NFC West: 2010 MVP Watch

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

January, 5, 2011
1/05/11
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Tom Brady's coronation as the leading MVP candidate for the 2010 season has only gained momentum over the past couple weeks.

It’s a huge upset if anyone else emerges with the award when The Associated Press announces voting results during Super Bowl week.

Brady, after all, was the NFL's top-rated passer for a New England team that posted a league-best 14-2 record. He set an NFL record by throwing 335 consecutive passes without an interception. He showed fiery leadership during a memorable victory against Pittsburgh. And when the nation was watching to see whether the New York Jets could make good on their bluster, Brady used the Monday night stage to deliver a 45-3 prime-time beatdown.

Can there be an argument against Brady? Turns out there can be one.

I recently received via Facebook a 769-word dissenting opinion from a San Francisco 49ers fan named “Josh” promoting Peyton Manning for the award. The fan, who shall remain anonymous in case he ever plans a visit to the Northeast, hit on a two basic points:
  • Brady has more time to throw than other quarterbacks, giving him a significant advantage over Manning and everyone else. Josh: "I watched every 49ers play this season, and I can say that if Alex Smith had ‘Tom Brady’ time to throw, you could almost pencil him in for 25 TDs and 3,000-plus yards every year."
  • The Patriots went 11-5 without Brady during the 2008 season. Josh: "So, we have actual evidence that New England’s system is one where an average quarterback can look good and a good quarterback can look great and a great quarterback can look elite."

Brady does often benefit from superior protection. The Patriots did go 11-5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback.

Brady still had to make the most of the time he had to throw, and he did. He adapted successfully to changing personnel, turning Deion Branch into an upgrade from Randy Moss. Separately, Cassel's performance in Kansas City this season showed he could succeed without Brady's pass protection or overall support system. And the Chiefs were far from competitive when he missed a game.

Manning could win the award almost every season based upon how much the Colts rely on him. It's just tough to argue with Brady's production -- the touchdowns, the efficiency, the victories, the clutch play. This was his season on those pivotal fronts.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 29, 2010
12/29/10
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A message for the roughly 1,696 players on NFL rosters at any point during the season: This concludes the meaningful portion of the MVP race. Thanks for playing.

New England's Tom Brady, the NFL's highest-rated passer for the team with the league's best record, became the obvious choice Tuesday night without even playing. His only legitimate competition for the award, Michael Vick, took a physical pounding in defeat and barely finished the Philadelphia Eagles' game against the Minnesota Vikings.

Brady would join Joe Montana, Steve Young and Kurt Warner as two-time winners. Four-time winner Peyton Manning and three-time winners Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown and Brett Favre would stand as the only players with more.

Quarterbacks have won the award 35 times in 55 chances. Running backs have won 17 times. Alan Page (defensive lineman), Lawrence Taylor (linebacker) and Mark Moseley (kicker) are the only players from other positions to win the award.

That helps explain why quarterbacks and running backs -- OK, only one running back -- account for all 10 spots on my latest MVP Watch list.

San Diego's Philip Rivers fell off the list despite impressive numbers. MVP quarterbacks have posted a 12-3 record on average over the years (teams played fewer than 16 games before 1978). Rivers can finish no better than 9-7 after his Chargers lost by two touchdowns at Cincinnati with their season on the line.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 22, 2010
12/22/10
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To review, Tom Brady could pretty much coast toward MVP honors unless, perhaps, he suddenly started playing the worst football of his life.

But what if Michael Vick closed the regular season with a couple more seeing-is-believing performances along the lines of his multidimensional masterpiece Sunday?

It could happen.

Vick passed for 242 yards with three touchdowns during the Philadelphia Eagles' 38-31 victory over the New York Giants. He rushed 10 times for 130 yards and another score. And his team won in memorable fashion, scoring 28 points over the final 7:28.

For Vick, it was the third time in 11 starts this season he has finished a game with at least three TD passes. It was the fourth time he has accounted for at least four total TDs in a game. And it was the latest example of the contributions only Vick can make.

According to Pro Football Reference, Vick joined Brady this season on a short list of NFL players with at least 20 scoring passes and five or fewer picks in a season, sustainable only if neither player tosses an interception over the final two weeks.

That is a remarkable stat on its own, but Vick’s eight rushing TDs separate him from every other player on the list. Of the group, only Milt Plum, who finished the 1960 season with 21 TDs and five INTs over 12 games, scored more than one rushing TD. He had two.

Vick closes the regular season with home games against Minnesota and Dallas. He has 16 TD passes with four INTs on the road this season, but only four scoring passes with one pick at home. Those numbers should even out now that the Eagles are returning home after playing four of their previous six on the road.

Two more games like the one Vick put together Sunday would leave him with 26 TD passes, seven INTs, 10 rushing scores, a 10-3 starting record and a legitimate shot at winning MVP honors.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 15, 2010
12/15/10
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Some pushed back against my claim last week that Tom Brady could "take a knee on the rest of the season" and still emerge as MVP.

Ben from Lynchburg, Va., dedicated more than 1,100 words to his dissenting opinion.

Like most others I heard from, he favored the Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick. I appreciate Vick's season too, and can say I was among those who thought sticking with Vick over Kevin Kolb was an easy call.

Vick does have 24 total touchdowns against four interceptions, but after watching Brady sizzle in the freezing cold at Soldier Field, I'm not sure our runaway MVP candidate could realistically play poorly enough over the final three games to doom his chances.

Let's take my "he-could-take-a-knee" assertion a step further.

Could Brady emerge as a legitimate MVP candidate this season if he suddenly started playing the worst football of his career? For fun, I went through Pro Football Reference looking for the three statistically worst performances of Brady's regular-season NFL life, wondering how Brady's final 2010 credentials would look if we filled in his upcoming stat lines with his all-time worst single-game numbers.

Three games stood out for their statistical futility:
  • Sept. 7, 2003: Brady completes 14 of 28 passes for 123 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions during a 31-0 loss to Buffalo. His rating is 22.5.
  • Nov. 5, 2006: Brady completes 20 of 35 passes for 201 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions during a 27-20 loss to Indianapolis. His rating is 34.0.
  • Nov. 27, 2005: Brady completes 22 of 40 passes for 248 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions during a 26-16 loss to Kansas City. His rating is 42.5.

If Brady duplicated those numbers exactly over the Patriots' final three games -- don't get your hopes up, Jets fans -- he would become the statistical incarnation of the 2010 Drew Brees, pretty much. Brady would finish with 30 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 93.4 rating (Brees is at 93.6). He would pass for 3,970 yards, finish with an 11-5 record and probably still pick up an MVP vote or two.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
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video Tom Brady could take a knee on the rest of the season and still challenge for MVP honors this season.

It's that much of a runaway heading into Week 14.

The New England Patriots' incomparable quarterback will not be taking a knee on the season, of course. He kept throwing deep into a 45-3 victory over the New York Jets on Monday night. The Patriots emphasized putting together a full 60-minute performance. If they take the same approach to the regular season, Brady stands as the clear MVP favorite.

The 2007 MVP already has double-digit victories, the NFL's highest passer rating (comfortably), a 27-4 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions and, improbably, only one fumble (down from 19 in his previous three full seasons).

The Patriots have 48 touchdowns, 10 more than any other team in the league. They have 35 more points than any other team in the league. Brady has thrown 17 TD passes since his last interception against Baltimore 52 days ago.

Working in Brady's favor: The field of MVP challengers has issues. Let's sort through them while noting that four-time MVP Peyton Manning, once a fixture on this list, has in the past 10 days doubled Brady's season total for interceptions.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 1, 2010
12/01/10
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Peyton Manning topped the MVP Watch nine times in the first 10 weeks of this NFL season.

He did not crack the top 10 this week, a scenario once as unfathomable as Manning's recent run of flawed performances.

Four interceptions during the Indianapolis Colts' blowout defeat to San Diego in Week 12 gave Manning seven picks in his past two games. The Colts have lost three of their past four.

Manning has failed to post a passer rating higher than 69.8 in four of his past seven games. For reference: Derek Anderson's season rating for the Arizona Cardinals is 68.2.

Manning is the 15th-rated passer in the NFL this season. He has gone from No. 1 on the MVP Watch list Nov. 10 to fourth a week later, fifth last week and unlisted entering Week 13.

A home date with the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13 might help Manning recapture his familiar form. The Cowboys' opponents this season have 23 touchdown passes, nine interceptions and a 101.4 rating.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 24, 2010
11/24/10
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Quarterback Mark Sanchez has emerged as Mr. Clutch for the 8-2 New York Jets in recent weeks.

His team is 5-0 on the road and 3-0 in the AFC East, with Sanchez making the difference at key moments during the team's current three-game winning streak.

Clutch quarterback plus winning record plus New York market should seemingly equal a strong MVP candidacy. It still might for Sanchez, but I couldn't find a spot for the NFL's 22nd-rated passer on an increasingly competitive top 10 list heading into Week 12.

Sanchez is gaining momentum. He's averaging 301.5 yards per game over his last four starts and his efficiency rating has improved each of those weeks. Sanchez had never passed for more than 272 yards before Week 8.

Among the highlights for Sanchez over the past three weeks:
  • Threw the winning 6-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes against Houston with 16 seconds remaining.
  • Threw the winning 37-yard TD pass to Holmes against Cleveland in overtime.
  • Threw a 52-yard pass to Holmes in overtime to set up the winning field goal against Detroit.

Houston, Cleveland and Detroit aren't playoff-caliber teams right now (one reason the Texans' Arian Foster isn't on the MVP Watch list this week, by the way). The Jets still have road games against the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. What might Sanchez have in store?

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 17, 2010
11/17/10
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The strongest argument against Michael Vick as a legitimate MVP candidate -- that he hasn't played enough this season -- should start working in his favor.

The man has more rushing touchdowns, four, than workhorse backs Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew, Thomas Jones or Matt Forte.

Every other player in the league with more than two TD passes has also thrown an interception. Every other player with more than six TD passes has at least three picks. Vick has 11 TD passes, no interceptions and the highest passer rating in the league.

Have you seen Vick throw the football? I'm not sure NASA could engineer a device capable of producing tighter spirals on intermediate and deep passes.

Have you seen Vick run the football? Vick has 40 fewer rushing yards than Marshawn Lynch. He has run for more first downs than Ricky Williams, Shonn Greene or LeGarrette Blount. He has five runs of at least 20 yards, same as Adrian Peterson and more than Jackson, Jones-Drew or Peyton Hillis.

Vick was third on my MVP Watch list in late September before an injury sidelined him. He's back on the list at No. 3 after accounting for six TDs during his historic performance against the Washington Redskins on Monday night.

Quibbling over playing time becomes increasingly futile as Vick keeps producing. Vick belongs on the list because the production is there, the winning record is there, the value is there and the evidence suggests he'll continue on a similar trajectory.

Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Vick surged past a curiously slumping Peyton Manning into the top three spots.

Brady's fiery performance in victory at Pittsburgh set him apart this week. His New England Patriots are tied for the NFL's best record. They've also scored more points than any team in the league. Rivers has the stats, obviously, and he'll remain in the conversation as long as the Chargers continue their recent improvement in the standings. Manning will presumably bounce back after posting passer ratings below 70 in back-to-back regular-season games for only the third time in his career.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 10, 2010
11/10/10
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Philip Rivers is back on the MVP Watch list now that the San Diego Chargers are winning again.

He's close to overtaking Peyton Manning for the top spot, even. Only a bye week can stop Rivers in Week 10.

Manning has the edge for now because he's more likely to finish the season with a winning record, a must for legitimate MVP candidates. The Indianapolis Colts would have a losing record without Manning. The Chargers might have only one victory this season, against Arizona, without Rivers.

The stats favor Rivers to this point. His 19 touchdown passes and eight interceptions put him on pace for 34 and 14, respectively. Manning hasn't made as many big plays, but he's still on pace for 32 TDs and eight INTs.

Both quarterbacks have overcome significant personnel losses around them. Manning has been winning for years despite suspect special teams. Rivers would have a few more victories this season if his special teams weren't historically bad.

This MVP race will be fun to watch as long as both quarterbacks' teams win enough games.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 3, 2010
11/03/10
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The crunching hit Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams put on Peyton Manning seemed to hurt the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback in the fourth quarter Monday night.

Next play: Manning to Pierre Garcon for 15 yards.

Manning's durability at age 34 might command more attention if he possessed half of Brett Favre's dramatic flair. That Manning does not makes him easier to take for granted.

Favre might qualify as most durable, but no quarterback can match Manning for quiet consistency. He's automatic.

Manning is on pace for more than 32 touchdown passes and fewer than five interceptions despite playing without Austin Collie, Dallas Clark, Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez and Donald Brown at various points this season.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 27, 2010
10/27/10
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Ten of the 12 NFL teams with two or fewer defeats found representation on the MVP Watch list heading into Week 8.

The two exceptions -- Kansas City and Seattle -- have outperformed expectations without producing clear candidates. They'll have to settle for leading their divisions.

The Chiefs have two running backs with at least 460 yards. No other team can make that claim, although the division of labor is costing Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles at the MVP polls.

The Seahawks love what they're getting from receiver Mike Williams, who has 21 receptions over the past two games, both victories. But he's a better candidate for comeback player than MVP at this point. Seattle's defense has generally played well. Earl Thomas ranks among the league leaders in interceptions with four, putting him on pace to challenge the franchise single-season record held by Kenny Easley and John Harris, but Thomas is a better candidate for defensive rookie of the year.

We're now deep enough into the season to start excluding outstanding individuals from lagging teams. Philip Rivers dropped off the list this week, to cite one example.

And now, on to the list ...

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 20, 2010
10/20/10
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The call for not-so-obvious MVP Watch candidates went out Tuesday afternoon.

There were well-reasoned responses, such as the one from erik22lax nominating running backs Chris Johnson and LaDainian Tomlinson for flourishing without the benefit of polished passers.

Ericw_82 wondered why it mattered, figuring Peyton Manning would win a fifth MVP award pretty much no matter what.

A Seattle Seahawks fan, xea76, nominated safety Troy Polamalu despite a declared disdain for the Pittsburgh Steelers, while a St. Louis Rams fan found other Pittsburgh players worth a mention (not to overlook running back Rashard Mendenhall, either).

An Atlanta Falcons fan pointed to receiver Roddy White, while a few others agreed with RylanM in nominating Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews. San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates drew support from trevorjohnson1. TylerHanley went with Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. Rams rookie Sam Bradford doesn't have the stats, but his impact has helped the team to a 3-3 start after years of futility, drawing a mention from jmssilva1221.

There were a couple of nominations made in jest, none more biting than sobek42's suggestion that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith deserved consideration because he had "won a game for five different teams." Another joker, ghosthoffa, thought Kurt Warner should win the award retroactively.

Support for Polamalu in particular convinced me to rank him 10th, where I once had Roddy White. I've tried to find worthy representatives for the teams with the best records, but there are also players from less successful teams. It's still early enough in the season for teams to rebound from disappointing starts.

After going through Twitter responses, I asked my fellow ESPN.com divisional bloggers for names of less obvious players to watch as the season progresses. Some pointed to Kevin Kolb, Ahmad Bradshaw, Osi Umenyiora, Hakeem Nicks, Eli Manning, Mathews, Philip Rivers, Gates, Kyle Orton, Schaub, Julius Peppers and Brandon Lloyd.

In the meantime, I'll submit the following 10 for discussion. Thanks to all who made suggestions.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 13, 2010
10/13/10
11:36
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The MVP Watch practically wrote itself at this point last season.

Denver, Indianapolis, Minnesota, New Orleans and the New York Giants were undefeated. Singling out stars from those teams filled out six of the 10 spots.

The task entering Week 6 this season required a little more creative writing, a few grains of salt and some blind faith. There isn't an unbeaten team in the league and some of the candidates at this point last season -- Brett Favre and Eli Manning come to mind -- aren't in the conversation.

Ben Roethlisberger? Well, um, not quite yet.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' no-longer-suspended quarterback set a career high with 4,328 yards passing last season, averaging 288.5 yards per game. That projects to 3,462 yards over 12 possible regular-season games this season. That would not rank among the league leaders, of course, but winning raises any quarterback's MVP profile and Roethlisberger figures to do plenty of that. He inherits a 3-1 team that has won with Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch under center. Roethlisberger could be rusty, but he will be rested and so will his team following a well-placed bye week.

Roethlisberger isn't cracking the MVP Watch list this week, but a strong showing against Cleveland could earn him a spot -- particularly if the league remains without more obvious candidates.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 6, 2010
10/06/10
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Any quarterback on pace for 32 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 12-4 starting record deserves at least some consideration in the MVP race.

That's why Mark Sanchez makes his MVP Watch debut at No. 10 even though the New York Jets have sometimes used game plans designed to minimize the young quarterback's impact on games.

Sanchez is not lighting up the NFL, but those stats and the Jets' 3-1 record are tough to ignore. Adding Santonio Holmes to the offense should only help.

Check out these numbers on Sanchez from ESPN Stats & Information:
  • 350 yards passing with four touchdowns and a 94.1 rating on short passes (those traveling 10 or fewer yards downfield);
  • 257 yards, two touchdowns and a 133.3 rating (second-highest in the NFL) on passes traveling 11 to 20 yards downfield;
  • 104 yards, two touchdowns and a 106.1 rating on passes traveling 21-plus yards even though Sanchez has completed only 3 of 11 such attempts;
  • a league-leading 120.1 rating with six touchdowns when opponents rush with more than four defenders (Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Tom Brady rank second through fourth in this critical area);
  • eight touchdown passes and the NFL's second-best rating (behind only Manning) on throws made from inside the pocket, an indication Sanchez isn't bailing from the pocket unnecessarily.

Is Sanchez going to win the MVP this season? Most likely not. But if he's going to average two touchdowns and no interceptions per game while winning three-fourths of his starts, he's going to get consideration here.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

September, 29, 2010
9/29/10
12:00
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Now might be a good time to rethink Michael Vick.

The case against his ascension into the Philadelphia Eagles' lineup grows weaker by the start. The case against his MVP candidacy discounts the Eagles' Vick-led victories over Detroit and Jacksonville. The case against Vick says one losing performance in relief and two starts against weak teams proves little.

But the case against Vick gets harder to make with every pass he delivers well downfield with laser-guided precision. He looks terrific so far.

Vick ranks tied for third behind Jay Cutler and Peyton Manning in pass plays of at least 30 yards, helping the Eagles maximize what DeSean Jackson offers to their offense. Vick's third-down passer rating is 122.6, putting him behind only Matt Ryan (132.3) in that category. And his fourth-quarter rating (97.7) ranks sixth.

For the first time, the case for Vick rests on what he's doing with his arm, but his legs still appear fresh as well. That makes him a unique talent and a legitimate MVP candidate until the evidence suggests otherwise.

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