MVP debate: Who's most deserving?

The NFL MVP debate usually begins around midseason, when a handful of players start to separate themselves from the pack and make it clear they're having special seasons. Then the pool of candidates gets smaller -- some players regress; others suffer injuries.

The interesting part about the 2014 season is that the names in contention after eight games remain largely the same heading into Week 16. Houston defensive end J.J. Watt got off to a great start, and now he's having a fantastic season. But is it historic enough to overcome a bias toward offensive players?

Three quarterbacks in contention already have won the award: Denver's Peyton Manning (five times), New England's Tom Brady (twice) and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (once).

Then there's Dallas running back DeMarco Murray. At the start of the season, the others discussed here would have been on most lists of MVP contenders. But Murray? He was an ascending runner, coming off a good season (1,121 yards, nine touchdowns). But no one could anticipate him accounting for 38 percent of the Cowboys' yards from scrimmage. Will he get enough credit for transforming Dallas?

The other question is, how do you differentiate what these players have accomplished? The award traditionally goes to a quarterback, and only two defensive players have ever been named MVP.

With that in mind, ESPN assembled a panel of longtime NFL reporters to dissect this year's MVP race: national writers John Clayton and Jeff Chadiha, plus beat reporters Rob Demovsky (Green Bay), Tania Ganguli (Houston) and Jeff Legwold (Denver). They're smart and insightful, and they have front-row seats to this race.

Eighteen of the past 26 MVPs have been quarterbacks; the other eight were running backs. No defensive player has won the award since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. Now here comes J.J. Watt. It's difficult to imagine a defensive player having a better year. Do you think he deserves the award, and does he have a legitimate chance of winning?

Legwold: In making the rounds of personnel executives in the league during the season, Watt is routinely touted as the most disruptive defensive player in the league, so much so that it's not that hard to find game video with triple-teams pointed his way. He's third in the league in sacks with 16.5, right on the heels of co-leaders Elvis Dumervil and Justin Houston, who have 17. He's knocked down 10 passes, making him the only defensive lineman in the league with at least 10 passes defensed. Toss in a defensive touchdown on an 80-yard interception return, a touchdown on a fumble return and three touchdowns on offense, and Watt clearly has a résumé unlike any other player in the league. He is a most deserving candidate and should have a real shot at winning it.

Ganguli: Yes, he deserves it. He accomplishes milestones every week, most recently becoming the Texans' franchise leader in sacks. Some of those milestones date back to the 1930s, '40s and '50s. He affects every play. Because he lines up in so many places, quarterbacks, especially young ones, often divert their attention to locating Watt. I'd be surprised if he won, in part because voters value a team's record when making this decision and the Texans are now a long shot to make the playoffs. Furthermore, the voting system doesn't favor his chances. MVP voters can vote for only their top choice. If they could send in, say, their top three choices in order, I'd bet Watt would get most of the second-place votes. With quarterbacks splitting votes this season, this might have been a year when a strong showing of second-place ballots in addition to a few first-place votes would close the gap.

Demovsky: The issue isn't that Watt is a defensive player. It's that he's not on a team likely to make the playoffs. The last player to win the MVP from a non-playoff team was O.J. Simpson in 1973, when he rushed for a then-record 2,003 yards. Who cares which position the MVP plays? But he'd better at least lead his team to the playoffs.

Chadiha: No. He doesn't deserve the award, and it would be shocking to see him get many votes. The major hurdle he faces is his team: You simply can't be the NFL's Most Valuable Player on a squad that doesn't make the playoffs. Watt has produced another stellar season, but it's not even one of the most dominant years ever by a player likely to win Defensive Player of the Year honors. When Lawrence Taylor won the MVP award in 1986, he destroyed teams on a weekly basis and literally changed the ways offenses schemed to protect the passer. Watt has had some great moments, but he hasn't come close to being that transcendent.

Clayton: As much as I would love to give the vote to Watt, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and Aaron Rodgers has been the best quarterback this year. Brady narrowed the gap with his performance against Miami, while Rodgers was struggling in Buffalo. But Rodgers gets the nod after 15 weeks for several reasons. Rodgers beat Brady in a game in Green Bay. He's on pace to throw for 4,385 yards and 40 touchdowns. Plus, he has a great chance to get the No. 2 seed in the NFC. My midseason choice was DeMarco Murray, mainly because his running helped mask Dallas' deficiencies on defense, but Rodgers is the complete quarterback, capable of beating you with his arm or his legs. Two more weeks could change my opinion, but for now, I'll continue to pump up Rodgers.

How do you differentiate the quarterbacks for this award? It's difficult to go against Aaron Rodgers, but what about Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? And why isn't Andrew Luck touted more?

Chadiha: Rodgers is the clear-cut favorite because he's done more with less. He doesn't have New England's defense. Nor does he have Denver's array of receivers. He's also been the most consistent quarterback this season, and his "R-E-L-A-X" message to panicking Green Bay fans earlier this year only reinforced his ability to navigate the Packers through adversity. When looking at the other quarterbacks, Manning's production has fallen off over the past three weeks -- when he's thrown all of three touchdown passes -- while Brady started so slowly that some observers were questioning whether he was finally showing signs of decline. As for Luck, his case is hurt largely by his lack of big wins. The Colts have played six teams this season that remain in playoff contention. They've won only two of those games.

Demovsky: It's hard to argue against Brady, Manning or Luck. But here's the case for Rodgers: Look at how limited the Packers were without him for eight games last season while he was out because of a broken collarbone. They were 6-2 with him and 2-5-1 without him. Yes, the award is for this season and this season only, but last year showed how valuable Rodgers is and what a difference-maker he is. The Patriots won 11 games the year Brady tore up his knee, and the Broncos were a playoff team before Manning got there.

Clayton: The biggest factor in differentiating quarterbacks is touchdown passes. Any time a quarterback throws for more than 40 touchdown passes, he moves to the front of the list for MVP voting. The reason 40 is a nice number is that you are talking about averaging two or three TD passes a game and, usually, that means you're quarterbacking offenses scoring about 30 points a game. Rodgers is on pace for 40, Manning 42 and Luck 43. Brady is slightly behind at 37. I give the edge at the moment to Rodgers because his touchdown-to-interception ratio (35-5) is simply incredible.

The reason Luck is behind Rodgers and Brady is that he still has to beat one of the top quarterbacks head-to-head to be the MVP. When we do our quarterback ratings, I usually put Luck at No. 5 in the league. He's on the verge of passing Drew Brees at No. 4. Rodgers, Brady and Manning are cemented in the top three in my eyes.

Legwold: Manning's track record with the award, as in he's already won five, may have some impact in whether he can win it this year. Some may simply want to vote for someone else. Football Outsiders had an intriguing statistic that in terms of common opponents between Manning and Brady this season (Buffalo, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Miami, the Jets, Oakland and San Diego), Manning is 9-0 with 24 touchdowns and four interceptions, while Brady is 6-2 with 16 touchdowns and six picks. Manning and Rodgers are each 3-2 against their common opponents. Manning and Brady have guided their teams to 11-3 records at this point -- the Patriots won the head-to-head meeting Nov. 2 -- while Rodgers and the Packers are 10-4. The MVP votes are due before the postseason, and it's a difficult hair to split because it's doubtful any of the three teams would be anywhere close to where it is without the starting quarterback in the lineup.

Luck, Manning, Rodgers and Brady rank 1-4 in the NFL in touchdown passes. In essence, it will come down to how you define valuable. Luck has to be in the conversation since he leads the league in passing yards and touchdowns combined with his penchant for late-game heroics. In terms of how things are balanced with their respective teams, of those four quarterbacks, Luck has the lowest-ranked scoring defense (17th overall at 22.6 points per game) along for the ride.

Ganguli: Despite his poor showing this past weekend, Rodgers has distinguished himself with his mobility and passing ability. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is significantly better than all three of the others mentioned. And while his completion percentage ranks only 12th, his yards per dropback is the best of the group. Manning's numbers have started to drop lately. Brady lost the head-to-head battle to Rodgers even though the Patriots have a better defense than the Packers. As for Luck, he can still be forced into too many mistakes, as evidenced by his 14 interceptions. The only quarterback with more pick-sixes since 2012 is Geno Smith, which isn't great company for the talented young quarterback. Luck will get there; he just isn't there yet.

When I look at Dallas, it's the offensive line that jumps out with the holes it creates. But DeMarco Murray has 1,687 yards rushing -- more than 400 yards ahead of any other running back. Should he be on the list? Maybe a better question is this: Is he even Dallas' MVP?

Clayton: He was my first-half MVP. Sure, he has a great offensive line, but that shouldn't be held against him. Murray definitely deserves MVP consideration. The reason his stock has dropped in the second half of the season is we are starting to see him wear down a bit. In two of his past three games, he's been held to fewer than 100 yards despite carrying the ball 20 and 31 times in those contests. His value will be on display this week if he misses the Indianapolis game because of hand surgery.

Demovsky: He absolutely should be on the list, and around the midseason point he probably was considered one of the front-runners. That's waned a little since then. Running backs are underappreciated in the league today, but he's truly special regardless of whether he's playing now or whether he played when MVP runners such as Thurman Thomas, Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis were in the game.

Chadiha: There's no doubt he's the Cowboys' MVP, and he would be more appreciated for this award if it were 1994. People don't give Murray enough respect for the numbers he's amassed. One reason is the position he plays; people love to diminish running backs these days. The other problem he faces is his career history. He's never shown the potential for being this productive, and it's fair to suspect that some observers see him as a one-hit wonder who just happened to luck into a great offensive line. Those cynics tend to forget how much Murray has helped transform the Cowboys -- from easing the pressure on quarterback Tony Romo to opening up more opportunities for wide receiver Dez Bryant downfield to making life easier on a much-maligned defense. He may have a wonderful offensive line, but holes matter only if you have dynamic backs to run through them.

Ganguli: Murray was my choice for MVP at the midway point given what he'd accomplished from a historical perspective. Murray has faced eight or more defenders in the box more often than all but one player -- San Francisco's Frank Gore -- yet Murray has five touchdowns in those situations. It does help that Murray plays behind a dominant offensive line, and his 1,023 yards before contact attest to that. But Murray also leads the league with 664 yards after contact and has an overall 409-yard lead on every other running back in the league. If Murray misses Sunday's game against the Colts because of his surgically repaired hand, that will likely show just how valuable he is to the Cowboys. Yet it will probably hurt his candidacy in the race for an award that trends toward quarterbacks anyway.

Legwold: When it comes to putting yourself into the MVP conversation, often it takes a top-shelf season to get everyone's attention and then another to win the award. In the case of a running back, often the toll of the workload it takes to put together a season worthy of MVP attention means the player is too battered to produce another one the following year. Also in these pass-happy times, the thought around the league is a franchise quarterback is the most indispensable player on the depth chart, and demand for them exceeds supply by a long shot. My thought as I vote each year is that the league leader in the major categories deserves a look. So, in that regard, Murray deserves a long look, given that his numbers are so far beyond his peers at the position. But after hand surgery, his availability and productivity are concerns for the remaining two games.

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have each had one horrific game. Brady's came early in Week 4 against Kansas City (14-for-23, 159 yards, two INTs), and he's played great since. Rodgers saved his clunker for Week 15 against Buffalo (17-for-42, 185 yards, two INTs). Will the timing of Rodgers' bad game hurt his MVP chances?

Ganguli: This question makes me feel like the College Football Playoff committee. Someone will yell at me no matter what the response is, so I'll stay consistent. Earlier, I said the head-to-head matchup carries weight in this discussion, and I'm sticking to that. The timing of Rodgers' bad game shouldn't impact voters, but it probably will. The opponent should matter more, and both quarterbacks lost to solid defenses. As of now, their bad games cancel each other out.

Clayton: You are right in thinking the timing of a bad game could affect the vote. Rodgers' loss to Buffalo came at an inopportune time, because it could cost the Packers home-field advantage in the NFC. That game allowed Brady to gain ground in what has become a great MVP race. All the top quarterbacks are having big years. A bad week or two definitely changes the equation. A month ago, Manning might have been the clubhouse leader. But he hasn't thrown the ball as well recently, and the Broncos have relied more on the running game. The timing of that pushes Manning down the list.

Legwold: In each MVP season, a little rain must fall. It's not a perfection award and often a candidate's clunker actually proves his value if his team can't overcome its best player's off day. After Manning faced the Buffalo Bills -- 14-of-20 passing for 173 yards and two interceptions -- there was plenty of chatter about Manning's arm strength, etc. But then the Bills did pretty much the same thing to Rodgers this past weekend. So, that gives at least some context to the "clunkers" for each. In my mind, Rodgers' game this past weekend is part of a body of work, and it doesn't carry more weight than the victories did.

Demovsky: It shouldn't hurt Rodgers any more than it hurts Brady, but the reality is the voters are only human, and it's in their nature to remember what they've seen recently. AP voters don't have to turn their ballots in until after the regular season, so the hope is they wouldn't make up their minds until they've seen and considered the entire body of work. No one who votes for the Academy Awards sends in their ballot for best picture without seeing a film through the final credits. Why should the MVP race be any different?

Chadiha: When it comes to MVP voting, people remember moments more than games. It's the NFL -- anyone can look bad at any given moment. What works in Rodgers' favor is that the Buffalo game was the first time in a long time when he actually looked mortal. Before that loss, he'd gone nearly two months without completing less than 63 percent of his passes in a game. He's also avoided throwing an interception in 11 of the 14 games he's started. Oh yeah, he also tossed six touchdown passes in one half of a nationally televised Sunday night blowout win over Chicago. Those are the things people think about when considering the Most Valuable Player.

Who do you think should win the award and why?

Demovsky: Unless Rodgers has another game like he did against the Bills, he should win it. He's done everything an MVP should do: He has been a leader off the field -- his R-E-L-A-X comment was just what the Packers needed after their 1-2 start -- and he's at the peak of quarterback performance on the field. His mastery even before the ball is snapped is part of the reason he's able to make stellar plays. He almost never throws interceptions (four of his five this season have been off receivers' hands), and he should have answered all questions about whether he can rally a team from behind. And he's done it with basically two consistent receivers: Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.

Ganguli: Watt should be rewarded for having an unprecedented season. He's the first defensive lineman since 1944 to score five touchdowns, the first defensive player to have five touchdowns in a season since 1971, the first player since 1956 to have multiple touchdowns on offense and defense and the first player ever to have at least three receiving touchdowns, a pick-six and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.

The Texans are 4-1 in games in which Watt scores a touchdown, and he affects every play from a position that isn't generally designed to do so. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Watt disrupts the quarterback more than any other player, and according to Pro Football Focus, the gap between Watt and any other player at his position is significantly bigger than the gap between any other player and his peers. Giving this award to a defensive player who plays on a team struggling to get into the playoffs might be extraordinary, but so is Watt.

Chadiha: Rodgers is the clubhouse leader, but Murray deserves the award. He's produced 11 100-yard games this season, many of which have come after defenses started focusing their attention on stopping him. He's also been more than a runner, as he has 54 receptions to go along with his league-leading 351 rushing attempts. Murray also has a shot at a 2,000-yard season. That would make him the eighth player in NFL history to reach that magic number (and four of the previous seven won the MVP award). Murray faces long odds in the voting because quarterbacks are valued so highly, and Rodgers is the best player at that position today. But it's also rare to see a running back come out of nowhere and do what Murray has done for a Cowboys team on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time since 2009. He deserves to be rewarded for that.

Legwold: The votes are due after the regular-season finale, and I'm not sure I can make the call for my vote at the moment. Again, personnel people I respect say Watt has been the league's best player this season, and the film validates that each week, but his team will not make the playoffs. And the fact a player so clearly at an elite level can't pull his team into the postseason speaks to defining "valuable'' and why quarterbacks so often win the award. The fact quarterbacks may splinter the votes could give Watt a chance. Watt may be the best player, but a quarterback may be more valuable. I'm leaning toward Watt at the moment. Manning and Brady each deserve a long look, but as we discuss this with two games left, I think Rodgers will win the award.

Clayton: With two games left, I'm sticking with Rodgers. I still believe he will win the last two games and get to 12 wins. That total, combined with his impressive stats, should get him the MVP.

Heading into Week 16, this race is close enough that one bad game could sway opinions. Keep in mind that Rodgers finishes at home against Detroit. In the Packers' first game against the Lions this season, they held him to 147 passing yards and seven points.

Brady, meanwhile, faces the Jets and the white-hot Bills defense. However, in the Patriots' first game against the Bills, Brady threw for 347 yards and four touchdowns.

Then again, keep an eye on Murray. If he's able to play in the final two games, he'll face Indianapolis (21st in yards per carry allowed) and Washington (against whom he rushed for 141 yards on 19 carries in the first meeting).

The race is far from over.