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Whitlock: Old MVP candidates Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are not the NFL’s best players

Op-ed
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In 1963, at the age of 37, New York Giants quarterback Yelberton Abraham Tittle Jr. was named the most valuable player of the National Football League. In the league’s then-43-year history, Y.A. Tittle was the oldest player to win the award.

Tittle held that distinction for the next 50 years, until Peyton Manning, older by seven months, won the award in 2013. Four years later, 40-year-old Tom Brady set a new standard for old-guy dominance of a young man’s game.

This year, another quarterback older than Tittle is likely to be named MVP of football. The leading candidates are 38-year-old Aaron Rodgers and 44-year-old Tom Brady.

Two of the 10 oldest active NFL players are the front-runners for MVP. This is good for TV ratings. Brady and Rodgers are handsome superstars with brands nearly as pervasive and strong as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.

But their dominance of football does not say good things about the NFL.

Football rule-makers, in pursuit of player safety and points, have made the game far too easy. I do not say that to denigrate Brady or Rodgers. As a fan, I love watching them play. I respect their approach to the game. I marvel at their sustained discipline and passion. Football is a more enjoyable product with Brady and Rodgers than without them.

My problem is that their prolonged domination of the league indicates a reduction in the stakes and/or consequences of playing the game. When you reduce the risk, you reduce the reward, you reduce the level of satisfaction.

Despite all of its corruption, the sport of boxing won’t die because of the elevated consequences of the sport. At any moment, someone could get knocked out. That’s exciting. It’s why we tuned in to see Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder three times even though we know neither fighter is Muhammad Ali or Joe Frazier.

Football used to be so punishing that the all-time great quarterbacks retired at age 37 or 38 whether they really wanted to or not.

In 1979, at the age of 37, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach had the best statistical season of his career. He threw for a career high in yards (3,586) and touchdowns (27) and was named to the Pro Bowl for a fifth consecutive year. He retired after the season. He suffered five concussions during the 1979 season and six during the calendar year.

Football has significantly decreased the degree of difficulty. Hardly anyone talks about it. The old-timers don’t want to sound bitter or jealous of the modern players. Corporate media is in bed with the NFL. ESPN and Fox Sports’ job is to promote the league, not analyze it. The former players leading the discussion of football on TV are simply happy to be cashing a check. They’d rather whine and cry about some perceived racial injustice than discuss what’s going on in the actual game.

The truth doesn’t keep the butter biscuits flowing. Emasculated emotion, tears, and racial division keep the money flowing.

So we pretend that what Brady and Rodgers are doing is just as difficult as what Tittle, Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, and John Elway did. It’s not. Tom Brady knows it’s not. Here’s what he said in September during a panel discussion with his Buccaneers teammates.

“I think the one thing about football that’s changed over the years, which I think is really hard for someone like me who has played a long time to watch,” Brady stated. “It’s not being taught the right way. A quarterback should only throw the ball to certain places because your receiver is in danger of getting hit. For example, when I used to play against Ray Lewis, I wouldn’t throw the ball to the middle of the field because he would … hit (our receivers) and knock them out of the game. And now every hard hit is a penalty on the defense. I feel like they penalize defensive players for offensive mistakes.”

“They’ve almost moved the protection of your opponent to you, as opposed to where it should be, which is on yourself. If you’re a quarterback, you gotta protect yourself and your players. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of your opponent to protect you. … It creates really bad habits for players, because you feel like I can basically do anything. I can run and not slide. I can throw my receiver into any coverage and not have any repercussion for it. … In the end I think it’s a really disservice to the sport. Because the sport isn’t being played at a high level like I believe that it once was. It actually deteriorates because you’re not teaching the players the reasons and the fundamentals of what the sport should be.”

Brady isn’t afraid of the truth. Corporate media is.

Y.A. Tittle set an age standard that stood for 50 years. It will now be surpassed three times in less than a decade.

Football has changed. You basically need written permission from the head referee to hit the quarterback. Receivers have no fear of catching the ball over the middle of the field. Referees love throwing pass-interference penalties for inconsequential contact.

Let me repeat: I love Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. I really do. Because of the way he handled COVID and his feisty interview with Pat McAfee about the vaccine, Rodgers is my new favorite NFL player. I want him to win a second consecutive MVP award. It will be a victory for the unvaxxed.

Rodgers and Brady are the most valuable players in the NFL. My point is they’re not the best or most impressive players.

Here’s my list of the best and/or most impressive players this season: Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons, Pittsburgh pass-rusher T.J. Watt, Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett, San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa, and Patriots corner J.C. Jackson.

Rule changes have exaggerated the value of NFL quarterbacks. Football needs a Best Player award. The best football players are a lot closer to age 30 than 40. Football is still a young man’s game. A Best Player award would recognize that.
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