The Las Vegas Raiders have a pretty bad defense this year. For Raiders fans, this isn’t anything new. As of the week of this posting, they are allowing the 2nd-most points-per-game and the 7th-most yards-per-game, they legitimately rank among the worst defenses in the NFL.
So naturally, when Tom Brady had a 4TD, 0INT game against that woeful Raiders defense, all of a sudden he entered the MVP conversation.
Make no mistake, Tom Brady is playing well this year as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, and to some degree I’m even happy for him finding success outside of New England, where his value was always in question due mostly to the perceived value of coach Bill Belichick. And it is fair to say that, like any successful quarterback, Brady has faced skepticism from members of the sports media who don’t want to give all or even most of the credit to Brady when he has benefited from, among other things, the rules of professional football being changed to elongate his career, and an extraordinary amount of luck. (I even timestamped it after the Tuck Rule clip, just to be “fair.”)
However, it is also true that a significant amount of media members, largely due to his 9 Super Bowl appearances and 6 Super Bowl wins on 6 game-winning drives (you can hear Skip Bayless already, can’t you?), have declared him the greatest QB of all time in spite of the razor-thin margins on multiple fronts upon which those Super Bowl victories sit, as well as Brady being a fairly small factor of the Patriots’ success in the early years of that dynasty.
So who is Brady competing against for the MVP? Since the beginning of the 2020 season, two names have been most consistently mentioned as the likely MVP, an award that virtually always goes to QBs: Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, and Russel Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. While they started hot, Brady struggled at first with a bad loss against the New Orleans Saints to open the season, and so wasn’t in the running until pretty much this week. We’re going to be comparing Brady against these two primarily, and also to some degree Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City, whose relative importance to his offense has been somewhat diminished by the Chiefs expanded running offense. (Last year’s MVP Lamar Jackson is not currently a contender based on his level of play, as much as that pains me as a Ravens fan.)
Let’s go over some stats. You can verify all of the information presented here at the Pro Football Reference website. It should be noted that, while wins and losses matter significantly, and the NFL basically never has an MVP from a losing team merely because of statistical dominance, statistics are likely more than 50% of what determines who the MVP is. In the world of statistics, “winning” is not a stat, and the reasoning behind this is soundly proven, point being that winning is more a prerequisite than something that can determine close races. If one player plays for a team who’s 13–3, and another player plays for a team who’s 15–1, and the former player leads the latter in most statistical categories, the former player will win MVP. That is simply the reality of the situation.
TOUCHDOWNS AND INTERCEPTIONS
The best case Brady currently has as the MVP and 2nd in the NFL in touchdowns. Sounds really good, right? Obviously, yes. The amount of touchdowns is unimpeachable on an individual level, nobody can say “Brady isn’t throwing enough touchdown passes to be MVP,” but even as the 2nd-ranked TD thrower currently, the issue comes when we’re comparing Brady to his competition. To make this point, we’re going to do a blind reveal:
Player A has 18 TDs and 4 interceptions (2 of them are “pick-sixes”, interceptions leading directly to TDs) across 7 games.
Player B has 16 TDs and 1 interception (not a pick six) in 7 games.
Player C has 17 TDs and 2 interceptions (1 pick-six), but has only played 6 games compared to Players A and B who have played 7.
Finally, Player D has 22 TDs and 6 interceptions (2 pick-sixes), and has also only played 6 games.
Player B has less touchdowns than Player A, but only two fewer while having 1/4 as many interceptions, none being the pick-sixes that can easily lose games. Player C has one less touchdown than Player A, but he’s thrown half as many interceptions and half as many pick-sixes. Player D has thrown more interceptions than any of them, but with only two pick-sixes he’s only hurt the team directly as much as Player A, yet he has four more touchdowns to show for it, so there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the extra risks being taken are rewarding his team more than they’re hurting it. Assuming both players maintain the same pace, Player A will have 22 or 23 TDs by the end of his next game while maybe not throwing an interception, but while Player D will likely rack up one additional interception based on pace, he’ll also have 25 or 26 total touchdowns. If we were to assume that same pace of scoring for the rest of the season, Player A would have 40 touchdowns by the end of the season, whereas Player D would have 57 or 58. To follow this point home, let’s follow this concept of pace to the end of the season for all 4 players, and just to be nice, we’ll round touchdowns up and interceptions down, just to make every player look as good as they can based on their current pace without having to deviate from whole numbers. (There is, after all, no such thing as “half” of a TD or INT.)
Player A is on pace to go 40–8
Player B is on pace to go 37–2
Player C is on pace to go 45–5
Player D is on pace to go 58–16
You’ve probably already figured out that Player A is Tom Brady. Player B is Patrick Mahomes. Player C is Aaron Rodgers. Player D is Russel Wilson. I can’t imagine a world where anybody picks Brady over Mahomes, Rodgers, or Wilson in this scenario, and “this scenario” happens to be the real-life NFL season of 2020. If you pick Mahomes or Rodgers, you get slightly less scoring, marginally, but you have a significantly greater chance of not losing because of a mistake by your quarterback. If you pick Wilson, you have a greater chance of losing due to a mistake by him, but you have a significantly greater chance of winning, period, due to the sheer scoring volume presented by his play. When looking at TD-INT, a fairly simplistic viewpoint but a still very reliable one, picking Tom Brady is by far the least economical choice. He’s purely worse than Rodgers, who throws more touchdowns and fewer interceptions. He’s almost definitely worse than Mahomes, who scores less but, again, basically doesn’t turn the ball over at all. And while Wilson’s turnovers are significantly worse than any of the other three players, if he actually did throw 58 touchdowns he would break Payton Manning’s single-season record of 55, meaning that Wilson is on that dreaded “historical pace.” You might sweat more picking Wilson, but you’ll probably win your bet.
In all honesty, I think looking merely at the TD-INT settles the argument. However, if we need to belabor the point, we can also talk about . . .
COMPLETIONS AND YARDAGE
Brady’s other best argument for the MVP is that he currently ranks 3rd in completions with 176, but this is significantly easier to pick apart than the scoring and turnovers argument. While Brady does rank 3rd in completions, he’s also tied for 19th out of 32 in completion percentage, meaning that Brady is ranking 3rd in completions largely on pure accumulation, as he also ranks 4th in total pass attempts (268). In fairness, directly next to him on that completion percentage list are Aaron Rodgers directly above him and Patrick Mahomes tied with Brady, so they’re each completing about as many passes as each other in terms of percentage, but statistical pace would argue that if Mahomes threw as much as Brady, he’d have about the same amount of completions, while Rodgers would have slightly more. Wilson wins this one entirely however, he’s not throwing as many passes as Brady, but he’s completing 71% of his throws while Brady, Rodgers, and Mahomes are each hovering at 65%.
That said, completions and completion percentage mean basically nothing if there isn’t scoring and yardage to go with it. We already talked about scoring, let’s talk about yards. Lets do another blind reveal, mostly because I find it fun.
Player 1 leads the field with 8.6 yards per attempt.
Player 2 comes up next with 8 yards per attempt.
Player 3 is almost as good with 7.8 yards per attempt.
Player 4 has “only” 7.1 yards per attempt. Still extremely good, but the difference between him and Player 3 is only marginally smaller than the difference between Player 3 and Player 1, and is the largest difference between two players in the ranking, in other words, Player 4 comes in at a legitimately distant 4th place.
Did you guess it? Player 4 is Tom Brady. Players 1, 2, and 3 are Wilson, Rodgers, and Mahomes. So while Brady leads each of these four players in attempts, he comes in fourth in terms of the actual yardage value on every throw that he makes. He’s by far the least efficient of the four. The same narrative plays out when we change to yards-per-completion, a stat that I somewhat prefer but which isn’t as respected. Wilson and Rodgers tie for 12.1 yards per completion, Mahomes has 11.9, and Brady has 10.9. All four players are doing their job exceptionally well by giving their team enough yardage to keep the football virtually every time they complete a pass on average, but Brady comes in at a distant fourth compared to the other three who are practically tied. That one yard difference legitimately matters quite a bit.
As a post-script to this section, Brady does actually lead these four players in terms of total yardage with 1,910, but as we’ve already demonstrated, this is on pure accumulation. Mahomes has 1,899 and Wilson has 1,890, and Brady has to throw the ball so many more times than either of them to get those yards. Rodgers actually comes in the distant 4th here with 1,657, but again, he’s getting those on so many fewer attempts and completions than Brady, and of the four, Rodgers’ is handing off to runningbacks the most. He makes the touches he get count.
SUMMARY: Brady Ranks 4th Among Those Qualified
The NFL MVP is virtually always a statistically-dominant QB whose team is winning. Tom Brady himself has won this award many, many times, as recently as 2017, however any honest assessment of the current situation can be easily summarized: compared to his competition among the league’s elite QBs, he has to do more to get less in virtually every category.
If the MVP were chosen today, it would not be Tom Brady, and it wouldn’t be close, and it wouldn’t be a robbery, and he wouldn’t even come in 2nd. There are three other QBs on winning teams who are each having definitively better seasons. We still have an entire half of a season left to go, but the easy choice from the get-go has been Russel Wilson, and I have a hard time believing that that is going to let up.
As a closing note, it is worth noting that Brady has faced opponents with more wins than the other three, but I feel this actually detracts from his case since his team lost to their strongest opponents, the Bears and Saints, due to underwhelming performances by Brady. Brady’s biggest statistical games have all come against weaker opponents, which brings me back to my original point: He’s aight, but it was the Raiders.