVP Aaron Rodgers.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: Rename the award.

Most Outstanding Player.

Voters would then only be asked to measure a player’s performance against every other player in the league. That’s it.

If the award had been for Most Outstanding Player in 2014, Watt would have very likely won the award. And deservedly so.

Imagine if the Oscars, instead of awarding best performance by an actor, gave out the "Most Valuable Actor in a Film Award"? What a mess that would be. 

Come on, NFL, we have enough trouble trying to figure out what is or isn’t a catch these days. We shouldn't need a degree in theoretical physics and Ph.D. in philosophy to discuss who deserves the MVP award.

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