What does "valuable" mean?
Each year, the NFL names a Most Valuable Player. It's the biggest award in the sport, but every year, it seems to precipitate a larger argument about exactly what the word means. I mean, we all have dictionaries, right? So, why can't we agree on what a simple, little word means?
Everyone has their own idea. Those ideas are often supported by other motives and biases ("let me tell you why this player on my favorite team is the most valuable").
Or media members who cover a certain team drive the discussion; on a near-daily basis, they hear coaches and personnel men extol what a player means to their team, so they report that, and it adds to the noise.
But what does it mean?
In truth, over the years, it's meant a lot of different things. So, let's take a look at some of our options as we examine the top candidates in this year's MVP race.
Does Valuable Mean "Most Physically Talented"?
Every once in a while, valuable is used interchangeably with the word "outstanding."
It is worth noting, in fact, that the NCAA basketball tournament uses MOP—Most Outstanding Player—to describe the top player in the tournament, as do college baseball and the Canadian Football League.
For me, however, "outstanding" has a different connotation than "valuable."
For the second year in a row, it would be easy to argue that Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has had the best season of anyone in the NFL—at any position. He's been a force for two years running—almost single-handedly keeping the Texans in games they have no business being in. He's dominant at the point of attack and consistently alters the way offenses play his team, even when the rest of the team is down and out.
Yet, for the second year in a row, the Texans have suffered when linebacker Brian Cushing left the field. As good as Watt has been, it's difficult to argue that he's the most valuable player in the league when Cushing might be the most integral part of his own defense.
That said, anyone who watches football has to at least put Watt in the discussion, because his play has been phenomenal.
The same can be said for a couple of receivers: Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson and Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon. If "valuable" simply means the hardest players to match up against, why wouldn't these two split the award this season?
Both Johnson and Gordon have been uncoverable in 2013. In fact, Gordon has a shot to lead the NFL in both receiving yards and yards per reception, even though he was suspended for two games. Much like Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson last season, it's hard to watch these two do what they do and not consider them valuable.
Johnson, for his part, is clearly the straw that stirs the drink of the Lions high-powered offense. Gordon is the only piece of the Browns offensive puzzle that seems worth his salt. The quarterback carousel he's dealt with is oddly reminiscent of what Megatron dealt with his first couple of years in Detroit.
Neither of them is winning the MVP award, however, because while they've been two of the best players in football this season, the award has typically meant something different than that.
Or, Does Valuable Mean "Doing the Most with the Least Around You"?
Each year, the campaigning is as dependable as it is predictable: "Without so-and-so, Team X wouldn't have even won a game!"
Usually, this is the battle cry from teams outside of the playoff race who want their stars to get some well-deserved recognition. However, while it's admirable and laudable to trumpet those less heralded stars for things like the Pro Bowl or the All-Pro team, the MVP thing just isn't happening.
Josh Gordon, as discussed, fits in this category, too. Without him, the Browns offense would look more like something from an old NFL Films VHS than a modern NFL offense. Seriously, besides Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron, I'm not sure how the forward-pass thing would even work out for Cleveland.
Peterson, last year's MVP, clearly fits in this category as well. The difference, of course, is that the Vikings haven't accomplished nearly as much this season. That alone should demonstrate exactly what the word "valuable" means in NFL circles. Peterson hasn't carried less value for the Vikings this season. Instead, his teammates, time and again, let him down.
Heck, if we really want to go down the rabbit hole with this definition, how about one of the New York Jets defensive linemen? What about Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David? Where's the MVP candidacy for Houston Texans center Chris Myers?
Of course, there's more to it than just "really good player who doesn't have a ton of help."
The worst iteration of this definition, though, reared it's ugly head a few years ago, when then-Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning sat out the year with an injury. All of a sudden, he received this massive push for MVP—without playing—because his value to the Colts was so evident.
|Michael Schottey's MVP Ballot—Dec. 13|
|No. 1||Peyton Manning||QB||Denver Broncos|
|No. 2||Tom Brady||QB||New England Patriots|
|No. 3||Drew Brees||QB||New Orleans Saints|
|No. 4||J.J. Watt||DE||Houston Texans|
|No. 5||Calvin Johnson||WR||Detroit Lions|
I mean, no...just no.
Take the starting quarterback or best player off any team without a backup plan, and let's see what happens. No, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers doesn't get an award because the Packers couldn't be bothered to address the backup-quarterback position. We're not giving the award to Cushing, either. I'm almost surprised that I haven't seen an "Aaron Hernandez for MVP" argument, considering how derelict the New England Patriots offense has looked with him behind bars.
Being the best player on a crappy team stinks, but it doesn't give someone the inside track for an MVP award. Otherwise, we'd be talking about the closet full of trophies that guys like Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson (during his St. Louis Rams days) or Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith had collected.
Most of the Time, Valuable Simply Means "Best Player on a Good Team"
OK, so we know that the player has to be on a playoff contender—even if he has not been quite as "outstanding" as some other guys in the league. We know, too, that the player has to have proven worth to his team.
Right now, that leaves us with two solid candidates for the 2013 NFL MVP award: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. The question, then, is: who gets your vote? Because, at this point, both seem like very compelling candidates.
First, let's separate the chaff. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees are all having good seasons for good teams. The value to their respective teams cannot be overstated.
The specifics of what keeps each of those candidates out of the league-MVP discussion might slightly differ between them, but it boils down to whether they, single-handedly, are dragging their team toward a Super Bowl.
It can be argued, credibly, that both Brady and Manning are doing just that.
So, then, it comes down to what matters the most in your own personal definition of the term "valuable." More importantly, it comes down to what the people who vote on the awards feel is the most important part of the definition.
Of the two, the best season has to go to Manning. This season, he's flirting with single-season records for both touchdown passes (50) and passing yardage (5,476), as well as a host of other things like first downs, total completions, passer rating, etc.
He's done OK.
The superlatives have certainly been there for Manning, as have the MVP-caliber moments. He's had plenty of opportunities to look great in front of national audiences, and he has his team sitting at the top of the AFC.
The argument against Manning, though, is simple: Wide receivers Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, running back Knowshon Moreno and tight end Julius Thomas represent one of the better supporting casts (at least in terms of skill-position players) that any quarterback could ask for. Does Manning make other players look better? Sure, but it can't be said that all of those players aren't chipping in and doing their part to provide value to the Broncos offense.
Brady would give his left Ugg for that supporting cast.
He doesn't have the numbers that Manning does, but Brady has the head-to-head win, and now, the Patriots have a shot to "steal" the No. 1 playoff seed if they win out. That's a huge deal, and it is all due to Manning's Thursday Night Football loss to the Chargers, in which he didn't exactly play like an MVP.
Brady hasn't done more with less, rather, he's done quite a bit with almost nothing.
The thing is, as we hemmed and hawed about what's wrong with the Patriots for much of this season, they've trucked along to a 10-3 record. Their three losses are by a combined 14 points—to the New York Jets (in overtime) and at Cincinnati and Carolina.
Meanwhile, Brady has done it without any of his top receivers from last season, except for the tiny period of time where he actually had tight end Rob Gronkowski. Seriously, though, he has had no Welker, Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd or Danny Woodhead to work with. Brady has always been what makes this offense tick, but this season, he's been doing it with an entirely new watch around him.
Oh, by the way, the Patriots are still eighth in total offensive yardage, eighth in passing yardage and fifth in points per game. They're doing alright.
Manning has the numbers, but Brady's numbers are almost all to his credit because of how little help he has had.
I'm privileged to vote for the Pro Football Writers of America MVP award each season. These are very real discussions that we have to have both amongst ourselves and internally as we prepare our ballots. Had I written this column a week ago, Manning would have been the runaway winner. Yet, that's why we have to finish the season, because Brady's case looks infinitely better this morning.
Over the last few weeks of the season, the MVP race might be more interesting and hotly contested than most playoff matchups, as a couple of great athletes try to outdo one another to prove they're the absolute best at what they do.