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Russell Wilson and the Ongoing Competition for League's Most Valuable Player

No fewer than four NFL MVP awards are given each season. For 18 seasons Miller Lite awarded an MVP. Further evidence that macro-breweries will spend money on whatever so long as it’s not beer. The Associated Press award is often considered the MVP, and for purposes of research, it is this award and its history which I most studied.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

That research led to an inevitable conclusion: Aaron Rodgers will win the AP MVP. It is a boring conclusion, one arrived at by studying a boring history of a borderline irrelevant award. 64% of winners have been quarterbacks. 31% have been  running backs, with a defensive end, defensive tackle and a placekicker rounding out the 58. 98% of winners played for teams which made the playoffs. 78% of winners played for a team with the best record in their conference (or division prior to the Super Bowl era.)

Few will watch Rodgers receive the award Saturday night prior to the Super Bowl. The past two seasons the NFL's Honors ceremony has pulled a measly 0.9 share of ratings. This year Alec Baldwin cedes hosting duties to Seth Meyers. Baldwin was something of a failed dramatic actor before Tina Fey realized that like Will Arnett Baldwin's campy dramatic acting could make for intentional as well as unintentional comedy. Baldwin, however, is somebody while Meyers is still working on that. If anything, Meyers will attempt to prop up his modest fame through hosting; a mutually beneficial relationship is synergistic. Meyers intends to parasitize the necrotic.

Macrobreweries, the AP--pop culture is dying out. When Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth said "Heineken? Fuck that shit. Pabst. Blue. Ribbon," he offered the last cogent argument for pop culture: fatuity. A sort of anti-bullshit counter to the hoity-toity. Fuck that shit: independent movies, public television, books, music which could never appear on the Billboard Top 40, and whatever else concerned the few apart from the many. Fuck that shit and drink this swill, watch this dross, eat this pabulum.

Be arch, be witty, "participate joyfully in the suffering of the world," I think Gloria Trillo said, but opt out and become irrelevant.

Heineken versus Pabst is a false dichotomy, or it is now. No one need drink either beer. It is something like Billy Joel versus Billy Idol. Each is branded in contrasting aesthetics but one finds the watered down intoxicants of rock and roll in either.

Perhaps some will forever wish to be fed like a baby bird.

What made pop culture not just possible but suffocating and unavoidable this past half century was an almost total control over the means of production. Now a band does not need a multibillion dollar corporation to make a record, or even a multimillion dollar indie label. Even television and movies, forever the most tame and debased of artistic media, has revived themselves by targeting smaller audiences, more particular interests, and by sticking-with or reviving cult favorites.

Never again will a record sell like Thriller. Nor will there ever again be something like Beatlemania. Star Wars is now the intellectual property of Disney, and never again will white people be as angry as when CBS cancelled MASH, to paraphrase Chris Rock. Even the phrase "white people" is dated enough to seem if not offensive at least distasteful. With pop culture a need to group people in oppressively large, imprecise hordes too is dying.

And so Aaron Rodgers will win the AP MVP, or maybe in a desperate snatch at relevance, the award will be given to J.J. Watt. Some cross-section of the incapacitated or infirm, the chronically drunk, the pacified by chronic, the sports bar bound, and fans of Seth Meyers, will watch.

But I anticipate a wan smile will steal over Rodgers face as he walks up the aisle and to the podium. He will win but he will be in attendance because he lost. His participation will be over but a competition for value, greatest value, will continue.

On Awards

If football were not compelling, if it did not make us feel, no matter how indefatigable the athlete or rare their performance, we would not watch, we would not be fans.

The MVP award should likewise strive for relevance. It does not. Little is given to justify the honor. There is no competition among voters, no process by which voters may distinguish themselves through sound reasoning or innovative perspective. Of all things, the second most notable MVP award given to a National Football League player, awarded by the Pro Football Writers of America, includes many of the voters that will determine the AP MVP award.

The two awards compete for relevance like Budweiser and Kokanee compete for drinkers. This is what's called a "cartel." It is not exactly a cartel, actually, but it is an ancestor of cartel thinking: outwardly various individuals and brands compete for your interest and allegiance, but internally diversity and competition are stifled.

I don't mean to disillusion you but Boomer Esiason gets a vote. Chris Berman gets a vote. Maybe Berman will work a ten-second explanation of his thinking into that vomit of dated pop culture references I know now to be ... journalism of some kind. Yet as corrupt and insular, as exclusive and opaque, as boring and undignified the process of voting, the AP MVP award matters a great deal.

Awards ... it is award season, and like so many things in this life, no matter how much you disrespect the governing institution, it is difficult not to care about the awards and the award winners. Rather than bitch further, I propose a most futile and quixotic alternative: we think for ourselves.

The 2014 NFL MVP is Russell Wilson

but wait! I am modest enough to explain my thinking.

What follows are a series of arguments for Russell Wilson not just winning but being the 2014 NFL Most Valuable Player.

The Seahawks Offense is Elite

NFL teams do not seek yards but points, and further, teams do not seek points but success. Points indicate success, but sometimes as when protecting a lead in the fourth quarter, a team can succeed without scoring. My point is, we tend to think of quarterbacks in terms of touchdowns and yards thrown, running backs in terms of rushing yards and touchdowns, but teams ultimately only seek to win.

Advanced metrics calibrate themselves to the components of winning, the individual wins and losses that comprise a game and over enough games, best indicate who will win and lose in the future.

Seattle ranks 27th in passing yards, and it would not be too outrageous to write that this number and this number alone has more or less disqualified Russell Wilson from consideration for league MVP. Every other quarterback who is considered a strong contender for the award, be it Tom Brady or Tony Romo or Ben Roethlisberger, plays for a team that ranks within the top ten.

The Seahawks are pigeonholed as team which plays great defense and is efficient enough on offense to win. This is an oversimplification, and to the extreme discredit of Wilson and Seattle's offense.

By DVOA Seattle ranks sixth in offensive efficiency. Including the playoffs, EPA/P ranks them fourth. In both metrics the Seahawks are well ahead of New England and Indianapolis. And as determined by both metrics, Green Bay ranks first.

One could hardly argue a player is valuable if his unit is not good, and hardly argue a player is most valuable if his unit is not great. Wilson is the quarterback for a great offense, not just a great rushing offense, but a balanced, efficient offense that ranks among the very best in the NFL.

Both Advanced Metrics Underestimate the Seahawks Offense

Benny Profane was a schlemiel but I am a schlemazel. That reference works because "Benny Profane" are the third and fourth, and "schlemiel" is the sixth word in the book 'V.' And as The Onion (or should I say former editor and genius behind the endeavor Robert Siegel) headlined:


A schlemiel is a bumbler and a schlemazel is ... a Frank Grimes if you will.

You may remember the parable of Frank Grimes from John Swartzwelder's Homer's Enemy. Grimes is hard working and earnest, but what the Ibo would call his chi, his personal god, is sadistic. We think of this as having terrible fortune or bad luck or just being fucked for life. Grimes encounters Homer. Homer is not a schlemiel per se but being a mutable stand-in for all human vices, a schlemiel he can be.

It ends like this:


The luck which curses a schlemazel is not the same luck statisticians filter out as noise. Unlucky teams are the opposite of cursed. Rather than be haunted by a series of improbable misfortunes and forever, unlucky teams can expect to improve. According to statisticians it is lucky teams that must fear the turn of fortune.

Football Outsiders and to my knowledge Advanced Football Analytics factor in all fumbles and not just fumbles lost in their evaluations and projections. An average of about 50% of all fumbles are lost or recovered.

This works, i.e. this better projects future performance, because fumbles are disproportionately committed by quarterbacks, and quarterbacks en toto have shown no talent or skill at recovering those fumbles. But talent, skill and effort all factor into whether a fumble is recovered or not. And this need for statistical orthodoxy punishes outliers--say a middle infield prospect with huge hands, deft reflexes and otherworldly concentration.


Think of it like this: Einstein's General Theory of Relativity is often expressed as ... well, like this:

We know the earth doesn't sit on top of a checkered table cloth, dimpling it in the middle. But the above makes for a useful model of how the Earth, in this case, warps spacetime. Likewise, if you want to model football, some amount of abstraction is necessary, and in the case of fumble luck and Russell Wilson, the Seahawks are underestimated so to better estimate the league on the whole.

But if you believe Wilson's remarkable feat of losing zero fumbles this season is a repeatable act of skill, the Seahawks are underestimated. It is and they are.

The Seahawks Personnel on Offense Are No Better Than Mediocre

This one pains me to write, as it requires I criticize my beloved Blue, but truth is truth.

Let us begin with Seattle's nominal number one receiver. It is impossible for me to provide a metric which could perfectly evaluate how good Doug Baldwin is, but after quite some time, I found a pretty darn good comp.


That I think is fair to Baldwin. Both players are best playing from the slot. Julian Edelman is a traditional two-way go kind of slot receiver, while Baldwin seems to be more powerful and tougher over the middle. But quickness, agility, underrated skills and tools--the rule of cross-devotional comparison impels me to never breath their names in the same breath, but there they are. Two good players intended to be complementary role players in an offense which features a superstar talent. One is.

Rob Gronkowski got healthy and the Patriots thrived. Percy Harvin ... Harvin's a Jet now.

Now that we've accounted for Baldwin--the only player among Seattle's receiving corps which rises much above replacement--we can see who else Wilson has had to throw to.

Jermaine Kearse: 792 snaps

Paul Richardson: 497

Harvin: 181

Kevin Norwood: 169

Ricardo Lockette: 168

Brian Walters: 109

Life is even more desperate when we include the tight ends.

(starter) Zach Miller: 157

Luke Willson: 556

Cooper Helfet: 243

(street free agent) Tony Moeaki: 199

This is not Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. In fact, even pro-rating Harvin's salary, the money Green Bay pays Nelson alone could cover the salary of every Seahawk on this list. It is a ragtag bunch largely incapable of creating value on their own.

Seattle's offensive line has talent, but has been wracked by injury.

Justin Britt: 1057 snaps

J.R. Sweezy: 1053

Russell Okung: 872

James Carpenter: 816

Alvin Bailey: 418

Max Unger: 375

Unger is clearly the best among Seattle's linemen, if not for his blocking surely for his line reads. What's more, when Unger was out, Seattle very often resorted to street free agents or practice squad players. I've never seen any team in the NFL so suffer from bad line reads and resulting free pass rushers, and this after carefully studying years of Chris Spencer game tape. You've seen the statistics comparing Seattle with and without Unger. They're startling.

Now if you've read about Tom Brady's performance with and without Gronkowski, or Andy Dalton's performance with or without A.J. Green, you know very well just how much surrounding talent matters to a quarterback's perceived performance. Given the right talent and the right scheme, Matt Cassell can seem the superstar.

Yet when it's painfully obvious that a player has no such no. 1 receiver to throw to, that his offensive line is injured and of suspect ability at full strength, but the team wins, we are reluctant to think in terms of "excuses." The above are commonly thought to be "excuses," or explanations for shortcomings. So let's flip that. A great players makes his teammates greater, it is said. Russell Wilson has made this offense great, and by no rights should it be great.

The Tarvaris Jackson Season

I was this close to doing a Flowers for Tarvaris essay in the book, but it would have been mean and I do not like being mean. And truly though Jackson's blankness, his indecision, his total lack of mastery of the offense were all very frustrating, he would seem to be a very typical backup quarterback. His career adjusted net yards per attempt is 90% of league average. Matt Flynn's is 91%. Cassel's is 94% and dropping.

In 2011 Seattle fielded a remarkably similar offense to the one they fielded in 2014. In what ways it has been different it has been worse, or mostly. Unger and Miller played in 15 games in 2011. Sidney Rice and Anthony McCoy played in nine games. Golden Tate played in 16. Baldwin also played in 16 but was a rookie. Darrell Bevell was Seattle's offensive coordinator, and Tom Cable its offensive line coach.

Here's the efficiency of those two offenses:

2011: -8.7% and -0.03 EPA/P

2014: 16.7% and 0.13 EPA/P

The Tarvaris-led Seahawks were 23 or 22nd in offensive efficiency. The Wilson-led Seahawks are fifth and fourth.

One reason for that is Wilson excels both at running the ball and improving the rushing of his teammates. Compare:

2011 Marshawn Lynch: 8.9% DVOA and -0.03 EPA/P

2014 Marshawn Lynch: 23.3% DVOA and 0.05 EPA/P

Lynch is often and quite unfairly used as an argument against Wilson. In fact, not only is it Wilson who improves Lynch (also but also more so), Lynch was Seattle's least valuable rusher per rush.

Robert Turbin: 0.06 EPA/P

Christine Michael: 0.17 EPA/P

And this isn't some gobbledygook statistic found through shameless data mining. Wilson's scrambling and the zone read have forced teams to assign a player specifically to stop Wilson. And Wilson and the Seahawks have punished opponents over and over for doing so. While every other new prototype quarterback took a pronounced step back in 2014, Wilson upped his game further.

For Most of the Season, Seattle's Offense Outperformed Its Defense

People think of the Seahawks as a great defensive team. So many of its star players play on defense. But consider ...

Weeks Seattle's Offense Outranked Seattle's Defense by DVOA: 8 (and one week was a tie, so 8-7-1)

I excluded Efficiency Rating simply because it's very hard to navigate ANA's archives. The numbers are typically very similar.

Seattle's defensive efficiency only caught up with and surpassed Seattle's offensive efficiency down the stretch. In Weeks 1-5, 7, 10 and 11, Seattle's offense was the better unit.

And if you'd like to go even further down the rabbit hole, consider that Seattle's offense helped its defense by fielding the third best team in the NFL by offensive time of possession per drive, and overall best offense by turnovers a drive. Seattle's defense was well rested and rarely ever played on a short field. In fact, opponent starting line of scrimmage against Seattle was the worst in the NFL.

& c.

I do not wish to dilute the above with weaker arguments or waste your time, but here's a quick listing of other factors to consider:

  • The Harvin trade forced Seattle to transition to a totally different offense mid-season. Harvin's last game, in which he played in just 26 of 49 offensive snaps, was Wilson's worst performance by AY/A. His next three worst performances were in Week 7-9. Apart from the stress on team chemistry, Harvin's refusal to play and subsequent trade left Seattle struggling to regain a working system.
  • Russell Wilson's cap hit this season ranks 53rd among quarterbacks, and between Brock Osweiler and Ryan Mallett.
  • Wilson is famed for his character and work ethic. The Seahawks were first-time Super Bowl winners, and were widely predicted to crash and burn this season. Despite Harvin, despite the continuing circus that is the media harassing Marshawn Lynch, despite big new contracts, "complacency," emerging egos, and all that other hearsay and conjecture, the Seahawks are now seen as a model of chemistry and team work. Credit Pete Carroll, but do not forget to credit the team's unquestioned leader.
  • Advanced stats probably undervalue rushing offense. It is true that most runs do not improve a team's expected points, and thus are rated as having negative value, but that is only true in the NFL as we know it. Successful football coaches the world over preach establishing their own run game and neutralizing the run game of the opponent. Until we know that a team would truly be better if it flouted these rules, it is only suspected that teams are running too much and not passing enough.

Yet He Will Not Win or Even Be Considered for the Award

For all the bashing, the badmouthing, the vituperation if you enjoy obsolete and achingly overlong words--for all the slings and arrows I cast at the AP and its silly award earlier in this piece, I am neither bitter nor particularly resentful of the process. It is a pointedly stupid process designed to satisfy pointedly ignorant fans.

That's pop culture in a nutshell.

I said pop culture is dying but it will be a bloody, scrabbling demise. I've blogged long enough to see much of what made the Internet so special be co-opted, tainted and bled dry. Many of the worst among us have been hired on, and many of the once luminaries now reside in some unfindable backwater. Others have given up.

But there are not three channels on the black and white and ten fuzzy stations on the AM band anymore. And, eventually I assume, companies will accept the complicated but profitable world of anti-pop culture, of wonks and nerds and specific interests loved with consuming passion.

People would scoff if Russell Wilson won the MVP Award. So he can't. Rodgers can, though he's inferior, because he's perceived to be better, and the common ways in which we judge a quarterback support that argument.

Which is why we do not ask others to determine the outcome of a game, anymore than we ask others to drink our beer or listen to our music or have sex with our significant others. There are great songs to sing aloud and paintings that will make you cry and poems you could read in a deep wilderness and brazen acts of grace and impossible deeds performed for the most abstract and ultimately foolish of reasons, and that is life. It will not be announced on ESPN or even NFL Network.

Jerry Rice never won an MVP. It does not seem to have hurt his reputation. Or if you'd rather, consider Larry Fitzgerald's 2008 season and post-season. Over the course of four playoff games Fitzgerald forever earned the respect, admiration and awe of millions. He was simply the best player on the field, and game after game. His was a lasting and much more credible achievement. Not given but earned.

Fitz didn't receive even one MVP vote. Chad Pennington received four. Michael Turner received four. In fact, over the course of this entire millennium, no wide receiver has earned even a single MVP vote. Crazy.

The AP could upend expectations and vote for J.J. Watt. That would be ... something.

But the real tournament for most valuable player, no caps, continues this Sunday. It is not derived from a silly formula. It will never be awarded to anyone by Seth Meyers. It cannot be coerced through advertising, sponsorship or bullying fatuity. It is an award earned in the hearts of fans through greatness in the pursuit of winning. And that competition is not over.

Russell Wilson has work to do yet.