Back in mid-September, we presented a question: Is Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers more likely to win the MVP award? The scenario was set up based on the previous season and expectations for this year. The predictions haven’t been too far off, but today, nine weeks into the NFL season, we’d like to bring the question up once again, this time expanding the options and the discussion to include four new players: DeMarco Murray, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and Andrew Luck. Each of these people is making a strong case, but there’s still one who stands out.
6. Ben Roethlisberger
This was looking like another mediocre year for the Steelers. They got routed by the Ravens during a week under intense fire after the Ray Rice debacle. The Steelers also had the dubious honor of losing to the Buccaneers a week after Tampa Bay caught the football equivalent of a Gears of War curb stomp, even by Thursday Night Football standards.
So with a Steel Curtain backing him and the indignity of being lesser than the Browns facing him, Roethlisberger decided to open his eyes to what’s around him. There’s Antonio Brown, the league’s leader in receiving yards; Martavis Bryant, the rookie who’s been jiggy in the end zone with five touchdowns; and, oh shit, is that a running game? It took Big Ben a while to figure it out, but he’s got it. This isn’t a Steelers team that bruises. This one burns, and Roethlisberger is comfortable being the fulcrum of that style.
Roethlisberger was pedestrian for two of the Steelers’ three losses (he was 29-of-40 for three touchdowns against the Bucs), but he certainly hasn’t been giving these games away. He has the second fewest interceptions (3) and is the third best in passer rating (110.6). Big Ben has never been that good after starting all of the first nine games.
That brings us to the part of the argument you’re probably expecting: The records. Roethlisberger is the only quarterback to throw for more than 500 yards twice in his career and throw back-to-back six touchdown games. Again, having Bryant and Brown on your side makes life easier. However, Tom Brady had Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Peyton Manning had Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. Brett Favre had Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. None of them accomplished that feat.
Big Ben might be on to something.
5. Peyton Manning
Peyton once again has it all going. The 17-year veteran became the NFL's all-time leader in career passing touchdowns this season, leaving Brett Favre behind, and Manning now starts the climb toward 600 (he's at 515 going into today's games). He's statistically as impressive (or more impressive) than just about everybody this season (minus Ben's ridiculous record-setting games) with 24 TDs to only 5 INTs, a 112 passer rating, and a 67.3 percent completion percentage.
The Broncos have had one of the toughest schedules of the year, and Peyton has led them to 6-2 record. He's taken out the Colts, the Chiefs, the Cardinals, the 49ers, and the Chargers. His only two losses were to Seattle in Seattle in OT and against a Tom Brady Pats team last week that looks like it could be anybody right now.
Manning is already the all-time leader (and only person with more than three) with five MVPs (2003, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2013), so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him collect another. We'd love to see the celebration he comes up with, if he were to win MVP No. 6.
4. Aaron Rodgers
The first pass that Packers backup QB Matt Flynn threw this season was an interception. It was in garbage time of an absolute demolition of Minnesota, so it meant nothing, but it was a nice reminder of how good the Packers have it. Rodgers, continuing his phenomenal career norm, has the highest passer rating in the league at 113.6, his second-best mark. He’s thrown a total of 120 TDs and only 23 INTs since the opening of the 2011 season (19 TDs/3 INTs this year), and his precision and decision-making is only getting stronger.
Last year proved that the Packers absolutely need Rodgers. In the seven games that Flynn started when Rodgers was out, Green Bay went 2-4-1. Because you obviously can’t win an MVP award when you’re injured, that information should translate well into consideration for this year’s award.
Green Bay struggled out of the gate to a 1-2 record (losing to Seattle and now first-place Detroit) and took a heavy dose of the Lebron-James-on-a-new-team doubting treatment to the face as a result. But the ever-collected-and-confident Rodgers gave the haters a clear message: “R-E-L-A-X.” Then he delivered four straight victories, including a last-minute comeback in Miami, and the team averaged 36 points per game before falling to New Orleans in Week 8 (the “relax” thing might not count to the committee, but that gives him major points in our book).
The Packers have made a bad habit of slow starts (2-2 in 2009, 3-3 in 2010, 2-3 in 2012, 1-2 in 2013), but Rodgers has consistently pulled the team together and led them to the playoffs. When he’s been healthy (2013 the exception), the former 24th overall pick has posted a 26-6 record in the second halves of seasons since 2009. It’s not always pretty, but he gets it done, and that’s what makes him so valuable.
3. Tom Brady
Tom Brady’s 2014 season has an eerily similar start to 2013: scenes of offensive incoherence, Brady bitch-fits, and all around frustration. In fact, the Brady Bunch’s performance was so bad during one Monday Night blowout by the Chiefs that one reporter had the gall to ask Bill Belichick if backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo — who looked good during garbage time — could replace Brady.
New England was trash and Brady knew: “We don't have the kind of offense that's going to perform at a high level,” he said. The self-effacement turned into something else: “Let’s stop fucking up.” And the offense responded. The Patriots haven’t lost since, scoring at least 35 points in four of the past five.
Again, Brady is at the center of this aerial blitzkrieg. The Bears got it the worst, as he threw 30-for-35 for five TDs during a 51-23 mollywhopping. With that performance, Brady has thrown for 18 touchdowns with just one interception and a 67.5 completion percentage. He’s almost justified Belichick’s minimalistic approach to on-field personnel: As long as Brady is there, they’ll make it work.
One knock against him is that his success, which started in early October, is directly linked to Rob Gronkowski's full health, which would actually make the tight end the more valuable player. Gronk is leading the Patriots with 663 receiving yards, caught three of Brady’s touchdowns during the Bears game, and is doing things like this. Yes, that’s a one hander, yes, that’s a brace on that arm, and, yes, Brady called it the best catch he's ever seen.
Gronkowski has caught eight touchdowns. That leaves 14 other passing touchdowns. The tight end is essential, but he’s certainly not a crutch. This is still Brady’s show. Sorry Garoppolo.
2. Andrew Luck
Indianapolis’ new golden boy doesn’t just want to fill the shoes of Peyton Manning, he wants to make the NFL completely forget about him (ha, yeah right). After the Colts lost the first two games of the season by a combined 10 points to Denver and Philadelphia, the white and blue have ripped off a 6-1 record and have averaged 34 points per game. During that time, Luck’s arm has accounted for 126 of those 239 points, and his legs accounted for another six (not counting extra points).
The Stanford-bred QB is currently on pace for 5,484 passing yards, which would break the all-time single-season record Manning set in 2013 at 5,477. Luck has 3,085 through the first nine games, which means he’ll need to throw for 341.7 yards each game from here on out. Considering he’s throw for at least 300 yards in eight of nine games this season, that’s not out of reach. He’ll probably even throw in another 300 yards rushing this year, as well.
Luck started the season with 13 TDs in the first four games, which broke Peyton’s Colts franchise record of 11, which Manning set in 2004 and 2010. He’s already thrown more TDs than he did in each of his first two full seasons (23), his completion percentage has jumped from 60.2 to 63.6, and his rating spiked from 87.0 to 100.3.
As far as being clutch goes, Luck actually has zero fourth-quarter comebacks or game-winning drives this year after executing 11 in his first two seasons. But what’s more clutch than setting yourself so well you never need to be clutch?
1. DeMarco Murray
One thing this NFL season has been missing (aside from rational sense) is those Cowboys memes. They were plentiful this time last season; Dallas was 5-5 and had given up 51 points and a late interception (because Romo, amirite?) in a classic against the Broncos. Between Jerry Jones frolicking and Romo's bad game during the opening week, 2014 was looking like more of the same. But the jokes stopped there. DeMarco Murray had other plans.
Murray is the league’s leading rusher by more than 300 yards, and he’s on pace to hit that 2,000 yard mark on the season. He’s also only had one game where he didn’t rush for at least 100 yards. He's not too worried, though, as he already set the record for most 100-yard games to open a season with eight.
The knock against him is that he’s lost a fumble in five different games. That’s a bit ironic, given how Murray has been the Cowboys sturdiest backbone and spark in recent memory. That’s not to discount Dez Bryant’s effort, but, come on, he's Dez Bryant. The Cowboys haven’t made the playoffs in the three years he’s been killing. This year, there’s a consistent offense and there’s a Romo who’s decided to cool it with the interceptions. We attribute both of those to Murray's impact.
If that’s not convincing enough, let the normally staunch god Jim Brown tell it: “I have to start off by giving him congratulations, because the Dallas Cowboys are winning now and his contribution is a great part of that," he said. "That's the reason for the fact that they're winning is he's having a good year. He has my respect."