January 4, 2022

Can Bengals' Joe Burrow Really Win the NFL MVP Award?

The NFL Most Valuable Player Award is one that combines excellent performance and the perfect storyline. It's rarely as simple as crowning the most talented player or the most impactful contributor regardless of position, though. It's clear that the value of quarterbacks has grown so much that the MVP is practically exclusive to the position.

Right now, the NFL MVP favorites at DraftKings Sportsbook are Aaron Rodgers (-400), Tom Brady (+500) and Joe Burrow (+1000). It's impressive company for the Cincinnati Bengals' second-year passer to be a part of. Not only is Burrow in the same breath as arguably the two best quarterbacks of all time, but he's doing it less than one-year removed from suffering a torn ACL on a franchise that continually trips over itself.

Burrow's MVP argument begins with his impact on the revamped Bengals. Drafted No. 1 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft after a historic championship-winning senior season at LSU, Burrow was put into a situation with a solid running back (Joe Mixon) and two quality young receivers (Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins). But his head coach Zac Taylor had proven little, and his offensive line was a bottom-three unit across the league.

Wins were scarce as the Bengals accumulated a 2-7-1 record in his rookie season before the devastating knee injury occurred. Burrow, with already mediocre arm strength, faced another challenge in his young career to overcome. He had to mentally push through the barriers a blown-up knee brings, and still have enough arm strength to beat NFL passing windows.

Burrow admitted he was uncertain about his ability to plant and drive the ball even in training camp. Even after the Bengals retooled the offensive line and added Ja'Marr Chase to the offense, it was still fair to wonder if 2020 would repeat itself, and Burrow would end up on injured reserve. 

But with one week remaining in 2021, the Bengals have already been crowned AFC North champions, and Burrow has emerged as the next great superstar NFL QB. He amassed a 70.4% completion rate, best in the NFL by a full 1%, despite also leading the NFL with 8.9 yards per attempt. Just three other signal-callers have attempted 8.0 yards per attempt or more.

His overall effectiveness has risen significantly as well. His bad throw percentage has dropped from nearly 15% to below 11%. His on-target rate has risen from 75.3% to 82.8%. For comparison, Rodgers is at an 18% bad throw rate and 75% on-target rate while Brady is at 17.5% and 69.4%, respectively. 

The success rate the three offenses utilize most often also favors Burrow. Cincinnati runs three-receiver sets (11 personnel) 76% of their total plays and Burrow has a passer rating of 111.2 with 28 touchdowns and 8.3 air yards per attempt. Rodgers has produced a 108.8 passer rating, 26 touchdowns and 7.9 air yards per attempt. Brady is at a 107.6 passer rating with 31 touchdowns and 7.9 air yards per attempt.

With most stats in his favor, all Burrow needed was some momentum. His last two games should've provided that swing. Outside of Billy Volek's insane two-week stretch in 2004 where he tallied 918 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception, it's hard to remember any passer totaling anything close to Burrow's 971 yards and eight scores over the last two games. 

It might be too little, too late at this point if the MVP odds are any indicator. Expectations are for Burrow to sit in Week 18, meaning his regular season is over. The margins were razor-thin, but in my opinion, Burrow is the more deserved candidate considering the division's strength, the Bengals' overall arc, and his combination of perseverance and improvement. 

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration