Before getting into the breakdown, let’s lay down the ground rules for how to choose an MVP.
Team success is nice and has recently become a prerequisite for MVP consideration, but the NFL Most Valuable Player award is an individual honor. The evaluation of any MVP candidate must focus as much as possible on aspects of the game that only that individual can control. Football is the most difficult of all sports to tease out one player's contribution, but I’ll do the best I can to credit Brees only for elements of the game that he can directly control.
With that in mind, let’s break it down.
It’s difficult to define exactly what “best player” means, but to me, it’s a combination of looking the part on the field and supporting those aesthetics with an impressive statistical profile.
Brees has the look of an MVP. He leads his team with a confidence unrivaled by any other quarterback in the league. There’s no way to quantify “the eye test,” but statistically, it’s hard to top the season that Brees is putting up in 2011.
To address the team comparison, it’s true that his chief competitor for MVP, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, leads the team with the best record in football, but Brees steers the ship for the team with the best offense. Rodgers’ 14-1 record earns him the “best player on the best team” title, but that shouldn’t guarantee him the MVP (although it traditionally does).
Individually, Brees ranks in the top five in the NFL in nearly every meaningful measure of passing prowess. He leads the league in pass attempts, completions, passing yards, yards per game, total offense and completion percentage. He ranks second in touchdowns and fifth in yards per attempt.
Most Valuable to His Team
By the language of the award, the greatest determining factor for MVP should be how valuable a player is to his team. Rather than launching into a debate about exact meaning of the word “valuable,” let’s just accept that a player’s impact on his teammates is an important piece of any MVP evaluation and continue on our way.
Quarterback is already the most valuable position on just about any NFL team, but Brees takes that distinction to another level.
The success of the New Orleans Saints depends almost completely on Drew Brees. Though the Saints do have a successful running game, they throw the ball more often than any other team in the league.
Some might argue that Brees’ statistical majesty is just the product of a pass-happy system.
In reality, Brees and the Saints don’t have much of a choice in the matter. New Orleans has to score big in order to cover for its 26th-ranked defense. It’s quite a feat for Brees to bring a team—whose pass defense allowed 23 touchdowns against just eight interceptions—to within one win (and one San Francisco loss) of the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
On the rare occasions when Brees isn’t on his game, the Saints struggle to compete. In New Orleans’ three losses, Brees has thrown a total of five interceptions. He’s thrown just eight picks in the Saints’ 12 wins.
When his team needs him the most, Brees comes through in the clutch. He’s engineered three fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives—both marks rank him third in the NFL for the season.
When Brees is great, the Saints win. When he completes better than 69 percent of his passes, the Saints are 10-0.
If a player is going to be named MVP, it’s fair to expect that he put up a season that deserves consideration among the all-time greats at his position.
Even during a season in which passing numbers are spiking all over the league, Drew Brees has separated himself from the pack.
In Week 17, he’ll put the finishing touches on the most prolific volume passing season in NFL history.
He’s already broken Dan Marino’s single-season passing record, amassing 5,087 yards through 15 games. He’s also broken his own record for total offense in a single season.
Brees already has 440 completions, which puts him on pace to break Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 450.
He averages just shy of 340 yards per game, and unless the Saints debut an uncharacteristically grounded attack against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Brees will crush Dan Fouts’ single-season NFL record of 320 passing yards per game.
Brees isn’t just about volume, he’s also been remarkably efficient this season. He’s on pace to break his own single-season record for completion percentage (which would also cement him as the most accurate passer of all time) in a season in which he’s set a career high in yards per attempt.
What More Could He Do?
The final question that I always ask myself when considering a most valuable player debate is “What else could he have done to be better?”
In Brees' case, it’s hard to realistically ask for more. He could have limited his interceptions a bit, but he’s actually tied for sixth in the league in interception rate; it’s only the fact that he leads the league in pass attempts that drives up his total.
Beyond that, what more can you expect from a guy who is setting all-time records at his position while leading such a prolific offense?
New Orleans leads the league in yards per play and currently ranks second in scoring, putting up just under 35 points per game. On top of that, the Saints are on pace to post the greatest single offensive season (in terms of yardage gained) in NFL history, averaging nearly 460 yards per game. The Saints need to gain only about half that against Carolina in order to best the season yardage total of the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams.
Drew Brees’ 2011 season answers all of the questions that any MVP voter could possibly ask. In any other season, he’d be a unanimous choice, but unfortunately for Brees, he won’t run unopposed this year. Aaron Rodgers can make one hell of a case for MVP.
On one hand, no quarterback has ever accumulated the kind of passing volume that Brees has this season. Yet on the other hand, no quarterback has ever had as efficient a campaign as Rodgers has in 2011.
Brees has more yards. Rodgers has more touchdowns.
Rodgers has a better quarterback rating. Brees has a better completion percentage.
I could go all day.
On an individual level, there isn’t much to separate Brees and Rodgers.
The separation can only be achieved by comparing the accomplishments of their offenses as a whole. Normally, I wouldn’t advocate this approach, but in a race in which the individual profiles are neck and neck, the comparison has to expand outward to the next area over which the candidates have significant control.
Both Brees and Rodgers are the trigger men of pass-driven offenses, so it seems fair to consider the overall performance of those offenses when determining which player is “most valuable.”
The Packers offense has been great this season, leading the NFL in scoring, but the Saints offense has been historic.
Green Bay’s 34.3 points per game is impressive, but New Orleans 457.1 yards per game is unequaled in the history of professional football.
With that, by the slimmest of margins, Drew Brees is the 2011 NFL MVP.