Winning the Associated Press’s league MVP is quite a different story – particularly if you’re a defensive player. The award has been given to a defensive player only twice since it started in 1957. So right off the bat, you’re talking about something that only has less than a 4% likelihood of going to any defender. But he’s at least in the discussion. Here’s the 10 things I think need to happen for Matthews to have a legitimate shot at MVP.
- Keep his sacks up. Right now, Matthews is getting noticed beyond Green Bay for his league-leading 10.5 sacks, and back-to-back 3-sack games to start the season. But it will be a challenge to continue getting sacks as the year goes on and he draws more double teams. He might need to do something eye-popping, like break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5, to have a real shot at MVP – though that accomplishment wasn't enough to win the award for Strahan in 2001.
- Get help from his friends. Matthews has benefitted enormously from his ability to run creative stunts and blitzes adjacent to Charles Woodson this year. He also needs Ryan Pickett back and healthy, to draw some attention from opposing offensive linemen. Overall defensive performance will mean a lot.
- Be on a good team. If the Packers don’t win their division, and ideally earn a playoff bye, there’s almost no chance Matthews will get the nod. That is always the case, but especially so for a defensive player. Of the two previous defensive players who’ve won the MVP award, both were on dominant teams – defensive tackle Alan Page on the 11-3 Minnesota Vikings in 1971 (who had gone to Super Bowl IV in 1970) and linebacker Lawrence Taylor on the 14-2 and eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants in 1986.
- Let the locks flow. NBC caught Matthews strummin’ out some sweet air guitar during a break Sunday night. Nothing gets you noticed like a little rocker attitude with the look to go with it. And Matthews’ hair is definitely MVP material. Not only does it make him easy to spot on the field, but it makes him easy to remember. Hair is important. What would Troy Polamalu be without his hair?
- Bulk up his other defensive stats. While Matthews’ overall impact is undeniable, it needs to show up in other stat lines besides sacks. The good news is Capers uses him in enough different ways that he’s putting up stats in every category. Just not enough of them. So far he’s only had one forced fumble and one interception (though it was returned for a touchdown). He’s had some key run stuffs, but those don’t really show up on the stat sheet. He’ll need to keep logging defensive stats across the board to really get noticed.
- Hope other contenders choke. Let’s face it, if there is a quarterback or running back who is playing lights-out, he will probably win the MVP. The fact that no skill position offensive player is having a huge season so far is a good sign. If that continues, the door could open for someone like Matthews. See below for my quick appraisal of the competition.
- Stay healthy. It’s hard to win the MVP if you’re on the bench recovering from a hamstring injury. Matthews has already had to miss a game and a half due to his hammy. And he wasn’t 100% in his first game back against the Vikings – logging only one tackle and no sacks. He needs to stay healthy to put up the numbers he needs to have a shot.
- Don’t even say the s-word. I hate to even mention it, but a cloud briefly swirled around Matthews back in May when his former USC teammate and good friend, Houston Texans' linebacker Brian Cushing, tested positive for the s-word (I told you, I'm not going to say it). This isn’t the first time such aspersions via association have arisen – rumors about Matthews and Cushing’s performance-enhancements came up during the 2009 NFL Combine as well. Maybe I'm just paranoid having lived in a city that endured Barry Bonds. This is all totally circumstantial, Matthews has adamantly denied it, and I have never heard any credible allegations against him (nor am I making one to be clear). But any time someone from a program with such a sterling reputation as USC has a growth spurt from 6'1", 165 lbs in high school to 6'3", 255 lbs a few years later, there are going to be some eyebrows raised. Even just the suggestion wrapped in an insinuation waved over an allegation could be enough to hurt his chances. Nobody wants to vote for someone as MVP who is going to pull a Shawne Merriman.
- Get some lobbying. As only a second-year player, Matthews will need some credible cheerleaders to get more votes. It doesn’t hurt to have the NFL’s single-season sack leader Michael Strahan singing your praises. Packers’ linebacker coach Kevin Greene could certainly be a credible lobby. Woodson has been going out of his way to give Matthews props as well, calling him the “Clay Maker” after the Dallas game. The more guys like this that speak up, the better his chances.
- Do it again next year. The reality is, as much as we love him, it’s going to be a long shot for Matthews to win the NFL MVP this year. He’s a more likely candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, following in Woodson’s footsteps from last year. But he’s put his name into the ballot box, and if he comes out next year and performs at the same or better level, he could quickly become a leading contender.
Bonus TriggPack Coverage
Here’s my assessment of the other candidates for NFL MVP (Note: stats below do not include yesterday's games):
- Philip Rivers – could be the front-runner in my opinion. He has been putting up gaudy numbers with nearly 3,000 yards after 9 games, 19 TDs, only 8 interceptions, and a passer rating of 102.9. And he’s doing it with virtually no supporting cast – no LaDainian Tomlinson, no Vincent Jackson, no problem. What could scuttle him is if the Chargers can’t dig their way out of mediocrity.
- Tom Brady – the Patriots surprising run has earned Brady his usual posse of somewhat annoying ass-kissers. At least he’s somewhat more likeable doing it without Randy Moss. His stats are modest, however, so I only see him as a threat if the Patriots run away with the AFC East, which will be tough.
- Drew Brees and Peyton Manning – these guys are always on the list, but their stats are both below their norm and neither of their teams have been as impressive as last year. That seems to be dampening enthusiasm for them as MVP choices. Unless they really start to rack up some stats and wins, it feels like they will be on the outside looking in.
- Other QBs – I don’t see any other quarterbacks making a run at the MVP award. Our own Aaron Rodgers hasn't had the numbers. Similar for Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco -- good but don’t yet have the stats to make them viable MVP choices. Michael Vick has the highest QB rating right now, but his other stats are lackluster and it's hard to imagine a convicted dog beater winning MVP. More like "Comeback Player of the Year."
- Arian Foster – the Houston running back is having a huge season, leading the league in both rushing yards and touchdowns. But he’s not a well-known name (except to me, since I selected him in the first round for my fantasy team!). Like Chris Johnson last year, who rushed for over 2,000 yards but didn’t get a single MVP vote, Foster could get over-looked. For his part, Johnson’s stats are down this year (ranks only 6th in the league), so he's not in the running this year either.
- Adrian Peterson – the only other running back with a real viable chance at the half-way point of the season is Peterson, who is second only to Foster with 857 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns. But the Vikings are struggling, and if they finish below .500 he’s not likely to get many votes.
- Other RBs – no one else on the running back front has done much to set himself apart. So many teams are going with a “running back by committee” approach that it’s hard for guys to get eye-popping stats, and hard for fantasy owners to field a viable team.