James White Was the Real MVP of Super Bowl LI

White led the Super Bowl Champion Patriots in touches, yards and scores, but he didn't win the MVP award.

It’s hard to go undeservedly unnoticed in an event called “The Big Game”, one that touts itself as the world’s most popular sporting event every year. On a national stage watched by millions of international eyes, one would expect that every blade of grass in the Super Bowl is scrutinized countless times.

When you can bet on Lady Gaga’s first hair color of the halftime show, I think that’s a fair expectation.

Despite this tweezers-and-magnifying glass effect, New England Patriots running back James White flew under the radar for the entire 60-plus minutes of the championship game. No one noticed the slight and quick scatback during the part where he scored three touchdowns, nor during the part where the Super Bowl MVP trophy (and a sweet truck) was handed over to quarterback Tom Brady.

Brady’s jersey wasn’t the only thing stolen Sunday night -- so were James White’s MVP honors.

Role Player

Coming into Super Bowl LI, it was safe to assume that if the Patriots were trailing the dangerous Atlanta Falcons versatile back Dion Lewis would take the lead. If the Patriots needed to grind out the clock, big back LeGarrette Blount would power through and move the chains.

White -- basically a Lewis clone in stature and skill -- was expected to be depth at best for this game. Instead, he took it over.

The first thing to understand about how impressive White’s performance was is that rushing the ball is inherently ineffective and inefficient when it comes to game flow and success in the NFL. This means that running back play is almost always going to be less valuable to the outcome of the game than that of a quarterback or wide receiver, especially when we look at analytics like numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP is an analytic that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

By our calculations on numberFire Live, White was responsible for creating 11.60 NEP on his 22 combined rushes and targets. To put that in context, that was more than double the value that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan produced.

Now, here’s the thing: White earned just 3.83 Rushing NEP on six carries. Most of his value (7.77 Reception NEP) came from his 16 targets and 14 receptions in the passing game -- the latter a Super Bowl record among all positions and the former a record for running backs. In fact, only four running backs have had more than 10 receptions in any playoff game since 1999: White, Darren Sproles, Chad Morton, and Shane Vereen -- who played this exact role in his time with the Patriots.

White’s 11.60 NEP comes in among the best Super Bowl performances in recent memory. The table below shows the best 10 offensive players from Super XLIX onward, along with their NEP production.

Super Bowl Name Pos Team Opp NEP
49 Tom Brady QB NE 52 18.60
51 Tom Brady QB NE 63 13.90
49 Julian Edelman WR NE 13 12.64
51 James White RB NE 22 11.60
49 Chris Matthews WR SEA 5 9.18
49 Russell Wilson QB SEA 24 8.51
49 Rob Gronkowski TE NE 10 8.33
51 Danny Amendola WR NE 11 7.92
51 Malcolm Mitchell WR NE 7 6.70
50 Emmanuel Sanders WR DEN 8 6.40

In recent Super Bowl history, White’s game was behind only two Brady showings and Julian Edelman's outstanding Super Bowl XLIX performance in terms of raw NEP production. Even when we control for players with 10 or more opportunities in the last three Super Bowls, White’s NEP per play was fourth-best.

This was an impressive and unprecedented performance.

Prime Time

All of this shows us that White had an incredible game, but doesn’t tell us why he was the best player in this Super Bowl.

Thanks to numberFire Live, you can follow games and see win probabilities, value, and statistics update in the moment. It will also show you which players are our weekly leaders in value, but this is better than NEP: it adjusts a player’s value relative to the average at their position.

James White posted a performance score of 100 by numberFire Live’s leaderboard. Julio Jones and Chris Hogan each scored 100’s for their 180-yard, two-touchdown games in the championship round, as did Matt Ryan’s 392 passing yards and 4 touchdowns on 38 attempts in the same week.

In fact, only a handful of other running backs had weeks with a 100 performance score this season on numberFire Live.

Week Name Team Opps Total Yards Total TD
1 Spencer Ware KC 19 199 1
6 Jay Ajayi MIA 27 207 2
7 Jeremy Hill CIN 11 192 1
9 Mark Ingram NO 17 171 2
10 Ezekiel Elliott DAL 23 209 3
11 Le'Veon Bell PIT 37 201 1
12 Mark Ingram NO 16 167 2
12 David Johnson ARZ 24 161 1
13 David Johnson ARZ 30 175 2
14 Le'Veon Bell PIT 43 298 3
15 LeSean McCoy BUF 22 169 2
21 James White NE 22 139 3

Four of these players are considered among the best in the league at the position and another two are budding stars, and James White’s Super Bowl performance fits into the same company. While his stats look less impressive than his peers, part of his value comes from how unique his production was.

White was just the 23rd player in NFL playoff history to rack up at least 125 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in a game, including the 12th running back to do it, and it was just the fifth time this was done in a Super Bowl -- alongside Terrell Davis, Larry Fitzgerald, and Jerry Rice (twice). Perhaps most incredible: White was just the 15th running back to have at least 100 yards receiving and multiple touchdowns on at least 10 receptions in any NFL game ever.

Eventual MVP Brady's fifth ring is a nice narrative, but he wasn’t the engine that drove the comeback: that was White, the former fourth-round pick and current third-string running back. And -- by the way -- Tom Terrific's Super Bowl score by numberFire Live was a good, not stellar, 85.

This was a historic game for James White in so many regards. While he didn’t receive the MVP trophy in Super Bowl LI, he sure deserved it.