The NFL claims to be a league of parity. As a wise man once said: on any given Sunday. And yet, we’ve routinely seen the same core group of quarterbacks winning the Super Bowl over the past several decades with a low-cost exception here and there.
There isn’t a single position in team sports more important to overall success than the quarterback. The greats who combine high-end intelligence with similarly elite athletic ability have demonstrated the absurd potential attached with a position that touches the ball every single play (unless you happen to play with the artist known as Taysom Hill).
The most valuable player award has basically become the way to denote that season’s best quarterback. Still, the award can be influenced by plenty of subjective factors, and it doesn’t take playoff performance into account.
What follows is my own subjective breakdown of the “QB king” in every season since 2000. I’ll use the following three factors as the basis of the list:
- Who had the highest combined rank in passing yards, total touchdowns, PFF passing grade, QB rating and big-time throws? Note that passing grade and big-time throw rate don’t exist before 2006.
- Who absolutely balled out in the playoffs when it mattered most?
- Who was the overall most memorable QB from that season?
Tiebreakers will usually be decided by touchdowns; points win football games. Sorry not sorry.
2000: Daunte Culpepper, Minnesota Vikings
Culpepper balled the hell out in his first year as a starter, chucking a league-high 33 scores and leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship. It was difficult for defenses to even begin to figure out how to slow down the likes of Randy Moss (77-1,437-15) and Cris Carter (96-1,274-9). Throw in the reality that Culpepper also racked up 470 rushing yards and another seven scores on the ground, and you have the year’s QB1 in a season that featured Marshall Faulk winning the MVP as well as a Super Bowl between Kerry Collins and Trent Dilfer.
2001: Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams
Warner led some of the most explosive offenses in NFL history from 1999-2001, and the latter performance featured career-high marks in completion rate (68.7%) and passing yards (4,830) alike. Stacking Warner in an offense featuring the likes of Marshall Faulk (83-765-9 receiving), Isaac Bruce (64-1,106-6) and Torry Holt (81-1,363-7) was largely unfair; the Rams led the league in scoring during each of these three seasons. The Rams’ quest for a second Super Bowl title fell short against Bill Belichick and company, but the 2001 MVP deserves to be praised as the season’s best signal-caller.
2002: Rich Gannon, Oakland Raiders
Nobody threw for more yards than Gannon (4,689) in 2002, as the veteran QB didn’t seem any worse off without coach Jon Gruden in the fold. He helped this Raiders offense put up a combined 71 points in two relatively easy playoff victories before things went off the rails against the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. Still, Gannon’s level of aerial success was truly unprecedented at the time. Overall, he had 10 games with 300-plus passing yards; only Drew Bledsoe (7) also put up even five such performances.
2003-2004: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts
Both of these seasons ultimately ended the same way: with less-than-stellar efforts in playoff losses against the Patriots. Still, this shouldn’t take away from Manning’s borderline erotic regular season performance: 2003 featured Manning leading the league in passing yards (4,267), while 2004 saw him throw for a then-record 49 touchdowns. Unfortunately, these top-two scoring offenses were complemented by the league’s 19th- and 20th-ranked scoring defenses. Sheesh.
2005: Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals
This was just Palmer’s second season in the league, but my goodness the man was a stud:
- Passing yards: 3,836 (No. 4 among 36 qualified QBs)
- Yards per attempt: 7.6 (No. 8)
- Completion rate: 67.8% (No. 1)
- TD rate: 6.3% (No. 1)
- INT rate: 2.4% (No. 12)
- QB rating: 101.1 (No. 2)
- Total TDs: 33 (No. 1)
Both Manning and Tom Brady were yearly contestants for this crown around this time, although their respective inability to make it past the second round of the playoffs hurts them in this specific season. Of course, Palmer didn’t win a game in January, either; it’s just tough to criticize the man for completing his only playoff pass for 66 yards as he suffered a career-changing knee injury.
2006: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts
Manning’s first Super Bowl run surprisingly didn’t feature a single game with multiple TD passes, although his comeback against the Patriots in the AFC Championship was nothing short of remarkable. The Colts put together the following second half drives down 21-6 against the league’s second-ranked scoring defense:
- 14 plays, 76 yards, TD
- 6 plays, 76 yards, TD
- 7 plays, 67 yards, TD
- 3 plays, -7 yards, punt
- 5 plays, 59 yards, field goal
- 3 plays, 0 yards punt
- 7 plays, 80 yards, TD
Throw in the fact that Manning finished first in total scores as well as PFF passing grade and it’s easy to crown him for the third time in four years.
2007: Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Manning dominated the statistical battle against Brady for the first portion of their rivalry. Then the Patriots decided to add Randy Moss and Wes Welker to the mix, setting Brady up for the single-most prolific season of his career. Fifty fooking passing scores broke Manning’s record, and the GOAT was fingertips away from completing probably the wildest throw the Super Bowl has ever seen.
Oh hey Tom Brady made that Trevor Lawrence pro day throw 13 years ago in the fooking Super Bowlpic.twitter.com/iFx7Ndiu36
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 15, 2021
2008-2009: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
The first two editions of the Brees-Payton marriage were prolific and featured an NFC championship appearance in 2006. Still, 2008 marked the first of three times that Brees would lead the league in both passing yards and scores, while 2009 saw the Saints capture the franchise’s first and only Super Bowl championship. Brees was nothing short of excellent in the playoff run:
- Cardinals (45-14 W): 247 pass yards-3 TD-0 INT
- Vikings (31-28 W): 197-3-0
- Colts (31-17 W): 288-2-0
2010-2011: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
The 2010 season could go either way between TB12 and Super Bowl champion Aaron Rodgers. I initially had Brady slotted in as the leader thanks to his league-high 36 passing scores, but A-aron deserves the nod for 1) racking up three playoff performances with at least three scores, 2) nearly doubling Brady’s number of big-time throws (40 to 21), and 3) posting the superior PFF passing grade (90.5 to 90).
The 2011 campaign isn’t much of a competition; it was the gold standard in terms of the best we’ve ever seen Rodgers play up until the 2020 season. Overall, Rodgers accounted for multiple scores in every single game on his way to engineering the most efficient single-season passing game in EPA per pass play (+0.369) over the past decade. Throw in an absurd 50 big-time throws compared to just six turnover-worthy plays and it remains borderline unbelievable that this team didn’t win a playoff game.
2012-2013: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
Manning missed the entire 2011 season due to a neck injury. He didn’t appear much worse for the wear in 2012, throwing for 4,659 yards and 37 scores while leading the league with a 91.7 PFF passing grade. The only reason why Manning and company didn’t get a chance to flaunt the league’s second-highest-scoring offense deeper into January was due to Joe Flacco’s gypsy magic.
The 2013 campaign featured arguably the single-best version of Manning to ever exist. League-high marks in passing yards (5,477) and scores (55) helped him account for 300-plus yards and/or multiple scores in every game of the season until the wheels fell off the wagon against the Legion of Boom in the Super Bowl. Somehow, each of Demaryius Thomas (92-1,430-14), Eric Decker (87-1,288-11), Wes Welker (73-778-10) and Julius Thomas (65-788-12) each accounted for double-digit receiving scores. Madness.
2014: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
This was Rodgers’ last truly fantastic season up until his 2020 comeback season for the ages. A late-season foot injury left Rodgers functioning at less than 100% ahead of the Packers’ playoff run, but it’s tough to blame him for anything bad that happened along the way:
- 26-21 win over the Cowboys: Rodgers threw for 316 yards and a trio of scores in a Divisional Round victory over the Cowboys. Lost in the debate of whether or not Dez caught it (he did) is the reality that the Packers still would’ve had over four minutes to march down the field against a defense that hadn’t stopped them for essentially the entire second half.
- 22-28 loss to the Seahawks: Rodgers underwhelmed with just 178 yards, one TD and two interceptions against this elite defense. Still, he helped them build a 16-0 halftime lead and was an onside kick recovery away from advancing to the Super Bowl.
2015: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Super Cam captured MVP honors during one of the most dominant stretches of play the position has ever seen. Overall, Newton racked up 45 total touchdowns for the league’s No. 1 scoring offense, helping the Panthers go 17-2 along the way. Their 49-15 destruction of the Cardinals in the NFC Championship was the icing on the cake and saw the dual-threat talent rack up 385 total yards as well as four scores under the brightest lights he’d seen to that point. Don’t let one passive fumble recovery distract from the fact that Newton had next to zero help throughout the Panthers’ Super Bowl loss.
2016: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
This MVP run for the ages featured Ryan post a 20:0 TD to INT ratio over his final 28 quarters of football. The playoff run, while disappointing in the end, was nothing short of spectacular:
- 36-20 win over the Seahawks: 338 pass yards-3 TD-0 INT
- 44-21 win over the Packers: 392-4-0
- 28-34 loss to the Patriots: 284-2-0
Brady got the last laugh and deserves credit for leading the league in PFF passing grade as well as for posting a 28:2 TD to INT ratio during the regular season. Still, Ryan’s additional 1,398 passing yards and 10 scores with better marks in yards per attempt (9.3 vs. 8.2) and completion rate (69.8% vs. 67.4%) in the regular season were enough to give him the nod.
2017: Tom Brady, New England Patriots
TB12 got back to putting up huge numbers in 2017, leading the league with 4,577 passing yards and (again) finishing atop the leaderboard when it comes to PFF passing grade. It’d be easier to make an argument that Nick Foles and/or Carson Wentz deserve this award if Brady wasn’t so damn good in the postseason. Overall, he peeled off 337-3-0, 290-2-0 and 505-3-0 passing performances against the Titans, Jaguars and Eagles. I broke down where the 2020 version of Brady ranks compared to his previous selves, and the 2016-2017 editions each came in as top-three contenders.
It wasn’t just that Mahomes took the league by storm in his first year as a starter; it was how he did it. One big play after another helped the Chiefs average a league-high 35.3 points per game. Mahomes found his way into the end zone as a passer or runner on an absurd 52 total occasions. Even the team’s disappointing loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship could’ve been undone if not for an ill-timed offsides penalty by Dee Ford. The game served as yet another reminder that Mahomes is always one throw away from upending even the most perfectly crafted defensive game plans.
2019: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
The MVP rewrote the QB rushing record book with a season-long 176-1,206-7 performance that featured one absurd highlight-worthy run after another virtually all season long. Oh yeah, Jackson also threw for a league-high 36 scores against just six interceptions, posting the position’s sixth-best PFF passing grade along the way. The season ended in the first round of the playoffs, but not before Jackson racked up an ungodly 508 total yards. The “RB playing QB” insult really shouldn’t still be a thing in the year 2021; how about we instead put some respect on the man capable of simultaneously functioning as the best athlete on the field while also dropping dimes through the air?
74 seconds of Lamar Jackson throwing dimes pic.twitter.com/u5SBsXrYGC
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 20, 2020
2020: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
The Packers’ longtime franchise QB averaged a career-low 17.4 fantasy points per game in 2019, turned 37 years old in December and entered virtually an identical offense in terms of coaches and personnel. All Rodgers did with this situation was function as a world-beater week in and week out, posting career-high numbers in a variety of metrics along the way:
- PFF passing grade: 94.3
- Adjusted completion rate: 79.3%
- QB Rating: 115.8
- Pass TDs: 48
You bet your ass that Rodgers passed the eye test. Rodgers said it best himself: “Down years for me are career years for most QBs.” Throw in a new weightlifting strategy with some positive TD regression, and the real-life MVP emerged as fantasy football’s single best QB in terms of fantasy points above expectation both per game and overall.