By Kurt Bullard
On an unseasonably warm November afternoon in Greater Boston, former Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan walked to midfield of Alumni Stadium at the halftime of the Eagles’ final home game of the season against UConn to see his No. 12 jersey retired. His appearance—alongside Luke Kuechly’s in the pouring rain against Syracuse a few weeks earlier —were the definitive highlights of any BC season-ticket holder to date. The team hadn’t won a conference game in 721 days, a 21-point handling of the Orange in its home finale in 2014. In the meantime, fans experienced a winless conference season in 2015, and a devastating missed extra point in OT of the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl which led to a one-point loss to Penn State.
But after Matt Ryan received his applause and walked off the field, the Eagles would deliver its first home win in almost two-full calendar years by a dominating 30 points. They would win the next week on the road at Wake Forest (even if they did potentially have some help from Wakeyleaks), earning the team a bowl bid. A month later, BC would hoist the Quick Lane Bowl trophy (whatever that is) on Ford Field, capping the miraculous salvaging of the Eagles’ season. And, on New Year’s, even the basketball team would pick up its first ACC win since March 2015.
That’s how good Matt Ryan has been this year. Matt Ryan’s mere presence could even turn the hapless Boston College Eagles around.
But when it comes to the MVP debate, not until very recently has Ryan received serious consideration. There’s been a hefty amount of attention shone on other candidates: With two rookie studs in Dallas, which one is more deserving of the MVP nod?; Can Brady win the MVP even after missing four games at the beginning of the season? Will Aaron Rodgers’ hot finish propel him to the top of the vote? But not a lot of attention has been paid to the unsexy beacon of consistency—Matty Ice.
This year, the Falcons put up 71 more points than the next closest team. Matt Ryan has tossed up 38 touchdowns to only 7 INTs. He’s second in passing yards, trailing Brees by around 250 passing yards. And, more importantly to some, he’s won this year. The Falcons earned one of two all-important NFC first-round byes.
However, people’s votes for MVP can differ based on one’s “definition” of the award: an all-time classic sports debate. There’s always the people that vote based on heart or narrative, so there’s no swaying that group. Yet, here, I’ll try to pander to both parties: the “outstanding” voters and the “true value” voters. No matter through which lens you look at the problem, Matty Ice rises to the top.
Is Matt Ryan Most Outstanding Player?
This is a difficult question to answer across positions, so I’ll stick to quarterbacks for now. Here are some basic stats from Ryan’s season so far:
Interceptions: 3rd-lowest (for players with at least 500 pass attempts)
Yards Per Attempt: 1st
I’ll look beyond touchdowns and interceptions for now—the frequency of the former can be impacted by field position and random red-zone luck from year-to-year, while the latter can be influenced by tips and such—and just focus on yardage for now.
Matt Ryan’s yards per attempt is a staggering 9.26 per attempt. That’s essentially a first-down every time Ryan drops back to pass and doesn’t get sacked. Here’s a list of quarterbacks who have topped Ryan since 2000:
Kurt Warner (2000): 9.88 Y/A
And…..that’s it. The two-time MVP-winning leader of the Greatest Show on Turf was the only player to top Ryan. Aaron Rodgers came close with a 9.25 average in 2011. It was, however, good enough to win him the MVP that year.
Simply breaking it down, yards per attempt is a measure of accuracy and efficiency:
Yards Per Attempt = Yards / Completion * Completion / Attempt
For quarterbacks this season with more than 100 attempts this year, this is each player’s completion percentage plotted versus their yards per completion.
Matt Ryan isn’t remotely close to any other quarterback. The quarterbacks he trails in completion percentage averaged more than two yards fewer per completion this season, while his yards per completion rate is second-to-none. Dak, Kirk, and TB12 make up the second-tier of paired accuracy and efficiency, but it’s clearly below Ryan this year.
Lastly, to quickly go back to the Zeke candidacy, he hasn’t stood out as the best back of the year in the clear manner in which some portray him to have. LeSean has a higher YPC through Week 16 (5.4 vs. 5.1), David Johnson has more yards from scrimmage this year, and Le’Veon Bell averaged more than 150 yards from scrimmage per game this season.
Answer: Matt Ryan was the best quarterback this year, and there wasn’t a clear dominating running back a la Peterson in 2012.
Is Ryan the Most “Valuable” Player?
Anyone who has watched a Falcons game this year has seen the other team scored a lot of points. Atlanta has the sixth-worst defense per Football Outsiders’ DVOA and the eighth-most points scored against them. Yet, their point differential is still third in the league despite their nature to play matador on the defensive end.
It’s clear that the offense has been vital to the Falcons’ success, but I wanted to quantitatively rank each unit’s contribution to its success over a league-average unit. So, what I did was see how many wins a team contributed to its Pythagorean expectation versus a league-average offensive or defensive unit. So, I calculated a team’s actual Pythagorean wins, a team’s hypothetical PW with a league-average scoring offense, and the same for a league-average scoring defense. I then found the residuals for each unit to see which unit provided the most wins over an average unit.
The top five and bottom five are as follows:
As you can see, the Atlanta Falcons offense has added the most wins to the team’s Pythagorean expectation, adding over 3 wins. The Pythagorean expectation of the Falcons with an average offense was 6.5 wins, which, safe to say, would not earn a team a first-round bye. The Packers would have had about 7 Pythagorean wins with an average offense (compared to 8.5 with their actual offense), while the Pats would have had 10.5 Pythagorean wins. Rodgers comes closer to Ryan in terms of “value” when it is defined like this, but the Falcons’ offense carried this team.
An argument that’s also commonly tossed along with this one is that the team needed to be successful. Matt Ryan earned a first-round bye, so that should quell all doubts.
And, yes, Matt Ryan has Julio Jones. However, Ryan did averaged more than 10 yards per attempt in his game without the superstar. Ryan also threw 32 touchdowns to 12 other players throughout the course of the season, so it’s safe to say that, while Julio is certainly great to have, Ryan’s success is not solely based on having Jones around. And, when you look at the Patriots, Cowboys, and Packers, all pay their wide receivers between 11 and 14 percent of their cap space, which is a pretty similar amount. The one argument that you could make against Ryan is that his running game is robust and could make his life as a passer easier. This is a fair argument, but Ryan has been so much better than other through the air that I’m not swayed enough by that argument. Blount had more rushing yards than Freeman, while Green Bay averaged 4.5 yards per carry compared to Atlanta’s 4.6 (even though, granted, some of that rushing came from Rodgers himself).
Answer: The Falcons offensive unit was the most valuable unit of 2016. Quarterbacks are the most valuable player on the team. While value is tough to define in the NFL, it’s safe argument is to say that the most valuable player of the league was the QB of the most valuable offense.
I don’t endorse MVPs often, but when I do, I choose Matty Ice.