Crowning the NFL's Most Valuable Player at the NFL Honors awards ceremony is never an easy task. Ours is a league filled with many layers of talented players, and feels as top-heavy with stars as ever.
Yet, the task is particularly unenviable this year. Unlike last season, when Cam Newton ran away with the prize, no one player surged away from the pack in 2016.
As we sit here in January, it does appear the playing field has leveled to three All-Pro quarterbacks whose teams are in the thick of the playoff race: Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
Each member of this triumvirate of passers has a stake to claim the top of the mountain. As the story of the NFL regular season unfolded, all three added pieces of evidence to why they should be viewed as the MVP of the league this year. However, they each did so in unique fashion. Here we will dig into the Next Gen Stats case for each of the big three quarterbacks in this race and the story their individual seasons told.
Aaron Rodgers and the marvel of a dominant stretch
The story of Aaron Rodgers in 2016 is one that's easy to identify with. Amid a number of questions about his own individual play and the future of the Packers team as currently constructed, Rodgers triumphed in the face of adversity while staring down the barrel of a 4-6 start to the season.
It was his own proclamation that set the tone.
Rodgers re-wrote the course of Green Bay's season when he declared on November 23rd that despite sitting on a four-game losing streak, he believed his team could run the table. It was that feeling that altered the 2016 outlook for the Packers, as the team did indeed win out and take the NFC North crown with a 10-6 record.
Not only did that post-Week 11 proclamation set in motion a series of events that would have the Packers surging into the postseason to eventually take down the Giants in the Wild Card round, it also marked the first note in what became an ascending drumbeat for Rodgers to enter the heights of the MVP race. Whether you believe he's the league's most valuable or best player of the 2016 season comes down to how much weight you wish to assign an all-out dominant six-week stretch.
The 2016 season marked the return of veteran wide receiver Jordy Nelson, whose absence in 2015 due to a torn ACL was identified as the root cause of an offensive stagnation by the Packers. Nelson did indeed return in Week 1 and right away reassumed role of Rodgers' No. 1 receiver and held it all season.
Share of Aaron Rodgers' intended air yards - full 2016 season
Jordy Nelson - 33.7 percent, 151 targets
Davante Adams - 25.6 percent, 120 targets
Randall Cobb - 11.5 percent, 84 targets
While Nelson was back on the field in a physical sense, he didn't return to true form until the twilight of the regular season. Nelson averaged 2.3 yards of separation on his targets from Weeks 1 through 11, ranking 57 out of 70 receivers to average five targets per game in that span. However, in the latter portion of the season, we were once again treated to the peak of Nelson's ability. From Weeks 12 through 17 the Pro Bowler averaged 3.3 yards of separation on his targets, ranking fifth out of 63 receivers in that span.
Nelson eventually grew back into the deep threat that we all knew him to be in the seven years of his career. Rodgers and Nelson combined for the fourth-highest passer rating on deep throws (20-plus air yards) with 100.2.
The year that was for the Packers also saw Davante Adams elevate his play to establish himself as Rodgers' go-to No. 2 receiver. His separation scores (2.8 to 2.7) merely carried a 0.1 differential between the two stretches of the season, but it was his ability to win the ball in close quarters that told the tale of his 2016 revival. No wide receiver and quarterback had a better chemistry in tight coverage than Rodgers and Adams, as the third-year player led all wide receivers with a 69.6 percent catch rate when he had less than a yard of separation on his targets.
Attempts to denigrate Rodgers' wide receivers to elevate the quarterback's individual acumen should be seen as nothing short of disingenuous. Frankly, it is not necessary, either; the All-World star's accomplishments stand alone.
We noted Adams' pristine ability to win the ball in tight coverage and that is certainly boosted by playing with the best tight-window passer in the NFL. Rodgers led all quarterbacks this year with a 53.1 completion percentage when throwing to a wide receiver who had less than a yard of separation. He threw 10 touchdowns to just one interception on those attempts.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to speak of Aaron Rodgers' season, or his ability in total, without mentioning his greatest strength: succeeding outside of structure. Rodgers has the fourth-highest average time to throw in the NFL this year with 2.87 seconds, as he's a master at buying time behind the line of scrimmage while waiting for the big play to emerge.
However, we didn't see that improvisational ability at the height of its powers until after the "run the table" declaration. In Weeks 1 through 11 Rodgers completed just 46.2 percent of his passes with a 78.5 passer rating when he had a time to throw of at least 2.5 seconds. He threw 14 touchdowns to seven interceptions on those attempts. From Week 12 to 17 on those same passes he notched a 54.1 completion percentage for a 118.2 rating with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. By contrast, in that same span he threw just five touchdowns when he had a time to throw less than 2.5 seconds.
While his overall time to throw stats are impressive, the big plays that resulted in touchdowns really tell the story of his dominance. Rodgers leads all quarterbacks with 13 touchdowns thrown outside the pocket this year, besting Jameis Winston (11) in second-place and Dak Prescott (eight) in third. The Packers star also leads all quarterbacks with the most touchdowns (also 13) on passes where he had at least a 4.0-second time to throw.
If memorable moments are indeed what seals an MVP crowning for you, consider that Rodgers owns two of the top-five longest time to throw touchdowns of the season. Both came in the final two weeks of the season against division rivals to seal the NFC North.
Top-five longest time to throw on touchdowns
Trevor Siemian (9.2 seconds) - six-yard score to Jordan Taylor in Week 12 vs. Chiefs
Aaron Rodgers (8.6 seconds) - two-yard score to Geronimo Allison in Week 17 at Lions
Eli Manning (6.5 seconds) - eight-yard score to Odell Beckham in Week 5 vs. Packers
Tyrod Taylor (6.4 seconds) - 71-yard score to Greg Salas in Week 2 vs. Jets
Aaron Rodgers (6.3 seconds) - 10-yard score to Jordy Nelson in Week 16 vs. Vikings
Indeed, the story of Aaron Rodgers' season-long numbers are impressive, as he leads the NFL in touchdown passes. He could easily be considered as one of the best players of the season with just his Week 1 to 17 play as a whole.
However, what puts him squarely in the think of a tight Most Value Player award race is how he took apart the league from top to bottom in Weeks 12 through 17. Without question, Aaron Rodgers was the hottest player in the NFL during that six-game stretch that followed him calling his own team's shot.
Those who vote for the MVP award will need to ask themselves the pivotal question: just how much can we weigh a dominant stretch within the entire prism of the brief NFL season? Should the voters decide that a snapshot of the year at its ending can outweigh year-long consistency, then Rodgers will take home the award. His outrageous run will have deemed him worthy.
Matt Ryan and the sweet sound of consistency
While it may seem like ancient, long-forgotten history at this point, where Matt Ryan's story began is perhaps what makes it all the more special. The 2015 season saw Ryan set a career-low in touchdown rate while leading the 21st ranked scoring offense in the NFL. His Falcons stumbled to meager 8-8 finish after tearing through the NFL on a white-hot 5-0 start.
Yet, when the lights of the regular season came on, Ryan began a redemption tour that would culminate in what Football Perspective's Chase Stuart called a historic season. Ryan led the NFL with 9.3 yards per attempts and an 117.1 passer rating, among other statistical categories. What made his season so truly remarkable was how his dominant play and production never truly wavered.
Credit to Around the NFL scribe Chris Wesseling who assigned Ryan the title of the NFL's metronome several weeks ago. It's the perfect title for the quarterback's 2016 season. He's been the same player from beginning to end, and that player has been one of true greatness.
Those reluctant to accept Matt Ryan as the MVP are quick to point out that he plays alongside one of the NFL's best wide receivers in Julio Jones. Indeed, Jones was the top target yet again for Atlanta this year. Jones owned a 37.8 percent share of Ryan's intended air yards, the fourth-highest among receivers who saw 50 or more targets from a quarterback. Yet, it doesn't take long to debunk any sort of claims that Ryan relied on Jones, seeing as he handled just 9.2 targets per game this year to 12.7 last year.
To place the majority of the credit for Ryan's wildly successful 2016 season would simply be an admission you haven't been watching many games this football season.
He consistently elevated his supporting cast, turning just about every player in his offense into a vertical asset.
Matt Ryan's passer rating on deep throws (20-plus air yards) by target
Julio Jones - 31 targets, 97.1 passer rating
Taylor Gabriel - eight targets, 145.8 passer rating
Mohamed Sanu - seven targets, 64.0 passer rating
Aldrick Robinson - four targets, 135.4 passer rating
Austin Hooper - three targets, 158.3 passer rating
Justin Hardy - three targets, 109.7 passer rating
Tevin Coleman - three targets, 149.3 passer rating
Levin Toilolo - three targets, 158.3 passer rating
Josh Perkins - two targets, 135.4 passer rating
Taylor Gabriel: a 167-pound gadget receiver who was released by the Browns after averaging 8.6 yards per reception in 2015.
Aldrick Robinson: a journeyman with 50 career catches who was drafted in 2011 and bounced off and on Washington and Baltimore's rosters before spending the 2015 regular season out of football.
Justin Hardy: a second-year receiver who ran a 4.56 40-yard dash coming out of East Carolina last year.
Tevin Coleman: a running back who caught just two passes as a rookie in 2015.
Just about every player who took the field for the Falcons this regular season became a dangerous offensive weapon for the team, no matter their pedigree, at the hands of Ryan. This also illuminates a reality that isn't brought to the surface enough: Matt Ryan was the NFL's best deep passing quarterback this year. He owned a 135.4 passer rating on deep passes, posting 10 touchdowns without an interception on passes that traveled 20-plus air yards. Ryan is the only quarterback this year to not throw an interception on a deep pass.
What's even more striking about Ryan's deep passes is that he's consistently attacked opponents outside the numbers in the vertical game. Often regarded as the most difficult zones to pass into, Ryan leads the NFL with a 129.2 passer rating on deep passes outside the numbers. The average passer rating on those throws among quarterbacks with 20 deep outside the numbers attempts is 74.2.
There's no denying that Matt Ryan has consistently hit high-degree of difficulty throws all season. He made it such a routinized part of the NFL action this year that some will even attempt to claim he doesn't pass some sort of mythical eye-test, just because the advanced metrics scream his proficiency with such authority.
In an attempt to legitimize the notion that Ryan succeeds in arduous conditions as much as any other quarterback this year, let's also consider his work against the blitz.
Opposing teams blitzed (five-plus pass-rushers) Ryan on 142 of his pass attempts this year. Despite that, he still maintained an NFL-best 123.2 passer rating on those throws. What was most impressive was his ability to create the big plays when the defense attempted to send more pressure. Ryan's 13 passing touchdowns against the blitz were the second-most among quarterbacks with 30 or more attempts, and he never threw an interception.
There's no denying the consistent start-to-finish greatness of Matt Ryan's 2016 season. No matter the condition, no matter who he paired with on offense. If you believe there is a nit to pick in this quarterback's campaign that saw his Falcons ultimately seize the No. 2 seed in the NFC, you may find the road to unveiling it quite long. It certainly doesn't show up anywhere in his Next Gen Stats ledger.
When put side-by-side with the two other quarterbacks on this list, it's clear to see Ryan has something on his resume the others simply by circumstance or performance, do not. As the NFL's metronome, Ryan played the steady note of consistent greatness from the first snap of Week 1 until the curtain fell in the regular season's final chapter.
Tom Brady and the dispatching of Father Time
The case against Tom Brady as the NFL's Most Valuable Player is easy to make. New England's future Hall of Fame quarterback was not a part of the team's first four games while serving a league-mandated suspension. The opposition's case is seemingly only made stronger with the fact that the Patriots went 3-1 without him in those games.
Even still, making the case that none of that matters at all is somehow even easier.
To harp on the 3-1 start in questioning Brady's value is to not only ignore the caution of a small sample but to neglect seeing how much better the Patriots offense is with their leader under center. Despite playing in his age-39 season, Brady is having perhaps the best year of his career.
One of the staples of the post-2007 Patriots offenses has been their ultimate proficiency in the short to intermediate passing game. Brady is once again one of the leagues' best quarterbacks in the intermediate game, with 20.6 percent of his air yards coming between 10 to 20 yards. When throwing into that region of the field Tom Brady was near lethal, posting NFL-highs in passer rating (146.8) and completion percentage (70.1). He also threw 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, and was the only quarterback who started more than five games to never get picked off in the intermediate area.
While hammering intermediate passes would seem to indicate Brady is executing a lower degree of difficulty assignment than his peers in the MVP race, that is not the case. While the Patriots offense has relied on a slot receiver for much of the latter half of Brady's career, 2016 saw something of a rebirth of the outside wide receiver. With free-agent addition Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell in tow, New England had legitimate X and flanker receivers for the first time in several seasons. Brady's out-wide targets averaged 2.94 yards of separation from the nearest defender this season, the best of any group in the NFL. The league-average is 2.48 yards.
Tom Brady's dominance in the intermediate game doesn't fully do justice to his all-out assault on the rules of science and Father Time himself. While just 11 percent of his air yards have come in the deep zones (20-plus air yards), he's been even better in the vertical game this year than in 2015. Last season Brady posted a meager 64.8 passer rating on deep passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions. However, in 2016, Brady checks in with a passer rating of 117.3 and seven touchdowns to just one pick.
Even more notable from his deep passer ledger this year is what the All-Pro quarterback has done when targeting players other than elite tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Tom Brady deep passing 2015
Targeting Gronkowski: one touchdown, 86.8 passer rating
Not targeting Gronkowski: two touchdowns, 56.5 passer rating
Tom Brady deep passing 2016
Targeting Gronkowski: two touchdowns, 135.4 passer rating
Not targeting Gronkowski: five touchdowns, 112.3 passer rating
Yes, his passer rating was higher when targeting Gronkowski once again this year, but when he looked to other players on vertical passes, there was not a significant drop in his overall effectiveness.
It is perhaps Brady's ability in 2016 to thrive even after the loss of Rob Gronkowski that stamps a definitive note on his MVP case. Coming into this year, Brady averaged 32.4 fewer yards, 1.25 fewer yards per attempts and 0.52 fewer touchdowns per game in games Gronkowski did not play versus when he suited up since 2010. The difference this year is that Brady was able to find a counterpunch, and not just in his deep numbers.
From Weeks 5 to 10 Gronkowski, as usual, owned the highest share of Brady's intended air yards with 29.2 percent. Afterward, he saw just a 3.1 percent share as he went down in Week 12 for the year after missing Week 11. It was a massive share of the pie to lose. While Malcolm Mitchell stepped in to assume 14.8 percent and the group of running backs handled a 15.6 percent share, Brady began to turn to Julian Edelman as the offense's engine. Edelman's intended air yards share jumped up to 41.2 percent after Week 10, a full 15 percent increase from what it was in Weeks 5 to 10.
It was a really was an act of making lemonade out of lemons, as this was not Edelman's best season. The long-time Patriots receivers averaged just 10.3 air yards per target from Weeks 11 to 17, ranking 46th out of 72 receivers to average three targets per game. He also caught just 26.7 percent of his targets when he had less than a yard of separation. Edelman is a far cry from a true No. 1 receiver, something that Brady just did not have for most of this season.
All told, it was another season of eerie unhuman-like dominance from one of the best quarterbacks to ever grace an NFL field. Tom Brady showed improvement in areas in which he started to slow down in 2015, and did so largely without the help of his top weapon. While it may feel like a ho-hum just another great season from Brady, this was anything but. It was a declaration of war on what we believe possible for older quarterbacks; a marvelous announcement to the league that what standards apply to others are not to be cast upon him.
While the first four games missed will weigh heavily on the voters' minds, the level of dominance he displayed when on the field should echo through them just as loudly. The whimpers of dissent crying for the 3-1 start to be considered should fall by the wayside. If Tom Brady walks away with his third NFL Most Valuable Player award this season, he will have rightly earned it.
Casting a vote
Each of these three quarterbacks composed a resume that would make them the worthy MVP of the 2016 NFL season. Better yet, each player wrote to us stories of excellence that made not only their individual campaigns worth following but also enhanced the grand tale of the league as a whole. If any of these players come home with the trophy, you won't hear much of a complaint from me.
I do not get an MVP vote -- yours truly is not even close to being important enough for one of those. However, after perusing all of the data the Next Gen Stats tracking has to offer, I feel more convinced than ever that his elevation of his supporting cast, execution of the hardest assignments and overall season-long steady dominance makes Matt Ryan this year's Most Valuable Player.
Aaron Rodgers' peak of otherworldly play was nearly convincing enough to overtake Ryan, and I didn't believe that going in. Yet, some of the data demanded presented here demanded a reconsideration, and surely it should cause the true voters to pause before overweighing his slow start. I certainly didn't truly understand just how wildly better Brady has been this year before the Next Gen Stats chimed in, but his case is right there with the other two.
Should you disagree with Ryan as the MVP, you likely have a good reason in believing the title should go to one of these other quarterbacks. Some of the data in this very piece would support you. In the end, we can all agree that we're better as followers of this sport for a tight and contentious MVP race that will go down to the wire.