5 Dark-Horse Candidates to Win 2012 NFL MVP
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While the most prestigious, the NFL MVP is also one of the more predictable awards in professional sports.
For five consecutive seasons, a quarterback has won it, and it's typically won by one of the "hot" preseason names. Following the Packers' run to Super Bowl XLV in 2010, many predicted Aaron Rodgers to win last year's MVP, and he did.
This offseason, Rodgers is joined by Super Bowl XLVI MVP Eli Manning, two-time MVP Tom Brady and last year's passing leader Drew Brees as the most popular picks to be rewarded as this season's MVP. As well, after Cam Newton's record-breaking rookie season with the Carolina Panthers, some expect his rise to continue down an MVP path in his second season.
But let's go in a different direction and look at five dark-horse candidates to win the award.
5. Philip Rivers, Chargers QB
Rivers had a disappointing 2011 season, but he's an MVP-caliber quarterback.
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Philip Rivers enters 2012 coming off an up-and-mostly-down season. Despite throwing a career-high 20 interceptions last season, Rivers surpassed the 4,000-yard barrier for the fourth consecutive year.
Prior to last season's 88.7 passer rating, Rivers had a run of three straight years with a passer rating of at least 101.8. After a mediocre season and losing his No. 1 wide receiver Vincent Jackson, expectations for Rivers this season will be the lowest they've been since he became a full-time starter in 2006.
In a wide-open AFC West, Rivers and the Chargers could very well rise into the league's elite ranks. All offseason, there have been reports of Antonio Gates being the healthiest he's ever been after missing nine games the past two seasons.
The Chargers' receiving corps took a hit when Vincent Brown fractured his ankle in the preseason. According to SI.com's Jim Trotter, the Bolts planned to "feature" Brown prior to his injury.
Despite that, the Chargers still feature a solid three-man receiving corps of Malcom Floyd, Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal. And with Gates frustrating defenses in the middle of the field, Rivers will have plenty of capable targets.
After last season, nobody is talking about Rivers headed into 2012. But the fact remains—he is an extremely talented passer, and he's eager to silence his doubters.
4. Jay Cutler, Bears QB
With better weapons around him, Cutler could soar to new heights.
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Jay Cutler as the league MVP? I know, it's hard to imagine a quarterback who has never posted a passer rating higher than 88.1 for a full season winning the NFL's most prestigious individual award.
But just last season, the Bears were one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC before injuries sidelined their best two offensive players—Cutler and Matt Forte.
Now, the Bears enter 2012 not only at full strength, but with added talent on offense. Cutler enters the season surrounded by the best receiving corps he's had since being traded to Chicago.
Cutler was at his best in the 2008 season, racking up a career-high 4,526 passing yards with the Broncos. The heavily scrutinized quarterback had the privilege of throwing to 6'4" athletic freak Brandon Marshall, an option he hasn't had with the Bears until now.
Marshall and Jeffery should immediately improve the Bears' red-zone production. On top of that, having two big targets on the outside will allow speedsters Devin Hester and Johnny Knox (when he returns from injury) to play in their more natural positions in the slot.
With an established running game and a vastly improved group of wide receivers, Cutler may be poised for his best season. If the Bears overtake the Packers in the NFC North, there could well be whispers of Cutler as the MVP.
3. LeSean McCoy, Eagles RB
It's been six years since a running back won MVP, but McCoy has the talent to do it.
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The last time a running back won the NFL MVP was in 2006, when LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 1,815 yards and scored 31 touchdowns. Since then, five quarterbacks have claimed the award.
But if there's one running back who could challenge for the league's MVP award, it's Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy.
Last season was McCoy's best as a professional, as he rushed for 1,309 yards and 17 touchdowns. McCoy also had 48 receptions for 315 yards after leading the team with 78 receptions in 2010—eight more than wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and 31 more than DeSean Jackson.
In today's "pass-happy" league, the running back position has been devalued to a certain extent. McCoy, however, is an exception due to his ability to line up all over the formation and catch the football.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has suffered numerous injuries throughout his career, and he suffered an injury in each of his two preseason appearances this month. If Vick continues to struggle to stay on the field, Philadelphia's offense will rely even more heavily on McCoy.
Quite obviously, the common denominator among MVP winners is being on a winning team. McCoy will need to have a huge season if the Eagles are to reach their potential and win the NFC East. If that's the case, the dynamic fourth-year running back may find himself in MVP consideration.
2. Matt Ryan, Falcons QB
Armed with two elite weapons on the outside, Matt Ryan is ready to break out.
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Matt Ryan has steadily improved since coming into the league in 2008. After two good seasons, the Boston College alum has put together a pair of stellar ones.
Plus, he's won 43 games in his first four seasons as a professional.
Last year was Ryan's best, throwing for more than 4,000 yards for the first time in his career and setting career highs for passing touchdowns (29) and passer rating (92.2). The Falcons, again, had a disappointing one-and-done showing in the playoffs, but the forecast for 2012 is promising, to say the least.
Ryan is surrounded by several of the most dangerous weapons in the league.
No. 1 receiver Roddy White has caught 100 passes in each of the past two seasons, and he's surpassed 1,100 yards in five consecutive seasons. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is in the twilight of his career, but he's still among the league's best. Last year's first-round pick Julio Jones appears poised for NFL stardom, with 2012 being his "coming-out" party.
In the team's first three preseason games, Ryan posted passer ratings of 103.0, 117.1 and 107.9, respectively, while completing an incredible 75 percent of his passes.
If the preseason is any indication, the Falcons appear ready to soar to the NFC South title—and then some—while Ryan seems likely to have the best season of his professional career.
1. Tony Romo, Cowboys QB
If the Cowboys win the NFC East, Romo will be the main reason why.
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Perhaps no player in the NFL is as heavily scrutinized as Tony Romo. The Jets' backup quarterback may be in the news more, but Romo is the target of an unrivaled amount of criticism despite being an established NFL star.
In many ways, Romo is to football what LeBron James was to basketball. No, Romo isn't an imposing lion among small kittens like LeBron on the basketball court, but both have been doubted due to their failure to lead a team to a championship.
Even when the Anti-LeBron and Miami Hate trends were at their peak, one could not ignore that James was and is the most talented basketball player on the planet. Similarly, regardless of Romo's postseason shortcomings, the truth cannot be ignored—he is a very, very good quarterback.
Buried under the earth-shattering 2011 numbers produced by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, Romo quietly put together the best season of his career.
Throwing for 4,184 yards and 31 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions, Romo registered a career-high 102.5 passer rating. If not for a couple of late-game blunders, the Cowboys would have been in the playoffs.
With the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles in the same division, not many people are talking about Dallas as a serious threat to win the NFC East. But if the Cowboys are able to come out of the division, Romo will be a big reason why.
And the tested 32-year-old quarterback just may find himself in the thick of the MVP race.
Marques is a Featured Columnist for the NFL at Bleacher Report and a Packers columnist at Jersey Al's AllGreenBayPackers.com