Is Joe Burrow a frontrunner for the NFL MVP award?

After Joe Burrow bounced back from injury to lead the Cincinnati Bengals to the AFC North title, is he a candidate to win the NFL MVP award?

In the space of two seasons, Joe Burrow has helped take the Cincinnati Bengals from the worst team in the league to a division winner and the fourth seed in the AFC. However, when it comes to the NFL MVP award, Burrow is seemingly receiving little recognition. Let’s examine the pros and cons of why Burrow should or shouldn’t be in the NFL MVP conversation.

Should Joe Burrow be in contention for the NFL MVP award?

The NFL MVP award is rarely a straightforward award to understand. The award has largely become dominated by quarterbacks. In the past 20 years, a QB has won the NFL MVP award 17 times. It looks as though this year will make it 18 out of 21, with QBs occupying the top two or three spots with most sportsbooks.

However, no QB has really grabbed the award and ran with it, leaving some level of debate as to who should be in contention. If you look at most sportsbooks, Aaron Rodgers is the favorite, but there are legitimate cases also being made for both Tom Brady and Burrow. Let’s examine why Burrow should and shouldn’t be considered for this year’s NFL MVP award.

Burrow has been instrumental in the Bengals winning the AFC North

There were concerns entering his second season about how Burrow would look coming off a major knee injury. The concerns largely centered around his confidence behind an offensive line that was generally considered to not be good enough to allow the Bengals to be real contenders. The arguments raged all offseason about Cincinnati’s line, with many predicting struggles or even another injury when the Bengals chose Ja’Marr Chase over OT Penei Sewell in the 2021 NFL Draft.

However, Burrow has thrived this year. He finished the season ranked sixth in passing yards (4,611) and third in passing yards per game (288.2). Burrow also ranked third in touchdowns rate (6.5%), just 3 touchdowns behind current MVP favorite Rodgers.

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He did all of this while navigating a line that has caused him problems. No QB has been sacked more this year than Burrow (51) and he ranks fifth-worst in the league in sack percentage (8.9). Yet, Burrow led the league in completion rate at 70.4% and generally stood up to the numbers of every other QB in the league in 2021.

Pro Football Network’s Offensive Value Metric (OVM) paints the picture of how good Burrow has been this year. OVM grades players based on their value to the team within their environment. Burrow led the QB position with an OVM grade that was significantly above Kyler Murray in second place. If we compare Burrow’s OVM grade to other MVP candidates, Burrow’s grade is 47% above the average for QBs. Rodgers sits at 16% and Brady is at 10%.

Mistakes will likely prove costly in the NFL MVP award voting

While it is clear Burrow provided value to the Bengals’ offense, he also hurt them at times. Burrow threw 14 interceptions in 2021, tied for sixth-most with Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill. His 2.7% interception rate was ninth-worst, and those numbers are hard to overcome.

Those interceptions were a big reason why Burrow finished with a QBR of 54.4. That was still good enough to tie for 10th, but it is significantly behind his rivals for the award. Rodgers tops the list with a 68.8 QBR, with Brady second at 68.5. While QBR is not perfect, it is a generally accepted metric for evaluating QB play, and many voters will look to it when making their decision.

Those interceptions in some ways prove why the Bengals QB should be the NFL MVP

When you look at the Bengals’ record this season, you can break it down into subsections. Excluding Week 18 (when they rested players), the Bengals were 5-0 when they did not commit a turnover. In games where they committed just 1 turnover, they went 5-1. In contrast, in games where they committed 2+ turnovers, they were 0-5.

That goes to show how the Bengals’ results hinged on the play of Burrow to some extent. The Bengals were 6-1 in games where Burrow did not throw an interception. In games where he threw 1, that record was a still-impressive 4-1. However, they did not win a single game where Burrow threw more than 1 interception.

Of course, turnovers are crucial, and you can somewhat make the same arguments for both Brady and Rodgers. When Brady threw 2 interceptions, the team went 1-2, compared to 7-1 with zero turnovers, and 5-1 with 1 turnover. The Packers lost the only game this year where Rodgers threw 2 interceptions while going 13-2 in games where he threw 1 or fewer (excluding Week 18 where he sat out the second half).

That is where it is tough to judge Burrow. Yes, to a large extent, the Bengals rose and fell with his arm. However, that was also the case for other QBs, but they didn’t make as many mistakes as Burrow this season. Those interceptions are likely what will cost Burrow the NFL MVP award this season. Nevertheless, Burrow put the entire league on notice that he is one of the best QBs in the league. An MVP award is surely in his future at some point.

Ben Rolfe is a Senior Managing Editor at Pro Football Network and is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can find him on Twitter @BenRolfePFN.


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