Alex Egol – RSAC Writer
There are currently 1,696 players in the NFL. Technically, any one of these players could play well enough to receive the Most Valuable Player award. However, the MVP has historically been dominated by two positions: quarterbacks and running backs. Since 1957, 95 percent of players playing these two positions have won the MVP award. Therefore, we will limit the scope to QBs and RBs.
This week, five staff members from CBS Sports NFL created a ballot with their top five MVP candidates. We will use the players that made one or more list to create an eight player race. Eventually, we will narrow these eight candidates to one. The Quarterbacks were Pat Mahomes (KC), Drew Brees (NO), Jared Goff (LAR), Phillip Rivers (LAC), Cam Newton (CAR), and Ben Roethlisberger (PIT). The running backs were Todd Gurley (LAR) and James Conner (PIT). Below are metrics for the QB candidates, with the QB’s league rank in parentheses.
The Quarterbacks. Football Outsiders; Nov. 13, 2018. https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/qb
Here, DYAR measures the value (in yardage) of a quarterback compared to the average replacement, adjusted for defensive strength and the type of play the QB gets the yards from, called “situation”. Similarly, DVOA is a proxy for QB value. Instead of yardage, DVOA measures value as a percentage above replacement on a per-play basis, incorporating yardage stats and adjusting for defense. Essentially, DVOA tells you how much more or less effective a QB is on a certain play than the average NFL QB.
This Football Outsiders article ( https://www.footballoutsiders.com/info/methods ) and this Harvard Analytics podcast ( https://player.fm/series/measurables/passer-rating-and-dvoa ) explain DVOA in more detail if you would like to learn more about DVOA.
A statistic created by ESPN called Total QBR incorporates rushing ability, the clutch factor, game charting, and more into an all-purpose quarterback stat. If you want to learn more about Total QBR, the ESPN article below explains it in more detail. http://www.espn.com/blog/statsinfo/post/_/id/123701/how-is-total-qbr-calculated-we-explain-our-quarterback-rating ).
One salient takeaway from the data is that Brees and Mahomes are top 2 in all 3 categories. Does that mean they’re in a league of their own? Let’s see. Below are the DYAR, DVOA and Total QBR stats for the last six MVP-winning quarterbacks.
MVP Winners. Football Outsiders; Nov. 17, 2018.
Let’s start by saying that the statistics provided do not do justice to Cam Newton’s 2015 MVP campaign. He led the league in rushing yards for a QB. He went 15-1 in the regular season. And he did so with a comparatively weak backfield and set of receivers. Aside from Newton in 2015, QB winners of the MVP award always seem to have a top-3 ranking in two of the three categories, and at least one #1 league rank in either DYAR, DVOA or Total QBR. Mahomes and Brees are the only QBs currently competing for MVP who fulfill these requirements.
Let’s wait before we rule out the others, though. First, let’s analyze the cases for Goff and Newton. Some may make the argument for Goff based on factors like team success, consistency, and versatility. Also, on a less statistical basis, many fans want Goff to be MVP because they root for the underdog, which, due to many calling him a bust after his rookie season, he is. There are a few problems with the Goff argument in my opinion, though. First of all, Goff has another MVP candidate on his team, the unstoppable Todd Gurley. Secondly, Goff and the Rams have as many losses as Mahomes’ Chiefs and Brees’ Saints; so, Goff’s team success shouldn’t give him an advantage over Brees or Mahomes. Thirdly, Goff doesn’t have some hidden trait (like Newton’s rushing in 2015) that doesn’t show in DYAR, DVOA, or Total QBR. His rushing rank is 20th right now. Goff may have improved greatly since his rookie year, but he’s no MVP right now.
Newton, though, is a tougher case. His DYAR, DVOA, and Total QBR are in the same league as 2015. I already said that I thought Newton’s MVP campaign in 2015 was driven by his team’s success and his rushing ability that wasn’t reflected well in his passing stats. Newton is the number 1 rushing quarterback in the NFL just as in 2015. But he’s not 15-1. He is 6-3, which is the 7th best record in the league. If Newton’s Panthers were a one-loss team, there’s no doubt he would be near or atop the list of MVP candidates. But, right now, he’s not at that level.
Roethlisberger and Rivers are out for a few reasons. They’re not winning enough games. They’re not top of the league in any categories. And, they don’t have any trait (rushing, arm strength, sack avoidability, red-zone conversion ability, etc.) that would make me overlook their lower comparative statistical ranks and put them above Drew Brees and Pat Mahomes. That leaves Brees and Mahomes as the top two quarterback MVP candidates.
Moving on to the running backs, the CBS ballots only featured two RBs: Todd Gurley and James Conner. Right of the bat, we are going to eliminate James Conner, who only made one top-five as a fifth choice.
The final three are Brees, Mahomes and Gurley. Before we make a prediction for who would win the MVP if the season ended today, let’s look at what makes these guys great.
Rams’ running back Todd Gurley has had an extremely impressive 2018. I took a look at Pro Football Focus (PFF) and Football Outsiders (F.O.) statistics for Gurley. He tops the charts in yards after contact (PFF), DYAR (F.O.), DVOA (F.O.), Touchdowns (F.O.), Success Rate (F.O.), and, by the way, he hasn’t fumbled so far this season (F.O.). Whether or not he wins MVP is a different question, but Todd Gurley is having one of the best years the league has ever seen for a running back.
Pro Football Focus; Nov. 15, 2018.
Moving to the quarterbacks, the table above shows three categories identified by Pro Football Focus for which Brees and Mahomes lead the league. We also know that Mahomes leads the league in DYAR and DVOA, and that Brees leads the league in Total QBR.
Now, to determine the real MVP between the quarterbacks, we will use a common quarterback rating method developed and explained by David Berri, Martin Schmidt, and Stacey Brook on page 173 of Wages of Wins. QBR= all yards gained – 3 (passing attempts) – 30 (interceptions).
I am using Berri rating in particular because it is an effective way to balance the large amount of yards that long-throwing QBs like Mahomes create, with the increased number of interceptions that this play-style causes. I think we can effectively make a decision about the comparative value of Brees and Mahomes using Berri rating.
Berri Rating for Brees and Mahomes through Week 10; Football Outsiders and nfl.com.
Judging from the Berri numbers, the comparative value of Brees and Mahomes becomes clear. The Berri Rating is a statistic that highly punishes interceptions thrown, based on the large coefficient of -30 that precedes it in the equation. And Brees has thrown one interception all year, meaning his rating is not hurt as much as Mahomes’ by interceptions thrown. Despite this, Mahomes still defeats Brees in the Berri Rating, and he does so by 400 Berri points. He beats Brees in DVOA and DYAR as well. Mahomes is simply having the better year.
That leaves us with Mahomes and Gurley. Mahomes is having a better year in 2018 than Tom Brady did in 2017 (See table below). Gurley came in second to Brady in 2017 with a season very nearly as good as this one. If Brady could do it in 2017, it seems highly unlikely that Mahomes won’t be able to win MVP in 2018.
Brady 2017 vs. Mahomes 2018. *Mahomes’ Berri Rating has been adjusted so that it represents the end-of-season stats he is on pace to get.*
There is always a chance we will witness a Chiefs collapse or a season-ending injury. But, right now, Patrick Mahomes deserves to be the NFL’s MVP.