Kerry Byrne at Cold, Hard Football Facts calls Chad Pennington MVP, citing in particular the Dolphins turnaround.
But let's point out a few big differences between the 2007 Dolphins and the 2008 Dolphins that had little or nothing to do with Pennington:
--The '07 Fins gave up 27.3 points per game, ranking 30th in the league; the '08 Fins improved to 19.8 points per game, 9th in the league. That is an improvement of 7.5 points per game.
--The '07 Fins got 8 combined games out of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams; the '08 Fins got 32 combined games out of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.
--The '08 Fins added the 1st pick in the draft, offensive tackle Jake Long.
--The '07 Fins were coached by Cam Cameron; the '08 Fins were coached by Tony Sparano.
Certainly Chad Pennington was a major reason for the Dolphins amazing improvement. But these are four significant reasons for a turnaround that have little to do with Pennington:
--a new coach (a change in head coach is the biggest change a team can make, even bigger than a change in quarterback)
--the top available college prospect
--important offensive players avoiding injuries
--a defense that allowed more than a touchdown fewer points per game than the year before (the offense improved 4.9 points per game)
It takes many, many factors for a team to improve from 1-15 to 11-5. I would in particular highlight the Dolphins' defensive improvement, which can't be credited much at all to Pennington. Pennington deserves a great deal of credit, but I do not think his role in the Dolphins' turnaround makes him MVP.
We can also use one of Byrne's arguments against him. Byrne dismisses the '08 RB MVP candidates by noting that
"But their seasons pale in comparison to those of the most recent ball carriers to earn MVP honors. LaDainian Tomlinson (2006), Shaun Alexander (2005) and Marshall Faulk (2000) all set TD-scoring records on Super Bowl contenders."
If the numbers for Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, and DeAngelo Williams "pale in comparison" to recent RB MVPs, how do Chad Pennigton's numbers compare to some recent QB MVPs? Pennington threw for 3,653 yards and 19 touchdown passes. '07 MVP Tom Brady threw for 4,806 yards and 50 TDs. '04 MVP Peyton Manning threw for 4,557 yards and 49 TDs. Keep going, and you'll see that all recent QB MVPs had far superior numbers to Chad Pennington. In fact, the last QB to win MVP with fewer than 24 TD passes was John Elway in 1987 (19 TD passes).
If you're going to compare RBs to recent RB MVPs and find their stats lacking, it's hard not to compare Pennington to recent QB MVPs, where you will also find his numbers lacking.
(Let's make two more points here. First, Byrne claims that none of the RB candidates were the "singular forces" in a team turnaround that Pennington was. But as I've suggested, Pennington wasn't a "singular force" in a turnaround, and furthermore, one RB candidate, Michael Turner, was a major factor in a team's improvement from 4-12 to 11-5. Second, the comparison of an MVP candidate from one year to MVPs of previous years is relatively irrelevant. Byrne himself says this year features a "lack of great competitors" for MVP, that it is a "down year for MVP candidates." While comparisons to previous MVPs have some use, this year's RBs aren't running against previous MVPs; they're running against the available field this season).
I still think Peyton Manning was more valuable to the Colts than Chad Pennington was to the Dolphins. Byrne compares Pennington to Manning, and says:
"But Pennington outclassed Manning this year in every major efficiency category, including completion percentage (67.4 to 66.8), yards per attempt (7.7 to 7.2), TD:INT ratio (2.7 to 1 vs. 2.3 to 1) and passer rating (97.4 to 95.0)."
As you can see, however, Pennington was not significantly superior to Manning in any of these categories. Byrne further notes the team turnaround:
"Additionally, Manning did not spark any kind of improvement in his team. [...] Pennington, meanwhile, sparked a dramatic turnaround in his team’s fortunes and enters the playoffs as division champ."
Of course, one reason Manning did not need to spark "any kind of improvement in his team" was because Manning was on the Colts last year. Manning was largely responsible for the '07 Colts' success; it strikes me as an odd argument, then, to say that Manning shouldn't be given too much credit for the '08 Colts' success because the '07 Colts were good too. Of course we don't know, but I'm guessing if the Colts didn't have Manning in '07 and had him in '08, the '08 Colts would have improved greatly, too.
I think Byrne is fetishizing a year-to-year turnaround more than assessing performance in the 2008 season. When Byrne dismisses the candidacies of Philip Rivers and Drew Brees, he also notes their respective teams' record difference between '07 and '08. But I'm not sure why that matters so much: though the MVP award is hazily and diversely defined, I don't think a team's change in record from one year to the next should be the deciding factor that Byrne makes it.
I think a case could be made that Manning is more directly responsible for the Colts' 12-4 record than Pennington is for the Dolphins' 11-5 record. The 2008 Colts were 8-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points. It was Manning who keyed the comeback win over the Vikings, threw the game-winning touchdown against the Texans, threw the game-winning touchdown against the Steelers, led the quick drive for a game-winning field goal against the Chargers, and keyed the comeback win over the Jaguars. To be fair, at least three of the Colts' close wins featured late defensive scores by the Colts. But without Manning, I don't see the Colts winning half the games they did.
Manning was also great despite a lack of a running game. The Colts rushed for merely 1,274 yards (31st in the league) and just 3.4 yards per attempt (32nd in the league). Whatever offensive success the Colts had relied on their elite passing attack. The Dolphins were much more solid running the ball, going for 1,897 yards (11th) and 4.2 yards per attempt (15th). So in the running game, the Dolphins gained an additional 0.8 yards per attempt over the Colts. You could argue that offensively, Manning had to do more with less than Pennington, since the Dolphins were solid running the ball, and the Colts were terrible. If we're going to look at team context (which Byrne does in citing the Dolphin turnaround), we can observe that Manning carried his offense despite no running game, and Pennington didn't have to do that.
There's also a statistical argument for Manning over Pennington. In Football Outsiders' statistical analysis, Manning tops Pennington significantly (36.0% to 25.6% in DVOA, 1,702 to 1,152 in DYAR). By Football Outsiders' advanced metric, Manning was both more efficient and more productive. And in cumulative season numbers, Peyton Manning's 4,002 yards and 27 TDs tops Chad Pennington's 3,653 yards and 19 TDs.
Chad Pennington is certainly a legitimate MVP candidate, and Cold, Hard Football Facts is quite reasonable to propose him as a candidate. But I find some of Byrne's arguments lacking, and find that Peyton Manning is a more deserving MVP than Pennington.