The NFL MVP competition is shaping up to be a two-horse-race.
Running back Christian McCaffrey has, without a doubt, carried the team to a respectable 5-3 record while Cam Newton has been sidelined with an injury. McCaffrey leads the league in rushing yards per game at 110, which is on pace for a remarkable 1700-yard season. Fifty years ago, he would have been in the conversation.
However, in today’s league, it’s hard to justify a non-QB for the award. Quarterbacks have won every MVP since 2012, and only three times in the last two decades have other positions won the award. They are just too important to how offense is run in the modern NFL.
Dak Prescott has made Dallas regret the money they gave to Ezekiel Elliot in the offseason, as he is developing into the Cowboys’ clear star. Aaron Rogers looks like the bad man of old as Green Bay has developed into a real Super Bowl contender under new head coach Matt LaFleur’s creative offensive scheme. Even Deshaun Watson has been making a case for himself as the Texans far exceed preseason expectations — no doubt aided by his likable character.
But despite excellent seasons, none of them quite measure up to the two primary candidates. No, the MVP race is between Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Baltimore’s own Lamar Jackson.
It’s easy to make the case for Wilson. He has the NFL’s second highest quarterback rating. He leads the NFL with 23 touchdowns, a feat he’s accomplished with only two interceptions. That kind of mistake-free production is surely scary for any opposition. He proved that in last week’s game as he led an overtime, game-winning drive against the NFL’s best defense in San Francisco.
He leads the league in game-winning drives, is third in overall yards and is also second in adjusted yards per attempt. Wilson is dominating the traditional QB stat scoreboard.
So, it is easy to make the case for Wilson. But, it is wrong. Lamar Jackson is not the MVP because of his traditional quarterback stats, but because of the unique skills he brings to the position. Through nine games, he has rushed for 702 yards, good for 11th in the league. As a quarterback, that is ridiculous. He has more rushing yards than the Ravens’ primary running back.
What is more impressive is the efficiency with which he has accomplished this. He averages 6.6 yards per rushing attempt. Think about that stat for a minute. As a quarterback, he has almost 1.5 more yards per attempt on the ground than Christian McCaffrey, the best running back in the league this season. Jackson is on pace to absolutely obliterate Michael Vick’s QB rushing record, and is already a better passer than Vick ever was.
However, Jackson is not even the MVP because of his ridiculous non-traditional QB stats. To fully understand his impact, you have to look at the Ravens’ offense as a whole.
Baltimore’s offense has held the ball 91 times through the first 10 weeks of the season: that’s the second fewest in the league. Through those possessions, the team has racked up exactly 300 points, comfortably the most in the league (despite already having their bye week). Let that sink in. The Ravens’ offense has had the second fewest opportunities to score, yet has scored more than anyone else in the league.
That kind of efficiency is unparalleled. They are the only team this year to score on more than 50 percent of their drives. They accomplish this through a revolutionary run game that has, so far, given them 54 expected points (EP) contributed by the rushing offense, an advanced analytic that compared the success of a play with its expected outcome. On its own, that number doesn’t mean a lot. But since 2000, only three teams have achieved a higher EP through 16 games. The Ravens have done it in nine.
The MVP award is a measure of a single player’s value, not the whole offense. But this offense couldn’t function with any other quarterback who has ever played.
I cannot think of a quarterback with more value than one who is the single reason a revolutionary new offensive scheme even exists. It might not even be this perspective that wins Jackson that trophy. The MVP award is a narrative one, it doesn’t just exist in the world of sports analytics.
But this only supports Jackson’s case. In high school, colleges recruited Jackson as a wide-receiver. He refused, and went to Louisville, where he eventually won the Heisman as their QB. In the draft combine, he refused to run the 40, as NFL teams continued to scout him as a receiver or running back. In his draft class, he was the 32nd pick, behind four other quarterbacks. Today, he is the only one that isn’t on the brink of being labeled a bust (sorry Bills fans, but Josh Allen is a backup at best).
Nobody can resist an underdog story like that. And when he’s got the stats to boot, Jackson simply can’t be ignored anymore.