Running backs are system players. Jonathan Taylor is a system.
By Mike Tanier
Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor’s quest to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award may be doomed to failure because of semantics.
Taylor leads the NFL with 1,518 rushing yards, 1,854 scrimmage yards and 19 rushing and receiving touchdowns. No other player is within 424 rushing yards or 370 scrimmage yards of him, giving Taylor what amounts to a three-game lead over his peers. Taylor rushed for 170 yards and one touchdown against the seemingly impregnable New England Patriots defense in a 27-17 victory in Week 15 that moved the Colts toward the front of the AFC wild-card chase.
Taylor, whose Colts face the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night in a matchup with playoff ramifications for both teams, is the NFL’s most outstanding player. He is certainly among the league’s most important and productive players. Yet he is not the league’s most valuable player.
When it comes to “value,” quarterbacks are a separate caste. Most analytical models suggest that even ordinary quarterbacks add more quantifiable value to their teams in terms of yards, points and victories than the most spectacular players at any other position.
Per Football Outsiders, for example, Taylor’s rushing has added 479 yards to the Colts’ offense this season that a “replacement level” running back (a typical backup) could not replicate. That’s the highest figure in the league among running backs. But 12 quarterbacks add more than 479 yards to their offenses than the typical replacement could, from Tom Brady through lesser passers like Jimmy Garoppolo and Teddy Bridgewater. Top quarterbacks add well over 1,000 yards per year to their offenses that replacements could not replicate, a figure no running back approaches. Other models produce similar results.
If you don’t believe the analytics, trust simple economics: Fifteen quarterbacks earn more than $20 million per year. No running back earns that much.
Awards voters decided many years ago that MVP honors should be all but restricted to quarterbacks: The last player at any other position to win the award was Adrian Peterson when he rushed for 2,097 yards in 2012. Handicappers are well aware of the voters’ preferences: Taylor is getting long +1000 odds to earn MVP honors, well behind Aaron Rodgers (+125) and Brady (+175), neither of whom is having an outstanding season by their own standards.
Despite his accomplishments, Taylor will probably be shunted into less-prestigious award categories: Offensive Player of the Year (Taylor is the -110 favorite for this glorified silver medal) or the various “Daily Fantasy Stat Compiler of the Year Presented by BetzPuppy Online Sportsbook”-type trophies the NFL doles out to attract sponsors and pad the running time of its annual award show. (Yes, the NFL has an award show.) It’s a lot like a filmmaker earning critical acclaim and doing boffo box office, only to be snubbed for best picture and forced to settle for best screenplay adapted from a theme park ride.
Taylor’s MVP argument is hampered by the fact that traditionalists, analytics experts and awards voters all agree that what looks like outstanding running back play is often the result of excellent blocking or merely the statistical residue of an efficient overall offense. Taylor indeed runs behind an outstanding Colts line, led by three-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson. On Taylor’s 67-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run to seal Saturday’s victory, for example, Nelson and his linemates bulldozed the Patriots’ defense until it was perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, cordoning off a path between Taylor and the end zone.
The argument that Taylor is benefiting from playing for some all-around offensive juggernaut, however, falls apart quickly.
Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, once one of the league’s rising stars, is coming off three straight disappointing seasons. The Colts acquired Wentz in a February trade as a sort of witness relocation program to protect him from incensed Philadelphia Eagles fans. Wentz has the tools of a franchise quarterback but has earned a reputation for making bad mistakes: shovel passes directly to defenders, left-handed heaves into traffic from his own end zone, and so forth. Colts coach Frank Reich therefore keeps his game plans rather conservative. Wentz threw just 12 passes in Saturday’s victory over the Patriots, completing five of them, including a touchdown on a gadget play that traveled about an arm’s length in the air. He also threw an interception. Taylor has run more often than Wentz has thrown three times in the past four weeks.
Taylor is also tasked with producing the big plays that most teams try to generate through the passing game. Taylor leads the NFL with 11 rushes for 20-plus yards and four rushes of 40-plus yards. He also turned a screen pass into a 76-yard touchdown, the longest Colts passing play of the year. Sports Info Solutions credits Taylor with forcing 41 missed or broken tackles, the highest figure in the league. Taylor’s success is not a product of the Colts system; the Colts’ success is (largely) a product of Taylor.
So what must a running back do to win an MVP award these days? The more appropriate question is what the league’s quarterbacks must do to not win the award. Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers were shut out by the New Orleans Saints Sunday night. Rodgers is always one podcast away from making voters strongly consider their alternatives. Other contenders like Matthew Stafford and Patrick Mahomes are having up-and-down seasons. If the quarterback ballot gets split among three or four unimpressive candidates, and if Taylor runs away with the rushing and touchdown titles while dragging the Colts to the playoffs, then maybe he has a shot.
There is another possibility. Voters could stop thinking like etymologists parsing the origin of the word “value” and recognize that Taylor has been the NFL’s most reliable, uniquely significant player in 2021, and that failure to recognize those accomplishments would make him this year’s Most Underappreciated Player.