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The NFL Needs an Overall Player of the Year

MVP discussion highlights need for a separate award

The MVP race is a showdown between two players: Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt. Rodgers won the MVP in 2011, a season in which he set an NFL record with an eye-popping 122.5 passer rating and led the Packers to a 14-1 regular season record as a starter (backup Matt Flynn started the final game of the regular season). J.J. Watt has been a dominant defender over the past several years, registering over 20 sacks in two of the past three seasons and earning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013.

This season, both Rodgers and Watt have put up fantastic numbers. Rodgers finished with a passer rating of 112.2 (and a QBR of 82.6), both good for second place in the NFL. He again passed for over 4,000 yards and led the league with a 38:5 TD:INT ratio. Watt, meanwhile, registered 20.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 10 batted passes, 1 interception, 1 blocked kick, and 5 total TDs (2 defensive, 3 offensive).

…given that the quarterback is the only skill position player to touch the ball on every play, it comes as little surprise that the QB position is heavily favored in any MVP discussion.
While Aaron Rodgers’s numbers are strong, J.J. Watt has arguably outperformed him this season. Yet whenever the discussion turns to the MVP award, folks fixate on the notion of what it means to be “valuable”. In the eyes of many, if you can’t get your team to the playoffs, you can’t possibly be the most valuable player in the league. Furthermore, given that the quarterback is the only skill position player to touch the ball on every play, it comes as little surprise that the QB position is heavily favored in any MVP discussion. Adrian Peterson nearly broke the single-season rushing record in 2012 (despite the league moving away from the running game in general), and yet he was far from a lock to win the MVP that year. J.J. Watt is unlikely to beat Aaron Rodgers this year in the MVP race (the last defensive player to win the MVP was Lawrence Taylor in 1986), but that’s simply unfair.

Player of the Year

The MVP award was first issued by the Associated Press in 1961, to Paul Hornung, running back for the Green Bay Packers. Prior to that, the AP had awarded end-of-season “Player of the Year” awards. While the nomenclature was confusing up until 1963, it presents a little insight into what the MVP award really was supposed to be. Somehow, we have started thinking about it as a reflection of some arbitrary “value” (ignoring that football is a team sport) instead of the player who had the best season that year.

Most Dominant Player

Maybe what we need instead is a “Most Dominant Player” award. This award would go to the player that most scares the bejesus out of opposing players/coaches. Perhaps the best part of this approach would be that you don’t necessarily need eye-opening statistics to be dominant. While Rodgers and J.J. Watt both clearly have the numbers on their resumes this season, what about a player like Darelle Revis, who despite “only” having two interceptions this season, has completely changed the way the Patriots are able to play defense? Especially for defenders, numbers don’t always tell the whole story so it ultimately has to come down to in-game impact to determine who had the best year.

If you don’t believe me, consider that Justin Houston had 22.0 sacks this season (a half-sack shy of the record), yet was completely dominated (see what I did there?) in terms of headlines and praise by J.J. Watt, because Watt can impact the game in so many different ways. Watt consistently demands double teams, yet beats them anyway. Even when you gameplan to stop J.J. Watt, he still dominates.

Leave the MVP Alone

You might think I’m arguing that the MVP should “return to its roots” as a player of the year award or that we should scrap the MVP and replace it. Far from it. I can appreciate the historical value of keeping the MVP award as it has been—biases and all—but there needs to be another award that just focuses on a player’s accomplishments without confounding it with things like team success.

Instead, let’s add a new award (and don’t complain about diluting the value of these awards, especially when the NFL is moving to add two teams per conference to the playoffs) that truly focuses on the individual accomplishment of a player. Let’s make it a realistic target for players on both sides of the ball. And let’s give it to J.J. Watt, for being the best player in the NFL this season.

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