Cam Newton and Carson Palmer Both Have Compelling Cases to Win MVP

By Jason Lisk
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This year is an interesting and compelling one in the MVP race in the NFL. It may be the most compelling one in awhile, for a whole host of reasons. Right now, Cam Newton seems the presumptive MVP as the Panthers have climbed to 13-0 and are trying to match the 2007 Patriots. Tom Brady is in the mix, and often mentioned as the comparison point to Newton. Carson Palmer is lurking, oddly getting less attention than he may merit.

Before breaking it down further, can I go on a bit of a rant? It seems that when there is an actual case for several candidates, the discussion is more muted than when there seems to be a clear-cut candidate. Remember when people were pushing for anyone but Aaron Rodgers to win it back in 2011, when Rodgers was having one of the best seasons of all-time? Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning (because he didn’t play that year) were both discussed as being the true MVPs. Two years ago, when Manning was setting touchdown records and the Broncos were rolling up points, Brady (despite fairly poor numbers by his lofty standards) was being heralded. I noted at the time how poorly Brady’s numbers compared to MVP winners. As it turned out, those clear-cut choices did run away with it, despite the discussions ahead of time.

This is the year to actual have discussion. Now to the candidates.

Four years ago, I pointed out some of the key statistical indicators for MVP winners. I don’t think voters necessarily use a formal checklist, but the categories that most highly correlated with winning the award were for quarterbacks, in order: (1) Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt rank, (2) Passer Rating rank, (3) Pass TD percentage, (4) Total TD Passes, and (5) Yards per Attempt. Other things, like completion percentage and interception percentage (particularly when you already knew passer rating), and raw totals like passing yards and pass attempts, are not key indicators.

Add in some team stats, and Team Wins (where MVP QBs have averaged a ranking of 1.9), and Team Points Scored (average ranking of 3.0) have also been indicators of who has won the award.

Here’s the rank of each MVP candidate this year (I included the top 5, though Dalton is injured and does not have a chance). I also included the average rank of all previous QB AP MVP winners since 1978 in each category.

Russell Wilson is getting some buzz because of his hot streak. He has shot to #1 in Passer Rating. Of course, that’s the only category where he is top two. Just as pragmatically important, the Seahawks are at 8-5, and are the lowest scoring team among the candidates. Only three years since 1978 have seen a MVP win while not being on a team that finished in the top two in its conference: 2008 Peyton Manning (12-4; behind Tennessee), 2003 Manning and Steve McNair (both 12-4, behind NE and KC), and 1995 Brett Favre (behind Dallas/San Francisco).

I think this is realistically a three-person comparison, with two clear leaders in my opinion.

CARSON PALMER

I want to give credit to Adam Harstad here. But it is bizarre that Carson Palmer is seen as some fringe candidate behind Newton and Brady. I mean, the proof is right there in that list I posted. He is in the top 2  in EVERY CATEGORY that has been a key indicator of who wins MVP. He has a better relative rank than the average MVP winner. He would have been a clear runaway candidate in at least half of the seasons over the last 35 years.

Here’s another list:

That’s league-adjusted ANYA rank. Some truly historic and recognized seasons are on that list. The only people to finish ahead of him on that list and not win MVP are Mark Rypien in 1991, and Randall Cunningham in 1998. No QB finished ahead of them, though (Thurman Thomas got it in 1991; Terrell Davis in 1998). Rypien also was in a system that had repeatedly produced pretty good numbers, and Super Bowl contenders, from Joe Theismann to Jay Schroeder to Doug Williams to Rypien. Palmer, on the other hand, is a key figure; we saw this same Cardinals’ offensive unit turn to mush without him last year. Arizona is 17-2 with Palmer starting a game.

CAM NEWTON

I know people like to couch it as some stats versus eye test thing with Newton. He has a pretty good statistical case, though. It depends on what statistics you value. Here’s how you can easily defend Newton’s candidacy, beyond leading a team that has an undefeated record. They lead the league in points scored. His rankings in the passing and team stats that have mattered in the past are just as good as Tom Brady. And none of those even touch on his rushing contributions in carrying the offense. Once you add in his rushing touchdowns and first downs, he goes from decent MVP candidate, by the numbers, to a very good one.

Then there’s the teammates. We know that Cam Newton has a great defense, but very suspect offensive group compared to other great offenses, with the exception of Greg Olsen. There are no future Hall of Famers on that offense. Ryan Kalil has had a long career. Jonathan Stewart has been a solid back. The leading wide receivers are Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery, age 30 and 33, respectively. These two have been third or fourth receiver types for much of the last five years. Cotchery last had 800 yards receiving in 2009. These two have averaged 648 receiving yards over the last four years COMBINED.

A few years ago, I talked about John Elway’s teammates, and how they explain some his numbers compared to other Hall of Fame QBs. It looked at something called Approximate Value (AV) to estimate the quality of teammates. If you want to dig deeper read that, and this one I wrote on why Vinny Testaverde is better than you think, using a similar method of trying to account for offensive teammates.

The short answer as it relates to Cam this year is this. I suspect that this year’s Panthers will be below an average AV of 40, once the careers are over and it can be compared. John Elway was better than most Hall of Fame QBs, in seasons when they had a similar weaker supporting cast. The average Hall of Famer put up exactly league average numbers when playing with a below average unit with career AV rating of 40.

Cam is blowing that out of the water, putting up pro bowl caliber numbers. And that doesn’t even include the rushing numbers. The only comparable season is 1987, when a 27-year-old John Elway won MVP on a roster where two of the linemen only started that season, there were no stars or future Hall of Famers. Even then, his receiving corps of Mark Jackson and Vance Johnson was entering their primes, and would each start about 80 games in the NFL.

TOM BRADY

Tom Brady was the presumptive favorite as we approached the halfway point. He is still in second according to many. I have him a distant third, not because he hasn’t made New England great again, but because I feel he is behind two historic, and different, seasons.

I feel some of the arguments on Brady as MVP at this point double-dip. He has put up great numbers! Look how his supporting cast is so decimated! These are both true, but what is not true is that he has continued to put up MVP numbers as that supporting cast was injured.

He loses the great numbers argument to Palmer. He loses the “look what he’s done with a weakened supporting cast” argument to Newton. Here’s another chart, but this one shows Tom Brady 1 (up until Dion Lewis’ injury, which was then quickly followed by Edelman’s), and Tom Brady 2 (post-Lewis injury).

He is under 7 yards per attempt since the Lewis injury followed by the Edelman injury. He would be 19th in passer rating if you pro-rated his numbers over that time. New England is 3-2.

Nevertheless, he will still get consideration. I think Cam wins it, and I think that’s reasonable and almost certain if they get to 16-0. If the Giants beat the Panthers this week, I think the debate between Palmer and Newton is a good one, with two excellent choices.

 

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