First, it was Tom Brady vs. Carson Wentz. Then, it was Tom Brady vs. Antonio Brown. Now, after both those superstars went down with injuries, the most obvious competitor standing between Brady and his third MVP award is a record-setting running back. Todd Gurley has been absolutely unconscious over the past three weeks. The Rams running back has eight touchdowns during that span, which is more than the entire Browns roster has over its past six games combined.
It has been a stunning season for a player who spent most of 2016 stuck in the mud for a going-nowhere Rams team. The Rams will host the franchise's first home playoff game in California since 1985 during wild-card weekend, and while the turnaround of Jared Goff under the tutelage of Sean McVay has been shocking, it's difficult to imagine the Rams making the playoffs without their workhorse at running back.
Gurley has been great, but should voters really pick him over Brady? Or should the Patriots' signal-caller deserve recognition for the latest in a series of dominant seasons? Let's make the case for why Gurley is likely to receive serious consideration, then pick an MVP favorite with two games and one week left in the season. The five-point plan for Gurley to win goes as follows:
1. Recency bias
The Associated Press voters are only human. They make their choices in late December, so they're naturally going to be thinking about what each candidate was doing over the final month of the season. Think about Adrian Peterson, who struggled early in the 2012 season and then ran off nine 100-yard games in 10 weeks to end his season, including a December with two 200-yard games and a 199-yard effort in a playoff-berth-clinching victory over the Packers in Week 17. His final run of the year was a 26-yarder that set up the game-winning field goal and saw him carried off the field by a teammate as the entire crowd chanted "MVP." You couldn't have written a better case for Peterson.
Gurley, meanwhile, got off to a hot start before slowing down as the Rams went with a heavier dosage of their passing attack in November. He failed to average even 60 rushing yards per game in November and scored three touchdowns across four contests. That was in a month in which the Rams dropped 51 points on the Giants and 33 on the Texans before losing to the Vikings and narrowly topping the Saints.
In December, though, Gurley has been a monster. He has specifically peaked over the last three weeks of the season, which coincide with the fantasy football playoffs. Voters obviously aren't going to treat Gurley differently because he won some of them their fantasy leagues, but to put his production in context, the 23-year-old just enjoyed the best fantasy playoffs (Weeks 14-16) in NFL history:
In comparison, while Brady has put together a great season, he's not peaking in December. The future Hall of Famer has thrown six interceptions over his past five games, including a pick-six in Sunday's 37-16 victory over the Bills. Brady had thrown just four picks in his previous 22 starts dating back to his return from suspension in 2016. Bothered by an Achilles injury, Brady has thrown more interceptions (five) than touchdowns in December, with an 81.5 passer rating placing him below Mitchell Trubisky and just ahead of Tom Savage for 19th among qualifying passers this month.
While Gurley was struggling during midseason, Brady was running off one of the hottest stretches of the season, posting a 114.7 passer rating while throwing nine touchdowns without a pick. We probably shouldn't treat games in December as more meaningful in terms of MVP consideration than the ones in previous months, but that's the way voters seem to think about the process, so it would be foolish to ignore Gurley's blistering December season.
2. Historic campaigns
Recent history suggests that running backs need to post crooked numbers to overcome the positional bonus handed to quarterbacks and receive even modest MVP consideration. Peterson nearly set the rushing record by running for 2,097 yards in 2012. The previous MVP to come from behind the quarterback was LaDainian Tomlinson, who racked up a staggering 31 touchdowns from scrimmage in 2006, including 28 rushing scores. One year earlier, Shaun Alexander ran for 27 touchdowns. If you want the hardware as a running back, the bare minimum requirement is to have a rushing-yardage total or a touchdown total that starts with the No. 2.
It's tougher for a running back to generate the gaudy numbers of even a decade ago with modern workloads, but Gurley could finish the season with some truly impressive stats. If he scores twice in what is likely to be a shootout with the 49ers on Sunday, Gurley will be the first running back to top 20 touchdowns in a season since Tomlinson in 2006. He holds a seven-touchdown lead over every other player in the league, with no other running back, wide receiver or tight end topping 12 scores.
That lead in touchdowns might be critical. Le'Veon Bell could eat into the deficit during Pittsburgh's game Monday, but Gurley is in good shape if he maintains that massive advantage. Since the 1970 merger, five other running backs have made it to the end of the season while leading the league with a touchdown total seven or more scores ahead of the competition. Three of them -- Tomlinson, Alexander and Marshall Faulk -- have finished their seasons with an MVP trophy. As for Brady, meanwhile, this isn't an otherworldly campaign. Many of his competitors have fallen by the wayside thanks to injuries, but his league lead in passing yards is by a mere 259 yards over Philip Rivers. He trails Wentz in passing touchdowns despite playing two additional games. Brady is third in completion percentage and yards per attempt and second in passer rating behind Alex Smith.
Brady's season is also below the typical standard we see from MVP-winning quarterbacks. Pro Football Reference tracks quarterback statistics and adjusts them for the scoring level of each year in question as index stats. (More on them here.) Across the board, Brady's era-adjusted statistics in 2017 would make him one of the least imposing MVP winners in recent memory. Here's where he ranks among the 33 other winners of this award since 1970 in PFR's index stats (updated through Week 16):
3. Familiarity bias
This isn't even really a particularly notable season for Brady relative to his typical level of play. Rank Brady seasons and, even with a week to go, this one will finish no higher than fourth in passing yards. This season would rank fourth in yards per attempt, sixth in touchdown-to-interception ratio, fifth in passer rating and eighth among 11 recorded seasons in Total QBR. It's a great campaign for mortal quarterbacks and a good one for Brady, but it's a step below the stratospheric seasons that won him this award in 2007 and 2010.
This is going to be a problem with his candidacy, although it has nothing to do with Brady himself. Voters in all sports, including football, get easily exhausted of perennial candidates and often prefer players who either took a leap forward from their established level of play and/or haven't won an award previously. Brady could quite viably have been a candidate for most of the past decade and has won only two awards. Likewise, Bill Belichick has won Coach of the Year three times in 17 seasons with the Patriots, even though just about every one of us would have picked him as the best football coach alive for 13 or 14 of those campaigns. As much as we know Belichick might deserve the award on a near-annual basis, he doesn't even receive serious consideration most seasons by virtue of setting his own bar impossibly high.
There are exceptions, but if a vote is close, most of the voters tend to lean toward the new face over the guy who will be back next year. Gurley, who looks like a different human than the guy we saw in 2016, is that new face. He's in the middle of what would be a career year for just about any running back. Gurley won Offensive Rookie of the Year for an explosive 13-game campaign in 2015, but he would have never received even the slightest bit of MVP consideration before now.
4. Highlight plays
He doesn't need to make monster plays to be effective, obviously, but the Brady engine works on supreme efficiency. He beats you by staying ahead of schedule, avoiding turnovers and finding receivers for easy completions drive after drive after drive. Brady's style doesn't lend itself to highlight reels. He has eight completions on throws traveling 30 yards or more in the air this season, only one of which has led to a touchdown (against three picks). Rob Gronkowski is the guy who gets lauded for spectacular plays on this team, not Brady.
Gurley, meanwhile, ranks alongside Gronk, Alvin Kamara and Antonio Brown as the season's most spectacular players. Nobody tracks it, but Gurley must hold the record for most times leaping over a defender in a single season. His longest play in 2016 went for 33 yards; this year, Gurley has 10 plays for 33-plus yards, four more than anybody else in the league. He somehow accelerated through the Titans' defense Sunday in taking a screen to the house for an 80-yard score. Gurley is making professional defenders look like overmatched kids from college.
5. The last-man-standing effect
Brady has been among the top candidates for this award all season, and deservedly so. It's also fair to say that he has never really grabbed the trophy for himself. He was neck-and-neck with Carson Wentz for most of the year, and after Wentz went down, Brady never had the sort of game to stand out versus the competition. Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass the first time against the Bills, delivered a dud without Gronkowski against the Dolphins, then had his winning touchdown drive against the Steelers overshadowed by the drama of the touchdown stolen from Jesse James.
Brady has done just enough to stay on top of the pack without claiming the trophy for himself. Gurley, on the other hand, has come roaring out of the pack and gone from totally outside the MVP picture a few weeks ago to standing as a possible favorite. It's the difference between not losing an award and winning it, and while Brady hasn't done anything that would cause him to drop out of the race, Gurley has crashed the party.
So, who should win?
Those are all arguments I expect the voters will take up if they lean toward Gurley, but in evaluating Gurley, I don't know if I believe he has really done enough to overcome the massive divide in value between quarterbacks and running backs. He's on pace to finish with 2,233 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns, and while that's impressive, it isn't all that much different from the 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 scores David Johnson racked up for the Cardinals in 2016. I understand that they weren't competitive, but few people (myself aside) argued that Johnson should receive serious MVP consideration.
Gurley has probably been the best running back in football in 2017, but the difference between him and Bell mostly comes down to a few touchdowns in short-yardage situations. Bell will likely get within 100 yards of Gurley's scrimmage total after a game against the rapidly fading Texans on Monday, and while they'll be way ahead of the rest of the pack, Gurley is not going to be way ahead of his fellow running backs in terms of cumulative production in the way that Peterson, Alexander and Tomlinson were in years past.
I also don't think voters value receiving yards as much as rushing yards for backs. Consider that Chris Johnson had an even more impressive version of this Gurley season for the Titans in 2006 -- with 2,006 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns and a league-record 2,509 yards from scrimmage -- and didn't receive a single MVP vote. Maybe he would have done better if the Titans had finished above 8-8 that year, but the last back to win league MVP with Gurley's sort of statistical profile was Faulk, and he scored 26 touchdowns.
If I had a vote, I'd pick Brady right now. Voters lean toward late-season performance and love to pick fresh faces, but those are biases that unfairly fault players for succeeding earlier in the year. Is Brady really a worse candidate because he played his best football in late October and early November, when Gurley was posting his least productive stretch of the season? The wins Brady contributed to count for just as much as the ones Gurley is contributing to in December, right?
What I will say, though, is that I wouldn't close the door on the race. Both of these players will likely have something meaningful to play for in Week 17. Assuming the Steelers beat the Texans, Brady will start Sunday at home against the Jets knowing New England needs a win to clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Rams, meanwhile, will be kicking off simultaneously with the Saints on Sunday needing a win to clinch the third seed in the NFC. Unless the Saints fall way behind the Buccaneers in Tampa, McVay is likely to employ Gurley like it's a meaningful regular-season game.
The race is close enough to come down to what happens in Week 17. Gurley will be facing a 49ers team that allowed him to score three times (and only narrowly stopped him from hitting four) in a Week 3 shootout, and that was before the 49ers acquired Jimmy Garoppolo and started averaging 27.5 points per game. It's hardly out of the question to think Gurley breaks off another huge game and stamps his name atop the MVP ballot. Without multiple touchdowns in the game, though, I still think Brady has done enough to hold on and claim a much-deserved third trophy.