Derek Carr had a shot at sealing up the MVP award Thursday night and failed. Had Carr put up big numbers in a win over the Chiefs on national television and pushed the Raiders to 11-2 and atop an extremely tough division, he becomes a huge betting favorite. Carr didn't get much help from his receivers, and it sure was cold at Arrowhead, but when you average 2.9 yards per pass attempt, something has gone wrong.
Carr left the MVP race wide open with a quarter of the season to go, and there are plenty of plausible candidates. Tom Brady could sneak back in if the Patriots win out to go 14-2. Russell Wilson might even have a shot. Von Miller is the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year and could threaten for MVP if he goes on a tear. Dak Prescott has some support.
With all that being said, it's fair to say Ezekiel Elliott could be the toughest competition for Carr, even if the Cowboys are likely to give Elliott a reduced workload over the final two weeks of the season if they clinch the top seed in the NFC. He has put up big numbers, and has been a big part of the finishing blow the Dallas offense has managed to achieve over and over.
But I want to use Elliott's candidacy to throw another name out there.
I don't think he has a serious shot of winning the MVP award, but he probably deserves some consideration, and the reasons why some might reject his candidacy might also be reason to review your thoughts on Elliott. I don't think you can vote for Elliott as MVP if he's not even the best running back in football, and there's a reasonable case to be made that the best running back in football this season is David Johnson.
The Johnson vs. Elliott debate
This is easy, right? Elliott has run the ball 263 times for 1,285 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Johnson has run the ball 228 times for 1,005 yards and 11 scores. Elliott has run for 280 more yards while averaging nearly a half-yard more per carry. Johnson has been solid, but Dallas' rookie sensation has been more productive and more efficient as a rusher. Problem solved.
Wait, why did I even write this article?
Well, there's another thing these two players have to do: catch the football. This is 2016, after all, when teams throw the ball more than ever before. While some teams have a third-down back whose role is primarily to serve as a receiver, both Dallas and Arizona use their stud starters as receiving backs, too. The numbers there? Elliott has caught 28 passes for 322 yards and a touchdown, a chunk of which came on a single screen pass on which an untouched Elliott scampered 83 yards to the house.
Johnson's receiving numbers are on another level. He has caught 64 passes for 704 yards and four touchdowns, which would a respectable level of output even without considering the second-year man's rushing statistics. The difference between Johnson and Elliott as receivers is roughly about the difference in production between Brandon Marshall and Malcolm Mitchell this season.
What's even more impressive about Johnson is the way he's gaining those receiving yards. Most backs pick up a fair chunk of their yardage on screens, which can at times be something closer to delayed runs: You're not beating anybody in coverage, and you have offensive linemen out in front of you to help create running lanes after the catch. The yards still count, but the degree of difficulty is lower.
More than perhaps any other back in the league, the Cardinals basically just use Johnson as a regular old wide receiver a fair amount of the time. Atlanta does this with both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and other teams will line up receiving backs like Theo Riddick or Dion Lewis in the slot, but Johnson moves around the formation and runs route combinations alongside Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd like he's a wideout. Bruce Arians has no qualms about believing he has a mismatch with Johnson against just about any other player on the defensive side.
The typical receiving back will accrue about 35 percent of his receiving yardage on screens. For Zeke, that number is up to 74.8 percent, which is the highest in the league among backs with 200 receiving yards or more. Outside of screen passes, he has 13 catches for 81 yards. Johnson, meanwhile, has used screens to get to 22.2 percent of his receiving yards this year. On passes that aren't screens, he has 51 catches for 548 yards and three scores. No other back in the league is within 200 yards of DJ as a receiver on non-screens.
Including screens, other receiving yardage and those rushing statistics, here's what Elliott and Johnson have done from scrimmage this season, respectively:
On virtually the same number of touches, Johnson has outgained Elliott by 102 yards while scoring two more touchdowns and fumbling less frequently. If you want to argue about each player's respective context within his team, well, Johnson is responsible for a higher percentage of his team's output, too:
I'm defining touchdowns as passing and rushing scores here, and Johnson has 15 of Arizona's 32 scores this season. That's not unprecedented, but it is impressive; just one back in the past five seasons, Jamaal Charles in 2013, has scored more than 45 percent of his team's touchdowns in a particular year. (The record, as far as I can tell, is Emmitt Smith taking 15 of Dallas' 26 offensive scores in 1996 to the house, for a 57.6 percent clip.) Nobody would argue that it has been the better unit of the pair, but you could argue Johnson has been more important to the Cardinals' offense than Elliott has been to his.
And of course, the qualitative element in play here is the supporting cast. Elliott plays behind the best offensive line in football, a unit so effective I nominated it for MVP several weeks ago. He has a budding superstar quarterback in Prescott, who leads the league in QBR. Elliott makes his quarterback and offensive line better, but they also make it far easier for him to do his thing, too.
Let's compare that to the group Johnson plays with. His quarterback is Carson Palmer, who was an MVP candidate last year but has slipped significantly in 2016; his completion percentage and yards per attempt have dropped while his interception rate and sack rate have risen. Johnson's offensive line also has hardly been helpful. Arizona lost veteran guard Evan Mathis for the season after four games and star left tackle Jared Veldheer after eight. Center A.Q. Shipley is one of the worst starting pivots in football, and the Cards are down to disappointing right tackle D.J. Humphries as their left tackle. The right side of the line is John Wetzel and Ulrick John, a pair of undrafted free agents who bounced around practice squads before starting their first games with the Cardinals this season. Not exactly Zack Martin and Doug Free.
So here's the question: If Johnson has been more productive in a far more difficult situation, how has he not been the better running back?
It's hard to find an argument for Elliott. If you count the plays when Johnson was targeted but did not catch the ball as plays generating zero yards, the average Elliott play has gone for 5.43 yards per attempt, while Johnson's plays have generated 5.27 yards per effort. While Elliott has spent plenty of his debut season in garbage time, it has mostly been in running situations where teams are gearing up to stop him. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have been able to get Johnson the ball against teams that are in soft coverages late in blowouts, although that's also not a huge facet of what Johnson has done, either -- 119 of Johnson's 704 yards have come with Arizona down 14 points or more.
Instead, the obvious reason why people are considering Elliott as an MVP candidate without mentioning Johnson is the fact that Dallas is one of the surprises of the season at 11-1, while Arizona has been an enormous disappointment at 5-6-1. The offense has driven most of the difference between the two, as the Cardinals have allowed 23 more points than the Cowboys while Dallas has outscored Arizona by 57 points. The Cardinals' defense has been much better by DVOA, but most MVP voters aren't consulting advanced statistics as part of their vote.
Again, though, where is the evidence that the enormous difference between the Dallas offense and Arizona attack is due to Elliott being a much better player than Johnson? You would probably take the Cardinals' receiving corps over that of Dallas, especially when healthy, but there's a huge, obvious swath of difference in output between these two teams at offensive line and quarterback. Aren't they far more likely to be the parties most responsible for the offensive gap between the Cowboys and Cardinals, given that Elliott and Johnson have been about as productive as one another?
I should make this point clear: If I had a vote, to be honest, I wouldn't pick either Elliott or Johnson.
They're both phenomenal players and have been excellent this season, but for a running back to win the MVP award over a quarterback, he has to either set records or single-handedly propel a team beyond its wildest expectations. Adrian Peterson did that in 2012, when he ran for 2,097 yards as the focal point of a Vikings team with Christian Ponder at quarterback and Michael Jenkins and Jerome Simpson as his starting wideouts for half the year.
Between these two, Johnson is the one carrying his team, although he isn't getting it very far. I can understand being reticent to vote for the leading offensive weapon on a sub-.500 team as the league's most valuable player, but I think it's fair to say Johnson has either been the league's best running back or someone very close to that honor in 2016. And if we have to ask whether Elliott is even the best player at his own position, chances are he's not the best one at any position this season.