This year's MVP discussion has been the most meandering in recent memory. Should the Cowboys' dynamic rookie duo split the award? Is Dallas' dominant offensive line even eligible? Should Tom Brady be disqualified for "cheating" (preposterous)? Does David Johnson deserve the acclaim despite his team's disappointing record? Should we ignore the first three quarters of the game and reward Matthew Stafford or Derek Carr for their fourth-quarter miracles?
The smoke has finally cleared after months of spinning narratives and manufactured debate, leaving one name at the top of the mountain. Let's examine the top 10 MVP candidates for 2016:
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1) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons quarterback: The national media spent the season promoting lesser MVP candidates as Ryan remained steady as a metronome, steering the NFL's premier offense through injuries and a grueling schedule. Distributing the ball like Steph Curry in Kyle Shanahan's spread-the-wealth offense, Ryan is the first player in history to throw touchdowns to 13 different players. Per Football Outsiders' metrics, he has been the season's best passer on short throws as well as bombs. The Falcons averaged 35 points during their 4-1 start, 30.1 points in a 3-4 midseason "skid" and 38.7 points in three December blowouts. Compensating for a porous Atlanta defense, he has consistently put his team in position to win, going 14 consecutive games with a fourth-quarter lead.
Not convinced that Ryan should run away with the award? The Falcons lead the league in points per game (33.5), yards per play (6.6) and big plays (115). They are one of three teams since 1991 to score on more than half of their drives. Ryan's average of 9.26 yards per attempt is the highest in history for any player with 400 or more pass attempts. He's on pace to become just the fourth quarterback ever to average 300 or more passing yards per game with a passer rating over 115. The other three members of that exclusive club (2013 Peyton Manning, 2011 Aaron Rodgers and 2007 Tom Brady) were all honored with the MVP award. While Ryan certainly benefits from the presence of physical marvel Julio Jones at receiver, his passer rating (122) and completion rate (74) are actually higher when he's targeting other receivers. By any fair measure, Ryan is the NFL's most valuable player of 2016.
2) Tom Brady, New England Patriots quarterback: It's hard to believe 2016 Brady and 2015 Peyton Manning are the same species, much less the same age. Entering the twilight years of his illustrious career, Brady is supposed to be running in quicksand with a merciless Father Time nipping at his heels. Instead, he's steadily improving while looking down the barrel of age 40, working tirelessly to turn weaknesses into strengths. Brady's ability to extend plays in the pocket is better than it was five years ago. He's the league's most effective passer on intermediate and deep throws -- reversing a steep decline over the past few years. Since Brady returned from his suspension in Week 5, he's been the best player in the league, leading the Patriots to a 10-1 record with an NFL-best point differential of plus-150.
As convincing as Brady's game film might be, his MVP case has one glaring caveat: precedence. No player has ever missed four games and won the MVP award. The past 12 MVP winners have combined to miss just one game. If Brady wins the award, he will account for 21 percent of all games missed by MVP winners in the 59-year history of the award. The closest comparison is Joe Montana, who won in a landslide after missing three games due to various injuries in 1989. Montana wasn't just the league's outstanding player -- he was 20 years ahead of his time that season. His 112.4 passer rating broke a 43-year-old record and was 20 points higher than second-place Boomer Esiason's 92.1 mark. His 70.2 completion rate was nearly eight points higher than any other passer that year. Brady might be superior to Ryan this season, but he's not operating on a different plane altogether, as Montana was in 1989.
3) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers quarterback: When Rodgers captured his first MVP award by leading the Packers to a 15-1 record in 2011, it was best quarterback season I had ever witnessed. When he used an early-season R-E-L-A-X admonition as a springboard to 2014 MVP honors, he expanded his game to include coach-like powers of perception before and after the snap. By the quarter-mark of the 2015 season, Rodgers was playing with an unshakeable confidence that allowed him to envision possibilities and interrogate limits like Michael Jordan in his prime. He was advancing the art of the quarterback craft.
Then the slump hit hard. Minus No. 1 threat Jordy Nelson, Green Bay's slow receivers couldn't get open, while Eddie Lacy lost his quick feet and Rodgers fell into bad habits for the majority of a calendar year -- failing to set his feet and waiting to see his receivers separate before pulling the trigger. After a four-game stretch that included three subpar performances versus the Vikings, Giants and Cowboys into mid-October, the internet was littered with thinkpieces offering no end of theories and hypotheses, but little in the way of solutions. To Rodgers' credit, he pulled himself out of the slump, overcame a non-existent ground attack and predicted that Green Bay would "run the table" to reach the postseason despite a 4-6 start. Channeling that 2014 MVP form, Rodgers is once again leading the NFL in total touchdowns (40). Ryan and Brady might be enjoying better seasons, but no quarterback can match Rodgers' ridiculous arm talent (sheer velocity, release, touch and ball placement) and uncanny knack for extending plays when he's at his best. To the chagrin of the Detroit Lions, Rodgers is at his best entering the NFC North showdown in Week 17.
4) Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys running back: After Urban Meyer anointed Elliott the best player he's ever coached without the ball in his hand, the former Ohio State star was billed as the most complete back to enter the league in the past decade. He has exceeded the hype. When I first laid eyes on Elliott in a Cowboys uniform, I was initially struck by the power and competitive fire he showed in running over bone-jarring Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor in preseason action. Once the regular season started, I noted his patience and vision to consistently hit the right hole behind Dallas' road-grading offensive line. After a few weeks, it was easy to see his preternatural balance, as Elliott rarely lost his feet without taking a direct hit. By October, I marveled at his ability to get skinny and burst through a small hole only to flip the switch, find a fifth gear and outrun defenders to the end zone. Along the way, Elliott proved to be a superior blocker and excellent screen-pass back. If there's a weakness in his game, NFL defenses have yet to find a way to exploit it.
Why does Elliott get the edge over teammate Dak Prescott? As I explained in last week's Rookie of the Year rankings, Elliott is the beating heart of the most consistent, most balanced attack in the league. Already an All-Pro-caliber talent, he has 363 more rushing yards than any other player this season. With 178 yards in the regular-season finale, he can establish a new benchmark for rookie running backs in a league that goes back nearly 100 years. If he does catch Eric Dickerson, he will be at least two years younger than the Rams Hall of Famer and the other 16 established veterans to reach the 1,800-yard rushing club. Working against Elliott? Running backs rarely win the award. Elliott's 1,994 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns don't quite measure up to Adrian Peterson's numbers in 2012 (2,314 yards, 13 TDs), LaDainian Tomlinson's in 2006 (2,323 yards, 31 TDs), Shaun Alexander's in 2005 (1,958 yards, 28 TDs) or Marshall Faulk's in 2000 (2,189 yards, 26 TDs).
5) David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals running back: As it turns out, the Cardinals' offseason proclamations about Johnson's Hall of Fame potential and Marshall Faulk-like receiving ability weren't just another example of hyperbolic homerism. Johnson has joined Faulk (1998-2000), Le'Veon Bell (2014) and Steven Jackson (2006) as the only players ever to record at least 1,200 rushing yards and 800 receiving yards in the same season. More impressively, the new face of Arizona's franchise is the first player in history to exceed 100 yards from scrimmage in each of the first 15 games of a season. He's also the first since 2006 MVP LaDainian Tomlinson to reach 2,000 yards from scrimmage while scoring at least 20 touchdowns.
What makes Johnson so unique? He combines Adrian Peterson's power and explosive cutting ability with Odell Beckham's breakaway speed and Bell's receiving ability. I understand the sentiment that Johnson should be rewarded despite his team's disappointing 6-8-1 record. That's exactly why we have the Offensive Player of the Year award and the All-Pro team.
6) Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers running back: Who would have thought the two best players in the league would miss all of September? Similar to Brady in that his MVP case is weakened by a three-game absence, Bell has accounted for the highest percentage of his team's scrimmage yards (40.3), rushing yards (91.2) and touches (56.8) since Week 4. It's no coincidence that the Steelers' current six-game winning streak started when they began running the offense through their dual-threat running back as opposed to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Bell is averaging a staggering 181.8 scrimmage yards per game during that stretch, bringing his season average to 157 -- the third-highest mark in NFL history, behind only Priest Holmes' 2003 season (163.4) and O.J. Simpson's 1975 campaign (160.2).
"There's no one like this guy," NFL Network analyst LaDainian Tomlinson recently stated. Bell's trademark patience is the "Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard" of the 2016 season. So self-evident as to qualify as common knowledge, that patience overshadows a sinewy style with devastating footwork, last-second cutting ability and the power to break arm tackles and finish runs. To top it all off, he rivals David Johnson as the premier route runner and run-after-catch threat out of the backfield. It's no wonder Bill Belichick lavished more praise on Bell than any other opponent this season.
7) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys quarterback: Fourth-round picks simply don't pan out at quarterback, much less take the league by storm in their debut campaigns. Prescott has passed every test, improved throughout the season and led the NFL's flagship team to the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed. Forget the quarterback controversy on "America's Team." The only debate is whether Prescott's rookie season is the greatest by any signal-caller in NFL history. No first-year quarterback has ever had more wins (13), a higher completion percentage (68.1), a tidier TD-to-INT ratio (23:4), a lower interception rate (0.89) or a better passer rating (105.6) than the former Mississippi State star. Perhaps most impressively, he has saved his best for the game's final stanza, flirting with a fourth-quarter completion percentage near 80.0 and a passer rating near 130.0 during the franchise-record 11-game winning streak.
"This is the most impressive young man I've ever been around at this position," Hall of Famer Troy Aikman recent raved. High praise indeed. I won't begrudge anyone for placing Prescott higher on their own MVP ballots. What he has accomplished this season is truly remarkable. Still, he's had the luxury of incubating in an experienced, talent-rich offense with the highest run-pass ratio in the league. While he has certainly elevated the play of his surrounding talent, they have also put him in advantageous situations throughout the season.
8) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders quarterback: Two years ago, as Carr was closing out a miserable first season in Oakland, a prescient handful of scouts and executives envisioned his 2016 success, placing a higher value on the hotshot rookie than 49ers playoff hero Colin Kaepernick. As I watched Carr leading a thrilling comeback victory over the Panthers in Week 12, it dawned on me that it was fair to wonder if those same talent evaluators would rather build around the Raiders quarterback than 2015 MVP Cam Newton. While Carolina's brass is asking a scattershot Newton to evolve next season, Oakland's front office can rest assured in Carr's decision making, lightning-quick release and strong, accurate arm.
For three-quarters of this season, Carr was a legitimate MVP candidate in his own right, leading a top-flight offense and carrying the team in close and late opportunities. After fracturing his pinkie finger in late November, though, he cost the Raiders a victory over the Chiefs in the worst outing of his career. Just when it seemed he was regaining momentum for a Super Bowl run with five consecutive touchdown drives versus the Colts in Week 16, his season ended in heartbreaking fashion with a broken fibula on the first hit he had taken all game. With a promising nucleus in place in Oakland, Carr should be a mainstay on this list going forward.
9) Odell Beckham, New York Giants wide receiver: There's no wide receiver more integral to his team's success than Beckham, who has accounted for the highest percentage of any quarterback's passing yards (34.4) this season. Whether it's another bout with arm fatigue or the beginning of the end, Eli Manning's passes have been diving at the feet of his receivers since late October. His utter inability to throw with authority beyond 15 yards has relegated the aerial "attack" to short slant routes and a prayer that Beckham's game-breaking ability will take over, allowing him to outrace entire secondaries to the end zone.
The Giants are rushing for their second-lowest output of the Super Bowl era. Manning's other wide receivers have combined for 6.2 yards per attempt, a 16:14 TD-to-INT ratio and an 80.4 passer rating, per NFL.com Research. Meanwhile, throws to Beckham have resulted in 8.2 yards per attempt, a 10:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 100.9 passer rating. He even has three go-ahead touchdowns in the final quarter or overtime. The NFL's most transcendent talent is dragging Manning and the rest of the underperforming offense into January.
10) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions quarterback: It's hard to believe his Detroit future was "very much in doubt" 13 months ago. Ever since Jim Bob Cooter assumed control of Detroit's play-calling midway through last season, Stafford's game film has been among the most impressive in the league for several reasons. He's an exceptional athlete, and his pocket movement is sublime. In complete command of the offense with centrifugal force Calvin Johnson out of the picture, Stafford moves with a purpose because he knows exactly where he wants to go with the ball. Boasting perhaps the strongest arm in the game, he also mirrors Rodgers' ability to make every throw from any angle. Those attributes have led to unparalleled success in clutch situations: Stafford's five game-winning touchdown passes in the final 30 seconds of regulation are the most since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
That two-minute drill success versus mediocre opponents aside, the first 58 minutes of the game also matter. Stafford has topped 300 yards just once since mid-October. Over that span, he has thrown for multiple touchdowns in a game just twice. His untimely interceptions the past few weeks have been backbreakers for a suddenly reeling Lions team desperately clinging to postseason hopes. Enjoying the finest season of his eight-year career, Stafford is finally realizing the potential that made him the draft's No. 1 overall pick in 2009. Perhaps his MVP run will have more staying power in 2017.
Honorable mention: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver; Landon Collins, New York Giants safety; Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver; Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs tight end; Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts quarterback; Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders linebacker; Von Miller, Denver Broncos linebacker.