There’s plenty to watch for if you’re an NFL fan in Texas right now. You’ve got the matchup between the Texans and the Raiders, in which Brock Osweiler—who once was the subject of a fan-funded attempt to buy out his contract—will somehow not be the most overmatched starting quarterback, as a rookie named Connor Cook will be making his first NFL start in silver and black because of a rash of weird, late injuries to the team’s more entrenched signal-callers. In Dallas, meanwhile, this weekend brings mostly the question of whether they’ll be matched up against the Giants (scary) or the Lions (not so scary) after their first round bye. But there’s another contest that deserves some attention, even if there is no direct way to determine it on the field: the MVP race.
Currently, the betting odds have the MVP as a three-way battle between Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady. All three, certainly, have had spectacular seasons, and Ryan—a good quarterback who this year seemed to finally make the jump to great—leads that pack (you have to bet $180 to win $100, if he’s your guy). Rodgers sits neatly with 2:1 odds, and Brady—who missed the first four games of the season after being suspended for deflategate—nonetheless enjoys 3:1 odds. After those three, though, it’s a steep drop-off. Ezekiel Elliott comes in at 30:1, while Dak Prescott doesn’t show up until the odds get all the way up to 75:1.
That means that Prescott almost certainly won’t get the prize. But he absolutely should. Ryan, Rodgers, and Brady have been fantastic all year, certainly, but their direct value to their teams is in question. Brady’s Patriots won three of their first four games starting a mix of Jimmy Garropolo and Jacoby Brissett while Brady was suspended. Ryan’s Falcons have been great, but they benefited from one of the softer schedules among playoff teams. And Rodgers’s Packers have been very impressive, but we’ve seen the Packers be impressive even when quarterbacks like Matt Flynn have had to step in. (Also, Rodgers’ Packers were 4-6 heading into Thanksgiving.) The dataset may be incomplete, in other words, but there’s reason to believe that, absent Brady, Rodgers, and Ryan, their teams could still be playoff-bound.
That’s not something one can say about the Cowboys, though. Dak Prescott did walk into a good situation. He’s got one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and he’s got a great running back in Zeke Elliott alongside him. But the 2015 Cowboys had the same offensive line, and a robust (if not quite as potent) running game, too. They also started a combination of Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, Kellen Moore, and a hobbled Tony Romo, and they went 4-12. You can believe that Jimmy Garropolo might have taken the Patriots to the playoffs had Brady missed the season, but does anyone really think the Cowboys are the NFC’s top seed if they had started Mark Sanchez?
All of which suggests that the NFL’s MVP award involves curious, arbitrary criteria. Often, when a team that was expected to do well suffers because of an early injury to a key player, hot-take columnists insist that the injured player—say, Peyton Manning in 2011, the Colts going 2-14 after nine straight seasons of ten or more wins—is the league’s real MVP, because just look at what happened to their team without them. It’s a strange argument, because there’s no way to control for other factors. And who wants to give an award to a guy for not playing football?
But in the case of Prescott and the Cowboys, that direct, apples-to-apples comparison is readily available: We saw what a Romo-less Cowboys looked like when they didn’t have a backup like Prescott, and we’ve seen what they look like when they do. Elliott is great, but if they’d started Alfred Morris in his stead, they’d still be in the playoffs. If they’d have Mark Sanchez in the huddle, though, it seems awfully likely that Cowboys fans would be waiting for next year once again.
Is Prescott the NFL’s best quarterback? Not yett. Is he the best rookie in the NFL? He might not even be the best rookie on his team. But there are awards for those accomplishments—Offensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year—that can go to Matt Ryan and Ezekiel Elliott, if they’ve earned them. But when it comes to whose presence on their team accounts for the success they’ve enjoyed, and who is thus the most valuable to that team, you can see Prescott’s value over the next man up is based on how previous Cowboys seasons without Romo have gone. With that in mind, it’s hard to argue that anybody in the NFL is more valuable.