November 4, 2019 - by Jason Lisk
Russell Wilson has the MVP vibe working in 2019 (Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire)
Russell Wilson continues to look like he could claim his first NFL MVP Award. On Sunday, he passed for 378 yards and five touchdowns, including the overtime game winner, as Seattle moved to 7-2. Wilson made two Super Bowl appearances in his first three seasons, has made five pro bowls, and has never had a losing season as a starter. He may, though, be having the best season of his career.
He has a 118.2 passer rating, which leads the NFL and would be the fourth-highest single-season passer rating ever. He currently leads the NFL in total touchdown passes (22) and leads the league in both passing touchdown rate and interception rate. He’s been the driving force for why Seattle has the great record they do, because he has performed at a high level every week, for a team that has little margin for error.
Below, we assess his MVP qualifications by comparing him (and other quarterbacks this season) to past MVP winners in the statistical categories that seem to matter most.
Here is every player who has odds of +5000 (meaning that if you risk $100, you would win $5000) or lower as of November 4, 2019, via FanDuel Sportsbook.
|Player||Fan Duel Odds (11/4)|
Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson are in the top spot at +300. Aaron Rodgers had moved to the lowest odds after two great performances against Oakland and Kansas City, but dropped back and is now even with Deshaun Watson, tied for the third-best odds.
Reigning 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes is in fifth, a testament to his upside when he returns from injury. After that, two running backs make the list of potential candidates: Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook. (The last time a running back won the award was in 2012, when Adrian Peterson was selected MVP.) Six other quarterbacks round out the list of most likely MVP candidates in 2019.
Which categories have been most strongly correlated with who wins MVP? Going back to 1978, and looking at the 31 prior MVPs (or co-MVPs) to win the award as quarterbacks, here is how they ranked among all qualifying quarterbacks in a variety of individual passing categories and team categories.
|Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANYA)||1.9|
|Team Win Percentage||2.1|
|TD Pass Rate||2.4|
|Yards Per Attempt (YPA)||2.6|
|Team Points Per Game||2.8|
|Total Passing Yards||4.1|
|Total Pass Attempts||8.0|
|Fourth Quarter Comebacks||9.6|
Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANYA) is just ahead of Passer Rating as the category where MVPs most consistently ranked best. ANYA is an efficiency measure that uses passing yards, subtracts off for yards lost by sack and for interceptions, adds a bonus for touchdown passes, and divides by total pass attempts (including sacks). While most voters probably aren’t actually considering the specific measure, the type of play necessary to lead the league in ANYA generally correlates with who voters select for MVP.
After those two efficiency categories, Team Wins ranks next, with the average MVP ranking 2.1 in that category. Twenty-seven of the 31 MVPs played on teams that earned a first-round bye in the playoffs (or otherwise hosted a divisional round game prior to 1990). No quarterback has been selected as MVP with his team winning fewer than 11 games in a 16-game season. (John Elway did win the award in 1987 when the Denver Broncos got the No. 1 seed in the AFC going 10-4-1, in a year that was shorted by lockout and that featured three games with replacement players). So while passing efficiency matters, so does team success.
After that, two primary passing categories, Touchdown Rate and Yards per Attempt, also rank highly, along with Total Touchdowns (combined passing plus rushing) and Team Points Scored Rank. There’s a bigger gap between Team Points Scored and the No. 8 category, Total Passing Yards, than there is between Team Points Scored and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt rank.
So what happens if we take those top seven categories, where the MVPs averaged being ranked in the top three at season’s end, and apply them to this year’s group of quarterbacks as we head to Week 10. Here is how they would rank:
|Player||Average Rank||ANYA||Pass Rating||Team Win %||Pass TD Rate||Total TDs||YPA||Team Points|
Russell Wilson comes the closest to fitting the MVP profile at the halfway point. He is No. 1 in three categories (Passer Rating, Touchdown Rate, and Total Touchdowns) and is second in ANYA behind Mahomes, while the Seahawks are off to a 7-2 start.
Lamar Jackson, the other co-favorite after nine weeks, is a bit of a unicorn. No MVP has really looked like he did statistically. That doesn’t mean he cannot win the award. If he puts up a huge counting number such as a 1,000 yard rushing season, is near the top of the league in total touchdowns (passing and rushing), and the Ravens finish as one of the top two teams in the AFC, he might be able to sway voters.
When Cam Newton won the award in 2015, though, he led in four of the seven MVP categories (both touchdown categories, and overall best record and highest scoring team) and had an average rank of 3.4 across all of them. Jackson’s numbers are not close to Newton’s at this point.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Russell Wilson’s MVP candidacy is whether the Seattle Seahawks can make the playoffs in the tough NFC. Even with the 7-2 start, our 2019 NFL projections currently have them at 10.0 wins and with a 51% chance of reaching the playoffs. As noted earlier, no MVP quarterback has played on a team that failed to get to at least 11 wins in a 16-game season. Peyton Manning, with the Indianapolis Colts back in 2008, was the last quarterback to win the award while playing on a team that failed to earn a first-round bye.
That team success risk appears to be priced into Wilson’s future MVP odds, because based only on his play over the first half, he should be the odds-on favorite.
Betting on a running back to win the award has generally been a losing proposition, and quarterbacks have won six straight MVP awards, and 11 of the last 12 MVP awards. In looking at the circumstances when a running back has won the award in recent times, a couple of factors seem to have importance.
The first factor is posting a gaudy total in a key statistic. Of the last six running back MVPs, three topped 2,000 yards rushing for the season, and the other three topped 25 total touchdowns scored.
The second factor is that the quarterbacks have tended to “split the vote” in the years that running backs have prevailed, and there has been no clear choice at quarterback. In 2012, for example, Peyton Manning had a strong case, but Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady also both ranked highly in the key quarterback measures for MVP.
That second factor could play out this year, and after a three-touchdown performance in Week 9, Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey is on pace for 2,488 total yards and 26 total touchdowns, which would be the most since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. Do not rule him out from winning the award just because quarterbacks usually win it.
Here’s a testament to how different the AFC and NFC are this year: the Rams and Steelers have roughly the same odds of making the playoffs entering the game. The Rams (5-3) currently trail the Seahawks (7-2) and Vikings (6-3) for the final wildcard spot, and we give them about a 50% chance of reaching the postseason. The Steelers (4-4) have climbed back to .500 and are now just one game behind the Colts, who they just beat on Sunday, for the last wildcard spot. We give them a 44% of making the playoffs in the AFC.
So this is a pretty big swing game for both teams. The Steelers defensive front, led by T.J. Watt, has been dominating of late, and the blocking of the offensive line was a big concern for the Rams during their three-game losing streak. So that will be the matchup to watch.
Kirk Cousins has that whole “can’t beat a good team on the road” thing still lingering over his head, as the Vikings lost at Kansas City in a close game Sunday. The Cowboys play on Monday Night Football and then will get to turn around and play in primetime again next week against the Vikings in another key swing game for NFC teams jostling for playoff position.
Next week’s schedule is backloaded, with the two most attractive matchups coming on Sunday Night and then Monday Night Football. Russell Wilson gets to put his MVP candidacy on the line against the No. 2 scoring defense in the NFL. San Francisco is projected as the heavy favorite to win the NFC West, but Seattle could turn that upside down with a road victory.
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