NFC West: 2012 MVP Watch

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 26, 2012
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Matt Ryan has charged up the MVP Watch list after two sensational performances helped his Atlanta Falcons clinch home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

Ryan's seven touchdown passes against the New York Giants and Detroit Lions earned him a meaningless game in Week 17. That should enhance Ryan's MVP credentials, but with nothing on the line, the Falcons could wind up resting starters to some extent. It's tougher maintaining momentum when the parachute has already been deployed.

Ryan
Ryan
Ryan is the only member of our MVP Watch with a meaningless game on the schedule. His Falcons face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have allowed 29 touchdown passes, second only to New Orleans (31) this season. Ryan completed a season-high 81.3 percent of his passes for 353 yards and a touchdown against Tampa Bay in Week 12.

Ryan's development has allowed the Falcons to flourish as more of a pass-oriented team. Their identity has changed. This is now Ryan's team, not a team that tries to grind it out on the ground. Ryan has 4,481 yards passing and 31 touchdowns. He ranks third behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in Total QBR. He's one of five qualifying quarterbacks with a passer rating in triple digits.

Why not Ryan for MVP? Pat Yasinskas answered that question on the NFC South blog. Check it out.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 19, 2012
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Adrian PetersonBrace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireVikings running back Adrian Peterson has averaged 164.1 yards per game over his past eight games.
Adrian Peterson is making our weekly MVP discussion more compelling all the time.

The Minnesota Vikings' ligament-defying running back has rushed for 212, 210, 182, 171, 154, 153, 123, 108 and 102 yards in games this season. His total for those nine games would rank 11th among single-season totals over the past five years. His 1,812-yard total through 14 games this season already ranks 19th in NFL history.

Peterson, who suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee last Christmas Eve, would top my list for most impressive player in the NFL this season. He would get my vote for comeback player of the year.

Yet, if the Vikings could trade Peterson for a top quarterback, they would be getting superior value in return. That is a primary reason quarterbacks continue to fill the top three spots in MVP Watch this week.

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers upgrade their teams in ways even the greatest running back could not. That is the nature of the NFL.

I reach out to colleagues each week before compiling this list. This time, our NFC North man, Kevin Seifert, advocated Peterson for the No. 2 spot behind Manning. He explains his position further on the NFC North blog. AFC South counterpart Paul Kuharsky takes a different tack, noting that Tennessee's Chris Johnson commanded zero MVP votes while topping 2,000 yards rushing in 2009.

"If Johnson wasn’t worthy of a single vote just three seasons ago, what’s changed to make Peterson a bigger contender this year?" Kuharsky asks. "And considering the season J.J. Watt is having, if the Texans' defensive lineman can’t win it, I’m left wondering if, when and how a defender will ever win it again."

The more we learn about how games are won and lost in the NFL, the more we realize quarterback play is the key. As great as Peterson has been, the Vikings have generally won and lost based on how quarterback Christian Ponder has played.

Perhaps the "V" in MVP is carrying too much weight. Are we really talking about pure value, or should MVP honors simply go to the player posting the best season?

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 28, 2012
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Jay CutlerDennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireDoes Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler have a case for being in the MVP conversation? The numbers don't necessarily back it up.
The Chicago Bears have a 13-2 record in Jay Cutler's past 15 starts.

They have a 1-6 record in the games he has missed during that time.

That has to make Cutler a prime candidate for MVP Watch, right? His presence must mean everything for the Bears. We all know quarterbacks are usually the most important players on their teams. And we've all heard about what a gunslinger Cutler can be with that strong arm and defiant nature.

"MVP! MVP! MVP!"

Now comes the hard part: proving Cutler is indeed such a key player for the Bears.

Let's take a closer look at the Bears' 1-6 record without him.

That record includes a defeat at San Francisco this season. Cutler wasn't going to stop Aldon Smith from getting 5.5 sacks. He wasn't going to stop Colin Kaepernick from lighting up the Bears' defense. He wasn't going to win a game the Bears lost 32-7 without him.

Cutler missed the final six games last season, five of them losses. Running back Matt Forte missed the final three-plus games. Having Cutler available probably would have enabled the Bears to finish better, but Chicago wasn't going to win at its usual clip without Forte. Lots of starting quarterbacks improve their teams' chances for winning relative to what a backup would provide. That doesn't make them MVP candidates.

The one game Chicago won without Cutler during the 1-6 stretch in question came during Week 17 last season, against Minnesota. The Bears picked off three passes from Joe Webb and Christian Ponder, returning one for a touchdown.

In 2010, the Bears won the lone game Cutler missed, defeating a horrendous Carolina team on its way to winning the Cam Newton sweepstakes. Bears backup Todd Collins threw four picks in that game. Forte carried 22 times for 166 yards. The Bears won 23-6.

Doesn't exactly enhance those MVP credentials for Cutler, does it?

Neither do the stats.

Cutler ranks 20th in Total QBR at 50.4 this season; 50 is average. Tom Brady is in the low 80s. Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks usually score in the mid-60s or higher. Cutler ranks a distant third among NFC North quarterbacks by this measure. He isn't all that far ahead of Minnesota's Christian Ponder (47.7).

Cutler ranks 26th in NFL passer rating at 81.1, which is below the 86.9 figure covering every pass thrown in the league this season. He has 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

But Cutler comes through in the clutch, right? Yes and no.

Cutler has a 92.9 QBR score (out of 100) on 16 fourth-quarter plays when the score was within eight points. That ranks second to MVP Watch leader Peyton Manning and right ahead of St. Louis' Sam Bradford. That's fine, but all 16 of those plays were against the Rams and Panthers. Cutler completed 10 of 14 passes with no touchdowns. He also rushed twice for 20 yards in those situations.

To further explore the clutch theory, I filtered ESPN's charting database for higher-leverage situations, defined as those when play results have above-average impact on win probability.

It's a more complicated way to measure what the vernacular calls clutch situations, but the math is sound. Ten years of charting information says teams are either more or less likely to win based on the results for each play. Some situations are more pivotal than others.

Cutler's QBR score falls to 44.4 with two touchdowns, five picks and 14 sacks in higher-leverage situations, meaning situations when the stakes were above average. That compares to a 63.3 QBR score with four touchdowns, one pick and nine sacks in lower-leverage situations.

Overall, Cutler has three touchdowns, six picks and a 47.0 QBR score in one-score games, defined as those when the margin is within eight points.

Perhaps someone else can build the MVP case for Cutler. I'd like to hear it.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 14, 2012
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Adrian Peterson and Marshawn LynchUS PresswireMinnesota's Adrian Peterson, left, and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch are the first two running backs to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark this season.
Running backs Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch have become regulars on the MVP Watch list not only for the yards they gain, but also for how they gain them.

Ranking 1-2 in rushing yardage sets them apart. The fact that they also lead the NFL in yards after contact is telling, too.

Two weeks ago, Peterson gained 111 of his 182 yards against Seattle after defenders made contact. More recently, Lynch gained 52 of his 124 yards after the New York Jets made contact with him. And by making contact, we're not talking about brushing up against one another. Defenders have to affect runners for the yardage to count.

"Contact for our purposes must slow the ball carrier down, or it must be a play in which the defender had a legitimate chance at tackling the ball carrier but is unable to due to a juke move or stiff arm," ESPN's game-tracking guide reads.

Peterson averages 2.8 yards per rush after contact, easily the most in the NFL among players with at least 100 rushes through Week 10. Lynch is at 1.9, same as Frank Gore and just ahead of Steven Jackson (1.8).

Side note: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees came close to appearing on the list this week. He has the numbers and could be a week away if the Saints can get to .500 or better for the season.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 17, 2012
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Peyton ManningJeff Gross/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning and the Denver Broncos enter their bye week in first place in the AFC West.
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos have played the fifth-toughest schedule in the NFL to this point, defined by opponents' won-lost percentage (.588).

They have what stands as the easiest remaining schedule by the same measure (.339).

Manning's MVP credentials should only improve, as the Broncos, blessed with a Week 7 bye to tune up their passing game, better their 3-3 record as the season plays out. Those MVP credentials aren't exactly hurting at present, either. The comeback Manning led from a 24-0 deficit to beat San Diego on Monday night had a defining feel to it. Denver looks like the AFC West favorite. Manning has moved atop our MVP Watch list.

"In a stunning 30-minute whirlwind, Manning (who thrust himself into the MVP race Monday night) and his improving Broncos scored 35 unanswered points to shock San Diego," Bill Williamson wrote.

Manning has a league-high 984 yards over his past three games. He has nine touchdowns with one interception over that span. He's looking more like a four-time MVP than an aging player trying to regain past form following career-threatening neck surgeries.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 10, 2012
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Harvin/Lynch/WayneUS PresswirePercy Harvin, Marshawn Lynch and Reggie Wayne are on our list for the first time this season.
Three non-quarterbacks are making their 2012 MVP Watch debuts.

Minnesota's Percy Harvin, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne did not suddenly become excellent players. They've been strong producers. The fact that their teams have nine combined victories through Week 5, up from 12 all last season, makes their contributions more meaningful.

"Show me a better player in the NFL right now that's doing more for his team," Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said about Harvin after Minnesota's latest victory. "You just can't find one."

While the Vikings were improving to 4-1, Wayne's Colts were shocking the Green Bay Packers to reach 2-2, matching their victory total for 2011. Wayne was the catalyst. As Paul Kuharsky pointed out, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck averaged 10.6 yards on 20 attempts when targeting Wayne in that game, compared to 4.3 yards on 35 attempts targeting other players.

Lynch nearly appeared on the list a week ago, but the Seahawks were coming off a 19-13 defeat at St. Louis. Coach Pete Carroll is leaning heavily on Seattle's defense and ground game to carry the team while rookie quarterback Russell Wilson develops. Lynch keeps delivering. He has 1,449 yards rushing in the Seahawks' past 14 games, most in the NFL by 155 yards.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

September, 5, 2012
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ManningRon Chenoy/US PresswireThe Denver Broncos are expecting big things from quarterback Peyton Manning.
Peyton Manning stands right where he did one year ago: a cautious 10th on our MVP Watch list to open the regular season.

This time, we know he's going to play. We just aren't sure how well.

The four-time MVP is back. But is he really back?

"Mentally? Yes, and better than ever," ESPN.com's Matt Williamson said. "Physically? No. The timing and accuracy is there, but not the ability to drive the ball."

Another Williamson, Bill of the AFC West blog, expects to see a very good Manning in Denver, but not necessarily a vintage one.

"The reality is he had multiple neck surgeries, he missed a year and he is 36," Bill Williamson said. "A decline has to be expected. But he is an all-time great and I expect him to be [among the] top 5-8 quarterbacks for the next three years. He will make a big impact in Denver."

Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers opened last season second to Tom Brady on this list. He's the favorite now. But a strong season from Manning, whose 227-game starting streak ended when he sat out last season, could qualify him for an unprecedented double.

"If Peyton Manning returns to form and leads the Broncos to a division title, I'd expect he'd be the unanimous comeback player of the year," AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky said. "How many times has the comeback player of the year been MVP?"

Never. The comeback award dates only to 1998. Its three most recent winners -- Brady (2009), Michael Vick (2010) and Matthew Stafford (2011) -- came a lot closer to having MVP-type seasons than previous comeback players. Chad Pennington (twice), Greg Ellis, Tedy Bruschi and Steve Smith were the previous five winners. Manning fits the Brady-Vick-Stafford profile.

"For him to make it back from the serious injury and take his act on the road to Denver, making it go with a new team, would qualify as remarkable and garner a slew of votes for an unprecedented fifth MVP," Kuharsky said. "I rank Aaron Rodgers as a clear favorite to repeat. But a storybook year for Manning could change all that no matter what unfolds in Green Bay. I think we'd have a double-dip situation."

Quarterbacks have won the past five MVP awards. Running backs Shaun Alexander (2005) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) are the only non-QBs to win since Marshall Faulk following the 2000 season. No defensive player has won since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

Editor's note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this post.

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