By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Chad counter
The MVP of the 2008 NFL season was a popular topic during a number of my radio appearances here in recent weeks. After all, it's been something of a murky year for MVP candidates, certainly nothing like the cut-and-dry choices we've seen in recent years.

In fact, the past four winners (Peyton Manning, Shaun Alexander, LaDainian Tomlinson, Tom Brady) all set records for TD passes or TD scores and, in the process, made the choice for MVP rather easy.
But nobody leaped off the stat sheet this year, at least not to the average Pavlov's pooch of pigskin. These observers and MVP voters are conditioned to look only at those eye-popping volume numbers that make the "pundits" salivate in front of the nation, but that don't always equate to victory.

But in the eyes of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, a pretty obvious MVP emerged toward the end of the season:

  • He's one of the most underrated players in NFL history.
  • He's sparked a turnaround for the ages.
  • And he's put up some pretty damn good numbers in what's been a statistically prominent, though injury-riddled career.
That player is Miami quarterback Chad Pennington.
He's certainly not a popular choice or a particularly popular player, certainly not along the lines of everybody's favorite pitchman Peyton Manning or fashion magazine and tabloid cover boy Tom Brady.
In fact, a lot of folks scoffed at the idea of Pennington as MVP when I mentioned it. Our pal Rob Bradford over at WEEI in Boston, and, seemed a little perplexed by the thought of Pennington as MVP last week, calling it an "outside-the-box" choice (though, to his credit, Bradford did seem to come around on the idea this past weekend).
Pennington, for a variety of reasons, just doesn't carry the popular buzz of other players. Of course, as Jets fans who eagerly snapped up No. 4 jerseys back in August can attest, buzz means jack-shit when matched up against the overwhelming might of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
Buzz generates headlines and causes "pundits" to babble on incoherently. Cold, Hard Football Facts get results.
So here's why Pennington, in the estimation of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, is a fairly easy selection for MVP this year.
The history-matching turnaround
It's difficult to fathom Miami's resurrection from last year to this year. In 2007, the worst in franchise history, the Dolphins toyed with becoming the first 0-16 team in history (which would have stolen Detroit's thunder this year) before finishing 1-15. This year, they're 11-5 and division champs.
By improving 10 games, the Dolphins matched a pro football record set by the 1999 Colts (3-13 to 13-3).
Put most simply, Pennington was the single biggest on-the-field reason for that turnaround. The Dolphins were in shambles at quarterback last year and it showed in the win column. Pennington instantly solidified the most important position in sports and, again, it showed in the win colum.
An interesting Cold, Hard Football Fact, meanwhile, that should anger Jets fans who dumped Pennington during a torrid summer love affair with Brett Favre: Pennington has reached the playoffs every year that he's started more than 10 games (2002, 2004, 2006, 2008). If not for injuries, Pennington's rep would be quite a bit different than it is today.
The statistical turnaround
The biggest reason for Miami's record-matching improvement was a dramatic improvement in its passing game. The Dolphins averaged just 5.05 yards per attempt last year (using our adjusted formula that includes sacks), 31st in the NFL. This year, they were one of the best passing teams in the league, averaging more than 7.0 yards per pass attempt.
Miami's passing game stands as the greatest single statistical improvement by any team in the NFL this year over last year. And credit for that improvement in the passing game goes, in large part, to the quarterback.
Individual performance
Pennington did not put up huge volume numbers. But as CHFF readers know, huge volume numbers in the passing game are not as important as efficiency numbers. Hell, just ask Drew Brees in New Orleans, who passed for 5,069 yards this year, the second most in history, yet didn't even sniff the playoffs.
Pennington, however, was among the league leaders in several key efficiency categories.
  • He led the NFL by completing 67.4 percent of his passes, and remains the most accurate passer in NFL history (66.0 percent).
  • He was tops among full-time starters this year with a 2.7 to 1 TD:INT ratio (19 and 7).
  • He was second in the league with a 97.4 passer rating, behind only Philip Rivers (105.5). His career passer rating of 90.6 is sixth best in history, one spot behind Joe Montana
(Rivers, by the way, boasts a career passer rating of 92.9, which matches Tom Brady for No. 4 all time. However, Rivers has yet to reach the minimum 1,500 attempts (1,428) needed to qualify for official NFL records.)
Lack of great competitors
Overall, Pennington is the best in what is generally a down year for MVP candidates.
Rivers and Brees shared the NFL lead with 34 TD passes, while, as noted above, Rivers led the league with a 105.5 passer rating and Brees topped the NFL with 5,069 passing yards.
But both led 8-8 teams and .500 quarterbacks don't win MVP awards. Plus, the Chargers declined by three games this year from their 11-5 record in 2007. The Saints improved by one game, from 7-9 to 8-8.
Peyton Manning's name has been tossed into the MVP ring, and he certainly played very well this year and deserves some consideration. But Pennington outclassed Manning this year in every major efficiency category, including completion percentage (67.4 to 66.8), yards per attempt (7.7 to 7.2), TD:INT ratio (2.7 to 1 vs. 2.3 to 1) and passer rating (97.4 to 95.0).
The numbers are an even greater testament to Pennington when you consider that Manning played in the same system he's led for many years, while Pennington was a newcomer in Miami who missed the start of training camp.
Additionally, Manning did not spark any kind of improvement in his team. The 2007 Colts were a 13-3 division champ that scored 450 points on offense. The 2008 Colts are a 12-4 wildcard team that scored a mediocre 377 points on offense. Pennington, meanwhile, sparked a dramatic turnaround in his team's fortunes and enters the playoffs as division champ.
Defensive players rarely win MVP honors, so they should earn greater consideration each year. But few players jump off the map with the rare game-changing performances that garner attention from single-minded MVP voters.
On the running back side, the other position beside quarterback that's routinely awarded MVP honors, the leading candidates are Adrian Peterson (1,760 yards, 4.8 YPA, 10 TD), Michael Turner (1,699 yards 4.5 YPA, 17 TD) and DeAngelo Williams (1,515 yards, 5.5 YPA, 18 TD). All three performed more than admirably for ground-led offenses on greatly improved teams this year. All three deserve some consideration.
But their seasons pale in comparison to those of the most recent ball carriers to earn MVP honors. LaDainian Tomlinson (2006), Shaun Alexander (2005) and Marshall Faulk (2000) all set TD-scoring records on Super Bowl contenders. And, again, the weren't nearly singular forces that changed around the hopes of one of the worst teams in football in 2007.
Add it all up, and Pennington's the man: His 2008 MVP award will serve as a feather in the cap of an underappreciated pro football performer who easily out-classed more buzz-worthy players around the league this year.