As the NFL season enters its final quarter, most teams are still fighting for a playoff spot, while an unfortunate few have nothing but the draft to look forward to. Of course, the Dallas Cowboys are alone at this point in having locked up a playoff spot, and now can focus on retaining the number one seed in the NFC to get home-field advantage. But this is also the time of year when individual awards are made to recognize outstanding performances. Yesterday, it was reported that Dallas’ two super rookies, Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, are leading the fan vote for the Pro Bowl. It has to be acknowledged that they are undoubtedly benefiting from the enormous popularity of the Cowboys, but they certainly have done a tremendous job in earning the recognition as they both been crucial in leading the team to the 11-1 start, mowing through various records along the way.
It is a given that one of them is going to be named the Offensive Rookie of the Year, and whichever does not get it will likely be the runner-up. But the remarkable success of the Cowboys raises the question of whether one of them is deserving of the MVP award this season. It is remarkable to think that not one but two rookies on the same team can even be considered for this honor, but that is the stunning reality of the incredible year that has unfolded in Dallas. There is little question that an argument can be made for either of them. But is it realistic that one of them could walk away from the season with recognition as the most significant player in the league?
If you look just at their performances this season, the answer would have to be yes. Elliott leads the league in rushing, and by a wide margin of 242 yards over DeMarco Murray, the Offensive Player of the Year from 2014 (as you may recall). The running attack is the basis for the entire approach of the Cowboys. They not only base their offense on rushing the ball and controlling the clock, they depend on that ball control to protect a sometimes shaky defense. The Cowboys drafted Zeke as the one missing piece of the puzzle they needed to succeed this season, and he has more than lived up to expectations.
However, at the time of the draft, the plan was also based on a healthy Tony Romo, and we are all painfully aware of how that turned out. In Romo’s absence, the Cowboys turned to the somewhat unheralded Prescott, who lasted until the latter part of the fourth round. Dak has been the story of the 2016 season, not just for Dallas, but for the entire NFL. He is on the cusp of becoming somewhat legendary with the Cowboys now seen as one of the favorites to win it all this year. There is no question that his completely unanticipated emergence has been the salvation of the Cowboys. He is not one of the leaders in yardage, but he has the third-highest passer rating in the league, is second in yards per attempt, and his ratio of 19 touchdown passes to only 2 interceptions is better than everyone in the league except Tom Brady.
Still, there are a couple of arguments against both of them. One is that rookies just are not seen as real candidates for this award. In the history of the NFL, only two rookies have been named MVP by any of the major media sources. In 1957, Jim Brown was named MVP by the Associated Press, and Earl Campbell was selected by the Pro Football Writers of America in 1978. For whatever reason, veterans usually are named MVP, which may reflect a bit of consideration for their career stats. But more likely, rookies just do not make that kind of an impact. Until this year, perhaps.
The other reason that Dak and Zeke may not be seen as being fully deserving of the award is those five guys who line up ahead of them. The Cowboys’ offensive line is seen as the best in the league, and is the true foundation the Dallas offense is built on. Certainly, both Elliott and Prescott would not have been nearly as successful behind a less capable line. Zeke depends on those holes and creases to get a big portion of his yards before contact. According to the figures at Football Outsiders, the Cowboys line is second in the league in giving their backs room to run before they are hit (numbers are before the games of week 13). Prescott has also only been sacked 18 times behind that line, a truly remarkable number for a rookie.
But that argument falls apart when you consider that many outstanding QB or RB performances have come behind a top-flight offensive line. The guys in the trenches don’t get the glory the skill positions do.
Yet there is one other problem for either Elliott or Prescott winning the MVP award. They are almost certain to take votes away from one another. They are truly interdependent on one another. Prescott relies on the threat of Elliott running the ball to pull defenders into the box and keep him from having to carry the team on his arm, while Elliott benefits from Prescott’s passing skill to open up the field for him. Dak has also shown an amazing level of development in his ability to make adjustments and change plays at the line, which can put the ball in Zeke’s hands in favorable situations.
Elliott and Prescott are two halves of the offensive plan for Dallas, and it is really hard to determine which one is the most valuable for the team. That does not make it any easier to sort out which one might be deserving of the league MVP award. It is very likely that the award will go to another player who does not share the backfield with another star they way they do.
To be honest, there is a great argument to make that they are really co-MVPs. If the Cowboys only had one of them, it is highly unlikely that the season would have gone so well. But that is not a likely way that the voting might go for this award.
Individual awards are not the goal for the Cowboys, of course. But there has never been a pair of rookies like this in the history of the NFL. And who, this season, really is more deserving of the MVP award? Brady is the only player that has a resume that is as strong this year, and the four-game suspension he served, however just or unjust that may have been, is seen by many as an automatic disqualification.
It is a real puzzle, one that may not have a good answer. How would you solve this dilemma? Tell us in the comments.