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J.J. Watt: Making The Case For MVP

Quarterbacks win the award nearly every year, does Watt have a chance?

Scott Halleran

Much like the Heisman award, the highest honor in college football, the MVP award in pro football typically goes to offensive players. In fact, only three non-offensive players (defensive tackle, kicker, linebacker) have been named league MVP since the NFL started giving out the award in 1957 (Jim Brown).

MVP voters favor offensive players because they put points up on the board and that's easier for them to evaluate than the impact of a defensive player, but ignoring Watt's "value" would be foolish. He's taking points off the board with forced fumbles and batted passes that turn into interceptions, he's putting opposing offenses in 3rd in long situations with sacks and by juking blockers to tackle runners in the backfield. Even when he doesn't get the sack, he's putting pressure on the quarterback, causing them to just throw the ball away instead of trying to complete a pass. On Sunday the MVP candidate had three sacks, four other tackles for no gain or a loss, and a forced fumble that took seven points off the board for the Colts who were on the one yard line.

Watt is now tied for the league lead in sacks and trails Michael Strahan's league record by just three sacks. If the Texans don't rest Watt in the final game, he has a great shot to break the single season sack record. Even if he doesn't break the sack record, this will still go down as one of the most dominate, impressive performances from a defensive player in NFL history. He impacts the game and makes plays in every way possible on defense. Eric Adelson of Yahoo Sports put it very well recently in an article he wrote on Watt's impact on the game and chances to win the MVP award:

Watt causes disruption. He disrupts pass plays, run plays, every play. He disrupts thinking, reacting and planning. He disrupts A gaps, B gaps, C gaps and the gaps he creates by physically removing people from his path.

Watt does not score touchdowns, but Sunday's win was a pristine example of how a defender can play offense. Watt had two sacks, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble at the Texans' 1-yard line and he forced Luck to throw it away twice – in the first half. He ended the game with 10 tackles, three sacks, the forced fumble, and four tackles for no gain or loss. That's moving the football.

Watt wasn't just in the backfield all afternoon; he was deep in the backfield all afternoon. So any momentum Luck could generate was snuffed out by Watt gashing the pocket and forcing the rookie quarterback into third-and-impossible. Yes, it's hard to vote for a defender as MVP, since a quarterback has the ball on every play. But Watt is clearly affecting the person with the ball on every play. Isn't that just as "valuable"?

I've heard the argument that breaking the sack record wouldn't mean as much today because the league has more teams "airing it out" than in years past, giving defenders more chances to rush the passer, but the numbers don't back up that logic.

Opponents Pass Attempts Per Game:

Michael Strahan (22.5 sacks - 2001): 521 pass attempts, 32.56 per game
Mark Gastineau (22 sacks - 1984): 511 pass attempts, 31.93 per game
Reggie White: (21 sacks - 1987, 12 games) 561 pass attempts, 37.4 per game
Lawrence Taylor (20.5 - 1986): 587 pass attempts, 36.68 per game
J.J. Watt (19.5 sacks - 2012 Through 14 games): 523 pass attempts, 37.35 per game
Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks - 2012 Through 14 games): 511 pass attempts, 36.5 per game

As you see, that argument just doesn't hold up. The teams Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor faced passed just as often as the teams facing J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith. Assuming the opponent pass attempts per game stays the same, Watt will have had more opportunities than Strahan or Gastineau, but I don't think the difference is drastic enough to take credit away from the season Watt is having.

I believe Watt should be considered a legit MVP candidate even if he doesn't break the sack record. Realistically, he probably will have to break the record to take attention away from Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning, but I think his value and performance goes beyond just his sack total. In one of the advanced stats I like to look at, J.J. Watt ranks number one among all defensive players in the NFL for 'Win Probability Added'. It's kind of similar to the wins above replacement stat used in baseball. Not only does Watt rank number one at 2.71, but it's a landslide; only one other defensive player is above 2.0 (Lawrence Timmons 2.03). What does that stat mean? It means that beyond sacks he's batting down passes, he's making tackles for loss, he's pressuring and hitting the quarterback, he's stuffing the run, he's forcing fumbles, and just creating chaos for every opponent he faces; he makes the most big plays contributing to wins.

Watt is tied for the league lead in sacks, leads the league in passes defensed among non corner backs (yes, including linebackers and safeties), leads the league in tackles for loss with 33 (Von Miller is 2nd with 25), and leads the league in QB hits with 39 (Cameron Wake is 2nd with 28); there should be no debate as to who is the most dominate defensive player in the league. The debate that remains is if he is more valuable than the offensive stars most consider to be the front runners for the award. Using the 'Win Probability Added' stat I mentioned earlier, Watt actually ranks higher in that stat compared to Adrian Peterson (2.71 to 1.22) and higher than any other running back or wide receiver in the league. Watt is also very comparable in that stat to most quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning who ranks just slightly better at 2.85 in Win Probability Added.

No question, the quarterback position is the most important position in the NFL and probably all of sports, but does that necessarily mean they should win the MVP award nearly every season? I think it can be reasonably argued that his value is equal to many of the elite quarterbacks. With Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed, Johnathan Joseph, and Shaun Cody all missing multiple games, Bradie James proving to have the foot speed of a refrigerator, and Connor Barwin having a down year, Watt and nearly Watt alone has been left to lead the defense. Without Watt causing havoc, their already struggling pass defense (18th yards allowed, 25th TD allowed) would be exposed and torched if forced to cover for a longer amount of time. Without Watt the Texans would be ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks this season (no other player has more than six). In the same way a great quarterback like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Aaron Rodgers can carry his teammates and cover up some flaws, a great defensive player like J.J. Watt can do the same thing. The Texans would probably still sneak into the playoffs without Watt, but I believe they'd have at least two fewer wins and would be out of the race for home field advantage, something they need to have for any chance of reaching the Super Bowl. Watt makes big plays, leads his team to wins, and gives the Texans a chance to win the championship; what more do you want out of an MVP?

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