Five figure prominently in tight MVP race

In the 52 years The Associated Press names some form of an NFL Most Valuable Player (it was called the Most Outstanding Player from 1957 to 1960), there have been two occasions when the award has been shared by two players.

Rivers' Chargers have won nine straight games.
(Jody Gomez-US Presswire)

Will this become the first season three players share the honor?

There are still two weeks to go in the NFL season, but there is little question that this year features what could be the tightest race for the league’s highest individual honor. No fewer than five players are worthy of serious consideration, although three have started to pull away as obvious choices.

With ballots due from the 50 voters (yours truly is not among them) after the final game of the season, choosing among quarterbacks Peyton Manning(notes) of Indianapolis, Drew Brees(notes) of New Orleans and San Diego’s Philip Rivers(notes) might be the toughest call for MVP ever.

“Yeah, I think it will be close enough that all three will get a decent number of votes,” said AP sportswriter Barry Wilner, who has handled the voting for the news organization since 1994. “I said this on a radio show earlier [Tuesday] that I thought that if the Titans had won out, Vince Young(notes) would have gotten a lot of consideration. Obviously, that’s not going to happen now, but it would have been interesting.”

Aside from the two ties (Brett Favre(notes) and Barry Sanders in 1997 and Manning and Steve McNair(notes) in 2003), there have been two times this decade in which three players received at least 10 votes. Those were 2006, when Shaun Alexander(notes) (19 votes) won it over Manning (13) and Tom Brady(notes) (10), and 2002, when Rich Gannon (19) won it over Favre (15) and McNair (11).

Anyway, here’s a look at this year’s leading candidates:

Tennessee running back Chris Johnson
Johnson is 270 yards away from becoming the sixth back in NFL history to reach the 2,000-yard mark. Of the five to accomplish the feat, three won the MVP: O.J. Simpson in 1973, Sanders in 1997 and Terrell Davis in 1998. The exceptions were Eric Dickerson in 1984, when Dan Marino won the award after setting a then-NFL record with 48 touchdown passes, and Jamal Lewis in ’03.

The problem for Johnson is that the Titans are 7-7 and got off to an 0-6 start even when he was playing great. Things didn’t change until Young took over. That takes some luster off Johnson’s performance. Throw in the fact that the next four candidates are already in the playoffs and Johnson becomes a tough sell.

Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre
What do you say when one of the greatest players in NFL history is having his greatest season at age 40? His quarterback rating of 104.1 is by far the best of his career, as is his 27 touchdowns to seven interceptions. The story of Favre’s season with the Vikings isn’t just remarkable, it’s other-worldly. It’s the kind of stuff that scientists study. At the very least, it’s historic and it has the Vikings in position to win a Super Bowl.

The problem is that during the past three weeks, the Vikings have lost twice and Favre has regressed a bit, throwing four of his still-very-low seven interceptions during that time. Throw in this week’s tiff with coach Brad Childress and you not only have reason for concern in Minnesota, you have a reason to cross Favre off the MVP ballot.

Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning
Manning has a chance to eclipse Favre and the legendary Jim Brown as the only three-time winners of the MVP award and his credentials are hardly a stretch.

Start with the fact that the Colts are 14-0. How do you argue with a perfect season, so far? Then add in that Manning has engineered an NFL-record seven fourth-quarter comebacks this season. He has the requisite stats (101.2 rating, 33 TD passes, 15 interceptions). More importantly, he has done it with the league’s worst running game (86.1 yards per game) and has helped the Colts survive season-ending injuries to four defensive starters and injuries that forced defensive end Dwight Freeney(notes) and linebacker Gary Brackett(notes) to miss time.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees
Brees’ stats (109.4 rating, 33 TD passes, 11 interceptions) are slightly better than Manning’s numbers. The only difference is that Brees’ team finally fell as the Saints dropped to 13-1 with a loss to Dallas on Saturday. Yeah, that’s a brutal criticism, but this is a brutal year to have to make a decision, so everything counts.

Working in Brees’ favor is that he’s also a little more of an emotional leader for the Saints than Manning is for the Colts. Yeah, this may be hyperbole to some, but Brees is the guy that Saints players crowd around before games to see him lead the emotional charge. Call it a silly thing if you want, but it’s true. Brees’ story of both personal comeback and his symbolic leadership during New Orleans’ recovery are a pretty extraordinary combination.

San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers
Until this week, Rivers was still among the secondary candidates. But after leading the Chargers to their ninth consecutive win, Rivers is clearly the leader of one of the three hottest teams in the league. His stats (102.8 rating, 25 TD passes, nine interceptions) are also there with the likes of Brees, Manning and Favre. Like Manning, Rivers is also doing it with almost no running game (No. 30 in the league at 86.2 yards per game and dead last at 3.3 yards per rushing attempt).

Moreover, Rivers really has been flying under the radar for the past two years. Dating to the start of the 2008 season, Rivers has thrown 59 touchdown passes compared to 20 interceptions. That’s awesome. Of course, last year technically doesn’t count toward this year’s MVP ballot, but the fact that Rivers got overlooked for the Pro Bowl last year means there should be some payback somewhere down the line.

I’m almost thankful I don’t have a vote. However, if forced to choose today, I’d probably give Manning the nod. Going undefeated in the NFL through 14 games is a pretty strong star on the résumé. That said, something could happen in the final two games to change my mind, although I’m not sure what.


Browns’ suspicious move: While there is no reason to say that Cleveland was flat-out wrong for hiring Mike Holmgren as president, the folks with the Fritz Pollard Alliance have every reason to question the procedures that were followed in regard to the Rooney Rule. While Holmgren is being compared to the likes of Baltimore team president Dick Cass and Green Bay’s Mark Murphy, whose positions are not subject to the Rooney Rule, Holmgren has zero background as an administrator or businessman like the aforementioned pair. From his playing days to his coaching days, Holmgren is a football man. He has not demonstrated an interest in how to sell personal seat licenses and the like. Holmgren is in Cleveland for his football expertise and he should be, but he shouldn’t have been hired before the Browns followed the rules.

Policy a sore subject: Having mentioned the Rooney Rule, there is little question the policy conjures great ire, particularly among middle-aged white men. Without getting into a long diatribe about this, here’s my take on the rule: I don’t get the anger over just giving somebody an interview. The Rooney Rule does not tell teams who to hire. It simply instructs them to open the process fully and there’s nothing wrong with that. Bottom line: Competition is a good thing. No one should be afraid that a minority candidate gets interviewed. That said, it’s sad that there have to be rules like this and it’s a fair point to say that such rules are a slap in the face to qualified minority candidates. But there is too much proof in our country’s history that people can’t be trusted to do the right thing. Someday, hopefully, that will change and we can get rid of things like the Rooney Rule. Until then, it’s a necessary evil.

Top five
1. Indianapolis Colts (14-0):
Come on Jim Caldwell, go for it.
2. New Orleans Saints (13-1): Loss to Dallas drops them only one spot.
3. San Diego Chargers (11-3): Colts-Bolts AFC championship game would be awesome.
4. Minnesota Vikings (11-3): Hey Brett and Brad, where is the love?
5. Philadelphia Eagles (10-4): Wins over Denver and Dallas could generate huge momentum.

Bottom five
28. Cleveland Browns (3-11):
Dear Eric, you can pack up your office right now.
29. Kansas City Chiefs (3-11): Oooh, Larry Johnson(notes) plays his old team this week. No one cares.
30. Detroit Lions (2-12): Drew Stanton(notes), did you do any studying the past three years?
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-12): Win over Seattle is actually more telling about Seahawks.
32. St. Louis Rams (1-13): If Sam Bradford is the pick, Rams should lose last two.

This and that

Pioli (left) and coach Todd Haley are in their first year with the Chiefs.
(Kirby Lee/US Presswire)

Here’s some advice for Chiefs fans who are upset with the current administration: Get a grip. For all the perception of great history at Arrowhead Stadium, the reality is something different. Since winning Super Bowl IV, the Chiefs have won all of three playoff games. That’s right, three. In other words, you might want to give general manager Scott Pioli and his crew a little time to get this house in order.

Trivia question: Speaking of playoff victories, here’s an intriguing stat: Since the start of the 2000 season, 25 of the NFL’s 32 teams have won a playoff game. New England leads the way with 14 playoff victories, including three Super Bowls. Pittsburgh has 10, including two Super Bowls, Philadelphia (nine), Indianapolis (seven), Baltimore (seven), the New York Giants (six) and Carolina (five) are the other teams with at least five. But who are the seven teams with zero? (Hint, we’ll give you Kansas City to start). The answer is at the end.

The Dolphins probably would have lost anyway in overtime at Tennessee, but the unnecessary roughness call against Miami wide receiver Greg Camarillo(notes) that helped set up a field goal after an interception in overtime was really a bad call. There are times to make that call to help keep games from getting out of control. To call a ticky-tack penalty like that with the game on the line was really poor judgment.

One fellow NFL executive who has never worked for Indianapolis president Bill Polian recently said: “There is no doubt that Bill should be in the Hall of Fame. None. What he has done over his career is amazing. Four Super Bowl [appearances] in Buffalo, went to Carolina and kicked [butt] and now what he’s doing in Indianapolis. Just incredible.”

San Diego coach Norv Turner gave Tennessee quarterback Vince Young, whom the Chargers play on Christmas Day, some high praise this week. Said Turner: “They’ve really done a nice job with him in his pocket presence and getting the ball checked down to the second and third receivers. He’s always been able to throw the football down the field and make special throws. He made two against Miami that were unbelievable. He threw it right between two guys to his receiver, right over the top of the guy. I think his presence in the pocket and getting down to the second and third receiver has really improved.”

A tip of the cap to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) after his 503-yard/comeback effort against Green Bay. Amazing stuff and an indication that Roethlisberger has one or two MVPs in his future if he can just even out some of the inconsistent patches he has during seasons.

Trivia answer: Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Houston, Buffalo and Dallas.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Dec 22, 2009