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2012 MVP Advanced Stats

With the 2012 AP NFL MVP award to be presented on Saturday, it has been decided by the sports media that the only 2 players in contention are Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning. But when is the last time the sports media concensus actually got something right? Going by the current state of the NFL MVP award, Peterson seems like a logical pick. His 2,097 rushing yards were the 2nd best all-time, while no quarterback had a particularly great season. Adrian Peterson probably will win the 2012 award, but according to the media it is a close race. The history of the award seems to indicate that it should usually go to a quarterback, sometimes go to a running back, and almost never go to a player at any other position. But are those truly the most valuable players?

Most people assume that it's just too difficult to compare passing and rushing using statistics. Sure, passing will gain more yards per attempt, but it is subject to lost yardage from sacks and turnovers from interceptions. How can we know how important those side effects are compared to the pure difference in yardage? One method is to attempt to estimate a yardage impact of interceptions, but the more accurate method is to simply convert both into a value of points. The statistic of expected points added (EPA), the main metric used on this site, does exactly that for us. To calculate EPA, we estimate the value in expected points of every down, distance, yards-to-go, and field position combination based on historical averages. Then by taking the difference in expected points that occurred during the play, we can see exactly how much any and every play helped or hurt the offense. We can then take the sum of a whole season of plays and compare effectiveness across different play types such as passing and rushing. For a more in depth explanation of EPA, visit our Stats Explained article.

Now let's get back to the Peterson-Manning debate. The Vikings rushing offense added 2.9 expected points per game in 2012 over a generic league average offense. The Broncos passing offense added 11.3 expected points per game. And that's after factoring in losses from sacks and interceptions. Those numbers may seem farther apart than expected, but the about 2 yards per attempt better that passing generates more than makes up for sacks and interceptions. On top of that, the effectiveness of passing is amplified for above average teams due to the fact that there are usually many more pass attempts in a season than rush attempts. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all know that quarterbacks are simply more valuable than running backs. After all, top quarterbacks typically make about twice as much money as top running backs. And teams with top quarterbacks make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl at a much higher rate than teams with top running backs, despite the fact that they are surrounded by less talent due to their higher salaries.

By now, you may be thinking "speaking of being surrounded by talent, all NFL stats are really team stats, and the only way to truly estimate a player's value is by watching him play". This statement has some truth to it, but there is ample evidence in our EPA stats to show that quarterbacks singlehandedly have a greater impact on games than players at other positions. While it is often possible to detect slight differences in effectiveness due to players at other positions, and passing stats can slightly increase or decrease due to changes in a receiving corps or offensive line, the biggest constant among successful teams from year to year is a good quarterback. In fact Peyton Manning is a perfect example, with the Colts suddenly steeply declining in 2011 due to his absense, and the Broncos drastically improving in passing efficiency in 2012 due to his arrival. At very least, we can state that success for running backs is at least as reliant on teammates as success for quarterbacks, so there is no doubting that quarterbacks are usually much more valuable.

So Peyton Manning is the rightful MVP right? Well not quite, it appears the media may not have even selected the right candidates in the first place. EPA stats can also help us compare other quarterbacks. The following table compares the top contenders in terms of our advanced stats as well as some more conventional ones.

2012 Regular Season
QB Total EPA INT EPA Sack EPA Other EPA Yds/G QB Rating ESPN QBR
Tom Brady 12.8 -1.7 -1.9 16.4 291.4 97.7 77.1
Peyton Manning 11.3 -2.9 -1.9 16.1 283.4 105.3 84.1
Matt Ryan 11.1 -2.9 -2.2 16.2 281.8 99.1 74.5
Drew Brees 10.5 -4.4 -2.1 17.0 312.3 96.4 67.9
Aaron Rodgers 10.4 -1.5 -3.9 15.8 253.1 108.3 72.5

One could pretty easily make a reasonable argument for any of these quarterbacks being the MVP. Tom Brady's EPA shows that he lead the most purely efficient passing offense in the league. Even Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers look like the MVP if you buy into the notion that their interceptions and sacks respectively were more the fault of their teammates. In fact, the only metric that favors Peyton Manning is ESPN's QBR. While their QBR is actually rooted in EPA itself, we have a few issues with the way their adjustments for things like yards after the catch and "clutchness" seem to be made arbitrarily to make the number better reflect a gut-feeling rather than actually analyzing which aspects are more valuable.

The fact that ESPN's own metric is the only one that has Manning ahead, and the fact that ESPN dominates the sports media, is a little telling, and a little scary. Are they really so biased towards their own metric that they bias the rest of the press accordingly? That may have a small impact, but more likely the surge for Peyton Manning is due to his being the best story for media purposes. Coming off significant neck surgery that forced him to miss the 2011 season, Manning led the Broncos to 11 straight wins to finish the season. The real bias here is most likely the well known human bias for recent events, and the bias of the media in general to favor the more compelling stories in sports.

Whether you buy into the notion that later season games are more important for an MVP or not, the 11 straight wins argument for Manning is a little misleading. During those games, the EPA gap between Brady and Manning was even larger, with a 13.8 to 11.6 edge for Brady. However, we are not arguing that Tom Brady deserves the MVP. We are arguing that the notion of a Peterson-Manning race for the MVP is ridiculous. In the truest sense of analyzing the most valuable player in the league, there is a very tight race between about 5 quarterbacks.

Among the 5, some clearly are surrounded by more talent. In fact, those at the top of the statistical categories like Brady, Manning, and Ryan almost undeniably had more to work with in terms of offensive lines and receiving corps, further muddying the more easily quantifiable differences between them. Realistically, we could perhaps eliminate Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. Ryan had probably the best surrounding talent while having less impressive stats than Brady and Manning. And it is harder to make excuses for Brees' costly interceptions than Rodgers' sacks.

So if you're looking to find the truly most valuable player in the 2012 NFL season, the best estimate is probably Brady, Manning, or Rodgers. If you believe that positions should be treated more equally, you could vote for 1 of many players at various positions who separated themselves the most from their positional peers. And if you are voting for the MVP as it is currently constituted, biased toward running backs probably as a result of them actually being more valuable 40 years ago, then the pick has to be Adrian Peterson.

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