Ignore the temptation of Aaron Rodgers. It’s tough, after that tremendous display of throwing put on by the Green Bay superstar in a thrilling playoff win Sunday over the Dallas Cowboys.
Rodgers remains the league’s best quarterback, but he should not be named MVP of the 2016 NFL season. That should be Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who had the most impactful and statistically impressive season of any NFL player this past year.
The MVP should not be either running back Ezekiel Elliott or quarterback Dak Prescott, who powered the Dallas offense to 13 wins with stellar rookie seasons. Both were consistently excellent, but their candidacies cannibalize each other.
If anyone from Dallas should be the MVP, it should be the Cowboys’ powerhouse offensive line, which gave Elliott open turf to run through and Prescott time to survey his options. Alas, we cannot name five players as the Most Valuable Player.
The MVP should not be New England quarterback Tom Brady, who only played 12 games this season. If the Patriots fell apart in the four games he did not play, Brady could be the favorite, but they finished 3-1 in those games. Such is life under head coach Bill Belichick.
In the 12 games Brady did play, he was spectacular, captaining an unstoppable Patriots offense that continued to succeed after a season-ending injury to game-breaking tight end Rob Gronkowski. But it would be unfair to players that played full seasons at a similarly high level if he was given the MVP.
The MVP should not be Rodgers, who stands easily as Ryan’s strongest competitor. No one played better down the stretch than Rodgers, who carried the Packers to six consecutive wins and an unlikely NFC North title. The Cal product averaged 278 passing yards per game over that stretch, with 15 touchdowns and no interceptions.
But where Rodgers falters, and Ryan excels, is consistency. Certainly, Rodgers played far better than anyone else over that final stretch of games. The first half of his season was far less efficient.
Rodgers slung touchdowns throughout, finishing with a league-leading 40 touchdown passes, but eclipsed 300 yards just once in his first eight games as the Packers went 4-4. He threw for 371 and 351 yards in his next two outings, respectively, but Green Bay dropped both to fall to 4-6. Only then did the Pack dig out of their improbable hole and reach the playoffs.
Recency bias favors Rodgers here, obviously. No one will remember his lesser performances (by his standards) because of the remarkable way he flipped Green Bay’s playoff hopes around with the help of converted running back Ty Montgomery, and a pair of superb playoff wins.
However, we can poke holes, as tiny as they may be, in his candidacy.
The MVP should be Ryan, because we cannot poke holes in his candidacy. For years, he has been an above-average player, with bonus points given for his performance in clutch situations. This year, he was consistently the league’s most valuable player for the way he led the Falcons’ explosive offense for the entire season.
Ryan finished second in the NFL with 4,944 passing yards, but averaged a yard and a half more per attempt than passing leader Drew Brees. He finished third in completion percentage, behind only Brees and Sam Bradford. He threw just seven interceptions, as Rodgers did. He tossed 38 touchdowns to Rodgers’ 40.
From Week 1 all the way through Week 16, Ryan played at a very high level. The Falcons topped 30 points five times in their first eight games, and six times in their next eight games. They topped 40 points five times.
Impressively, in division play (six games), Atlanta topped 30 points five times and 40 points three times.
Ryan threw for at least 200 yards in every single game, with his masterpiece a 503-yard day against Carolina in Week 4, due in large part to superstar wide receiver Julio Jones. He only had one performance that qualifies as weak, a 24-15 loss in Philadelphia where he completed just 18 of 33 passes.
That was the only game in which Atlanta did not reach at least 23 points. Comparatively, Rodgers was held below 20 twice in a pair of early season losses.
Ryan finished with the fifth-best full season quarterback rating of all time, behind Rodgers in 2011, Peyton Manning in 2004, Nick Foles in 2013 and Tom Brady in 2007.
Back to Jones. Without a doubt, his physical dominance is a large part of the reason Ryan was so successful when throwing the ball. But the Falcons’ signal caller was not a one-trick pony in that regard; he spread the love. Eight Atlanta players caught at least 20 passes this season, and 10 players caught multiple touchdown passes.
The Falcons’ 2016 offense was dominant for 16 games, and Ryan was the main reason why. He should be the NFL’s MVP.