Why Matt Ryan, not Tom Brady, should win NFL MVP

Scott McLaughlin
December 27, 2016 - 5:07 pm

Matt Ryan has 4,613 passing yards and 34 touchdowns this season. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

Tom Brady is having a terrific season -- one of the best of his career, in fact. But he should not win his third MVP award.

If no one else really stood out, Brady missing four games wouldn’t be an issue. If his rate stats were clearly better than the rest of the field, you would have no choice but to give him the MVP despite the ridiculous Deflategate suspension.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. There is not a clear gap between Brady and everyone else, because Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is on par with, or ahead of Brady in just about every category. And yes, playing and contributing in four more games matters, regardless of whether or not Brady should have been suspended (he shouldn’t have).

Because of the difference in games played, Ryan naturally has a sizable advantage in the traditional counting stats. Through Week 16, the former Boston College Eagle has 4,613 passing yards to Brady’s 3,278 and 34 touchdown passes to Brady’s 25.

But Ryan also has the edge in many rate stats. He leads the league in passer rating (115.5), QBR (82.2) and yards per attempt (9.26), while Brady ranks second in all those categories at 110.7, 81.9 and 8.22, respectively. Ryan also beats out Brady in completion percentage (69.5 to 66.7) and yards per game (308 to 298).

If you want to get into more advanced metrics, Ryan leads all quarterbacks in Football Outsiders’ DYAR (Defense-adjusted yards above replacement) and DVOA (Defense-adjusted value over average), which adjust for situation and opponent, while Brady has the top quarterback grade on Pro Football Focus.

It’s also worth noting that Ryan leads the best offense in football, as the Falcons average 33.5 points per game. The Patriots have averaged 27.1 points per game on the season and 29.5 in the 11 games Brady has played.

There are two areas where Brady has a clear edge over Ryan that are worth mentioning. He has the better record (10-1 compared to Ryan’s 10-5) and he has thrown fewer interceptions (two in 11 games compared to Ryan’s seven in 15).

The problem with simply pointing to their records, though, is that Brady has a better team around him. For as much as the Patriots’ defense was criticized at times earlier in the season, they currently rank first in the NFL in points allowed at 15.7 per game (as our Chris Price points out, the numbers suggest this is one of the best defenses of the Bill Belichick era). The Falcons, meanwhile, rank 25th at 24.9 points allowed per game.

At the risk of simplifying, Atlanta has needed more from its offense than New England has, and Ryan has delivered. The Falcons have allowed 24 or more points 10 times this season (including all five of their losses), while the Patriots have allowed that many in just two of Brady’s starts. The Falcons won’t be getting home field throughout the playoffs like the Patriots probably will be, but Ryan has still led them to a division title and possibly a first-round bye (they need to beat New Orleans on Sunday to clinch that).

The interception rate and general lack of mistakes is a legitimate advantage to Brady, and would presumably be one of the key points for anyone arguing in his favor. But it’s not like Ryan is having a bad year in terms of picks (his mark of 1.4 percent of passes intercepted is still good for seventh in the NFL), and it’s tough to argue that one metric makes up for Ryan’s edge in so many others. At the very least, their per-game numbers are very close. And again, Ryan did it for four more games, which logically adds more value -- four games of Ryan being great is better than four games of Brady not playing.

Now, you may also be tempted to shout that Brady has done it without Rob Gronkowski for the last four games. That’s true, but Brady still has one of the best sets of offensive weapons in the league. Five other Patriots have at least 400 yards receiving this season, while the Falcons have four of those guys. Of course, one of them is Julio Jones, one of the top five wide receivers in the league, although it is worth noting that Ryan just had two big games without Jones in the lineup.

Other quarterbacks who have come up in the MVP discussion include Dallas’ Dak Prescott, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Oakland’s Derek Carr, but there’s a pretty clear gap between Ryan and Brady and those guys once you dive into the numbers. 

For non-quarterbacks, the discussion starts and ends with Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, but it’s an uphill battle for a running back going against two quarterbacks having excellent seasons, especially when that running back shares an offense with another very good quarterback. Plus, you could argue that Arizona’s David Johnson has actually been the best running back in the NFL this season, even though he won’t get MVP consideration due to the fact he’s on a losing team.

That leaves Brady and Ryan. Brady has obviously had a way better career than Ryan, and if you had to take one of them to win a playoff game, you’d still take Brady every time. But the MVP isn’t a career honor and it’s not about projecting ahead to the playoffs. It’s a regular-season award, and as good as Brady has been this season, Ryan has been a little better and a little more valuable.