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How a deep dive into the NFL MVP race statistics reveals some surprising results

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Dak Prescott’s name should be on the list of MVP candidates.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The accolades have poured in for the EaglesCarson Wentz following his outstanding performance against the Washington Redskins Monday night. Everyone from USA Today’s For The Win to Bleacher Report to NBCSports and local media outlets like NJ.Com have declared Wentz the leading candidate for league MVP.

That’s understandable. Wentz has indeed had a very good year and he leads the team with the best record in the NFL. He boasts compelling stats and has made a number of eye-popping plays that show he’s the real deal at quarterback.

But does he really deserve to be anointed MVP? Has he played better than Tom Brady or Alex Smith? Or how about Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson? Heck, has he even played better than Dak Prescott?

BTB’s own Cole Patterson made the case yesterday for why Dak Prescott’s name should be included in the MVP discussion. Let’s see what a deeper dive into the numbers reveals. Here are the “efficiency” passing statistics for the leading MVP candidates (as judged by NBC Sports Philadelphia) along with Dak Prescott’s numbers:

All of the number’s are on a per-game basis because the six quarterbacks have played different numbers of games. When looking at total passing yards per game and net yards per attempt we see Alex Smith and Tom Brady are head and shoulders above everyone else. Wentz ranks third in each category. Prescott doesn’t rank nearly as well in either category.

However, when we look at adjusted net yards per attempt (which calculates touchdown passes, interceptions and sacks into the number) and touchdown percentage we see a different story. Smith and Brady still rank highest in ANY/A but not by as wide of a margin. They also lag in touchdown percentage where Deshaun Watson ranks highest, Wentz is second and Prescott is third.

When we add interception percentage we see this is where Alex Smith again ranks far above everyone having not thrown a single pick all season. Watson lags behind in this category while Brady is second and Wilson third. Add it all up and when it comes to passing I think the NFL’s traditional passer rating fairly captures the overall performance:

  • Alex Smith has been the best passer in the NFL in 2017.
  • Tom Brady, at age 40, again ranks among the best passers in the NFL.
  • Carson Wentz ranks third, which feels about right to me with Watson, Prescott and Wilson just a notch below.

Here’s the table with each player’s relevant efficiency stats:

The heavy green throughout Alex Smith’s line really shows just how good he’s been. His quarterback rating is 12 full points ahead of Brady’s second place number; which is the same difference between Brady’s #2 mark and Wilson’s #6 mark. There’s really no question Alex Smith has been the league’s best passer.

I, however, have long maintained that traditional statitstics and general quarterback evaluations fail to account how quarterbacks impact games with their legs, either through rushing yards and touchdowns or by avoiding (or taking) sacks. So, let’s add those metrics to each player’s resume (all of these are per-game numbers because the player’s have played different numbers of games):

Let’s start with touches and total yards per game. This total yards metrics adds passing yards + rushing yards - sack yardage:

The total yards per game metric changes pretty significantly. Deshaun Watson, for instance, lagged 100 yards behind Tom Brady in passing yards, but that difference has been reduced by 30 yards when accounting for sacks and rushing yards. Each player’s difference between passing yards and total yards:

We see the difference between what Watson and Prescott bring with their legs compared to Brady. Thirty yards per game may not sound all that significant but over the course of a season that’s nearly 500 yards; that’s the difference between a 3,500 yard passer and a 3,000 yard passer.

If we look at each player’s total yards compared to total touches we get what I call “net yards per touch”. We’re using yardage and touches from all three types of plays (pass attempts, rushes and sacks). We’ll also look at total touchdowns per touch:

Again, we see Smith and Brady still ranking highest in generating yards per touch. Note, however, that Prescott has now caught and surpassed Wentz. This results from two facts:

  1. While Wentz averages three more yards rushing per game (28 vs 25) he’s doing it on 2.5 more rushes per game (5.7 vs 3.3)
  2. Wentz is taking more than twice as many sacks as Prescott (2.7 vs 1.2) and loses nearly three times as many yards via sacks (14.9 vs 5.2)

What this tells us is that Prescott has been highly effective with his legs, ranking first among the six MVP candidates in rushing YPA, rushing touchdowns, sacks taken and sack yards allowed.

In fact, when we look at touchdowns per attempt, suddenly Watson and Prescott jump to the top two positions. Prescott is scoring a touchdown almost one time out every 12 times he throws or runs the ball. He’s head and shoulders above every other MVP candidate in this metric (other than Deshaun Watson).

Prescott is on pace to run for 400 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2017; by comparison Jay Ajayi ranked 11th with 8 rushing touchdowns in 2016. Prescott is on pace to throw and run for 45 combined touchdowns in 2017, which would be a Dallas Cowboys record.

Finally, we have negative play percentages. These are the percent of plays that end with the quarterback taking a sack, fumbling (regardless of who recovers) and interceptions. Here we see that while Watson has helped himself immensely with his legs, he’s also prone to mistakes, with negative plays in 1 of every 12 plays. Wentz also makes a lot of errors, ranking second in this category due to two reasons:

  1. Wentz holds the ball. Sometimes this results in big plays where he’s able to buy time; other times, however, it results in debilitating sacks that often end drives.
  2. Wentz fumbles. A lot. Wentz led the league in fumbles in 2016 with 14 and he’s leading the league again in 2017 with 7. Wentz has been incredibly lucky, with only six of his 21 fumbles recovered by opponents. That is unsustainable. Fumbling once every game will negate a lot of good done in other ways.

We also see that Prescott ranks #1 in protecting the ball and avoiding negative plays. Less than 1-in-20 plays by Prescott ends in a sack, fumble or interception. This again is significantly better than every other MVP candidate.

As a result, when we compare the ratio of touchdowns to negative plays we get the second table above: Prescott is making 1.5 touchdowns for every negative play. No other player makes even one touchdown per negative play. This illustrates how efficient Prescott has been, combining big plays while also protecting the ball and avoiding sacks.

Now, if only there were a metric that tried to combine all of these statistics into a single measure...hmmm. Oh wait, there is. Well, at least there’s something close. ESPN’s QBR measure combines passing, rushing and sack numbers along with game situation and red zone performance. It’s proprietary so no one knows exactly what it’s made up of... but I’ve come to believe it’s the best single measure of quarterback performance. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s the first number I look at when evaluating quarterbacks:

And here we find Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott rank first and second. And note how Alex Smith and Tom Brady, who ranked so high in terms of passing yards and traditional quarterback rating, suffer due to their poor running numbers. Wentz is thrid, seven full points behind Prescott.

Prescott being among the league leaders in QBR is nothing new. He finished third in overall QBR rating in 2016 when his 78.8 number set a record for rookie quarterbacks. Thus, his current 80 number is right in line with how he performed last season.

Carson Wentz is having an outstanding season and deserves all most of the accolades he’s receiving. Eagles’ fans are right to be excited by his emergence in his second season as an elite player. But Dallas fans have every right to be equally excited. Perhaps moreso because this isn’t Dak’s first foray into elite status. Prescott put up arguably the greatest rookie season by an NFL quarterback in the Super Bowl era. Now he’s replicating it with an MVP-caliber sophomore season.

The fact the national media and others are ready to anoint Wentz MVP before the season is half over while ignoring Prescott’s performance is nothing to fret. It’s a good thing. Let Wentz have his spotlight; Dak is doing everything we could have possibly hoped for since joining the Cowboys. The next ten seasons, watching these two square off and compete should be a joy for both fan bases.