In a down year for QBs, will Tom Brady’s humdrum excellence win him MVP?

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<span>Photograph: Jonathan Dyer/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Dyer/USA Today Sports

What was set up to be a rollicking MVP race has descended into a mess.

Heading into Week 13, no one has an unassailable case. Toss the league’s top quarterbacks up and they could fall down in any order over the next month: Tom Brady, Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers or Kyler Murray. If you want to tack on a running back as a candidate, then feel free to add in Jonathan Taylor. But the MVP is almost exclusively a quarterback award at this point – the last non-QB to win it was Adrian Peterson in 2012. The four criteria are: Who had the best season; which team won the most games; who was the most fun to watch; who has the best story. This season, it’s hard to find anyone who ticks all the boxes.

Quarterback play across the league is in a down year. The advanced metric site RBSDM tracks a figure known as Expected Points Added, which measures the value (compared to historical records) for each and every play. The number for great quarterback play is anything above 0.25. Last season, five quarterbacks were well beyond that figure.

This season: Zero. Zilch. Nada.

The MVP conversation this year – or argument, depending on your zealousness – is less about which quarterback has excelled and more about who hasn’t stunk at one point or another. Which quarterback will struggle the least down the stretch and therefore outlast his peers?

Early in the season, Kyler Murray was the clear favorite. He marshaled the league’s best and last undefeated team. His play was electric. He had taken a clear, obvious leap. A coronation for the mobile, cannon-armed Murray felt in keeping with the evolution of the sport, and would follow the trend of the game’s best and brightest young quarterbacks winning an MVP early in their career.

Then Murray got injured. He has missed three games so far this season. Can a player who’s missed 17% of the available games be eligible for the award? What’s more valuable: Scorching the earth for 14 games (provided Murray returns this Sunday playing at the same level as when he left) or playing good, solid football for 17?

Elsewhere, it has not been a banner year for Aaron Rodgers, whose off-the-field behavior and the fact he picked up the award last year will all but rule him out of this season’s proceedings. Justin Herbert has been up and down. Ditto for Josh Allen.

Related: The Rams traded away tomorrow. Unfortunately today doesn’t look too hot either

Lamar Jackson’s early-season candidacy has fizzled, too. With mounting injuries, the Ravens offense has consistently ground to a halt. It’s a similar story for Matthew Stafford, who has fallen from preseason darling to ‘Is Stafford What’s Wrong With The Rams?’ fodder in record time. Realtors on Stafford Island are scrambling to meet this week to discuss slumping prices. This writer, for what it’s worth, will keep his beachfront property for now.

Of those six, Allen has the best shot at regaining a foothold in the race. The Bills quarterback has a chance to punctuate his candidacy down the stretch with two games in four weeks against Bill Belichick and the Patriots. If Allen comes through both games unscathed – or thrives in one or more of them – he will find himself at the top of voters’ ballots, perhaps with a shoulder shrug from them. I mean, sure, I guess he’s the MVP.

There, ready and waiting for an Allen slip, is Tom Brady – because isn’t he always?

Brady’s humdrum excellence has seen him skate a touch under the radar this season. At this point in his career, the season doesn’t truly begin until the postseason rolls around. And while Brady and the Bucs have not been the overwhelming force that many expected coming into the year, they’re still on course to contend for the top seed in the NFC.

Brady is the current betting favorite. He leads the league in touchdown passes. He is tops in DVOA, a measure of a player’s down to down efficiency, and he leads the league in Football Outsider’s DYAR, a measure of player’s total value. By those metrics, yes, he is the sport’s most valuable player – at 44-years-old. That story in and of itself might carry the day – there remains a real possibility that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick win an MVP-Coach of the Year double in 2021, which will probably force the rest of the league to take a moment for quiet contemplation in a dark room somewhere.

Then again, an optimistic voice would point out that the drop in quarterback play is a chance toto shine a light on the league’s other stars.

Taylor continues to garner attention from national analysts as a potential outside candidate. Yet the running back’s candidacy has much to do with the imagination of coach and play-designer Frank Reich and the Colts’ all-mauling offensive line. A running back winning the award for the game’s top player in the year 2021 feels slightly dinosaur-ish, but when there are few candidates elsewhere on the board, maybe he can sneak into the discussion. Were he healthy, Derrick Henry would merit consideration.

What about a defensive player? Can Cameron Heyward – the league’s most ferocious pass-rusher – be considered the most valuable player if his Steelers are mediocre? What about Aaron Donald? Should he win the award if the Rams defense continues to be a sieve? Shouldn’t Myles Garrett carrying a beat-up Browns defense to some level of respectability merit attention beyond the Defensive Player of the Year honor? It should, but it won’t.

Even in a down year, the award will almost certainly go to the game’s most effective quarterback. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than this: Which player do you fear the most on third down? Murray seems like the right answer. But there is Brady, ever lurking. This season, there is no right answer. It’s a matter of taste.