Before Sunday’s right foot injury derailed his season, Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry deserved consideration, and probably rejection, for the 2021 N.F.L. Most Valuable Player Award.
No non-quarterback has won the award since Adrian Peterson in 2012. The analytics community insists that even the most productive running back is far less valuable to his team than the league’s top dozen or so quarterbacks. Yet Henry was on pace to rush for nearly 2,000 yards and was almost single-handedly keeping the Titans (6-2) relevant. In a season in which no quarterback has run away as the front-runner for the award, Henry was poised to cause a quandary for voters and spark some very shrill debates across the internet.
With Henry out six to 10 weeks after his foot surgery Tuesday, M.V.P. voters face a different dilemma. Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen is favored by sports books to win the award (+250) even though he ranks 11th in the league in passing yards (1,972), is tied for fifth in passing touchdowns (17) and ranks ninth in efficiency rating (103.1). The wagering public appears to like Allen more than voters will, perhaps because the wagering public is full of boisterous Bills fans who have had nothing to get excited about for nearly 30 years.
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (+600) is a stronger candidate than Allen. Stafford ranks among the league leaders in most relevant passing categories and is first in both ESPN’s Quarterback Rating and Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (D.V.O.A.) metrics. His story line — a veteran quarterback who escaped the woeful Detroit Lions to rejuvenate a flailing contender — will also convince voters in a way that the best arguments from Allen’s supporters (vote for him or we will drive down I-87 to smash your patio furniture) will not.
The rest of the field of M.V.P. candidates consists of flawed, polarizing options. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (+600) is a first-time serious candidate coming off his team’s first loss of the season; he could fall off the pace the way Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers (+2500) has in recent weeks.
Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys (+650) may be shunted into a separate award category (see below). Voters could feel that giving Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (+600) another trophy is like giving Jeff Bezos a $50 Amazon gift certificate for his birthday.
Perennial favorite Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs (+4000) decided to release an album of B-sides and outtakes this year. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (+800) won the award last year and is a worthy contender again, but Rodgers is far more entertaining when he doesn’t get what he wants.
Other N.F.L. award races have been thrown into confusion in recent weeks, both by Henry’s injury and developments beyond.
Offensive Player of the Year
Henry won Offensive Player of the Year in 2020 and brought a touch of prestige to an award that usually carries a silver-medalist stigma. He was such a prohibitive favorite to repeat this year that many sports books took the category off the board early in the week. Rams receiver Cooper Kupp is now the likely top candidate for an honor that often, but not always, goes to the league’s best running back or receiver.
Some members of the analytics community argue that the league’s second-best quarterback would be more worthy of this award than someone like Henry or Kupp, but others know when to pipe down and let people enjoy things.
Defensive Player of the Year
The Cowboys’ Trevon Diggs is on pace to tie the N.F.L.’s single-season interception record, yet he is not the front-runner for an award that just three cornerbacks have won since 1995. Diggs’s odds stand at +500 while pass rusher Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns is at +300 and T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers stands at +400. Neither Watt or Garrett is having a historic season, but voters tend to remember every mistake a cornerback makes while forgetting the 50-plus snaps per game in which even the best pass rushers just get pushed around by their blockers.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Ja’Marr Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals, profiled last week in this space and on pace for the best season by a rookie wide receiver since Randy Moss in 1998, is a prohibitive favorite at -140. His only serious challenger is New England Patriots student driver Mac Jones (+300), who looks less like a rookie quarterback than the astral projection of Coach Bill Belichick’s desire to prove that he doesn’t need Brady to be successful.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons, Giants pass rusher Azeez Ojulari, Kansas City linebacker Nick Bolton and other rookie defenders are having noteworthy seasons, but Parsons is the overwhelming favorite at +125 to win an honor traditionally bestowed on a newcomer who achieved fame during his college career and whose team is frequently on national television.
Comeback Player of the Year
Dak Prescott returned from last year’s ankle injury to shake a Cowboys team that spent all of 2020 watching Netflix in their pajamas out of their doldrums. Despite the calf injury that sidelined him last week, Prescott is a prohibitive lock at -500 to receive this honor.
Coach of the Year
The frontrunners of a crowded field include Kliff Kingsbury (+700), whose Cardinals emerged as contenders this year; Brandon Staley, whose odds (+700) may be fading along with his Chargers; Sean McVay (+950), who has revitalized the Rams with Stafford’s help; and Zac Taylor (+1200), the architect of the suddenly relevant Bengals.
The odds that Coach of the Year honors will go to anyone but a millennial wunderkind with the meticulously manscaped features of a personal trainer at an overpriced fitness center appeared astronomical before Mike McCarthy (+600) crept to the front of the field by leading the Cowboys to victory over the Minnesota Vikings without Prescott.
In fact, the only thing standing between the Cowboys and a sweep of most of the N.F.L.’s postseason honors may be some sort of melodramatic team-wide late-season swoon. In other words, all of the award races remain very much in play.