— The Most Valuable Player race this year comes down to Tom Brady, Michael Vick, and a few third-party candidates. Ho hum.
Brady and Vick are worthy contenders, but they are also boring, obvious choices. For all of his success this year, Brady is just being Brady. As for Vick, he missed the better part of four games early in the season, and since he has Comeback Player of the Year all locked up, there’s no reason for him to be greedy. Before gift-wrapping the MVP award and handing it to one of these guys, we should take a closer look at some of the alternatives.
Here are the resumes of several dark horse candidates for MVP. Not all of these players are ideal choices, but all of them deserve to be part of the debate. There’s also a defensive player on the list, and it isn’t Clay Matthews III, the odds-on choice for Defensive Player of the Year. Value is value, after all: just because you have a uniform number in the 90s doesn’t mean you cannot be a worthy MVP nominee.
10-2 record, 2,920 yards, 21 touchdowns, 7 interceptionsMatty Ice may be too cool for his own good. He doesn’t have a supermodel wife or a Lord of the Rings haircut, no madcap scrambles or redemption stories, no pre-snap histrionics or post-interception grimaces. He plays in a run-heavy offense that limits his statistical output. Even when he’s leading a fourth-quarter comeback, as he did Sunday against the Buccaneers, he does it quietly: after a 25-yard pass to Roddy White on third and 20, the Falcons’ game-winning drive was a series of runs and nine-yard passes, hardly the stuff of highlight reels. It’s easy to overlook Ryan, even when his team is in first place.
Ryan’s numbers don’t leap off the page, but he does all of the little things well. He avoids negative plays, with just 17 sacks to go with his seven interceptions. He comes up big on third down, completing 63.8 percent of his passes and converting nearly half of his attempts (47.8) into first downs. And he’s remarkably consistent: he seems to complete 24 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns every week like clockwork, giving the Falcons a chance to win every time they take the field.
962 rushing yards, 436 receiving yards, 13 touchdownsMost MVP candidates don’t come from sub-.500 teams. Before you scoff, ask yourself this question: how many games would the 5-7 Browns have won without Hillis? The answer may be zero.
Hillis leads the Browns both in rushing and receptions. He has been targeted for 67 passes; add those passes to his 217 carries and two pass attempts, and you get 286 plays. The Browns have only executed 718 plays, meaning that Hillis represents 39.8 percent of their total offense. If Hillis wasn’t around, those plays would be spread among the likes of Mike Bell and Chansi Stuckey, and the Browns’ offense would easily be the worst in the NFL.
Hillis also provided an important security blanket for Colt McCoy during the rookie’s first starts. If McCoy develops into a franchise quarterback, Hillis’ value will extend far beyond this season.
1,177 rushing yards, 276 receiving yards, 6 touchdownsThe Jaguars are winning with slobber-knocker tactics. They rushed 53 times Sunday, with MJD getting 31 of those for 186 yards. It was his fifth straight 100-yard game, but you may not have noticed because: a) he isn’t scoring many touchdowns, which keeps him off the highlight reels, and b) he plays for the Jaguars, the most anonymous team in the NFL. If the Jaguars win the AFC South, it will be one of the greatest upsets of the year, and it will all be thanks to MJD.
8.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, four fumble recoveriesTuck doesn’t even lead the Giants in sacks and forced fumbles: Osi Umenyiora has nine and eight, respectively. So why is Tuck our dark horse candidate? Through 12 weeks, Tuck had 39 tackles on running plays, including 33 Successes (tackles for a minimal gain). Umenyiora had just 18 run tackles, 15 of them Successes. Tuck has 12 tackles for a loss to Umenyiora’s three, and four fumble recoveries to Umenyiora’s zero. In short, Umenyiora is a great pass rusher, Tuck a great defender.
The Giants’ defensive line is once again leading them into the playoffs, and Tuck is leading that defensive line. Defensive stats don’t measure all of the little things he does, like occupying double-teams or slipping out into the flat to break up screen passes. His name belongs in the MVP debate.
58 catches, 885 yards, 14 touchdownsBowe may have taken himself out of the running with his zero-catch performance against the Broncos, but the bad game proved Bowe’s value to the Chiefs. Without Bowe, who was shut down by a combination of double coverage and ticky-tack offensive penalties, the Chiefs only scored 10 points despite 185 rushing yards. The Chiefs’ secondary pass targets are players like Terrence Copper and rookie tight end Tony Moeaki, so opponents can double cover Bowe any time they want to, making his production downright amazing. Bowe has been targeted for 101 passes this season. No other Chiefs wide receiver has been targeted more than 29 times. Without Bowe, the Chiefs are a spunky last-place team with a good running game. With Bowe, they are playoff contenders.
1 sack allowed, 3 penalties Why can’t a center be an MVP candidate? The Jets have one of the best running games in the league and have allowed just 19 sacks: that doesn’t happen without exceptional offensive line play. Jets running backs have been stuffed on just 13 percent of carries, the lowest percentage in the league, and they convert 76 percent of all short-yardage situations, the third best figure in the NFL.
Those figures show that the interior line is winning the trench battle every week. Mangold is a two-time Pro Bowler who has aided the development of Mark Sanchez by making the right adjustments in pass protection. And the Jets are serious Super Bowl contenders.
So the next time someone suggests Vick or Brady for MVP, tell them that you think Hillis, Tuck, or Mangold deserves serious consideration. You won’t win any arguments, but you will definitely stand out from the crowd.