clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

NFL MVP Race 2016: Matt Ryan vs. Perception

His statistics are those of an MVP, but perception is Matt Ryan’s biggest obstacle.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In Atlanta’s blowout victory against San Francisco on Sunday, Matt Ryan enjoyed some nice rest and relaxation during the fourth quarter. It was the second straight game in which the Falcons quarterback let the backups go to work and protect a comfortable lead.

That’s not supposed to happen in the NFL. Despite a difference in team talent, these are still world-class athletes playing for pride, money or a future job. The Falcons haven’t been fully healthy, either, so the talent discrepancy hasn’t been as drastic over the past two weeks.

A good chunk of Atlanta’s top weapons in the passing game against Los Angeles and San Francisco were a receiver who was cut by Cleveland, a career backup who missed the 2015 season and a rookie tight end.

With those players comprising most of his supporting cast, Ryan averaged a 68.6 completion percentage in the two most recent wins and threw for a total of 523 yards and 5 touchdowns with no interceptions. The notion that Ryan needs to be surrounded with talent may no longer be valid. He’s proving he can make those around him better.

In 2016, Ryan has been nothing short of consistently excellent. He’s completing nearly 70 percent of his passes this season and is on pace to throw for 4,995 yards, 37 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. His 9.3 yards per attempt are the best in the NFL by a full yard, and he has the top QBR.

By all accounts, Ryan is having an MVP-caliber season. He’s on pace to blow by his 2012 numbers, a year in which he also received some recognition in the MVP race. But there is a bit of a disturbing obstacle standing in Ryan’s way: National and public perception.

Much of the discussion in this year’s race has centered around Tom Brady, Ezekiel Elliott, Derek Carr and, recently, Aaron Rodgers. Ryan has been in the conversation as long as anyone, but he’s often hung on the fringes and never looked upon as someone with a legitimate chance.

Here is a particular line of dialogue from ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” in November that demonstrates just how quickly Ryan can be tossed aside.

“Matty Ice has about as much chance of winning the MVP as me,” Michael Wilbon told Tony Kornheiser when asked about Ryan’s MVP candidacy. “He has no chance of winning the MVP if Tom Brady plays in all of these games. If Tom Brady plays in 12 of these games, and he might go 12-0, if he goes 10-2, Tom Brady is the MVP. So we don’t need to trump it up with any other straw man to be the MVP.”

Now, that is a particularly harsh line of reasoning from a show that usually provides good dialogue and argument. While others in an around the national media may not be so blunt, the feeling is essentially the same. There are those who have legitimate reasons for selecting others over Ryan, and there is no problem in doing so, but there is a sense that some are choosing storylines and perception over production.

Wilbon and Kornheiser discussed Ryan’s MVP chances on Nov. 4. Let’s compare Brady and Ryan’s numbers at that point in the season.

Brady: 98/134 (73.13%), 1,319 yards, 12 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 9.745 Y/A

Ryan: 218/313 (69.64%), 2,980 yards, 23 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 9.52 Y/A

Obviously, Brady missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, so Ryan’s numbers are going to look gaudier. Even on a per-game basis, though, they are fairly similar.

Brady: 25/34 (73.5%), 330 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 9.7 Y/A

Ryan: 24/35 (68.57%), 331 yards, 2.5 touchdowns, .4 interceptions, 9.5 Y/A

Keep in mind that Brady started out this season playing one of the best four-game stretches in his entire career. With five additional games on the record, Ryan still comes close to those numbers. Since that blistering start, however, Brady has cooled off. He is fresh off of a performance at Denver in which he completed just 50 percent of his passes for 188 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

When looking at the two quarterback’s per-game numbers at this point in the year, it’s clear that Ryan has maintained his exceptional level of play and Brady, while still very good, has taken a step back.

Brady: 25/37 (67.5%), 306 yards, 2.2 touchdowns, .2 interceptions, 8.27 Y/A

Ryan: 23/33 (69.6%), 310 yards, 2.3 touchdowns, .5 interceptions, 9.4 Y/A

Brady is considered the top quarterback in the MVP race, but Ryan’s numbers are better at this point in the season. The other quarterbacks often mentioned in this year’s field are Carr and Rodgers. Ryan has thrown for about 600 yards more than either Carr or Rodgers, despite throwing the ball nearly 70 fewer times. His touchdown and interception numbers are the exact same as Rodgers’ and better than Carr’s.

Much of their candidacy revolves around their team’s current status. After years of losing football, the Raiders are finally back among the NFL’s contenders which makes for a great story. Green Bay is in the midst of a four-game win streak and one of the hottest teams on and off the field.

But neither Carr nor Rodgers is jumping off the page statistically. Carr’s numbers are similar to those he had in his second season. He has taken a step forward this year, but his campaign appears to be more closely tied to his team’s improvement than individual achievement. Rodgers looks to be on pace to have an average season by his own standards, and he has had some up and down games this year.

Possibly the most interesting candidate in the race is Elliott. The rookie running back is the NFL’s leading rusher and has been one of the most important players for the 12-2 Dallas Cowboys. Elliott has 1,551 yards with 13 touchdowns on the ground this season, over 300 yards more than the next man on the list.

It’s difficult for running backs to win the MVP award, however, without a truly exceptional statistic to point to. Since 2000, each running back to win the MVP awards has had either 2,300 yards or more from scrimmage or 28 or more rushing touchdowns. Elliott has had a fantastic rookie season, but he likely won’t reach those standards.

Which brings us back to Ryan. In a year where he looks every bit as good as any other player in the NFL, he strangely feels like the candidate nobody wants to talk about. Perception is everything in today’s social media, soundbite society. Ryan doesn’t’ excite people the way that Rodgers or Brady do. The Falcons aren’t the Cowboys, Steelers or Patriots. This is an uphill battle.

Here are a couple more comparisons to make.

Player A: 375/546 (68.7%), 4,830 yards, 36 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, 8.8 Y/A

Player B: 393/571 (68.8%), 4,500 yards, 33 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 7.9 Y/A

Player C: 341/520 (65.6 %), 4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 8.4 Y/A

Keep in mind that Ryan is on pace to throw for 4,995 yards 37 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, numbers that would put him very much in the company above.

Player A on that list is Kurt Warner’s 2001-02 MVP season. As a member of the storied “Greatest Show on Turf,” Warner was considered one of the top downfield passers of the time and had an incredible offense around him.

Player B is Peyton Manning’s 2009-10 MVP season in which he led the Colts to the Super Bowl. It was his fourth MVP award and he won it in a landslide.

Player C is Aaron Rodgers’ MVP campaign from just two seasons ago. In 2014, Rodgers led the Packers to a 12-4 record and a heartbreaking loss to Seattle in the conference championship game.

Matt Ryan has arguably the best statistics of any quarterback this season. His numbers are comparable to some of the more notable quarterbacks to win the MVP award in recent history, and he may very well surpass them.

So why does he seem to be falling behind in this race?