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Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Dan Graziano's MVP Watch

By Dan Graziano

Russell Wilson and Drew Brees
MVP candidates Russell Wilson and Drew Brees will meet Monday night in Seattle.
 A song for the ineligibles:

It is abundantly clear at this point that the most valuable player in the NFL is Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay was 5-2 when he was healthy and is 0-3-1 since he got hurt. As insane as it might seem to think one mustachioed insurance spokesperson can make such a difference, it turns out that Rodgers is the Packers. With him, they're a Super Bowl contender. Without him, they're the Jaguars.

Also clearly valuable are Kansas City linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, each of whom (like Rodgers) has spent time on this list this week, for contributions to the Chiefs' smothering defense in their case. Each had to leave Sunday's game because of injury, and, without them, the Chiefs couldn't stop Danny Woodhead. Or even hope to contain him. (Is that trademarked? And if so, is it ours? So many questions ...)

But you won't find Rodgers or Hali or Houston on the MVP Watch because you get on this list for what you actually do, not for what you theoretically would be doing if you were on the field. The Watch feels compelled to make this point on a week that sees no movement in the top five and in which candidates are hard to come by. Only five (five!!!) teams in the entire AFC are .500 or better right now. (Five!!!) And you all know the Watch's rule that prohibits players on teams with losing records from making the list.

This rule is killing Philip Rivers, who's been statistically the second-best quarterback in the league all year, but the rules are neither flexible nor arbitrary. Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup, and players on teams with losing records don't win the award. If Rivers wins next week, he'll be back in a prominent spot. Until then, he'll have to be content with this honorable mention.

As for those who actually are on the list… Well, there was no change in the No. 1 spot, but this was the first time all year that the Watch actually stopped to think about it.
Peyton Manning
Denver Broncos
NEXT: 12/1 at KC
CMP: 305
ATT: 445
PCT: 68.5
YDS: 3,722
TD: 36
INT: 7

For most of this year, it has been impossible to imagine anyone but Manning winning this award. But, although he's still the clear leader, there are some cracks in the corner of the juggernaut's windshield. He has now lost to Andrew Luck and Tom Brady on the road. His ankles look as though they were welded back on by Dr. Frankenstein. And, whereas the conversation the first two months was about whether he was headed for the greatest quarterback season ever, the conversation as December dawns is about whether he can win in the cold. It's tough to be great in 2013. All anybody wants to do is tear you down. But Sunday night's game was on national TV, which means everybody saw Brady play like a ruthless assassin in a 24-point comeback while Manning looked like a guy who'd rather have been home watching on his couch. Secretariat didn't stop on the home turn at Belmont to put on gloves.

Drew Brees
New Orleans Saints
NEXT: 12/2 at SEA
CMP: 300
ATT: 439
PCT: 68.2
YDS: 3,647
TD: 28
INT: 8

Drew usually has no trouble sleeping on the plane after games, but, on the way home from Atlanta on Thursday night, he was restless. He felt bad for poor Matt Ryan. He sees Ryan twice a year and really likes the kid's work, and obviously Matt has fallen on tough times. So Drew got out his iPad mini and started drafting an email of encouragement. But he got only halfway through the first sentence because just then Jimmy Graham accidentally ripped off the door of one of the overhead compartments while trying to shut it after getting a blanket, and everyone on the Saints' team plane fell apart laughing and forgot all about the five months or whatever when the Falcons were better than the Saints were.

Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks
NEXT: 12/2 vs. NO
CMP: 176
ATT: 275
PCT: 64.0
YDS: 2,362
TD: 19
INT: 6

Funny, Atlanta was also the last place Wilson and the Seahawks played a road game. That was on Nov. 10, and they don't have another road game until they're in San Francisco on Dec. 8. Wilson was off last week, watching RedZone, blowing the last of the leaves into the street and just kind of chilling out like a regular dude does on a weekend when there's no football to play. But his plans to beat Brees on "Monday Night Football" next week and take over control of the No. 2 spot in the MVP Watch are at serious risk, what with all of his defensive backs getting suspended for various types of drug use. This game Monday could decide whether the NFC Championship Game will be played in Seattle or New Orleans, which in turn could decide whether it's Wilson or Brees playing in New Jersey two weeks later. Wilson's not sweating it because it's a home game -- and the last home game he lost was to Virginia Tech.

LeSean McCoy
Philadelphia Eagles
NEXT: 12/1 vs. ARI
ATT: 213
YDS: 1,009
AVG: 4.7
LNG: 41
TD: 5

McCoy was as polite as he could be in rejecting Chip Kelly's efforts to put him in bubble wrap before the Eagles went on their Week 12 bye. He likes Kelly, really he does. He just wishes the guy would stop texting him every half-hour to make sure he didn't roll his ankle stepping off a curb or something like that. And truth be told, Coach hugs a little too hard sometimes. It's all good, because it comes from a place of love, but even a superstar running back needs some space every now and then.

Cam Newton
Carolina Panthers
NEXT: 12/1 vs. TB
CMP: 208
ATT: 337
PCT: 61.7
YDS: 2,353
TD: 17
INT: 9

Flash to a scene from the Panthers' meeting room last week. Newton stands up front, in a shiny gray suit, petting a hairless cat and explaining that he has managed to go back in time and steal Robert Griffin III's mojo. This has left Griffin powerless to complete a pass more than 4 yards down the field while Newton manages every week to come back and win his game by throwing to people such as Ted Ginn Jr. Newton finds this amusing, of course, but he is not smiling. Because he had one simple request, and that was to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads! Anyway, once the ill-tempered sea bass of the league's young quarterback corps, Newton is playing as tough as anyone in the league and grinning his way through yet another breakout year.

Jimmy Graham
New Orleans Saints
NEXT: 12/2 at SEA
REC: 65
TGTS: 99
YDS: 946
AVG: 14.6
LNG: 56
TD: 11

Two Saints? Sure, two Saints. There were two Seahawks on here last week. (Hey, they didn't play. You snooze, you lose.) And if there can be two Eagles on here, pretty much anything's fair game. Brees has had a pretty awesome life to this point, but there's something like a 17 percent chance that Graham is the best thing that has ever happened to him. Could Brees be 9-2 without Graham? Possible. Brees is great. But the way he looks for Graham when he just absolutely needs someone to devastate everything in his path on the way to the end zone indicates that he'd prefer not to try. All they're asking is that Jimmy please try to leave the stadium the way he found it, if he could.

Calvin Johnson
Detroit Lions
NEXT: 11/28 vs. GB
REC: 66
TGTS: 122
YDS: 1,198
AVG: 18.2
LNG: 87
TD: 11

The Lions are the most disappointing team of November. Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt, and Detroit loses to the Steelers and the Bucs to drop a chance to run away with the NFC North. The Lions are still technically in first place if the season ended today. But the season has never ended on a Wednesday, and, because of that, there remains way too much time for the Lions to choke away a huge opportunity and miss the playoffs. If that happens, they likely will be looking for a new coach, and they're likely to have candidates knocking down their door. There's not an offensive coordinator at any level in the entire world who hasn't fantasized about what he could do with a receiver like Calvin Johnson.

Nick Foles
Philadelphia Eagles
NEXT: 12/1 vs. ARI
CMP: 103
ATT: 162
PCT: 63.6
YDS: 1,554
TD: 16
INT: 0

Buying Foles as a legitimate NFL starting quarterback still feels a little bit like buying Mandy Patinkin as director of the CIA. "Hello, Sgt. Brody. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." But even Chip Kelly and Michael Vick are sold now, and Foles has the job in Philadelphia because his performance has left no other choice. Sixteen touchdown passes and no interceptions. League leader in passer rating and yards per attempt. Third in Total QBR. The Eagles are 4-1 when he starts (5-1 when you add in his relief win against the Giants) and tied for first place in the NFC East. It seems inconceivable that he could keep it up ("You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."), but so far Saul's plans in Iran seem to be going better than anyone would have thought, too. So you never know.

Tony Romo
Dallas Cowboys
NEXT: 11/28 vs. OAK
CMP: 262
ATT: 408
PCT: 64.2
YDS: 2,915
TD: 23
INT: 7

The Watch is not kidding itself. A preseason prediction of Romo as MVP was a Hail Mary, and it was based on a parallel prediction that the Cowboys would win the NFC East with a very good record. They still might win it, but the record won't be the stuff of MVPs. So, if you want to call the Watch stubborn for shoehorning Romo onto this list every other week to try to keep making the same old point, go right ahead. The Watch can take it. The Watch has heard worse. But, for all of the heat Romo takes, he's been nails in the fourth quarter far more often than not. Choking the clock to death and beating the Giants in the biggest game of the season so far for Dallas won't matter much if the Cowboys lose a Week 17 division title game for the third year in a row. But this is the Week 13 MVP Watch, and that was some smooth, clutch quarterbacking.

Tom Brady
New England Patriots
NEXT: 12/1 at HOU
CMP: 257
ATT: 430
PCT: 59.8
YDS: 2,896
TD: 17
INT: 7

It's been a rough year for Brady. Wes Welker is in Denver; Aaron Hernandez is in jail; and Rob Gronkowski sat out the first month and a half while his broken arm healed. Brady's numbers are so far down that his coach won't even let him have the ball when he wins the coin toss … in overtime! So yeah, putting Foles on here for a second week in a row while Brady sat in timeout would have felt like piling on. Brady is 22nd in the league in completion percentage, 18th in passer rating and 16th in Total QBR. But he's also 8-3 and just came back from 24 points down to beat Manning on a night when it was too cold and windy to throw or catch the ball. These kinds of things help a scorned Watch forgive. Welcome back, Tommy. It wasn't the same around here without you.