In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t really matter much, if at all. To be fair, none of this really matters at all, but yet here I am and here you are as well. Now that you’re currently contemplating your existence as a small speck who lives on an only slightly larger small speck in the vastness of the universe... How about that 2021 NFL Most Valuable Player, huh?
Discussions on who should win the MVP or how we assign value in football are difficult. Baseball is a far easier sport to nail down actual individual performance, since it is really a game of one-on-one: pitcher vs hitter, fielder vs ball, baserunner vs defender, etc. Baseball also has a far better statistical apparatus because of this. Our own Paul Noonan covered the WAR topic incredibly well here, so you should probably click that link and read that piece first before I continue, since it is an important thing to understand before getting into the next part.
There are really two aspects that make up performance in sports: efficiency and volume. LeBron James is never the most efficient player in basketball. He has led the NBA in true shooting percentage exactly zero times. However, LeBron James has a far more difficult job than the Mitchell Robinsons and Clint Capelas of the world. That is where the volume and role aspects come into play. In baseball, relief pitchers are regularly more efficient on a per-inning basis than starting pitchers, but of course their volume is lower. The same thing can apply to football. If you have a quarterback who plays one amazing game but then misses the rest of the season, they’re not going to be the MVP even if they lead the league in EPA-per-play, so let’s break down the MVP discussion into these two parts and see how Aaron Rodgers stacks up.
The Efficiency Metrics
There really are no comparisons here. Aaron Rodgers is the leader. The best measurement of results, because of all the data that goes into it, is EPA-per-play, and Rodgers is running away from the pack. His +.260 EPA-per-play is far and away the best in the league, as his lead over second place Patrick Mahomes is similar to the difference between Mahomes and eighth-place Josh Allen. By DVOA, Rodgers enjoys a lead over the rest of the league, albeit a smaller one. Rodgers 27.6% DVOA leads second place Tom Brady by 3.1%, not even quite the difference between Brady and third place Justin Herbert.
ESPN’s QBR, which has its own issues that have also been well-documented by our own Paul Noonan, also has Rodgers as the best in the NFL, with approximately a one-point lead on second place Tom Brady. Next Gen Stats’ CPOE ranks Rodgers third, behind Joe Burrow and Kyler Murray and several spots ahead of Tom Brady, who does not show up until the 23rd spot on the list, right behind Matthew Stafford. The rbsdm CPOE model is slightly more favorable to Brady, putting him at 16th, but also moves Rodgers up to second. In the DAKOTA statistic, which looks to combine EPA and CPOE into one composite metric, Rodgers also enjoys a lead, with Joe Burrow coming in second and Tom Brady coming in sixth. Sports Info Solutions has their own version of quarterback rating called IQR, and in that metric Rodgers ranks second, just narrowly behind Joe Burrow.
On the efficiency side, there is no argument. Rodgers leads in most of the measures, and in the ones he does not he is only narrowly behind the leader. And the best metric (in this writer’s opinion) for measuring quarterback performance among all of these metrics, EPA-per-play, Rodgers is first by a huge margin. Here are all of the efficiency metrics with the respective ranking alongside the three MVP candidates at quarterback.
2021 MVP Candidates, Efficiency
|Player||EPA per play||DVOA||IQR||QBR||NGS CPOE||RBSDM CPOE||DAKOTA||ANY/A|
|Player||EPA per play||DVOA||IQR||QBR||NGS CPOE||RBSDM CPOE||DAKOTA||ANY/A|
|A. Rodgers||.26 (1st)||27.6% (1st)||114.7 (2nd)||67.8 (1st)||3.1 (3rd)||5.8 (2nd)||.176 (1st)||7.99 (1st)|
|T. Brady||.204 (4th)||24.5% (2nd)||108.8 (4th)||66.7 (2nd)||-1.5 (23rd)||1.1 (16th)||.131 (6th)||7.27 (5th)|
|J. Burrow||.186 (7th)||4.3% (16th)||115.2 (1st)||54.1 (11th)||6 (1st)||6.6 (1st)||.162 (2nd)||7.51 (3rd)|
Still, efficiency isn’t the only thing, so next we need to look at the volume stats.
The Volume Metrics
Thankfully, turning EPA-per-play into a volume metric is just about the easiest thing to do. You just take the EPA-per-play and multiply by the number of dropbacks. While Rodgers leads in EPA-per-play, he does not lead in Total EPA. That lead belongs to Patrick Mahomes at 157.6. Mahomes also has the second most dropbacks in the league, so that isn’t too surprising. Rodgers does rank second in this, however, at 152.62, narrowly ahead of another dropback hoarder Tom Brady at 152.59. The difference here is microscopic. Brady did this in 748 dropbacks while Rodgers did his in 587. If you were curious about Joe Burrow, he is way down at number seven. The difference between Brady and Rodgers’ volumes involve two things.
Number one is obvious: Rodgers missed a game against Kansas City and Brady has yet to miss a game this season. Rodgers missing a game due to COVID of his own questionable decision-making processes can be counted as a strike against him. Another factor is also just how much less Green Bay throws the ball than Tampa Bay and the slower pace Green Bay plays at. Here we can see just how much more often Tampa Bay passes than Green Bay.
One thing you should also notice from the above chart is that even devoid of playcalling influence, no team in the NFL has a higher expected run rate than Green Bay. In fact, no team is particularly close. It’s hard for me to punish a quarterback whose performances early in a game put his team in position to run the ball more to kill off clock, especially when that is ultimately what you want from your quarterback in the first place.
Also, because the Packers have a higher run rate relative to expectation than Tampa Bay, that also means defenses are more likely to expect the Packers to pass when they do so, and Rodgers is still out-performing Brady. Passing on early downs is more efficient than passing on later downs because of the uncertainty involved for the defense. So while Brady is getting more opportunities to take advantage of these easier plays, Rodgers is getting those less often and still out-performing him on a per-play basis.
Pace is another key factor here. No team in the NFL plays at a slower pace than the Packers, as they are averaging over 30.5 seconds per play. And it almost doesn’t matter the game state; they’re slow as molasses. The Packers are last in pace in the first half, last in the second half, actually move up to 24th when up by at least seven points, 29th when the game is within one score, and last when trailing by at least seven (though that has hardly happened this year). Tampa Bay, on the other hand, plays at the eighth-fastest pace at just 26.76 seconds per play and is blistering fast in the first half of games at 25.54. Tampa slows down quite a bit in the second half as they fall to 21st, which makes sense with Tampa being a good team often protecting leads. The difference here is meaningful, and it’s hard to tell how much is Rodgers versus the LaFleur offense. Prior to LaFleur’s hiring, Green Bay bounced around in pace, correlating very closely with how good they were. In 2017 and 2018 (poorer offenses) the Packers were a faster paced team, while in 2016 and 2014 they were a slower paced team. However, in all three LaFleur seasons they’ve been slow, and not just in situations in which they were winning. In 2019, the Packers were 18th in situation-neutral pace, they were last in that metric in 2020, and they are 30th in it this season. I’m not sure where to put the “blame” for that, but it is obviously influencing the volume statistics quite profoundly.
DYAR, which adds a volume aspect to DVOA, does give Tom Brady the edge with Rodgers in second place. (Joe Burrow is down at 13th, DVOA/DYAR really doesn’t like Joe Burrow.) So on the volume pieces, Brady and Rodgers are pretty close despite Brady having some built-in advantages due to offensive scheme and pace.
The Supporting Casts
Football is not a one-man show, and although quarterbacks have a strong influence on the team and offense, they’re not the only thing that matters. There’s no perfect way to measure a supporting cast since everything is so interconnected, but here is how I am trying to put this together.
Would you rather have the following:
- 1,122 snaps of Alex Cappa and Tristan Wirfs, 1,098 snaps of Ryan Jensen, 1,094 snaps of Donovan Smith, 983 snaps of Ali Marpet, 113 snaps of Josh Wells, 84 snaps of Aaron Stinnie, 60 snaps of Nick Leverett and 24 snaps of Robert Hainsey
- 1,048 snaps of Royce Newman, 985 snaps of Jon Runyan, 843 snaps of Lucas Patrick, 810 snaps of Billy Turner, 549 snaps of Yosh Nijman, 496 snaps of Elgton Jenkins, 261 snaps of Josh Myers, and 237 snaps of Dennis Kelly?
While the Packers’ offensive line has performed amazingly well given the circumstances, the circumstances are important. Green Bay has spent the entire season without its best unit, which includes a Hall of Fame left tackle, an All-Pro left guard, and a rookie center who looked at least competent in his 261 snaps. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has gotten 281 non-starter snaps on its offensive line the entire season. If you assume Green Bay’s ideal starting five to be David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, Josh Myers, Jon Runyan, and Billy Turner, Green Bay has gotten 2,677 snaps from non-starting lineman this season. That is over ten times the number of snaps that Tampa has from its backups. If you are curious about the performance of the lines, line play is harder to quantify, but since PFF wrote up a Brady > Rodgers for MVP take, perhaps they have Rodgers supporting cast as better.
As full units, Tampa had the second-best pass block grade at 81.3 while Green Bay ranked eighth at 73.0. The only offensive lineman that really pops in a good way for Green Bay is the now-injured Elgton Jenkins, whereas Tampa Bay has all of their starting lineman above the league median and three of them rank in the top ten. That seems like a pretty stark difference in favor of Tampa Bay if you ask me.
Onto the receiving corps. Would you rather have:
- 871 snaps of Mike Evans, 832 snaps of Chris Godwin, 584 snaps of Rob Gronkowski, 560 snaps of Tyler Johnson, 457 snaps of Cameron Brate, 356 snaps of OJ Howard, and 268 snaps of Antonio Brown
- 864 snaps of Davante Adams, 695 snaps of Allen Lazard, 458 snaps of Marcedes Lewis, 440 snaps of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, 371 snaps of Randall Cobb, 338 snaps of Josiah Deguara, 306 snaps of Robert Tonyan, and 241 snaps of Equanimeous St. Brown?
Davante Adams is so dominant, that he may make up for his teammates by himself. A fully loaded Tampa receiving corps never really happened this year, and now Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown are out of the picture, but they played meaningful snap counts this season, particularly Godwin. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that from a passing perspective you would rather have your top four snap getters to be Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Tyler Johnson over Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Marcedes Lewis, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. If you feel differently, that’s fine, Davante Adams is so awesome he’s almost a one-man passing attack.
Where did PFF have these groups in their grading?
Davante Adams really is amazing. Green Bay does edge out Tampa Bay in receiving grade at 81.5 versus 76.7 for Tampa Bay, and Davante does a lot of that work. Tampa has three guys in the top 15 at their respective position, while Green Bay has two, and you and I both know Marcedes does not rank that high for his receiving prowess.
Combining that Rodgers is by far the more efficient player on a per-play basis with the fact that his volume stats are largely on par despite far fewer attempts and the fact that his offensive supporting cast has been much less talented than Tom Brady’s, I don’t see why one would make the argument that Brady is deserving over Rodgers. To me, it is quite clear: Aaron Rodgers should win back-to-back MVPs.