Stupidity, Custer, and Peyton Manning as MVP

“For outright stupidity, the whole f—— trial goes shoulder to shoulder with that c——— Custer’s thinking when he went over that ridge.” –Al Swearengen, Deadwood


Evidently Peyton Manning is going to win this MVP thing by acclamation. Which, in case Al’s thinking on the matter wasn’t clear enough for you, or you’re not a history buff, is outright stupidity.

We’re going to put Manning’s MVP prospects on trial, but before we get into the quarterback comparisons, it’s worth noting that this would be a great year for a non-quarterback to win. In the modern era, only four players have rushed for at least 1000 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. Those players make up a Who’s Who List of the Greatest of All Time: Jim Brown, Jamaal Charles, O.J. Simpson, and Barry Sanders. Adrian Peterson stands to join that list with a couple more good games. Moreover, the value of Peterson’s rushing prowess has been shocking. He’s doing the impossible, at least in the contemporary NFL. He’s carrying a team from the running back position. If the Vikings make the playoffs, it will be on his shoulders. And if they do, he should be the MVP.

Calvin Johnson is on pace to break Jerry Rice’s receiving yardage record, and while he’s done it on an epic number of pass routes, he’s not getting much help. The Lions have no running game and no other receivers. On the strength of Megatron’s brilliance, they rank No. 1 in the NFL in passing offense and second in total offense. They’ve also done it against the ninth toughest schedule according to FO. There’s a huge disparity in schedule strength this year and the slate of opposing defenses should be taken into consideration. Johnson won’t get many votes due to the Lions’ record, which is unfortunate since he’s not responsible for the series of backbreaking coaching gaffes that have cost Detroit game after game. FO ranks the Lions as the NFL’s 13th best team on per play basis, and they wouldn’t be in the Top 25 without Megatron. That’s the very definition of valuable.

Individual defensive players don’t have as big a per play impact as quarterbacks or certain skill players like Purple Jesus or Megatron, but that doesn’t mean they can’t wreak havoc. J.J. Watt is having one of the greatest seasons ever for a defensive player. Watt currently sports a +79 rating from PFF, which is approximately 75% better than the grade for any other 3-4 DE in the five year history of the database. In fantasy football, Watt ranks as the No. 1 overall defensive player despite scoring systems that dramatically favor LBs. He’s scored nearly twice as many points as Cameron Wake, the No. 2 defensive end. Those who’ve had a chance to watch Watt play know his impact can’t even be adequately quantified as opposing teams scheme to take him away. He’s essentially brought the pass rushing ability of an elite 4-3 rush end like Derrick Thomas and the run stopping ability of great 3-4 defense ends like Justin Smith. The Texans are an NFL-leading 11-2 largely because of Watt’s utter dominance.

All three of these players make a better MVP choice than many of the high profile of quarterbacks, but since a QB is going to win, let’s look at them again in a little more detail.

I’m going to look at four basic categories to evaluate quarterbacks and then point out one more interesting stat at the end. The objective categories are SOS, adjusted yards per attempt, expected points added per play, and win probability added per game. We’ll assign each player a rank and the player with the lowest total number will be our winner.

For our study we’ll include presumptive favorites Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, sentimental favorite RG3, omnipresent superstar Aaron Rodgers, dark horse Andrew Luck, and Matt Ryan, catalyst for the NFC-leading Falcons.

Strength of Schedule

1. Tom Brady (NFL rank: 6)

2. Aaron Rodgers (8)

3. Robert Griffin III (22)

4. Andrew Luck (23)

5. Peyton Manning (30)

6. Matt Ryan (31)

I used the Football Outsiders rankings here. Other ways of doing it would be relatively similar. As you can see, the players essentially fit into three different categories. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have faced pretty stiff competition game in, game out. The two rookies have faced weak but NFL-caliber defenses, while Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan might have had to navigate more defensive pressure playing in the SEC. The AFC West and NFC South are the two easiest divisions in all of football from a pass defense perspective. Manning and Ryan not only get six games each against their divisional foes, but they get to cross over against each other. Manning’s current 8-game winning streak includes New Orleans, Carolina, Tampa, Kansas City, and Oakland. Schedule strength makes a huge difference in the statistical output of different players and dramatically impacts the win/loss records they are able to put up. Everything we are about to see should be filtered through an understanding of SOS. If all else is equal – and it won’t be – Tom Brady should be considered the clear choice for MVP.

Adjusted Yards Per Attempt

1. Robert Griffin III (8.78)

2. Tom Brady (8.55)

3. Peyton Manning (8.20)

4. Aaron Rodgers (8.03)

5. Matt Ryan (7.40)

6. Andrew Luck (6.22)

Adjusted yards per attempt is probably the cleanest QB stat there is. It’s the one I use when I do my historical comparisons for fantasy purposes. How many yards a QB gains per attempt is the one thing that a QB controls directly, and yards correlate very highly with success rate, first downs, and points. In this formulation an adjustment is made based on touchdowns and interceptions. As you can see, RG3 acolytes don’t need to point to his overall game-changing ability and rushing prowess to argue his MVP case. Griffin has been the most dynamic passer in the NFL this year on a per play basis. No one possesses his combination of arm strength and accuracy. Tom Brady has also been far better than Peyton Manning. Ryan and Luck haven’t been nearly good in terms of passing consistency. We’ll see their strengths later, but the margin between them and the other four is significant enough to be a concern regardless of what else they bring to the table. Ryan may be a winner, but he’s a very limited arm talent.

Win Probability Added Per Game

1. Matt Ryan (0.34)

2. Tom Brady (0.34)

3. Andrew Luck (0.31)

4. Aaron Rodgers (0.30)

5. Peyton Manning (0.23)

6. Robert Griffin III (0.21)

This is why Ryan and Luck are included. Advanced NFL Stats has a lot of great information, and their Win Probability algorithms for team play are incredibly interesting. I don’t put much stock in win probability when it comes to individual players because WP is heavily skewed toward high leverage situations. The ability to perform better in high leverage situations is largely based in randomness and myth. It’s fluky and non-predictive. I’ve included it here because MVP decisions are less concerned with predicting the next game than writing the narrative about the last one.

Here you see that while Matt Ryan has been bad enough to keep his team from blowing out marginal opponents, he’s played well enough at crunch time to win most of those games. Luck’s magic is also clearly evident here. You’ve got a lot more reason to vote for Luck based on the Colts’ 9-4 record than Manning based on the Broncos’ 10-3 mark. Football Outsiders metrics put Indianapolis at No. 28 in their rankings. They’re awful. This was the team that went 1-15 last year, and it’s basically the same group, just with a rookie QB. Luck hasn’t been crippled by his misadventures and has put in epic performances down the stretch. As good as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are, I’m not sure they could have done what Luck has managed. Both superstars lack the mobility and vertical passing ability to put a team as flat out awful as Indy on their shoulders.

This stat also puts a big dent in the MVP campaigns of Peyton Manning and RG3. Many want to give Manning all the credit for the Broncos’ emergence, but win probability suggests he hasn’t been the difference-maker most think (for example, Tony Romo, he of the ultimate choke mode, has a much higher 0.29 WPA/G). The Broncos are 1-3 against teams with winning records and 0-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that RG3’s numbers aren’t that great since he’s got the worst win/loss record of the group. The Washington defense bears a disproportionate amount of responsibility for that, but RG3 wasn’t pulling out games early in the season. The Washington coaching staff evidently doesn’t understand win probability models as their run-heavy game plans have actually taken the ball out of their best player’s hands.

Expected Points Added Per Play

1. Tom Brady (0.31)

2. Robert Griffin III (0.24)

3. Matt Ryan (0.24)

4. Peyton Manning (0.22)

5. Aaron Rodgers (0.20)

6. Andrew Luck (0.15)

Expected Points Added Per Play is exactly what it sounds like, ANS’s metric that shows how many points each individual play is worth. Tom Brady leads the highest scoring offense in the NFL – and again, against the hardest schedule out of this group – so it’s no surprise his numbers lead the pack by a wide margin. RG3 is next, but it’s surprising that although Ryan has been far less efficient in terms of passing yards per play, he’s actually outscored Manning per play in terms of the value of his contributions. This stat is less influenced by high leverage situations and should therefore be more predictive going forward.

Final Rankings

1. Tom Brady (6)

2. Robert Griffin III (12)

3. Aaron Rodgers (15)*

4. Matt Ryan (15)

5. Peyton Manning (17)

6. Andrew Luck (19)

For our final tally, I added up the ranks from our four categories. Tom Brady is the obvious choice as MVP. He’s orders of magnitude better than any of the other players. Although Griffin will probably be eliminated from consideration when he misses Week 15, his otherworldly rookie season deserves your runner-up vote. I give Aaron Rodgers the nod on Matt Ryan because of a far better touchdown/turnover ratio. Even I was surprised that Ryan fits in ahead of Peyton Manning. Manning’s raw numbers are much better than Ryan’s, but he’s had less of a game impact in terms of points and wins.

Impact on the Running Game

Although having a good running game is fairly irrelevant to success in the NFL, it does have some minor value, even if it’s mostly intangible. Commentators will talk endlessly about Peyton Manning checking into good plays, but do the stats bear that out? Last year the Denver Broncos averaged 4.8 yards per rush. This season they’ve averaged 3.8. We know that some of that is Tebow yardage, but it’s still a ridiculous drop, one that goes from the top of the NFL almost to the bottom. The Broncos are pretty bad at run blocking – PFF ranks them 17th – but they’re a lot better than they were last year when PFF ranked them dead last (yes, it was Tebow, not the offensive line; and it wasn’t magic but a repeatable skill). If you want to know why Tebow could be minimally effective despite not being able to throw the ball, it’s right there. Tebow dramatically affects a team’s ability to run. Manning does the same, but in the opposite direction. His 2010 Colts also averaged 3.8 per rush. So much for all those wild gesticulations at the line of scrimmage.

We’ve already seen that RG3 has been a better passer than Manning this year, but he’s also had a Tebow-like effect on the running game. Last year Washington averaged 4.0 yards per rush. This year they’re up to 5.3, right there with the 49ers and Peterson’s Vikings. Some of that is scramble yardage, but scrambles are plus plays as long as they’re not accompanied by a bunch of sacks. To make sure Griffin isn’t benefitting from a statistical glitch, I checked out PFF’s ‘Under Pressure’ numbers which show RG3 has a very respectable sack percentage and simultaneously leads the NFL in accuracy under pressure (78%). Manning ranks fifth, but well back at 66%.

My Ballot

Manning just isn’t anywhere close to being the best player in the NFL, nor is he the most important or valuable. For those ‘just wins’ folks out there, Luck would be a better choice. He’s carrying a woebegone team in a way that Manning is not. I think it bears repeating: Manning is 1-3 against teams with winning records and 0-2 in close games.

If I had a ballot, this is what it would look like:

1. J.J. Watt

2. Tom Brady

3. Adrian Peterson

4. Robert Griffin III

5. Calvin Johnson

6. Aaron Rodgers

7. Andrew Luck

8. Peyton Manning

9. Aldon Smith

10. Von Miller

But, again, Peyton is going to win this thing. To which I say, “There aren’t enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Calvary.

10 thoughts on “Stupidity, Custer, and Peyton Manning as MVP”

  1. This is article is borderline stupid (not really I can tell you put some thought into it).

    First, you’re putting way too much emphasis on SOS…this is the NFL not the NCAA the difference in the really good teams and really bad teams is miniscule. Keep in mind that the Patriots lost to the Cardinals and the Falcons just lost to the Panthers.

    Second, your assumption that Y/A is something that QB controls directly is absurd. Have you never heard of yards after the catch? That aside, Mannings’ Y/A is less than one yard per attempt than RG3 and about a football length less than Brady…but only Alex Smith has a higher completion % and only Brady and Luck are putting it up more than him, of the QB’s you mentioned. So, Manning’s coming up a little short when he attempts a throw, but he’s attempting more…8.2 Y/A 68% of the time when you’re throwing it 300+ times is more production than 8.78 Y/A 66% of the time or 8.55 Y/A 64% of the time.

    Third, I don’t know enough about how win probablilty or expected added points is calculated to speak about them directly, but as for Luck winning due to the Colts’ record…if that’s the only state your going to use then fine. We both know that you’re not. Look at Manning’s stats AND how he’s improved his team and you quickly realize how absurd this sounds.

    Manning has taken a team that barely won 8 games last year and has increased their win total by 2 games with 3 more to play, increased their ppg by ~9 points, with almost no other changes to personnel.

    He almost single handedly turned a low scoring, run first offense, into a high scoring, passing team in less than one season and the result has the Broncos as Superbowl contenders. Brady has had years with his offense and Luck and RGIII will be lucky to win as many games as Manning already has this season.

    He’s made names out of guys like Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. Who else this year has made names out of nobodies?

    The Broncos did have a few tough losses early on, but with the exception of the Falcons game…most of that was due to turnovers from other players; nevertheless, in those games he, with help, turned those games, that should’ve been blowouts, into nail-biters and turned one blowout into a win…how many other of the guys on this list came back from being down 24 points at half time?

    Statistically, he put up better numbers than Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, and Dalton in head to head matchups and still has Flacco on the schedule and possibly a shot at Luck or a few of these other guys in the playoffs.

    …and all of this at 36 after major neck surgery with a new team and new offense.

    1. Hey Drew, thanks for reading and thanks for the reply (although I would have preferred you call it ‘outright’ instead of ‘borderline’ stupid in keeping with the theme).

      I’m not sure what to say about SOS. The idea that the teams in the NFL are fairly evenly matched is an obvious myth. If you can watch the Chiefs/Raiders game today where KC scored 0 points against a terrible Oakland team that was giving up 31 points a game (versus an easy schedule) and then watch the 49ers/Patriots game and claim that the difference between the best and worst teams is minimal . . . well, I don’t know what to tell you.

      The Patriots lost to the Cardinals because Arizona has one of the best defenses in the NFL and still had their quarterback at that point. My numbers aren’t referencing overall SOS, they’re directly referencing the schedule of opposing defenses. Manning has faced one of the easiest schedules of all time. (For example, the Baltimore team he faced today was without four of their top five tacklers and their No. 1 corner.)

      I’m also not completely sure what you mean about Y/A. Run after catch is a part of Y/A and it’s generally one the quarterback has a lot of control over. Better placed balls result in more yac, as do better decisions as to which WR to target in the first place.

      I also think you misunderstand how big a gap RG3 and Brady have on Manning in terms of aypa. Those are significant margins.

      You bring up WRs and that obviously has an impact on QB play. In my original plan, I was going to point out how Manning was also benefiting from incredible WR play. I’m not sure where you’ve gotten your information on the Denver WRs. Thomas is a star and Decker is an above average starter. Thomas is probably the second or third most talented WR in the NFL after Megatron and A.J. Green. (He ranked as PFF’s No. 1 WR in their Signature Stats going into Week 15.) Over Thomas’ first two seasons with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow throwing him the ball he averaged 2.32 yards per pass route. This year with Manning he’s averaging 2.52. Both of those numbers are elite, but Manning has hardly ‘made’ him. On a per play basis, Manning has hardly made Thomas any better at all. (Manning actually has a bigger impact on the 3rd and 4th receivers; ask Reggie Wayne if he’d rather have Manning or Luck.)

      Basically, it sounds like you are in favor of Manning because you like his narrative, which is fine. A lot of people obviously do, and he’s the frontrunner because of it. It’s just not backed up by the facts.

      1. Full disclosure: I am a Broncos fan so I admit that I am biased, still I’m not buying your arguments.

        Of the 5 major QB’s we’re discussing only Brady and Rodgers went against tougher total and passing defenses than Manning, but Manning and Rodgers had 5 top 10 ranked defenses on their schedule and Brady only had one more, with 6. Ryan, Luck, and RGIII had less than 5. In terms of passing defenses…all of these players had between 2 and 5 top 10 ranked passing defenses on their schedule and while Manning was tied with Luck for the fewest top 10 passing defenses he faced overall, he had tougher overall passing defenses on his schedule than RGIII and won more games than Luck. To keep some perspective though…half of the top 10 defenses did not make the playoffs and 6 of the top 10 passing defenses did not either.

        For some more perspective, two of the Broncos losses were to the awful Falcons (24th ranked defense) and Patriots (25th ranked defense), but they had big wins against tough defenses like Pittsburgh (#1), Cincinnati (#6), Carolina (#10), and San Diego (#9). All of the Broncos 3 losses were to teams that were in the bottom half of passing defenses and 2 of the 3 losses were to teams not ranked in the top 10 in total defense. The other 4 QB’s had similar stories.

        So, going back to your point, yes, the Chiefs sucked, but the difference between them and the Broncos or Patriots is nowhere near the difference between, say, Alabama and Florida Atlantic. Those terrible Chiefs have more pro bowl defensive players than the Broncos who were ranked #2 in total defense. There’s just no support for the idea that SOS is a major factor in the NFL.

        As for the Y/A, there were two points. First, I was just making the point that there is not really more control over that than say total passing yards or completion percentage…Manning can’t control how far Thomas will go after he catches the ball nor does Brady control Welker. Also, it doesn’t tell you anything about decision making…a 15 yard pass looks much better on the stat sheet but a 2 yard pass on third and one is much better than that 15 yard pass on third and twenty. Second, a guy getting 8 yards per pass 70% of the time should theoretically score more than a guy getting 8.1 yards per pass 50% of the time if they’re throwing the ball the same number of times. I didn’t see where this is accounted for. Manning throws shorter passes but he moves the ball which is more important than sporadic bombs that can inflate Y/A.
        Next, Thomas and Decker are stars…were they last year? Thomas and Decker had 1552 receiving yards TOTAL COMBINED going into this season. This year, Thomas got 1434 yards himself and Decker got 1064. Obviously, Manning is THE major reason for the ridiculous increase in production.
        The facts don’t add up to you because you’re cherry-picking and ignoring facts that don’t support your thesis…that’s how these things always go.

        1. Hey Drew, thanks for checking back in on this, and I appreciate the impressive amount of research you’ve done.

          I can see why you don’t want to admit SOS makes a difference since the Broncos and Manning were possibly the biggest beneficiaries of SOS in NFL history. According to FO, Denver ended up with the 2nd easiest schedule of opposing defenses. Rodgers ended up 7th hardest and Brady 8th. That’s a massive difference.

          Y/A explains efficiency. You mention total yards and completion percentage but that would put guys like Matthew Stafford and Alex Smith in the conversation for MVP. Yards without efficiency (Stafford) or completion percentage without yards (Smith) are non-explanatory. Also, if Manning was doing something special not explained by Y/A, we would expect to see it come out in EPA/P or WPA/G. He is very good in those categories, but not as good as players like Rodgers and Brady.

          Finally, your emphasis on the breakouts of Thomas and Decker is a red herring. Star receivers must break out at some point, regardless of quarterback. To pretend that Thomas and Decker broke out because of Manning, you would also have to believe Percy Harvin broke out last year because of Christian Ponder or Cecil Shorts broke out this year because of Gabbert/Henne. The breakouts of Thomas and Decker were fully anticipated. Here’s the article I wrote in the preseason encouraging fantasy players to target both guys.

          Peyton Manning has had another great season, but not as great as Brady and Rodgers. Considering that the Broncos were a playoff team last year – albeit a kind of crappy one – it’s virtually impossible to argue that he’s had a bigger impact on his squad than RG3 or Luck. Those guys took over absolutely awful teams and single-handedly carried them to the playoffs.

          Anyway, agree to disagree. I enjoy the debate.

  2. Adrian Peterson has no chance of winning the MVP because the Vikings have literally a 0% chance of making the playoffs (they play their final 2 games against Green Bay and @Houston). Andrew Luck also has 0% chance of winning MVP (use all the advanced metrics you want, just watching Luck play you can see how erratic of a passer he still is compared to his contemporary RG3, and the completion % numbers prove this).

    The MVP award will come down to Brady and Manning, and the voters have generally favored Manning even if he isn’t the absolute best choice in the past. Throw in that Brady isn’t really doing anything he hasn’t done in the past this season (this is the 4th best season of his career based on his numbers and team record) and I’d expect that the winner will be Manning especially if the Broncos have a better record then the Patriots with his comeback story.

    1. Hey Marino, I’d agree with you 99% of the time, but if Purple Jesus breaks the all time rushing record it would be a travesty for him not to win the MVP (and I’m an AP skeptic; or at least, I was). I’m also not convinced the Vikings couldn’t win those last two games. (Perhaps right now in the sidebar there’s an ad with a woman wearing an inappropriately sized shirt that says, “Misuse of literally drives me figuratively insane.”)

      Andrew Luck has been erratic, but that’s why I think Win Probability is interesting for him. The Colts are almost unfathomably bad. Their offensive line is similar to the one in Arizona. I truly think that if he were playing with the Broncos right now he’d be having a better season than Manning.

      Regardless, I agree that the vote is going to come down to Brady and Manning. I also agree that this is Brady’s 4th best season. However, only Manning’s epic 2004 season is as good as any of them. Brady has four seasons better than Manning’s second best season and that includes Brady being better than Manning this year.

      I would also agree that Manning probably has the edge in the voter’s minds, especially after today. Which is sad, because Brady was unreal in the comeback-that-fell-short against a freakishly good 49ers squad in the freezing rain, whereas Manning was again underwhelming against what’s turned into a simply bad Ravens team.

      Manning will win. But that’s not the point of the article. The point is that he shouldn’t.

  3. You’re making it seem like MVP is the only award handed out. I would just like to point out that when CJ was CJ2k, he broke the record for yards from scrimmage, and his team was 8-8 and also in playoff contention, though missed the playoffs. Even if AD breaks the rushing yard record (doubtful since he isn’t going to rush for 150 on Texans to keep his pace), he is a great candidate for Offensive Player of the Year moreso than Most Valuable Player.

    I like you’re idea of giving the award to someone other than a QB, we need to debunk the idea that MVP is a QB centric award, moreso I like the idea of giving it to a defensive player. That said, I agree with you that, while VERY deserving (JJ Watt has the record for most sacks by a 3-4 DE, first player with 15 PD and 15+ sacks, most QB hits this season, most TFL this season, best Run EPA this season, etc), he is going to be overlooked. The REAL travesty will be if Aldon Smith gets to 23+ sacks and Watt only gets to 22.5, and they give Aldon the DPotY award while shafting Watt completely.

    1. Those are good points. MVP is just so important because that’s what people remember. And I do think that QBs are the most valuable and should win in most years. This just isn’t an ordinary year with candidates like Watt, Peterson, and Megatron squaring off against a very even quarterback field. The fact of the matter is that the current crop of QBs is so good that their 2012 numbers pale next to some of their historical accomplishments.

      After what’s happened the last seven weeks, I wouldn’t be shocked if Peterson does run for 150 against the Texans. He can get bottled up most of the game – as we saw against St. Louis – and break off a couple CJ-type runs for his yardage. And Houston’s defense is trending down slightly. (Regardless, I hope you’re right for fantasy purposes.)

      I can’t see Watt losing DPOY even though Smith and Miller have also been awesome. Watt’s probably had the best defensive year in NFL history. I know voters are often logic-challenged, but that would be a shocking travesty.

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