The Real NFL MVP

The NFL doesn’t announce the league’s Most Valuable Player award until Saturday night, but there is little suspense as to whose name will be called: Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Dave Archibald digs into the data, looking for the real NFL MVP.

Few expected big things out of Carolina after it lost top receiving threat Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL in the preseason, but the Panthers cruised to a 15-1 record and a berth in Super Bowl 50. Their swarming zone-based defense obviously played a major factor, but Carolina shocked pundits by leading the NFL in points scored. It’s not hard to see why Cam Newton ‒ with 35 passing touchdowns and another 10 on the ground ‒ is getting the bulk of the credit for the Panthers defying expectations.

Not everyone is sold on Newton’s MVP credentials, however. Some stats-minded critics note that Newton’s 59.7% completion rate is poor, which ranks merely eighth in passer rating, sixth in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, and 12th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. The Panthers offense was far from a traditional high-flying attack: despite ranking #1 in points scored, Carolina ranked 10th both in total yards and in net yards per passing attempt. Expected Points Added, which captures the statistical expectation of points added for every play, tells a similar story:

QB MVP Candidates - Basic Stats

Compared with the three other quarterback MVP candidates – Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots – Newton has the weakest case statistically. However, the MVP award shouldn’t come down to something as simple as 15-1 or 12th in DVOA. There are many factors that influence the numbers:

QB MVP Candidates - Other Categories 2

The above chart contains various statistics, explained in further depth below, that might add color to the discussion of QB MVP candidates. The chart is color-coded so statistics which are favorable to the quarterback are colored green, those neutral are in gray and white, and the negatives are in red.

Field Position

Field position is a major factor in scoring. The Panthers ranked 17th in yards per drive but first in points per drive. Red zone efficiency (more on that later) is a major factor here, but a defense that led the NFL in turnovers also put them in excellent position for success. The Panthers had a league-leading 13 touchdown drives off of turnovers – drives that averaged only 33 yards. Arizona was second with 11, while Seattle (seven) and New England (six) were closer to the middle of the pack.

Opposing Defense Quality

Rankings from Football Outsiders: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/teamoff

The Panthers and Patriots benefitted from playing the weak AFC South and NFC East divisions, while Seattle and Arizona had to play the tougher AFC North and NFC North squads. The Panthers played nine of their 16 games against teams ranking in the worst eight scoring defenses.

Offensive Line Quality

Rankings from Pro Football Focus: https://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2016/01/20/pro-ranking-all-32-offensive-lines-this-season/

Few expected the Panthers to have a dominant offensive line, but their excellent and underrated group has surprised with a terrific season, particularly in run blocking. Seattle’s offensive line was a disaster in pass blocking, particularly early in the season, and injuries and ineffectiveness from New England’s blockers put Brady under siege much of the year.

Running Game

The Patriots clearly had the weakest rushing attack of the four teams, and that’s before factoring in that they didn’t even try to run the football against many of the stouter defensive lines they faced. Much of that was because of an offensive line that, as noted above, was suspect. Undoubtedly, that disadvantaged Brady, but Brady also contributed to the problem because, unlike some of the other MVP candidates, Brady doesn’t threaten defenses with his legs or deep passes.

Newton and Wilson play a significant role in their respective teams’ rushing attacks. Aside from their production with the ball in their hands, the threat of keeping the football forces defenses to account for the quarterback in run fits even if the halfback gets the ball. Both Seattle and Carolina employ the read option at times, and the danger of Newton or Wilson getting a big gain in the open field keeps backside pursuit honest and helps create holes up front for the backs.

Receiver Quality

Note: The yards per game (Y/G) measurement comes from taking the Y/G from 2012-14 for each receiver (including WR, TE, or RB) targeted at least 25 times in 2015 and calculating average Y/G weighted by target. The idea is to approximate an established level of per-game production for the receiving corps. This analysis omits rookies, who do not have a pre-2015 baseline.

Ted Ginn Jr., led Panthers wideouts in targets this year with 97 and, despite superficially impressive statistics – 739 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns – Ginn caught fewer than half the balls thrown his way. It’s safe to say that Ginn could not have cracked Arizona’s receiver rotation, especially considering he was on the Cardinals in 2014 and played only 151 snaps on offense. Arizona boasts an outstanding receiving corps, led by former first-round picks Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, accompanied by breakout second-year star John Brown.

The Cardinals’ embarrassment of receiving riches doesn’t include tight end, where the Patriots (Rob Gronkowski), Panthers (Greg Olsen), and Seahawks (Jimmy Graham) all feature players who have posted 1,000-yard seasons in their careers; Arizona’s duo of Jermaine Gresham and Darren Fells is far less accomplished. All in all, however, Palmer benefits from the most talented overall group of pass-catchers among the MVP candidates.

The popular perception is that Newton’s receivers are unimpressive, and in this case the statistics back up that perception: Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery are journeymen while blossoming talent Corey Brown was an undrafted free agent in 2014 – the only established star is Olsen.

Injuries

Note: Games lost calculation includes only starters or backups pushed into starting roles.

QB MVP Candidates - Games Lost by Teammates

Brady’s offensive mates were beset by injuries, with none of the other 10 offensive starters playing a full 16-game slate. Left tackle Nate Solder went on injured reserve after New England’s fourth game, running back Dion Lewis joined him before Week 10, and Julian Edelman missed the final seven games of the regular season with a broken foot.

Arguments can be made as to which of the other MVP candidates had the best or worst injury luck. Carolina’s loss of Benjamin was perhaps the single biggest injury to afflict any of these four teams, but they otherwise stayed remarkably healthy. Seattle lost longtime bellcow back Marshawn Lynch and major offseason acquisition Graham for long stretches, and they could reasonably argue that second-year receiver Paul Richardson would have grown into a key role without knee and hamstring injuries that caused him to miss 15 games.

Clutch Play

It is funny to see Brady ranking last in a clutch statistic, but the Patriots’ signal-caller led only two game-winning drives in the 2015 season. He did, however, lead two late game-tying drives in contests New England lost in overtime to the Broncos and Jets. Newton’s road rallies against the Seahawks, Giants, and Saints, plus an overtime comeback against the Colts likely stick out in voters’ minds, but Palmer led four game-winning drives as well.

Through Three Quarters

Chase Stuart of Football Perspective noted that the Panthers were first in point differential and second in the NFL in yards through three quarters. Carolina presumably throttled things down with big leads late and only scored 10 touchdowns in the fourth quarter of games. This depressed the Panthers’ overall offensive statistics, but obviously it didn’t hurt them on the field much, if any.

Red Zone

The Panthers may not have racked up as many yards as some other teams, but they made the most of them, scoring touchdowns on 70% of their red zone opportunities. Newton’s 10 rushing touchdowns were a major factor here, as he scored on seven of eight carries within the 2-yard line, making him the most efficient goal line back in football.

Weather

Frigid weather doesn’t just deflate footballs: It also lowers passing averages. Brady and Wilson play home games in a cold climate, but only the Patriots (twice) played in sub-freezing weather. Seattle played three games in the upper-30s, while New England and Arizona each played one game between 33 and 40.

Summing Up

Noted philosopher Erik Schrody once opined, “You know where it ends. Yo, it usually depends on where you start.” The same is true with this MVP race. If you start with Palmer’s yards per attempt or Brady’s touchdown-to-interception ratio or Wilson’s blend of passing accuracy and running production, you can easily make a case for one of those players.

If you start with Newton as MVP because of Carolina’s 15-1 record and #1 scoring offense, you can find enough additional variables in his favor – his impact on the running game, the weakness of his receiving corps, his strong situational play – to reinforce that position, too. This final angle seems to be the way most of the voters appear to see things, making Newton the prohibitive favorite to take home the MVP hardware Saturday night.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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