The Numbers Don't Lie: Matt Ryan Is the MVP

Matt Ryan's season was nothing short of historic. Not only is it the top performance of 2016, it's also one of the best seasons in recent history.

Around this time every year, sportswriters, talking heads, and even average fans spend far too much time discussing what the term "MVP" truly means. "Most Valuable Player" is a vague description, at best, and it opens the door to debate about what exactly "most valuable" means.

If you don't have a metric by which to evaluate players and their impact on games cross-positionally, it can seem wide open. Luckily, here at numberFire, we use Net Expected Points (NEP), which considers the impact of each play situationally on the number of points a team is expected to score in that scenario, based on historical data. NEP examines the real impact an offensive player is having for his team, and when we look at NEP for 2016, it points to a clear MVP: Matt Ryan.

A One-Position Show?

As we know, MVP is largely a quarterback award. In the last 15 years, running backs have won four times while quarterbacks have won the remaining 11. Given the decreasing importance of the running back position in the modern NFL, it's probably only going to become an even more quarterback-dominated award.

Intuitively, we know that the quarterback is the most important player on the field. This is confirmed by NEP data as quarterbacks own the top six NEP totals this season. It's also reflected in the final Vegas odds for MVP.

Player Vegas Odds Implied Probability to Win Total NEP
Matt Ryan +125 44% 223.51
Aaron Rodgers +150 40% 193.47
Tom Brady +350 22% 161.95
Ezekiel Elliott +750 12% 57.97

It's worth noting that for most of the season, Ezekiel Elliott was the clear favorite in Vegas. As late as December 28th, entering Week 17, Elliott was the favorite at +275 with Ryan and Aaron Rodgers a little behind at +300.

What happened? Did Vegas suddenly decide Elliott was less than half as likely to win as they thought one week prior? No. They simply had their finger on the pulse of public perception and set the odds to encourage the bet that would make them the most money. They knew no rookie had ever won the MVP award. They knew 73% of MVP winners in the last 15 years were quarterbacks. Elliott never had much chance barring a historic closing kick.

But it's not Zeke's fault -- it's a passing league. Elliott turned in a stellar rookie campaign, but even limiting the scope to running backs, he failed to put up the most NEP this season, trailing fellow runner David Johnson.

Flying Solo

Trimming our consideration to only quarterbacks and looking more closely at passing statistics elevates Ryan above the rest. He is the only player this season to with at least 200 Passing NEP, and he's one of two signal callers to eclipse 0.30 Passing NEP per drop back. He also led the league in Passing Success Rate, which is the percentage of drop backs that resulted in a positive NEP gain.

Player Drop Backs Passing NEP Passing NEP/Drop Back Passing Success Rate
Matt Ryan 571 212.86 0.37 54.64%
Drew Brees 700 185.53 0.27 54.14%
Aaron Rodgers 645 168.1 0.26 49.15%
Tom Brady 447 158.39 0.35 51.45%
Kirk Cousins 629 152.14 0.24 53.10%

Drew Brees
, the closest to Ryan, trailed him by 27.33 NEP, which is to say Ryan added roughly four touchdowns more than Brees to his team's score. When you consider that Brees dropped back 129 more times than Ryan, that difference looms even larger.

The only player to approach Ryan's Passing NEP per drop back this season was Tom Brady. If not for his suspension, he could have threatened Ryan's chances. However, even if you prorate Brady's season to 16 games, assuming the same volume and efficiency (13.2 Passing NEP per game), he still falls just shy of Ryan with a Passing NEP total of 211.19. And Brady's Passing Success Rate is also 3% lower.

Not only would Brady have had to play 16 games to deliver a better season than Ryan, he also would have needed to play even better in those four additional games than his per-game average from his 12 starts.

History Will Look Kindly on Him

If any questions remain about how deserving Ryan's 2016 campaign is for MVP, a brief look at all better seasons -- since 2000, the extent of our database -- by total NEP will answer them.

And it will be brief.

YearPlayerPassing NEPRushing NEPTotal NEPAward
2007Tom Brady259.415.91275.32MVP
2013Peyton Manning278.52-15.64262.88MVP
2011Aaron Rodgers231.318.98250.29MVP
2011Drew Brees235.48-1.47234.01OPOY
2004Peyton Manning231.1-2.61228.49MVP
2011Tom Brady213.4313.85227.28--
2016Matt Ryan212.8610.65223.51TBD

Because of the extremely unlucky coincidence of three of those seasons coming in 2011, only four of the six won league MVP, with a fifth taking Offensive Player of the Year and Brady's excellent 2011 getting left out in the cold.

That's it. Only six seasons in the last 16 years have been better than Ryan's 2016 campaign -- all of them from future Hall of Famers.

Another gem in the above table is Ryan's Rushing NEP of 10.65, meaning his legs added 10 points to the Falcons' scoring expectation. It's a career-high for Matty Ice and a surprise following 2015's disastrous -17.71 Rushing NEP. No one will ever fear Ryan for his running ability, but it does boost the heights of an already stellar season.

Playing the most crucial position on the field, Matt Ryan was exceptional in every facet of his game. He delivered one of the most dominant quarterback performances of the past decade and a half, and he used it to lead his team into the playoffs. That fits any and all versions of what defines the "Most Valuable Player."