I’ve saved the most obvious one for last. Anyone who doesn’t vote for Peyton Manning this year is doing it to be edgy, because he personally hates Peyton Manning, because he doesn’t like the word unanimous, because he’s an asshole, or probably some mix of the four. The only two interesting debates around MVP this year are who will be runner up and is Peyton Manning’s single the greatest by a quarterback of all time. I’m going to tackle the latter and then double back to the former.
There’s definitely an argument to be made that this is the greatest regular season by a quarterback in NFL history (playoffs are yet to be written). Manning now has both the single season passing touchdown record and the yardage record. He has the former by a pretty significant margin and he could have extended both even more if he hadn’t sat out the 2nd half of week 17’s game against the vastly overmatched Raiders’ defense. He also was the quarterback for the highest scoring offense in NFL history.
However, he did throw 10 interceptions and had one of the easiest schedules in terms of opponents’ defenses in the NFL. That’s obviously nitpicking, but when you’re talking about greatest of all time, you kind of have to nitpick. When Brady threw for 50 touchdowns in 2007, he threw just 8 interceptions. Sure, Manning broke Brady’s touchdown record by 5, but 2007 Brady still had the superior TD/INT ratio. He also was slightly better in terms of completion percentage (68.9% to 68.3%) and yards per attempt (8.32 to 8.31) and thus QB rating (117.2 to 115.1).
In fact, in terms of QB rating, a more all-encompassing statistic, Manning’s season didn’t rank 1st all time. It didn’t even rank 2nd all-time. 2013 Manning comes in 5th in this regard. Hell, he didn’t even lead the NFL in QB rating this year, as Nick Foles improbably posted the 3rd best single season quarterback rating in NFL history at 119.2. This wasn’t even the best QB rating of Manning’s career. In 2004, the first time he set the single season touchdown record, he had a 121.1 QB rating, which is 2nd all-time (Brady’s 2007 was 4th). That was as a result of a 67.6% completion percentage and a 9.17 YPA. There’s an argument to be made that this wasn’t even the best regular season of Manning’s career. Manning faced a tougher schedule in terms of opponents’ defenses in 2004, as did Brady in 2007.
If you love QB rating as a measure of quarterback’s season, then you might think Aaron Rodgers had the greatest regular season in NFL history by a quarterback in 2011. He completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 9.25 yards per attempt and 45 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He did that in just 15 games, sitting out week 17 with the #1 seed locked up. Considering his backup Matt Flynn threw for 480 yards and 6 touchdowns in that game, there’s an argument to be made that Rodgers (who was at 4643 yards and 45 touchdowns through 15 games), would have thrown for 5000+ yards and 50+ touchdowns had he played in that week 17 game against Detroit’s miserable secondary. Sure, Manning did that this year, but Rodgers would have done it with a higher YPA and fewer interceptions against a tougher schedule.
Another factor that needs to be mentioned is that, of the aforementioned 3 seasons, only Rodgers’ 2011 season was played under the stricter NFL head-to-head contact rules that have completely opened up the middle of the field. Who knows how good 2004 Manning and 2007 Brady would have been under 2013’s rules. That also brings some of the old timers into the conversation as it’s so much easier to pass the ball under today’s rules or even the rules of the 2000s than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.
Steve Young’s 1994 season, in which he set the then record for QB rating at 112.8, was figuratively revolutionary. Young completed 70.3% of his passes for an average of 8.61 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and he also rushed for 293 yards and 7 touchdowns, which doesn’t even show up in QB rating. How about Dan Marino throwing for 48 touchdowns and 5084 yards in 1984? Who throws for 48 touchdowns 5084 yards in 1984? That’s like 60 touchdowns 6000 yards by today’s standards.
Marino completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 9.01 yards per attempt that season and though he did throw 17 interceptions, his 108.9 QB rating is still 16th all-time and was 2nd at the time back then, behind Milt Blum’s 1960 season. How about Milt Blum? Can we throw him into the discussion for completing 60.4% of his passes for an average of 9.2 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions in 1960? What’s that by today’s standards? Does anyone know? Is there an exchange rate? And how have I written 800+ words already without mentioning Joe Montana, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time? His 1989 season, in which he had a 112.4 QB rating, is still 7th all-time in QB rating and was a record at the time. Sure he only played in 13 games, but he completed 70.2% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. Milt Blum only played in 14 games. Should we hold that against poor old Milt Blum?
The point is: picking the single greatest regular season all-time by a quarterback is near impossible for a variety of factors. Peyton Manning’s season is in there, but it’s hardly the only one that deserves mention. Just know it was the best season by a quarterback this season (sorry Nick Foles, you have to play more than 9 games all the way through) and he deserves the MVP unanimously for that reason.
Now who deserves to be the runner up? Well, that’s a bigger field than who deserves to win. LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles were both all-purpose freaks for playoff teams, but they’re just running backs and you really have to do what Adrian Peterson did last year to deserve to be MVP in today’s NFL. Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and even Tom Brady did great things from the quarterback position this year. You could also get me to listen on Nick Foles, but I don’t think any other quarterback had as good of a season this year as Philip Rivers.
I touched upon this when I laid out his candidacy for Comeback Player of the Year. It didn’t give it to him because it required a loose definition of “comeback,” but he fits here perfectly no matter your definition of “value.” After posting QB ratings of 100+ for 3 straight seasons from 2008-2010, Rivers saw his QB rating drop into the 80s in both 2011 and 2012. There were rumors of injuries and age, going into his age 32 season, was also seen as a factor.
Instead, Rivers found the fountain of youth in 2013, with help from his new coaching staff and the front office. New head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt did a fantastic job fixing Rivers and building an offense better suited to his strengths. Also, after playing for 2 years with minimal offensive supporting cast, new GM Tom Telesco (who got some Executive of the Year consideration from me) did a great job fixing the situation, without big offensive signings and with just one off-season. Drafting DJ Fluker in the first round helped, but the real steals were getting Keenan Allen (an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate) in the 3rd round getting and King Dunlap and Danny Woodhead on cheap contracts in free agency.
The results were great. Rivers posted a 105.5 QB rating that tied for his career best. He completed 69.5% of his passes for an average of 8.23 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, while leading the Chargers to a 2nd place finish in rate of moving the chains (78.26%) behind Denver and an AFC Wild Card berth, in spite of a terrible defense supporting him (75.36%). Rivers still didn’t have a lot of offensive help around him, but he made the most of it. He finished 2nd behind Peyton Manning in QB rating among quarterbacks who made every start (Nick Foles and Josh McCown also qualified and had higher QB ratings than Rivers). For all of that, I think he deserves to be the runner up here.