For weeks, I have said J.J. Watt, not only wasn’t going to win the award, but did not deserve to win the award. But as Aaron Rodgers has finished off his season of not leading the league in passer rating or yards or touchdowns or completion percentage, giving the award to him is no longer the obvious thing to do. While I still believe Rodgers had the best season of any quarterback, narrowly edging the season for Tony Romo, the margin is tiny. With Romo’s brilliant season clearly being aided by tremendous offensive line play and the most prolific individual rushing season in Cowboys franchise history coming from DeMarco Murray, even a vote for him is far from clear.
The idea of an award with the word valuable in it, seems to indicate that value should matter. As in, when this guy plays well, it leads to wins or at least a great chance to win. Looking at the last two seasons for Rodgers and Watt presents a great look at “value.”
Rodgers got hurt in 2013 during the 8th game of the Packers season. When Rodgers got hurt he was fourth in passer rating and the Packers were 5-2. In the eight games last he missed (he was hurt early in their 8th game), Green Bay went 2-5-1 and their quarterbacks produced a 75.7 rating, which over the course of a season would have ranked 26th league-wide. They missed the playoffs for the only time in the last six seasons with Rodgers as the starting quarterback. This season he led them to an 11-5 mark, while throwing 38 touchdowns against just five interceptions. He ranked behind only Tony Romo in passer rating.
In Watt’s case, in 2013, he wasn’t all-worldly, but he was very good for 16 games. He had 10.5 sacks and led the NFL in quarterback hits. He was 1st team All-Pro. But Houston was a 2-14 team, losing their final 14 games in a row to close out the season.
This season he had 20.5 sacks for the second time in his career, becoming the only player in NFL history to post multiple seasons of 20 or more sacks. He was absolutely all-worldly, scoring 32 points on top of being the most dominant defensive player the league has maybe ever seen. The best quarterback never misses the playoffs in the NFL, especially not now, with the rules set up as they are now, so clearly benefiting offenses.
The best individual season by a defensive layer in the history of the league was just turned in by Watt, yet his team won just nine games and six of those wins came against the five worst teams in the league. But before I completely bury Watt, let’s take a look at his domination.
J.J. Watt led the league in quarterback hits for the third consecutive season. That’s impressive. What’s more impressive is the margin between Watt and the next best guy. Watt had 50 quarterback hits. No other player had 40. Or even 30. The two most prolific quarterback smashers combined had 56 quarterback hits, a mere six more that Watt had on his own. (Dunlap and Miller combined for 1853 snaps, while Watt had 1050). His pattern of nearly lapping the field in this category is nothing new.
2014: Watt 50, Von Miller & Carlos Dunlap 28
2013: Watt 46, Robert Quinn 34
2012: Watt 43, Cameron Wake 33
No player has had more than one season of 30 or more quarterback hits since 2000…except for Watt and he has three consecutive seasons of 43 or more quarterback hits.
Watt also led the NFL in tackles for loss for the 2nd time in the last three seasons.
Tackles For Loss
2014: Watt 29, Houston 23
2013: Quinn 23, Watt 22
2012: Watt 39, Miller 28
It was a tremendous season for Watt defensively, and as seen above, but he also scored 32 points. He caught three passes – all for touchdowns, the final two of which would make any NFL wide receiver proud. He picked off a pass and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown in a game the Texans won by six points. And he scooped up an Andrew Luck fumble, one of his league-leading five fumble recoveries on the season, and returned that 55 yards for a touchdown, too. He scored points in six games. The Texans were 5-1 in those games.
So Aaron Rodgers was arguably the best quarterback his season. Not clearly or overwhelming better than Tony Romo or Tom Brady. And possibly no more valuable than Andrew Luck.
J.J. Watt unquestionably was the best player at his position in the league. He was unquestionably the best player on defense in the league as well. He did things the league hasn’t seen in 50 years, 60 years in some cases. For instance, he was the first player in more than 50 years to have a touchdown reception, interception returned for a touchdown and fumble recovery for a touchdown in the same season. He was the first player since 1956 to have more than one touchdown in a season on offense and defense.
And none of what he did was aided by an emphasis on rule enforcement (illegal contact) that saw a record nine quarterbacks amass 30 touchdown passes. The league had never had a season with more than five quarterbacks throwing 30 or more scores.
Alright, hang on a second, the Watt hyperbole has gone too far, right? What about Justin Houston in Kansas City?
Justin Houston has 22 sacks, topping Watt’s 20.5. He also played for a 9-7 team. He was second to Watt in tackles for loss with 23 and fifth to Watt in quarterback hits with 25. He even had four fumbles forced, just like Watt (though he had zero recoveries, unlike Watt who led the league with five). The Chiefs defense also had only 14 takeaways, only the Jets had fewer. The Texans defense had a league-high 34 turnovers. So enough of that.
And again, while the perception is that Aaron Rodgers was clearly the best quarterback in the league, the numbers do not support that. He was 3rd in touchdowns, 2nd in passer rating, 2nd in yards per attempt, 7th in passing yards, 1st in lowest interception rate. He was 9th in completion percentage, one spot behind Jay Cutler.
But having said all that, I think Aaron Rodgers wins the award. It is virtually impossible to argue that a defensive player in this era of football, impacts the game in such a way that he can more directly lead to victories and thus have more value.
But if it’s any solace, the non-existent award for the best player in the NFL in 2014, goes to J.J. Watt. If 50 people had a vote, it should be 50-0. Every other elite player had a season in 2014 comparable to other players at the their position this season or comparable to recent seasons put up by their contemporaries. (DeMarco Murray had a Dallas Cowboys franchise record 1,845 yards rushing. A number topped twice in the last five seasons in the NFL.) The season Watt produced, had no equals – ever.