While there is no player playing better at his position than Texans defensive end J.J. Watt—and this is a fact that's been true for probably three seasons—NFL award voters have come back to the conclusion that the most impactful quarterback is more valuable than an otherworldly season from a defensive end.
This is a defensible position, in my mind. J.J. Watt was phenomenal for a 2013 Texans team that went 2-14. Ultimately, an NFL team is the play that it can create from its quarterbacks.
With one game left, Watt is at 17.5 sacks and, per Pro Football Focus, 50 quarterback hurries and 43 quarterback hits. My assertion is simple: if Watt can find 2.5 more sacks against a Jaguars offensive line that yielded three of them in Week 14, Watt will have raised enough buzz to win the MVP award. NFL awards voters are not complex creatures, as much as they pretend to delve into all the nuances. A nice, round number and a furious finish will cause them to come around to Watt's case.
The Impact of 20 Sacks
Only nine players have ever reached the 20-sack plateau, and Watt is looking to become become the first player to ever reach it twice.
|20-Sack Seasons, NFL History|
|Source: Pro-Football Reference|
While we all know that we are watching a historical outlier in Watt—a player who would have been called up to a more competitive league if we had one available—a statistic like that is going to resonate with voters as a way to contextualize just how amazing Watt is.
With Watt we can point to PFF grades, tackles for loss, hits, pass breakups and hurries, and we can tell old-school writers the story of how what Watt is doing has been under-recognized by past statistical measures. We can explain that tipped passes lead to interceptions and that the net number of negative plays that Watt creates is unfathomable.
But 20 sacks? That would remove a lot of potential nuance from Watt's case. That's speaking to old-school beat writers and columnists on a level that they've understood for decades.
Effective communication is the best way to make your point, and there would be no greater marketing for Watt than to finish the season as the NFL's first-ever player to reach 20 sacks in multiple seasons. Those who have watched already know that Watt is off to one of the best starts to a defensive career in NFL history—20 sacks would wake up even the common fan to that fact.
By reaching the 20-sack plateau, Watt would have put up these numbers in his last five games:
|J.J. Watt, Weeks 13-17|
|Week||Opponent||Sacks||QB Hits||Hurries (PFF)|
|Sources: ESPN.com, Pro Football Focus|
Yeah, a lot of it is against AFC South competition, but that would be an insane stretch that, frankly, is hard to historically contextualize. If Watt picked up the 2.5 sacks he needs to reach 20 against the Jaguars, the only other player in NFL history who would have notched 10 sacks in his last five weeks is Reggie White.
The fact that this is a much more passing-centric league helps Watt, but we're also talking about a player pulling a team up from 5-6 to the steps of the playoffs here. It would be a historically unique accomplishment.
And the fact of the matter is that Watt's quarterback competition suffers badly when we shine the light of recency bias on them:
|Notable Quarterback MVP Candidates|
|Quarterback||Team||DVOA (Rk)||DYAR (Rk)||Conventional Stats|
|Aaron Rodgers||GB||28.6% (2)||1259 (4)||3632 yards, 35:5 TD/INT, 64.3% completion rate|
|Peyton Manning||DEN||32.4% (1)||1496 (1)||4019 yards, 37:11 TD/INT, 67.4% completion rate|
|Andrew Luck||IND||10.2% (11)||871 (10)||4304 yards, 38:14 TD/INT, 61.8% completion rate|
|Ben Roethlisberger||PIT||24.5% (4)||1315 (2)||4237 yards, 29:8 TD/INT, 68.3% completion rate|
|Tom Brady||NE||22.7% (6)||1238 (5)||3731 yards, 32:8 TD/INT, 64.8% completion rate|
|Tony Romo||DAL||23.6% (5)||940 (9)||2947 yards, 28:8 TD/INT, 69.8% completion rate|
|Russell Wilson||SEA||-0.6% (22)||279 (17)||2667 yards, 18:6 TD/INT, 62.8% completion rate|
|Source: Football Outsiders|
Aaron Rodgers is the presumptive MVP favorite and the guy I'd vote for as of Week 16, but he struggled against the Bills in Week 15. The Lions held him to just 162 passing yards and one touchdown in Week 3, and should they cramp his style again in their showdown for the NFC North title in Week 17, he'll be regarded as having finished the season with three straight below-par games.
Peyton Manning, who was probably the MVP favorite at midseason, has thrown for 179, 173 and 233 yards in his last three weeks heading into Monday Night Football, with just a 3:3 TD:INT ratio. The Broncos have focused more and more of their game plan on running back C.J. Anderson, and Peyton's personal stats have suffered for it.
Andrew Luck, who I would say has done the most with the least, has endured an awful stretch of games over the last month-and-a-half. The Colts will be regarded as having backed into the playoffs, which should obscure Luck's amazing individual stats. Even guys I consider down the ballot, like Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, had poor individual stats in Week 16.
|Peter King's MVP List, as of Week 16|
It's to the point where recency bias has invaded mainstream writer's lists. Peter King of MMQB/Sports Illustrated listed his MVP favorites in his most recent MMQB column. (I use King as an example because I feel like he's a popular embodiment of old-school football writing.)
We're now at the point where Tony Romo is an MVP candidate based on his work handing the ball off to DeMarco Murray and a nice TD:INT ratio over the last few weeks. We're in a world where Russell Wilson's big game in Seattle's win over Arizona Sunday night has obscured the fact that he entered Week 16 with a negative DVOA on the season.
This is what happens when there's not a quarterback candidate that's dominating the NFL: we have a vacuum where recency bias matters more than ever. That's a world where Watt is a legitimate MVP candidate. One more big game could be all the Texans defensive end needs to sneak over the line while his opposition is fumbling their chances away.
If you're a Texans fan, you probably shouldn't get too caught up in where Watt's season ranks him among NFL media. He's a superstar, and one of the most valuable long-term assets any team in the NFL has. He's great without an MVP award—receiving one isn't going to change his national perception so much as affirm what you already knew.
Watt's season already has checked a lot of the intangibles boxes for voters. His receiving touchdowns have raised his profile into a sort of mythic legend. He leads the NFL in fumble recoveries. His pick-six against the Bills essentially single-handedly won that game and swung both teams' seasons. If the Texans do make the playoffs—and there's still an outside chance that happens—he will be regarded as having one of the best defensive seasons of all time by virtue of dragging a team that used four mediocre-to-bad quarterbacks there all by himself.
While my vote still currently lies with Rodgers, because I think the value of quarterback play is just too much for any other position to ever overcome, I can envision a world where Watt walks away with the hardware without thinking too hard about it.
A playoff appearance probably does it. Twenty sacks? That may get him the award without even reaching the postseason. Watt's year has been a season for the ages, and with the other candidates fading, it may yet be rewarded like one.