Trying to figure out why Aaron Rodgers isn’t an MVP candidate
With every cyclical coming-and-going of a sports season, familiar stories and opinion pieces are written concerning “the Most Valuable Player.” The names and precise statistics change, but the overarching concepts do not – one must define “value” and determine which of the available candidates best meets the standards set for them. It seems as though we, as a sports-loving public, have not yet settled on a consensus for what “value” means. Otherwise, why spend so much time on the meta-debate as opposed to the debate itself?
Since late in the NFL regular season the two most often mentioned candidates for this year’s MVP are Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings running back, and Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos quarterback. The NFL MVP is not an award specifically restricted to these two positions, but might as well be; in the history of the Associated Press awarding the trophy, one defensive tackle, one linebacker, and one kicker (no, really) have taken home the prize. The other 54 recipients have been either quarterbacks or running backs (split 37-to-17, respectively).
Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between what the phrase “Most Valuable Player” means and how the award itself functions. Like so many others, I’m left to try and figure out what the word “value” represents, in a football sense. Some say it’s the player who’s contributed the most to his team’s success, others say it’s the player who performed on a historic level, and still others insist that it should be a player who performed best in the clutch.
In a team sport like football, with 53-man rosters, 22 moving parts on the field and 110-130 snaps in any given game, narrowing down the field to a few noteworthy candidates seems like a daunting task. This season, the general consensus, our great ability to engage in groupthink, has decided Manning and Peterson are the two who are up to snuff.
Humor me as I flirt with cliché for a moment and look up the meaning of the word “value” in the dictionary:
- Value: the worth of something in terms of the amount of other things for which it can be exchanged or in terms of some medium of exchange
- Value: monetary or material worth, as in commerce or trade
- Value: relative worth, merit, or importance
When all three of those definitions are kept in mind, the field of candidates has to expand – specifically, to include Aaron Rodgers. In the interest of full disclosure (and before I lose my Minnesota-centric audience) let me insist that I’m doing my best to speak as an unbiased observer, and not merely a (spiteful) Packer fan. If you stick around, you’ll find I am just as critical of the award Rodgers won in 2011 as I am of the Peterson/Manning dual candidacy of 2012. The fact that Rodgers isn’t even in the discussion as a viable candidate says a lot about how sportswriters and other prominent NFL pundits think, and trying to peel back the layers can teach us a thing or two about the problems with the process.
I begin by examining the three definitions of value, point by point, and make Rodgers’ case in each.
Value: the worth of something in terms of the amount of other things for which it can be exchanged or in terms of some medium of exchange
Aaron Rodgers is the most valued player in the NFL today. His age (29) and pedigree (1 Super Bowl Ring, 1 first team All-Pro, 2 second team All-Pro, 52-26 career record) make him the crème de la crème of a league plush with elite quarterbacks. I’m not saying he’s better than all of the rest – but he’s younger than Brady, Manning and Brees and has more hardware than Matt Ryan.
To put it another way – if there was some sort of fantasy re-draft, and the rosters of all 32 teams were wiped clean, Rodgers would almost certainly be the first overall selection. A little too hypothetical for you? If the Patriots called the Packers and offered Tom Brady, straight up, for Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are the ones who say, “No, thanks.” If the script was flipped, the Patriots would have to think long and hard about pulling the trigger.
If that’s still too hypothetical for you, think about this – Robert Griffin III, an unproven commodity coming into last year’s Draft, fetched the Rams three first round picks and a second round selection. That’s a steep price to pay for a guy who’s never played an NFL down. What would it cost a team to trade for Rodgers? Can you even put a price on it?
To be fair, Rodgers isn’t the only person in the league this can be said about. And to be honest, this section is a little more abstract than I’d like it to be, but once the term “value” is injected into a sports debate, the conversation necessarily veers into the hypothetical realm. Barring injury Rodgers will be the most coveted commodity in the league for at least the next couple of seasons – and there’s nothing hypothetical about that.[i]
Value: monetary or material worth, as in commerce or trade
This is going to be short and sweet: there are 11 quarterbacks with higher 2012 salaries than Aaron Rodgers. They are: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Eli Manning (understandable); Phillip Rivers, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger (questionable); and Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, Sam Bradford, Michael Vick and Matt Schaub (hilarious).
The value Rodgers brings to the Packers’ franchise as a pitchman is also worth noting. State Farm, Pizza Hut, Nike, Ford – his face has been everywhere since the Super Bowl run of 2011, and this has a positive impact on Green Bay’s bottom line… the frequency and annoyance of the “Discount Double Check” ads notwithstanding.
Value: relative worth, merit, or importance
Therein lies the rub: It’s impossible to adequately quantify Rodgers’ worth to the Packers, Brady’s worth to the Patriots, Peterson’s worth to the Vikings and Manning’s worth to the Broncos. They’re unique players in different situations, and the subtleties involved are lost in a superficial MVP debate.
I can’t help but wonder if narrative has got the most to do with it. Manning missed all of 2011-12 with a neck injury, was released by the Indianapolis Colts, and led his new team to a 13-3 record (the best mark in the AFC) without missing a beat. His statistics were right on par with his finest seasons to date, incredible considering the fact that some thought he might never play again.
Adrian Peterson tore his ACL against the Washington Redskins on Christmas Eve, 2011, and it was expected that he could miss the first six weeks of the 2012-13 season. Instead, he didn’t miss a game and finished the year with a blistering ten week stretch in which he rushed for 1,598 yards and averaged nearly 7 yards per carry. Due in large part to Peterson’s efforts, the Vikings went 10-6 and made the playoffs, vastly outperforming expectations.
But do those stories (however good they are) make either of those two the MVP automatically over Aaron Rodgers? Or, for that matter, Tom Brady? Rodgers, for instance, had to deal with a weak running attack for much of the season, a battered and (at times) ineffective offensive line, a porous defense and a kicker who had the worst season of his career. Without him, the Packers likely go 3-13; instead, they went 11-5 and won the NFC North. Tom Brady was his usual stellar self despite injuries to his two most potent offensive weapons and a defense that was, at times, the worst in football.
The element of surprise has something to do with Rodgers’ and Brady’s absence from the forefront of the MVP debate. Since Manning and Peterson were unexpectedly amazing, they shoot to the top of everyone’s list. Furthermore, neither Rodgers nor Brady were as good as they were in their last MVP seasons (Rodgers “slumped” to 4,295 yards and 39 touchdowns after throwing for 4,643 and 46 the year before; Brady had twice as many picks (8) as he did in 2010 (4), and failed to crack 5,000 yards passing). Should dropping from “otherworldly” to “spectacular” disqualify a player from the MVP discussion?
Maybe it’s time we all admit that the “value” in the “Most Valuable Player” award functions differently than what the word “value” actually means. Rodgers’ 2011 MVP victory felt more like a stamp of approval on all he’d done in the 2010 playoffs (leading the Packers to the Super Bowl) which carried over into his blistering 2011 campaign. He got 48 of the 50 MVP votes last year – despite the fact that Drew Brees was equally important to the New Orleans Saints and put up nearly as impressive numbers.
Should there even be an MVP in football? Perhaps getting carried away with an argument about semantics is silly, but it’s still a valid question. The problem, again, arises with the word “value.” In a sport with so much specialization, how can an observer possibly be expected to compare incomparable parts? Would the whole problem be solved if it was called “Most Outstanding Player”?
I wish the All-Pro team would garner more attention than it does; at least that describes the very best at each position by people who are in the know (beat writers and personnel experts) without pretense or agenda. But what moves the needle are definitive statements – we want to know who’s best and worst, and right and wrong, and valuable or not. So they keep awarding MVPs, and we keep making a fuss about it. The cycle continues.
BreakTheHuddle covers the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s also a fan of the beleaguered Minnesota Twins and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Leave a comment below, follow him on Twitter @BreakTheHuddle or email him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com.
[i] The very sharp Bill Barnwell agrees with me (or, I guess, I agree with HIM, as he was first): http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8316940/ranking-players-contracts-national-football-league-part-2