One of the overriding narratives of the 2020 NFL season has been the anointment of Russell Wilson as the presumptive league MVP or, at minimum, the notional front-runner for the award.
This assertion is typically followed by what seems like a compulsory adjunct: Wilson, now in his ninth season as quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, has never received a single MVP vote in his career.
I know the last thing many of you want to discuss is electoral processes … and I realize there are still pockets of you concerned about election fraud and the tabulation of ballots. But I’m here to tell you, Wilson may not get his first vote in 2020, either.
Also, R-E-L-A-X … the system actually is working exactly as it should.
First, let’s explain how an MVP is crowned.
The Associated Press convenes a nationwide panel of 50 media members – four go to USA TODAY Sports’ NFL team, including yours truly – who regularly cover the league. Each casts one MVP vote between the end of Week 17 and the beginning of the playoffs. It’s not a tiered ballot of three names for first, second and third place or anything of the sort – just a single name for an award that celebrates regular-season excellence.
And yet there seems to be this undercurrent of outrage that Wilson has never received any of those 50 annual votes.
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So let’s review the most recent MVPs to ascertain why that might be:
2019 – Lamar Jackson: The Ravens quarterback was a unanimous selection, and why not? He and his team enjoyed a record-setting season that saw Baltimore run for the most yards in NFL history – Jackson’s 1,206 were the most ever by a quarterback, and his 36 TD passes paced the league – while finishing with a 14-2 record that bested the 31 other teams.
2018 – Patrick Mahomes: The second-year Chiefs quarterback burst onto the scene with 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns through the air, leading Kansas City to the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. Another slam dunk … though Drew Brees got nine votes thanks to a league-record 74.4% completion rate and NFL-high 115.7 passer rating in a year when the Saints had the best regular-season record.
2017 – Tom Brady: The then-Patriots star won the MVP for the third time, garnering 40 votes, while leading the NFL with 4,577 passing yards and driving New England to a 13-3 record, tied for best in the league. That performance largely encapsulates what the honor often is: the best player on one of the top two or three teams. Rams RB Todd Gurley (NFL-best 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 TDs) received eight votes, and Eagles QB Carson Wentz got the other two after he seemed to have the award all but wrapped up before tearing up his knee in Week 14.
This campaign qualifies as Wilson’s biggest missed opportunity. He generated more than 80% of Seattle’s offense – including a team-best 586 rushing yards and NFL-high 34 TD passes. Yet it just wasn’t enough as the 9-7 Seahawks missed the playoffs for the only time in Wilson’s career. Oof.
2016 – Matt Ryan: Don’t snicker in hindsight. He was in complete command of a dominant Falcons offense that rolled into (and through most of) Super Bowl LI, leading the NFL with a sublime 117.1 QB rating, still sixth-best in league history. Regardless, for the Wilson truthers, he had one of his quietest seasons, including 21 TD passes (17 fewer than Ryan) and a career-low 92.6 passer rating.
2015 – Cam Newton: The former Panthers star had the best performance of his career, leading Carolina to a rare 15-1 record while generating 45 TDs (35 through the air, 10 on the ground). He got 48 votes, ceding one apiece to Brady and Carson Palmer. It was a breakout year personally for Wilson, whose 4,024 yards and 34 TDs passing were career highs at the time, as was his league-high 110.1 QB rating. But definitely not enough to redirect votes from Newton, whose team bounced the two-time defending NFC champion Seahawks from the playoffs, too.
2014 – Aaron Rodgers: The first year it was really fair to include Wilson in the MVP conversation, Seattle coming off its first Super Bowl victory while he asserted himself as a bigger component of the offense. Wilson’s 849 yards and six TDs on the ground remain personal bests, though his aerial exploits (3,475 yards, 20 TDs passing) were relatively modest at a time when the attack ran through RB Marshawn Lynch – as it also should have in the Seahawks’ unforgettable Super Bowl XLIX loss to the Patriots, when Wilson threw his regrettable goal-line interception. Oh, and Rodgers was Rodgers (4,381 yards passing, 38 TDs, 5 INTs, 112.2 rating) as the Packers matched the Seahawks’ 12-4 record, tied atop the NFC. He took home 31 votes while Texans DE J.J. Watt swiped 13 while at the height of his powers. And Wilson’s teammate, LB Bobby Wagner, notably received a vote … still odd given he missed five games that season and hardly stood apart from other mainstays of the famed Legion of Boom defense. Definitely hard to square Wagner leading Wilson for MVP tallies after all these years.
That brings us to the present, with Wilson, who lasted until the third round of the 2012 draft, an established superstar who tops the 2020 leaderboard with 28 TD passes. He presumably has plenty of years ahead of him, yet is already perched – with apologies to Steve Largent, Cortez Kennedy and, my personal favorite, Walter Jones – as the greatest player in Seahawks history and on track to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
I don’t know anyone who would suggest Wilson isn’t an MVP-caliber player year in and year out. And yet, it may just be his dumb luck to never be recognized as such.
Brees has come in second four times (so he at least pocketed votes) but never first. Jerry Rice – you’ve probably heard of him – was never MVP. Nor was Dan Fouts, despite those silly stats he produced while bringing the modern passing game to the forefront for the Air Coryell Chargers in the early 1980s.
Wilson may yet wind up as 2020’s most impressive performer – which is kinda what the offensive player of the year award is for – but it’s already starting to look like he won’t be the proverbial best player on the best team.
He’s also being victimized by some inevitabilities of the modern NFL.
For one, quarterbacks rewarded with mega-contracts strip their team of the ability to surround him with a star-studded supporting cast. To be fair, Seattle has several luminaries aside from Wilson: Wagner, S Jamal Adams and emergent WR DK Metcalf to name a few.
But from the moment Wilson signed his first massive extension – an $87.6M pact in 2015 – a Seahawks roster once teeming with talent has been incrementally eroded, and the team hasn’t returned to the Super Bowl. You can’t pay everybody when your franchise passer takes a chunk of the salary cap, that’s just life in the league.
It’s now basically incumbent on Wilson to carry this team – which he often does to spectacular effect. But can any one man compensate for a defense that might be the worst statistically in NFL history by the end of this season, while playing behind a patchwork offensive line and a decimated running back depth chart?
And Wilson – he infamously deemed his alter ego “Mr. Unlimited” some time ago, which may be reason enough to never vote for him – suddenly seems to be pressing, a near-unlimited font of turnovers. After a franchise-best 5-0 start, the Seahawks have lost three of four with Wilson giving the ball up 10 times (7 INTs, 3 fumbles) in those defeats. Seattle has gone from sitting alone atop the NFC West to clinging to the conference’s third and final wild card … meaning this wouldn’t even be a playoff team a year ago.
Am I blaming Wilson for this regression? Hardly. This team rarely wins unless he’s exceptional. However he’s been sacked 11 times over the last two weeks. And in Seattle’s 44-34 Week 9 loss at Buffalo, a game the Bills led by 21 points in the fourth quarter, Wilson had to take calculated risks to keep the Seahawks in the game, even if the final result proved largely cosmetic.
And yet a league MVP has to make an inordinate number of transcendent plays, which is why Wilson now finds himself surrounded by an impressive field of contenders poised to steal the votes that premature polling had earmarked for him.
► Mahomes: He’s generated 27 total TDs (25 passing, 2 rushing) but turned the ball over once for the defending champs. One time. Remarkable. (Wilson has 13 turnovers). Last week, Mahomes got my midseason MVP vote among USA TODAY’s NFL team … and I suspect several of my colleagues – five of the other six chose Wilson – might already be changing their tune.
► Kyler Murray: His Cardinals are technically in first place in the NFC West, though they share a 6-3 record with the Rams and Seahawks. But the “Hail Murray” he heaved to WR DeAndre Hopkins to beat the Bills on Sunday is just the latest highlight in a season full of them for Murray, the offensive rookie of the year in 2019. His ascent as a sophomore has been similar to Jackson’s, Murray passing for 17 TDs and running for 10 more. He’s on track to break Newton’s single-season record for rushing TDs by a QB (14). Perhaps more impressively, Murray is on pace to pull off a statistical couplet no player has ever achieved: 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. Momentum may be swinging to him, especially if he outduels Wilson on Thursday for the second time in four weeks.
► Rodgers: The two-time MVP may just use the same formula that worked for him in 2014. At 7-2, the Packers are currently the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Rodgers leads the league with a 116.4 QB rating, built with a résumé that includes 26 TD passes and three interceptions. And though WR Davante Adams has been superb when healthy, he’s basically Green Bay’s only reliable weapon in the passing game – a stark contrast to what Wilson enjoys with Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and even unheralded No. 3 WR David Moore.
► Alvin Kamara: He likely won’t approach the 1,000-yard rushing/receiving double that Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey pulled off in 2019. But Kamara has been the linchpin of a Saints offense stripped of WR Michael Thomas for much of the season and now likely to lose Brees for an extended period. Kamara has scored 11 TDs and leads the league with 1,134 yards from scrimmage.
► Brady: Thanks in part to his 23 TD strikes, TB12 has the Bucs on the verge of snapping an NFC-high 13-year playoff drought at a time when his former team, New England, may miss postseason for the first time since 2008 – when Brady missed 15 games with a knee injury.
► Josh Allen: The third-year Bills quarterback has become the AFC’s version of Wilson, almost single-handedly carrying an otherwise deeply flawed team. Allen leads the league with 2,871 passing yards and has accounted for 27 TDs (21 passing, 5 running, 1 receiving). But his level of play has also been on the descent lately – at a time when Miami has nearly caught Buffalo in the AFC East.
Finally, let me also say this in Wilson’s defense. He’s probably unfairly scrutinized at a time when we in the media like to track things like MVP races or Heisman Trophy watches from opening day rather than allowing the field to organically form over an appropriate sampling of games. This year likely won’t prove as frustrating for Wilson as 2017, when he and Wentz seemed locked in a duel that evaporated when Wentz was hurt while Seattle fell out of contention by losing three of its final four games.
But even though I foresee Wilson’s 2020 MVP votes – and maybe every last one of them – slipping away, I hope Russ gets to hoist the hardware one of these days.
If nothing else, Mr. Unlimited’s acceptance speech would probably be an all-timer.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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