Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – November 7, 2016

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY SportsMatt Ryan

It’s been about a month since I’ve written any takeaways on the Atlanta Falcons, as I’ve found myself drifting away from writing about the team after a decade of doing so in a form of semi-retirement.

Yet that doesn’t mean that I have or ever will stop having opinions about the Falcons. One in particular that has gotten me riled up enough that I feel the need to dust off my keyboard is the discussion of Matt Ryan’s candidacy for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.

No doubt that Ryan is playing the best football he’s ever played through the first nine games of the 2016 season and is one of the league’s premier players. Based off the first half of the season, there should be little doubt that the Falcons quarterback should be in the running for the league’s highest individual player honor.

However the way in which I’ve witnessed my fellow Falcon fans (and writers) discussing that topic leaves a lot to be desired. Much of that has centered on the debate between Ryan and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whom many consider to be the other front-runner for the honor.

I think this debate, which often sees Falcons fans making arguments for Ryan or against Brady has a lot of fallacies, particularly in how many perceive what is considered in the MVP voting.

The award is voted on by 50 leading members of the Associated Press (AP), each casting their ballots at the end of the regular season before the outset of the postseason. The eventual winner is the one that receives the most votes and is then announced the day before the Super Bowl during the televised NFL Honors Ceremony, which will be held on February 4, 2017 for this season’s honorees.

While the process is a secret one, one can look at recent history to determine a number of common factors that appear to largely play into who eventually takes the MVP award home.

NFL MVP Voting (2006-15)

Winner (Votes)LaDainian Tomlinson (44)Tom Brady (49)Peyton Manning (32)Peyton Manning (39.5)Tom Brady (50)
Runner(s) Up (Votes)Drew Brees (4)Brett Favre (1)Chad Pennington (4)Drew Brees (7.5)
Peyton Manning (2)Michael Turner (4)Philip Rivers (2)
Adrian Peterson (3)Brett Favre (1)
James Harrison (3)
Philip Rivers (2)
Chris Johnson (1)
Kurt Warner (1)
Winner (Votes)Aaron Rodgers (48)Adrian Peterson (30.5)Peyton Manning (49)Aaron Rodgers (31)Cam Newton (48)
Runner(s) Up (Votes)Drew Brees (2)Peyton Manning (19.5)Tom Brady (1)J.J. Watt (13)Tom Brady (1)
Tony Romo (2)Carson Palmer (1)
DeMarco Murray (2)
Tom Brady (1)
Bobby Wagner (1)

The factor that appears to matter the most is overall team record. Eight of the past ten MVP honorees have played on a team that held or was tied for the best record in the league in that respective year. Essentially the award most often goes to the best player on the best team.

The one exception over the past five years was Adrian Peterson’s 2012 win, in which he played on a 10-6 Minnesota Vikings squad. But Peterson finished just eight yards shy of the single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, a year after suffering a torn ACL. That feat prompted the majority of AP voters to disregard the fact that Peterson’s Vikings were far from the best team.

Prior to Peterson’s 2012 win, the only other MVP that wasn’t on the best team in that given season was Peyton Manning in 2008. Manning’s Indianapolis Colts had one less win than their AFC South division rival Tennessee Titans, who finished atop the league standings with a 13-3 record.

But nonetheless, among the past five years of honorees, Peterson also marked the “least unanimous” candidate, earning 30.5 votes. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Maning earned 19.5 votes in 2012 with his Broncos being tied with the Falcons for having the league’s best record at 13-3 that year. So it showed that despite Peterson’s jaw-dropping performance that year, almost half of the AP voters still stuck to the previous norm of honoring the best player on the best team.

This is the main reason why being invested in the MVP race midway through the season is largely a waste of time, because it will likely boil down to final records, which are far from being determined. Right now the New England Patriots (7-1) and Dallas Cowboys (7-1) sport the league’s best records, while the Falcons are tied for the fifth best at 6-3.

The other main factor is position since there’s no doubt that quarterbacks tend to be the target of the MVP voting. Eight of the last 10 award winners have been signal-callers.

Yet how does one determine which is the best quarterback?

As noted before, the winner often comes from the team that sports the best record. But how does one narrow things down if there are multiple teams tied for the best record, as we saw recently during the 2014 season?

Aaron Rodgers ultimately took home MVP honors that year, but his 12-4 Green Bay Packers were tied with the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos for the best record. So why did Rodgers emerge ahead of the others?

That’s likely due to the statistic that features most prominently in determining winners: Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt or ANY/A. It is a passing statistic that correlates the most to winning. It’s likely that many if not most AP voters probably wouldn’t be able to decipher what ANY/A stands for if asked directly. But it is such a useful statistic that it often will reflect the perception of how well a quarterback is playing even if one is not totally aware of it.

Rodgers led the league in 2014 with an ANY/A of 8.65. Meanwhile the other 12-4 team’s quarterbacks posted ANY/As of 7.01 (Brady), 8.11 (Tony Romo), 6.72 (Russell Wilson) and 7.68 (Manning).

Both Romo and Brady received votes for the MVP that year, two and one, respectively. But they paled in comparison to Rodgers’ 31 votes.

Based off the past decade’s worth of winners, ANY/A seems to be the one stat that correlates most to winning the MVP. Looking at the list of single-season leaders in ANY/A prior to 2016, six of the top seven earned MVP honors in their respective years. Both years that Rodgers won the honor (2011 and 2014), he led the league in that stat.

Manning led the league in 2012 in that same category to get him second place in MVP voting behind Peterson. Manning ranked second in ANY/A in 2013, only behind Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. But it’s likely that Manning shattering other passing records that year in conjunction with Foles being the Eagles’ starter for only 10 weeks, gave the former the final nod. In 2013, Manning also set the new single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55).

Brady also topped the league’s ANY/A charts in 2007 and 2010 when he took home MVP honors.

The only recent passer that did not have a clear grip on the ANY/A crown was last year’s MVP in Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Newton finished sixth in final ANY/A rankings, with the likelihood that his team’s overall 15-1 record was the defining factor of his MVP bid.

But it should also be noted that Newton was one of the best in terms of ANY/A during the second half of the 2015 season.

Through the first half of last season, Newton’s ANY/A of 6.04 was the 25th best among the 34 quarterbacks with at least four starts. However in the second half, Newton’s production better reflected his performance, finishing with the 3rd best ANY/A of 9.01 over his final nine starts. Only Russell Wilson (9.72) and Kirk Cousins (9.19) were better during that stretch.

Not only did his Panthers’ 15-1 record write his MVP resume, but also his strong play in the second half of the season cemented his status.

Besides Newton, the only quarterback to win the MVP without a strong showing in terms of ANY/A was Manning when he took home back-to-back MVP honors in 2008 and 2009. In 2008, Manning’s season ANY/A of 6.88 ranked sixth. But it’s likely the fact that the Colts won their last nine games during that season, with Manning sporting a league-best ANY/A of 8.32 during that span that earned him the honor. As was the case with Newton seven years later, Manning’s 2008 MVP bid was likely won in the second half of the season where he was unquestionably the best quarterback on the hottest team.

In 2009, Manning won MVP once more, despite having the fifth-best ANY/A in the league that year. There’s no clear-cut reason why Manning won over the likes of Drew Brees or Philip Rivers, who helmed playoff teams and posted ANY/As significantly higher than the former, besides the Colts’ 14-2 record topping the league that year.

Meanwhile in looking at this year’s ANY/A rankings, Ryan’s 9.30 is exceptional as it comes close to the all-time record set by Manning in 2004 at 9.78. Unfortunately, Brady’s 10.68 ANY/A through his first four games blows Ryan and Manning’s production out of the water.

One certainly can doubt that Brady will be able to maintain that historic mark throughout the rest of the season, but should he wind up ranking above Ryan in conjunction with his Patriots finishing the season with a better record, he’ll be hard pressed to unseat as the favorite to win this year’s MVP.

Yet many will argue that his four-game suspension, the Patriots’ 3-1 record during that absence and/or the fact that the Patriots defense is statistically better than the Falcons are all reasons why Ryan should be considered the more valuable player.

But these people are simply wrong. While nice tenets in an online debate, they are effectively meaningless distinctions when it comes to the actual voting by members of the Associated Press, at least based off recent history. There has been little to no evidence that they pay significant attention to any of those factors when it comes to deciding the MVP team.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Brady

While a pool of 50 voters will certainly have their fair share of outliers, indicated by the fact that Brady has received at least one MVP vote in each of the past three seasons, evidence suggests the majority of voters trend towards the quarterback with the highest ANY/A on the best team year after year, unless there is some historic anomaly such as Peterson in 2012.

Ryan may very well earn the MVP by year’s end based off that criteria, particularly if Brady suffers a significant dip in his production and/or the Falcons manage to finish atop the league standings.

I should also note that there’s nothing wrong with being excited with or taking pride in the kind of season that Ryan is currently having in 2016. The Falcons quarterback is a legitimate MVP candidate based off his performance through the first nine games of the season.

But most Falcon fans’ approach to why Ryan should be considered the NFL’s most valuable player is completely out of tune with the reality of how media members tend to vote for the award. It’s certainly fair to disagree with that methodology and it’s also possible that 2016 represents a year in which the typical conventions of voting are disregarded, given that they point towards a front-runner in Brady that won’t even play a full season due to a suspension.

Yet regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, the way in which people have been approaching and debating the subject of who should be the front-runner for the league’s most valuable player is completely wrong.

It’s not about which team would miss their respective player more or who has the lesser supporting cast. Recent history shows that the honor essentially boils down to the best quarterback on the best team.

That could wind up being Ryan, Brady or someone else. At this point, things should be allowed to play out before anybody gets too invested in a race that won’t be determined until the end of year. For all we know, the Oakland Raiders could finish the year 8-0 with a red-hot Derek Carr leading the charge to steal the award out from under everybody’s nose (except Ike Taylor’s).

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Aaron Freeman
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