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The 2020 NFL MVP competition is a two-horse race

The two most efficient QBs in NFL history are leading the MVP race down the home stretch.

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The NFL Most Valuable Player discourse has been quite funny this year. First Russell Wilson was handed the MVP before the season even started due to “never receiving an MVP vote,” despite the fact that that is a function of the NFL’s stupid way of voting for MVP rather than actual disrespect towards Russell Wilson. Wilson got off to a torrid start, but his play has worsened quite dramatically in November as he dropped from the top tier of quarterbacks in nearly everything to 11th in DVOA and 5th in EPA/play.

Then there was the Kyler Murray week, which was always kind of baffling. This play was awesome, but it was more of a Deandre Hopkins moment than a Kyler Murray one.

The funniest part is that Kyler didn’t even play that well in this game. Murray posted only 0.1 Expected Points Added/dropback and a -0.21 EPA/play per rush for a total EPA/play of 0.05. That is the same EPA/play as Daniel Jones this season. If you eliminated the Hail Mary, Murray passed for -0.08 EPA/play in that game, which is Drew Lock territory. Murray hasn’t played that well in recent weeks, but even at the time, his 15 minutes of MVP talk was asinine.

Recently, there has been a slight surge in Ben Roethlisberger’s MVP odds, but he remains a distant fifth. He’s actually been quite mediocre this year, ranking 14th in DVOA, which has adjusted for the fact that the Steelers have faced the easiest slate of opposing defenses in the NFL so far.

This MVP race really comes down to two guys: Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. Betting markets currently, and probably correctly, have Mahomes as the leader right now (-134 for Mahomes and +519 for Rodgers for one book). Remember, books are trying to predict who WILL win, not who DESERVES to win.

Mahomes has some things working in his favor in the former that don’t have as much to do with the latter. The Chiefs have a better chance of clinching the one-seed in the AFC (42%) than the Packers do in the NFC (30%), per FiveThirtyEight. It’s not Aaron Rodgers’ fault that the Packers defense couldn’t get off the field against a mediocre Colts offense. Mahomes has also been the best player in the NFL for three years now, which certainly helps his case. He won a Super Bowl and a Super Bowl MVP last year, and this would be his final coronation. Let’s look at some comparisons between the two and avoid the who WILL win discussion, focusing solely on who SHOULD win (all while knowing we’re only about 69% of the way there...nice).

Please note that the number in parentheses notes the player’s rank across the league.

Mahomes v Rodgers

Statistic Rodgers Mahomes
Statistic Rodgers Mahomes
DVOA 35.5% (2) 40.7% (1)
DYAR 1231 (2) 1499 (1)
EPA/play .36 (2) .387 (1)
NGS CPOE 2.7 (11) .7 (19)
RBSDM CPOE 5.1 (4) 5 (7)
EPA+CPOE comp .203 (2) .21 (1)
PFF grade 93.1 (1) 92 (2)
SIS Total Points 94 (3) 119 (1)
ANY/A 8.86 (2) 8.98 (1)
IQR 125.3 (2) 121.0 (4)
QBR 85.2 (2) 86.2 (1)

(CPOE refers to completion percentage above expected. IQR refers to Independent Quarterback Rating, which adjusts the conventional passer rating for non-quarterback factors like dropped passes and interceptions.)

Statistically, Mahomes leads in most categories with Rodgers in second. Looks like the MVP odds did a pretty good job! Pretty much all of these stats exist in an ecosystem, however. Even those that try to suss out the individual QB’s performance, like PFF Grade and Total Points, can struggle to fully do so. Both quarterbacks have highly regarded offensive minds working with them. Both have elite WR1s and hyper-efficient tight-ends. The entire infrastructure around them is an interesting comparison.

So let’s take a look at the numbers for each quarterback’s supporting cast. Note that all DVOA numbers shown below are for receiving, not rushing, and that an asterisk means a player did not have enough targets to qualify for the DVOA leaderboard. Players with at least 20 targets are included.

Rodgers Weapons

Player Targets DVOA DYAR PFF Grade
Player Targets DVOA DYAR PFF Grade
D. Adams 99 19.2% (12) 254 (5) 92
M. Valdes-Scantling 51 -3.8% (45) 38 (52) 56.5
A. Jones 45 3.4% (20) 45 (16) 70.7
R. Tonyan 42 54.3% (1) 176 (2) 68.1
J. Williams 31 14.2% (12) 53 (13) 70.3
A. Lazard 27 45%* 124 (20) 67.6

Mahomes’ Weapons

Player Targets DVOA DYAR PFF Grade
Player Targets DVOA DYAR PFF Grade
T. Hill 101 26.5% (8) 316 (6) 84.3
T. Kelce 98 36.3% (3) 289 (1) 92
C. Edwards-Helaire 46 -13.1% (30) 30 (2) 72.8
D.Robinson 44 -7.9% (54) 16 (56) 59.7
M. Hardman 39 24.9%* 111 (21) 69.3
S. Watkins 36 -3.9% (46) 26 (55) 65.3

One thing that jumps off the page right away is that Mahomes has two elite guys that he targets heavily compared to Rodgers’ only having one heavy target player. The Packers’ weapons have been hit pretty hard by injuries in 2020 with Adams missing two games and Allen Lazard missing six. The Chiefs’ group of top targets has been healthy with neither Hill nor Kelce missing a game.

This begins to show itself in the target-weighted PFF grade. When you weight the PFF grades for the two groups by their targets, you start to see a difference in supporting cast quality. The reason I’m using PFF grade is that it is the least reliant on other players, while DVOA and DYAR are heavily QB-influenced. To keep it short, I’m naming this stat SCQ (supporting cast quality). Rodgers’ SCQ is 74.7 whilst Mahomes’ is 78.5. It’s not a massive difference, but it’s also not nothing.

But quarterbacks also have to worry about their protection, and that’s where Green Bay really shines, particularly in Pass Block Win Rate (PBWR):


Statistic GB KC
Statistic GB KC
PBWR 74% (1) 62% (7)
Adj Sack Rate 4.1% (4) 4.6% (5)

Both offensive lines are very good, but Green Bay’s is historically elite.

Does the offensive line play balance out the lesser quality of weapons? I don’t know. This entire MVP race is likely to come down to the finish line. Rodgers’ one bad game against Tampa Bay puts Mahomes in the lead, but after a masterclass from each of them this past weekend, it’s still in play for both in December. The Packers close with PHI, DET, CAR, TEN, and CHI who rank 20th, 28th, 24th, 27th, and 8th in pass defense DVOA, respectively. And Rodgers just ferociously carved up the only remaining good pass D on Sunday. The Chiefs face DEN, MIA, NO, ATL, and LAC in the home stretch, who rank 5th, 9th, 2nd, 19th, and 17th, respectively in pass defense DVOA.

If there is a stretch for Rodgers to make up ground, it’s now. Don’t root too hard against Mahomes though, as Green Bay still needs Kansas City’s help against New Orleans in a few weeks. We’re all being treated to two stellar seasons from the two most efficient quarterbacks ever. There will probably be more clarity by January 4th, but as of right now, it’s a two-horse race coming down the stretch.

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