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Skeptical Football: For Once, My MVP Isn’t Peyton Manning

This NFL season has had its share of head-scratching quirks, but I’m not buying that it’s been as “super weird” as it seems. A lot of stuff happens in the NFL, so every year seems like a crazy year. Variance is tumultuous. In 2010, no teams started the season 4-0; this year we had four teams start 7-0. There had previously never been more than two.1

Where has all this weirdness left us? In a familiar place. If the playoffs started today, eight of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last year would return. There are still three unbeaten teams, but they include the defending Super Bowl champions and two playoff teams from a year ago. Cincinnati and Carolina are both surprises at 8-0, for sure, but in the past four seasons the Bengals won 40 games and made the playoffs four times, and though the Panthers have already exceeded their win total from last season, they are only one season removed from a 12-4 campaign. They also finished last year on a 5-0 spurt (counting their wild-card win) before losing in the divisional round of the playoffs. (Incidentally, Carolina’s last regular-season loss was in November 2014.) More importantly, both have quarterbacks who were already very productive. A good team with a productive QB is only a small change of fortune away from being a great team.

The biggest surprise in the league has perhaps been Seattle’s relatively weak start after almost winning the Super Bowl, but the Seahawks are still 4-4 and even “control their own destiny” in their division, where they are two games behind the Arizona Cardinals, against whom they have two games scheduled.

If anything, this season would seem to be suffering from a glut of predictability. The better teams keep winning, teams with leads have been holding on to them. Otherwise, quarterbacks are throwing for more and more yards, and kickers are getting better and better. Shocking!

Here are my midseason awards:

Most Valuable Player

For about a decade now, picking my MVP has been simple: It’s probably Peyton Manning, barring his absence.2 Has Manning always been the best? I don’t know. But my confidence in Manning’s value has always been the greatest. Sadly, it’s time to face it: Manning is finally playing like an old guy with a bunch of injuries. He may yet return to form — the ends of quarterbacks’ careers can be hard to predict — but for now, at least, there’s an opening at the top.

I had to wrestle quite a bit with who deserved midseason MVP. As I’ve explained before, “MVP” and “best quarterback” are pretty much the same thing, so we can start there. QB metrics depend on so many factors that making subtle distinctions is virtually impossible. And of course QBs affect more than just passing — a good passing game can open up the running game or give a team’s defense more rest, etc.

To figure out who should at least be in the conversation for the award, I started with passing stats and used ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR). QBR isn’t perfect, but it’s fairly comprehensive — meaning it accounts for things like scrambling and yards gained from pass interference penalties3 — and it doesn’t have to be too precise for these purposes. To measure broader impact, I used expected points added (EPA) per drive on offense.4 Then I started plotting:

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Carson Palmer has the highest QBR in football, and Tom Brady leads the most efficient offense. Andy Dalton places second and third in each metric. Although it’s technically possible that a less productive QB is actually more valuable than these three contenders,5 that requires a different kind of speculation. I think it’s safe to make them our three finalists.

With no clear leader among the three, I either have to make decisions — such as which is more meaningful to QB assessment: passing game efficiency or team offensive efficiency? — or I need to broaden the investigation a bit.

When I looked at the historical context to see if any of these guys stands out as being better than the others, I found that all three of their teams have seen a sharp upswing in offensive efficiency (measured by EPA/drive) this season. The Patriots have improved by about 0.6 EPA per drive on offense, the Bengals by 0.7 and the Cardinals by a whopping 1.0.

But these kinds of changes can mean different things to different types of squads. The Patriots’ improvement brings them back in line with where their offense was in 2011 and 2012, so the shift serves more as a confirmation of how strong their offense is. The Cardinals and Bengals are in uncharted territory for their clubs (at least in recent history), which tends to suggest either that they’ve gotten extremely lucky or that something big has changed. The difference between these two is that we have a plausible explanation for the Cardinals’ improvement: Palmer’s return from injury (he missed 10 games last year, plus the playoffs). For the Bengals, although we can look around at details, for the most part their ascension remains a mystery. Maybe it’s as simple as a quarterback with a marquee contract starting to play like a marquee quarterback. But that’s just a possible (and not very robust) explanation, whereas Arizona’s improvement has a tangible origin.

Palmer is 12-2 as a starter for the Cardinals over the past two years, and the team is just 5-5 without him (and also lost to the 7-win Panthers in the playoffs). With Palmer, the Cardinals offense has scored 0.75 points above expectation per drive. Without him, this plummets to -0.11. This 0.86-point swing — per drive — is huge and can explain most of the Cardinals’ good fortune this year.

Thus, on epistemic grounds alone, Palmer seems more likely than Dalton to be the best quarterback. Am I completely comfortable with that assessment? Absolutely not. But success that comes packaged with its own reason is more likely to hold up.

So let’s say it’s between Palmer and Brady.

Unfortunately for New England, Brady doesn’t miss enough games to have his With or Without You (WOWY) stats measured very well. However, the Patriots franchise has been relatively stable, and Brady did miss a considerable amount of playing time in 2008. If we compare the Patriots offense in that year (led by Matt Cassel) to its offenses in 2007 and 2009, we can see that it was about 0.4 expected points per drive worse off (0.6 points per drive in 2008 vs. 1.0 in surrounding years).

Of course, it’s a little bit unfair that Brady gets knocked his whole career because he sat one year and his team didn’t implode. But being a cold-hearted empiricist means valuing evidence for its reliability. This is why I’m confident about the greatness of Randy Moss, Dennis Rodman and Peyton Manning more than others: Not only did each perform well, but they did so in a variety of circumstances.

Normally in spots like these, I try to follow the principle that, all else being relatively equal, I should go with the better-known commodity. But “known” in this case is a bit different. We know that Brady’s offenses produce — they have for many years now — but we don’t really know who’s responsible. Thus, it’s close, but my midseason MVP goes to Carson Palmer.6

Rookie of the Midyear

This was a really easy pick and required no trickery. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota had a ridiculous debut on opening day and has been putting up good stats for a QB on such a bad team. I know, Tennessee fans, you’ve been down this road before when you saw Vince Young win the Rookie of the Year award in 2006, only to watch him fade and leave football entirely in just six years. But the gap between Mariota and Young is like the gap between Peyton Manning and Rick Mirer. Mariota has averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt (adjusted for sacks, touchdowns and interceptions), while Young averaged just 5.2. Young’s accolades were mostly based on his 8-5 record as a starter — making Young yet another example of how things like win-loss record are completely irrelevant for evaluating rookie QBs. Mariota has struggled to find wins (he is 2-4), but that should be perfectly acceptable to Titans fans: You need your rookie QB to produce yards and touchdowns (or possibly interceptions), not wins.

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Even better, Mariota has already missed games. If you’ve read Skeptical Football much, you know I love when QBs sit, because it’s just about the closest you can come to isolating a variable that the sport has to offer. Seven starting quarterbacks have played and missed at least two games each this year.7 You can see what happened once the QBs were out in the chart next to this paragraph. I’ve also added the “gold standard” of WOWY seasons, Aaron Rodgers’s absence from the Green Bay Packers in 2013, for comparison.

Note that Mariota’s line is strikingly similar to Rodgers’s! Of course, the latter came over a larger number of games (played nine and missed seven), but this does raise the tantalizing possibility that Mariota may be an elite-level QB already.

Defensive Player Person of the Midyear

Perhaps the single weirdest thing to transpire this season has been the twists in fortune for the Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning — both architect and foundation of the league’s best and most consistent offense over the past few years — seems to be racing for the exits. Not only is he no longer the league’s best player, but he’s also struggling to put up even average production. Yet the Broncos are still 7-1, thanks to what is shaping up to be one of the league’s best defenses in years. So far, it’s on par with the 2013 Seahawks, which puts it right around 12th-best since 2006.

Here’s a comparison of the Broncos’ offensive and defensive drive efficiency over the past few years:

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Note the “X” made by 2014-15 offense and defense: The decline of Manning has been almost perfectly offset by the arrival of Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator and my DPOM.

If this defense is anywhere near as good as it has looked so far, the Broncos could be a legitimate threat, because returns to form for previously good quarterbacks aren’t uncommon. Or, put it this way: If Peyton Manning “regresses” — toward his own mean, that is — the Broncos could be a powerhouse.

Special Teams Player of the Midyear

Last, but certainly not least, I couldn’t let this occasion pass without recognizing the accomplishments of Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who has been perfect so far this season on field-goal and (longer) extra-point attempts, including several long field-goal attempts, and has been the most consistent kicker-offer as well:

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Granted, a big chunk of Gostkowski’s outlier-ish value on kickoffs comes from the Patriots’ successful surprise onside kick against Washington, but he also has the third-highest touchback rate and has given up only one return of more than 30 yards (and no touchdowns). Note, a good kicker is more valuable to a team with a great offense, because more field-goal attempts, extra-point attempts and kickoffs mean more opportunities to add value. If Gostkowski’s present form holds up, he may be worth multiple points to the Patriots per game. That would be great for a linebacker (or virtually any non-QB), much less a kicker.

Footnotes

  1. In my opinion, the crazy year by which all crazy years must be measured is the 1999-2000 season featuring the Greatest Show on Turf.

  2. And even then, I’m not entirely sure. Like, have I ever been more confident of Manning’s value than when the Colts went 2-14 without him in 2011?

  3. It also doesn’t treat all interceptions as being equally bad, one of the biggest sins of most QB metrics.

  4. I used an ESPN version of the stat that discounts garbage time.

  5. There is no QB metric that I’m aware of that is capable of accurately identifying great QBs on bad teams, and I doubt it’s even possible with existing data. (Although with individual player tracking, this could change.)

  6. I’ll also give him the “Comeback Player of the Year” award just because it’s obvious — even though he hasn’t led a ton of comebacks.

  7. Oddly enough, though Dallas is desperate to get Tony Romo back (and rightfully so), their problem since he left hasn’t been moving the ball — at least relative to their horrendous defense.

Benjamin Morris researches and writes about sports and other topics for FiveThirtyEight.

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