The season is halfway over and it is clear the Rams are the best team in the league. They’re undefeated and their offense is rolling at a higher level than it was last year. Aaron Donald is on track to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year, although some, including Nate Cohn, believe it’s a toss-up. The Rams’ best player, Todd Gurley is on a tear. He has 800 rushing yards and 11 rushing TDs to go along with 351 receiving yards and four more TDs. By usual metrics, Lionel Hutz would define his MVP case as “UN-BREAKABLE”. Yet, Todd Gurley is not the guy getting the most MVP love. That distinction belongs to Kansas City Chiefs QB, and Madden avatar come to life, Patrick Mahomes. There doesn’t even appear to be much of a debate, but should there be?
What makes an MVP? The short answer is a quarterback. After all, Adrian Peterson in 2012 was the last non-QB to win the award since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 (more on both of these later). Once we’re only talking about quarterbacks then it really depends on the year. Drew Brees has yet to win an MVP, despite having five seasons where he’s thrown for over 5,000 yards. But he lost all of those years because he didn’t make the playoffs in three of them (2008, 2012, 2016). And the two years he did, his MVP case was overshadowed by a 2013 comeback/ass kicking by Peyton Manning and an Aaron Rodgers 15-1 year.
Brees has a shot if he has a 4000+ yard season and 30+ TDs and the Saints finish with a top two seed. He also has the narrative element in his favor (for now) of having never won it, breaking the yardage record this year (he’ll break the TD record next year by the way), and being this productive at his age. For Gurley, this makes the MVP case a lot harder doesn’t it?
Gurley is on pace for 1600ish yards and COULD break LT’s record of 31 rushing touchdowns. If he pulls this off and that’s a big if, given their brutal schedule, and assuming Sean McVay doesn’t sit him after week 15 against the Eagles, it would be incredible. Still, if the statistical path is Gurley’s only path to the MVP award, it’s still not enough. Unfortunately for him, Mahomes has the statistical and narrative advantage. Mahomes is playing QB at a level that leads one to believe he’s monitored by the Men In Black. He’s on pace for 52 TDs and 5000+ yards and the number one seed in the AFC. Oh, and he’s in his second season in the league.
The narrative that Gurley has on his side is the more he scores, especially in clutch situations, the more he’s looked at as the engine that drives the offense. Jared Goff was looked at as a possible hindrance because of vote splitting. Fortunately, Goff has been good but not great lately. Gurley’s impact on the Rams’ was especially felt during the last few weeks. He broke open the game against the Broncos and during their near loss to Green Bay, he was clutch in both the run and pass game. He’s looking like Marshall Faulk if he were injected with Captain America‘s Super Serum. On first glance that might sound like heresy to fans (it was a tad tough to write), but its true.
Both players are the poster children for what the modern NFL asks of their position. Both are the respective Arc Reactors of their teams. Mahomes took what was already a good offense with Alex Smith at QB and cranked it to 11. Gurley was good independent of McVay in a way, Goff wasn’t. He’s been unleashed under McVay but it’s clear that their symbiosis has enabled both to be dominant. All of this is to say, that if both go on to set single-season records, then it makes the voting process that much tougher.
As stated above, running backs are devalued in the modern NFL and rightfully so. It’s a quarterback league and for a guy as talented as Todd Gurley, the threshold to surpass a quarterback is much higher. Peterson had to be eight yards away from breaking Eric Dickerson‘s single-season record AND carry the Vikings to a playoff spot. Oh, and all the while coming off a major knee injury, with Drew Brees missing the playoffs. Tomlinson is the last back to win the MVP without a qualifier. His Chargers team went 14-2 and he was the single most dominant player on the field.
Gurley is on pace for 1600ish yards and COULD break LT’s record of 31 rushing touchdowns.
Gurley is a dominant force on a dominant team but that’s not enough anymore. He’ll finish in the top three for MVP voting but as long as Mahomes is going all Neo on the rest of the league it’s no contest. He reset the market on running back contracts and is the offensive soul of an undefeated team. He has a shot at passing LT in a predominately passing league, and yet there’s almost no way he wins MVP. He’s Ginger Rogers, doing what Fred Astaire is doing just backwards and in heels. It’s not a slight against Mahomes, it’s just the reality of Gurley’s position. Mahomes is otherworldly and more than worthy of an MVP. The crazy part is that Gurley is just as worthy but the conversation around him feels more obligatory because otherwise, the talking head industrial complex gets bored.
This should be an exciting MVP race but it’s not. Instead, it’s both an anointing of the league’s next big star and an indicator of just how far the running back position has fallen.