For some reason, everyone seems intent on anointing the NFL’s Most Valuable Player now while the juiciest, most influential part of the season remains to be played.
A Seattle public-relations firm got behind a fan petition drive to raise awareness for Russell Wilson’s MVP campaign – way back on Oct. 18. At that point, a whopping 37% of the season had been played.
To highlight the volatile nature of handicapping the award, while a plane flew a “Wilson For MVP” banner over CenturyLink Field the following Sunday, Wilson was being outplayed by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson in a decisive 30-16 Seahawks’ loss.
Yes, that’s the same Lamar Jackson who is now the MVP flavor of the month, earning well-deserved gasps for his highlight-reel performances while leading the Ravens to six consecutive victories.
Jackson is now the betting favorite to win the MVP award, having usurped the early momentum that had been building in Wilson’s favor. In fact, a sportsbook in New Jersey announced this week that it would pay out all bets on Jackson to be named MVP.
Of course, that’s foolish, too, with six games still to be played. Here’s how I see it: Wilson and Jackson are locked in an MVP race that’s simply too close to call. You could make a strong case for either of them. But it will be how they perform from here on in, far more than how they’ve done to this point, that determines who takes home the hardware.
Both the Seahawks and Ravens are 8-2, locked in the heart of the playoff chase in their respective conferences. Both Wilson and Jackson have several high-profile games remaining to polish their cases, starting this weekend, when Seattle travels to Philadelphia on Sunday and Baltimore is at the Rams on Monday night.
The Seahawks still have prime-time games on the following Monday night against the Vikings and then the next Sunday night against the Rams. And since recency bias seems to be rampant in MVP analysis — witness the Jackson surge last week while Wilson was out of sight, out of mind during a bye week — Wilson has a huge opportunity to close his case in the season finale versus the 49ers. It’s a game that might determine the division champion or even the top seed in the conference.
The Ravens, meanwhile, still have a huge game against the 49ers for Jackson to make his mark, as well as a Thursday night game against the Browns.
Yes, other players could conceivably emerge as MVP candidates, too. But Houston’s DeShaun Watson, who was running neck-and-neck with these two, may have suffered a fatal blow when juxtaposed against Jackson’s brilliance in the Texans’ loss to Baltimore last Sunday night.
That just shows how one ill-timed clunker can change everything – just like one or more heroic performances in a meaningful game can. So, obviously, can injury. Just ask Patrick Mahomes.
Christian McCaffrey is having a superb season, but no running back has won The Associated Press award — considered the NFL’s true MVP award — since Adrian Peterson in 2012. Before that, you have to go back to Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson in 2005-06.
No, it’s essentially a quarterback’s award now, much like the Heisman Trophy. And it’s essentially a playoff quarterback’s award, winnowing the field even further.
It’s thus probably safe to say it’s going to be Wilson or Jackson, which offers some fascinating contrasts. Wilson, who early on in his career was known for his improvisation, can still be unconventionally dynamic but that designation is now the province of Jackson.
The Ravens’ marvel is on a pace to rush for 1,260 yards, which would break Michael Vick’s record for a quarterback of 1,039. Jackson leads the NFL with 6.9 yards per carry, and every game has produced at least one jaw-dropping move on the run. But Jackson has also thrown well enough to have posted two games with perfect passer ratings, joining Ben Roethlisberger as the only QB to do so in NFL history.
Wilson, meanwhile, has rushed for 265 yards and three touchdowns. He has a league-leading 23 touchdown passes to go with just two interceptions while pacing the NFL in both passer rating (114.9) and QBR (78.0). He’s seventh in completion percentage (68.5) and 10th in passing (273.7 yards per game).
It will be fascinating to see how voters (50 media members from around the NFL) weigh various factors. Jackson has a better offensive line and the Ravens have a superior defense to Seattle’s, so you can say that Wilson has to carry more of the load – particularly with Pete Carroll’s run-first philosophy. The Ravens have the best tight-end group in the NFL but their wide receivers rank near the bottom.
Jackson, meanwhile, seems to have caught everyone’s fancy with his unique skill set. Just like the football world fell in love with Mahomes last season en route to his landslide MVP victory, this year everyone is enamored with the 22-year-old Jackson. But Wilson is also hugely popular and voters may decide it’s time to reward his body of work on top of his stellar 2019 season – he’s never received a single MVP vote.
I’ll be very curious, as well, to see how much of a role analytics plays in the result. It has been hugely influential in MLB awards voting – witness Felix Hernandez winning the Cy Young in 2010 with a 13-12 record — and is making huge inroads in football. Curiously, Dallas’s Dak Prescott leads the NFL in many advance quarterback stats.
It’s hard to see Prescott making a strong MVP push, though. This is a two-man showdown And it’s going to be a thrilling race to the finish. Despite what you might have heard, no one truly has any idea yet who is going to win.