Googling “Tom Brady MVP” gives you two different types of articles. The first, quite obviously, are columns that argue for Brady winning the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award. The others, understandably, mention Brady as a top candidate, but Peyton Manning as the clear favorite.
The reasons are pretty clear and straightforward. Brady’s led his team to one of the best records in their conference, doing so without his top Pro Bowl tight end for the majority of the season, without a pass-catching running back he’s used to playing with, and with rookie wide receivers – a lot of them.
Forget the other side of the ball, or the fact that quarterback “wins” are a flawed statistic. If not for Manning, Brady, to a lot of folks, is this year’s NFL MVP.
I couldn’t disagree more.
I approached an article similar to this one – instead of Brady it was Russell Wilson – by looking at other top performers at the quarterback position, and comparing them to the play of the subject, Russell Wilson.
The conclusion wasn’t so much “Russell Wilson is having an overrated season.” It was more “Russell Wilson is having a fantastic season, but if we’re really looking at players who are contributing the most points to their team’s output, he’s not the MVP.”
This time around, I’m going to use just one other quarterback’s 2013 season to make the argument against Brady being a top MVP candidate. And this passer isn’t Peyton Manning, and it’s not even Drew Brees.
This quarterback is Philip Rivers.
Yes, Philip Rivers – the leader of an average 7-7 Chargers’ squad, and one who, quite frankly, isn’t getting talked about nearly enough this season. When you bring up the NFL's MVP, it's never the Chargers' quarterback - it's mostly Manning with a little bit of Tom Brady and Russell Wilson sprinkled in. That's why I figured, if I could show you that Philip Rivers is actually performing at a higher level than Tom Brady this season, perhaps the 'Brady for MVP' talk will slowly fade away. At least for any of numberFire's readers.
Rivers vs. Brady, By the Numbers
As any returning reader knows, we use a metric at numberFire that’s referred to as “Net Expected Points" (NEP). Essentially, NEP looks at how many real points a player is adding for his team based on specific game situations and down and distances. For more on the statistic, visit our glossary.
If we forget about the Week 15 games that just occurred – one where Philip Rivers won the game and one where Tom Brady lost (because, you know, that’s how we judge an MVP nowadays) – you can see that Rivers is far outperforming Tom Brady within our passing metrics this season:
|Player||Passing NEP||Passing NEP/P||Success Rate|
The numbers above tell us that Philip Rivers has played nearly 140 points above expectation through Week 14 this season, while Brady’s sitting at about 62. On a per drop back basis, Rivers is adding 0.29 points to his team’s total output, while Brady’s adding 0.11. And from a Success Rate standpoint – a metric that looks at the percentage of drop backs that result in a positive Net Expected Points play – Philip Rivers has over 8 percentage points on the Patriots’ passer.
Philip Rivers, even if Tom Brady had a career game against Miami yesterday, is far outperforming Tom Brady, statistically, this year.
In fact, Rivers’ 139.54 Passing NEP is third-best in the league (behind only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees), while Brady’s is 9th-best. Rivers’ Success Rate among relevant passers is second behind only Peyton, while Brady’s sits as the 12th-best one.
From a team perspective, which adjusts for strength of schedule, San Diego has played 140.86 points above expectation this season offensively through the air (number similar to Rivers’ output due to an average strength of schedule). Conversely, New England’s 71.28 Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points total ranks number eight, similar to the individual quarterback rankings. Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle, San Diego, New Orleans and Denver are all more efficient throwing the ball.
On a per pass basis, those rankings are the same.
In every advanced metric imaginable, Philip Rivers has been better than Tom Brady. And it’s not even by a little – Philip Rivers has helped add over 10 more touchdowns (more than 70 expected points) for the Chargers this year compared to Brady and his Pats.
But the argument for Brady isn’t really numbers based. It’s “winning without a supporting cast" based.
No Support In New England’s Offense?
The discussion surrounding Brady usually starts with the carousel of offensive personnel, and ends with the fact that Brady has still managed to perform well without his top targets.
My argument starts with the carousel of offensive personnel, and ends with the fact that Tom Brady wasn’t playing top-level football before Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski returned to the lineup.
Let’s look at Brady’s season in three chunks: Pre-Gronk, With Gronk, and With Gronk & Vereen:
|Games||Passing NEP/Game||Passing NEP Rank||Success Rate|
From left to right in the columns above, you’ve got the “chunk”, followed by the number of games played and Passing NEP per game in that chunk. Then, you’ll find the Passing NEP Rank, as well as the Success Rate. Those two columns – ranking and Success Rate – are cumulative ones to show Brady’s season progression.
The biggest takeaway here, for me at least, is the impact that Shane Vereen has had on Tom Brady’s numbers. Brady’s playing 10.98 points above expectation per game with Vereen in the lineup, and that’s certainly been evident on the stat sheet. I wrote about this in depth before Vereen returned, too.
What’s interesting about the above table is that, if we were to extrapolate Brady’s play with his weapons across 13 games (remember, we’re not dealing with Week 15 data), you’d get a Passing NEP total of 142.74. If you recall from above, Philip Rivers’ has a Passing NEP of about 140 on the season. In other words, Brady’s elite play this season – his elite play chunk – is nearly identical to what Philip Rivers has done all season long with his group of "nobodies."
But the weapons – right. Brady’s made Julian Edelman a reception king, and is playing with no real backup tight end and a handful of rookie receivers. His running game, despite it being historically solid, has dropped to the fifth-worst in the NFL when adjusted for strength of schedule on a per run basis, too.
That, people say, is why Tom Brady struggled at the beginning of the season.
Wait a second though. What does Philip Rivers have?
After losing his top-two wide receivers to injury (Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd), Rivers has still consistently produced as a top-three quarterback this season, no matter the personnel.
You could count Keenan Allen as being a top target, but he, like many of Brady’s weapons, is still fresh and raw as a rookie. He’s better than the Pats wideouts, sure, but he’s still a first-year player.
And outside of Allen, you’ve got a wide receiver in Eddie Royal who hasn’t been relevant since Randy Moss was a Patriot, and another pass-catcher in Vincent Brown who is one of the least-physically gifted ones in the league.
”Antonio Gates though!” says someone who hates this article. Sure, I can give you Gates. He’s great. But he’s also 33, and isn’t nearly the same tight end he was a few years ago. In truth, he's been a mediocre one compared to other highly-targeted players at his position, performing about as effective as Dallas Clark and Zach Miller according to our metrics.
But no, let’s complain about Brady’s lack of receiver talent.
And the crazy part about all of this is that I’m not even mentioning the offensive line play, where ProFootballFocus.com ranks New England as having the 15th-best in terms of pass blocking, as San Diego sits at 25.
Forget the records of New England and San Diego, just for a second. Now ask yourself, “Does Tom Brady’s lack of weapons compared to Philip Rivers make up for his huge disparity in quarterback effectiveness this year?”
If you answered yes, then you must have an irrational love for Number 12.
Why Are Their Records Different?
Winning matters to people, and being a winning quarterback certainly matters to MVP voters.
And Tom Brady has more wins than Philip Rivers this season. Since I’ve been dealing with data prior to Week 15, Tom Brady’s team has won four more games than Philip Rivers’ (though that's just three, in reality, right now). That’s substantial.
This type of analysis is typically my biggest complaint about an MVP award. We all know that football is the ultimate team game, so why do we put such an emphasis on player (especially quarterback) wins?
The short answer is that, in order to be viewed as valuable, your team has to win. And San Diego, despite Philip Rivers’ play, is not a winning team (remember, I’m referring to before their Week 15 win.)
I just find it interesting that folks are making the excuse, “But the season isn’t over yet – Tom Brady can come back and win this [MVP] thing.” Meanwhile, those same people are writing Philip Rivers’ Chargers completely off. What gives?
No, the Chargers chances of making the playoffs aren’t high. But it’s not because of Philip Rivers.
The defensive side of the ball is drastically different for these two quarterbacks, and if not for this inequality, perhaps we’d be singing a different MVP tune.
According to the numbers, entering Week 15, New England had the 13th-best defense in the NFL, scoring an Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points total of 10.92. San Diego, on the other hand, ranked 31st, scoring 111.25 under that same metric.
What do these numbers tell us? Well, essentially, New England should have allowed 11 fewer points than they have this year. That’s a fairly insignificant number when you consider that’s across the 13 games analyzed; less than one point per game.
The Chargers have given up 111.25 more points than they should have this season. 111 points, you guys. Divide that by 13, and you’re talking 8.54 points per game.
Do you know how many of the Chargers seven losses were by 8 or less points? Six of them. Every single loss outside of their Week 5 game against Oakland saw the opposing team winning by 1-8 points.
Throw the Chargers defense in New England and see what you get. Here’s your answer: A Patriots team that’s not in the same position as they are today. Not even close.
Tom Brady Doesn’t Deserve the MVP.
Yes, I will firmly say and conclude that Philip Rivers is having the far superior season compared to Brady. And while I don’t think Rivers deserves to win MVP (Peyton Manning should, clearly), I think the comparison of Rivers to Brady should shed light as to why we shouldn’t be putting Brady in the same conversation as a player like Peyton. Or, in my opinion, even a player like Drew Brees.
Brady’s had an unbelievable career and is one of the best passers of all time. This year, though? This year he’s in a group with great passers – passers who will make Pro Bowls, and, perhaps, win a Super Bowl.
He’s just not the MVP.