Tuesday, December 30, 2008

MVP discussion: Chad Pennington and Peyton Manning

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.


  1. Any comparison to Warner? As I have said, the only team with a worse rushing game was the Cards, and the Cards had an abysmal defense.

  2. I like Kurt Warner, but he benefited from playing in an historically bad division (http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=896).

    Warner against the terrible NFC West: 6-0 record, 12 TDs, 3 INTs. Warner against the rest of the league: 3-7, 18 TDs, 11 INTs.

    However, it is worth noting that Chad Pennington also benefited from an easy schedule. The Dolphins got to play the terrible NFC West (they were 3-1, getting blown out by the Cards but beating the other NFC West teams by 2, 4, and 5) and the terrible AFC West (they were 4-0). So against the two worst divisions in football, Pennington led the Fins to a 7-1 record). Against the rest of the league, Pennington led the Fins to a 4-4 record. Perhaps another argument against Pennington's MVP candidacy. If Warner has his easy schedule held against him, then Pennington would have his easy schedule held against him, too.

  3. Anonymous9:29 PM

    So is Adrian Peterson entirely out of the MVP discussion? #28 carried the Vikings on his back this season multiple times, yet do his fumbles negate his MVP worthiness?

  4. I think AP is still in the discussion. To the extent Warner and Manning are praised for their throwing success despite lacking a running game, AP has to be given credit for his running success despite lacking a passing game (and I think running well with no passing game is more difficult than throwing well with no running game).

    And AP did end up leading the league in rushing, leading the league in yards from scrimmage, and rushing for 100 yards in 10 games.

    My argument against AP:

    The Vikes are a defensive football team, making AP the best offensive player on a team that won because of its defense. Does that make him more valuable than Manning, the most important offensive player on an offense-driven team? Maybe it does: the Vikings are not a good offensive team, and AP was the primary reason the offense was ever successful (though I argued last week they could be a competent running team with Chester Taylor, too). But the Vikings often won games because of their defense, sometimes won games in spite of the offense/special teams, and often lost games because of the poor offense/poor special teams. It was the dominant Viking defensive line that characterizes this team's success--not necessarily AP. To me, there were players in 2008 more valuable to their teams than AP was to his team.

    But is that a strong argument against the leader in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage for a 10-6 division winner? I don't know.

  5. How would Pennington have looked in a Vikings uniform this season?

    I've never liked him much and thought his "star" status was more a figment of the New York media's imagination than anything else. But some fans thought he was a perfect fit for the Vikings. If you look at how he did in Miami this year, they had a point.

  6. Anonymous12:59 AM

    I guess Chilly believes so much in T.Jack and this Sunday is Jackson's ultimate litmus-test, I'm gonna be watching him closely!

    Obviously not every QB starts like Matt Ryan - but how do you guys thinks he's gonna do in the playoffs? Hasn't he been a bit interception prone these last few weeks!

  7. Anonymous1:41 PM

    > --a defense that allowed more than a touchdown fewer points per game than the year before (the offense improved 4.9 points per game)

    These are directly related, and do not necessarily indicate improvement on defense:

    - a better offense possesses the ball longer, which keeps the defense off the field, which leads to more points scored and fewer points allowed

    - a better offense will gain more yards before having to punt, which gives your opponent worse field position on average, which leads to fewer points allowed.

    This article provides some statistical analysis to back up the fact that the Dolphins improvement was due to a better offense: http://www.advancednflstats.com/2008/11/jets-and-dolphins-resurgence-in-2008.html

  8. Anon--that's actually the reason I wrote Pennington had "little or nothing" to do with those factors, not "nothing." I considered that an improved offense would allow the defense to give up fewer points.

    However, closer look at the numbers does show that the Dolphin defense did improve.

    Rushing yards per attempt improved from 4.5 (30th) to 4.2 (18th).

    Net yards per pass attempt improved from 6.9 (31st) to 6.2 (16th).

    Now, I could be convinced a better offense allowed the Dolphins to give up fewer points per game. I could even be convinced the Dolphin defensive numbers improved because of an easier schedule. You'll have trouble convincing me, however, that Chad Pennington is the reason the Dolphin defense improved from 30th to 18th and 31st to 16th in per-attempt statistics.

  9. Anon, I also note that Brian Burke's post was from November 13th. Since that time, the Dolphins went 6-1, and their net pass yards per attempt allowed improved over the number Burke cited at the time (to a total improvement of 0.7 per attempt). Now, for that improvement, I'd actually cite the schedule (in those seven games, the Fins played the Raiders, Patriots, Rams, Bills, 49ers, Chiefs, and Jets), but I still wouldn't credit Pennington terribly much.

  10. Anonymous5:20 PM

    You are clearly over looking so much in your completely biased report. So let me make some bullet points for you that you seemed to have over looked.

    Chad had his "personal" best year as a QB on a team that was 1 and 15 ( yards, completions )

    Chad has better rating as a QB over Peyton Manning period ( fact ).

    Chad threw for only 7 INTs. Peyton 12 ( note Chad was sacked nearly twice the amount of Peyton as well ( 24 to 14 ).

    Chad is new to the team and player's, the system, the coaches and even the heat index from New York falls and winters to Miami. Which we all know is 80 degrees plus in the winter and 100% humidity.

    Chad has higher yards pre pass

    Chad led team to first playoff game in 9 years

    Chad led team to first AFC East Championship title in 9 years

    Mean while Peyton:

    Same team all his career ( nothing like familiar systems )

    Same coaches ( boy, bet that helps in adjustments and knowing how to work together )

    Same player receiving core ( boy, that sure helps in timing and knowing your players )

    Not top player in his position as a QB or rated.

    Wildcard # 5 to get into playoffs

    Not a conference champion

    Lets see Peyton go to the Lions and pull off the same superior achievement that Chad did with the Lions. Then you'll really know what a MVP is and not a popularity contest. You want to talk about supporting players that helped Chad? Then how about doing the same for Peyton. I mean like I said, Peyton has had the same people and system is whole career. Whom on a greater scale of things are far better players than anyone the Dolphins have. I mean they are the Super bowl Champs where talking about here. So give credit where it is due aye?

  11. Anonymous5:25 PM

    mistype correction:

    Lets see Peyton go to the Lions and pull off the same superior achievement that Chad did with the "Dolphins"

  12. I've got a feeling this debate is about to get real good.

    Anon, I have no doubt Peyton Manning could go to the Lions and pull off a similar turnaround because, well, he's better than Pennington. Always has been. Let's see you pull off a few more bullet points trying to argue against that one.

  13. Anon, no doubt I have my biases, but in my post, I believe I fairly addressed CHFF's argument on its own terms, and gave a reasoned consideration of Pennington's candidacy.

    You point out some things that are, in my opinion, irrelevant to the MVP debate.

    --No doubt it was difficult for Pennington to change systems. No doubt Manning benefits from playing in the same system year to year. But what, precisely, does that have to do with who was the most valuable player in 2008?

    Pennington may have had a greater degree of difficulty, but that doesn't make his season superior to Manning's season.

    --It does not matter whether or not Pennington achieved his "personal" bests. That's good for him, but an individual player having a career year does not make him MVP of the entire league. For that matter, Michael Turner had his "personal" best on a team that was 4-12 last season.

    And do you note that Pennington's "personal" best year isn't nearly as good as about eight Peyton Manning seasons (including, in my opnion, Manning's year this season)?

  14. I should also make explicit the problem of fetishizing a year-to-year improvement. If you make a team's improvement from Year A to Year B a primary criterion for MVP, you essentially eliminate from consideration any player whose team was good last season, too.

    This creates an unfair measurement:
    Player A is on a good team that stunk last season.
    Player B is on a good team that was good last season.
    Even if Player B is superior in every way to Player A, Player A fits the criterion better.

    Such a standard punishes players on consistently good teams. The Colts were 13-3 last season: it's very, very difficult to improve on 13 wins. It is literally impossible for 13-3 team to improve as much as a 1-15 team can improve (mathematically: the former can only increase the win total by three, while the latter can increase by as many as 15).

  15. let us not forget Manning's pre season surgery, he missed all training camp and pre season games. He this week came out and said he didn't get back into his routine until the NE game yet despite feeling sub par they won 3 games and once he felt 100% they won 9 straight..after everyone had written them off.
    What happened in 07 has no bearing on the 08 season only what happened this year.
    Also Anons forget Miami had a NEW GM, new head coach etc...I suspect the whole system changed. It was not just Pennington who was dropped into a system and did well.

    The real question is whould the team have preformed the same or better if there person has not been there?

    I think very few would say that is true of the Colts. Without Manning this year they would have not done as well as the Patriots without Brady (sorry Sorgi)
    Would Miami have improved without Pennington, yes (much worse not possible)

    As much as I love CHFF (and I do think most of the time they are stellar) They do have their biases...

  16. Anonymous1:59 PM

    Roger Maris was the AL MVP in 1960. He was the AL MVP in 1961, too. Not because the Yanks wouldn't have won the pennant without him. They probably would have. Not because he improved them from past years. He didn't. He won both years because the voters thought he produced more value for his team than anyone else.

    Peyton does more to help his team win than anyone in football. [He has done so every year since 2003.] He produced more value than any other player. Simple criterion. Regardless of year to year improvement or stats or record or any of the rest of it. Last year doesn't matter for this year. Favre won it 3 years in a row. It wasn't about "improvement". it's about producing value for the team.

  17. Anonymous3:51 PM

    Hey Pacifist ... looks like you got some play today in the NY Times for this: