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Helman: Dak Prescott & The Makeup Of An NFL MVP


FRISCO, Texas – There was a long period of time where I hated the Heisman Trophy.

For all the hype and prestige, it was a gimmick. A popularity contest. It was an award touted to go to the most outstanding player in college football, when it reality it was a trophy given to the best player on the best team.

It didn't matter that all-world receivers like Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Crabtree were re-writing record books in front of our eyes, the award had to go to the quarterback of a national title contender. It didn't matter that Ndamukong Suh turned in the most dominant season we'll ever see from an interior defensive lineman, his team wasn't at the top of the standings.

The trophy felt like an affront to everything I loved about college football – right up until my favorite team produced a Heisman candidate of its own.

Now, don't get me wrong. I still believe everything I just said about the Heisman Trophy. But for all its flaws as a concept, watching Joe Burrow win it for my alma mater, LSU, hammered home something important for me: an award like that offers an opportunity at immortality. It cements that season and the player who wins it as special, and something that will be remembered, always. And when the winner is unquestionably deserving, as Burrow was, it makes the achievement that much more special.

Have you guessed yet why I'm writing about this? There's an obvious parallel.

I've spent a lot of my time this week thinking about NFL MVP – a similarly flawed award to the Heisman Trophy -- and what it might mean if Dak Prescott manages to win it.

Everything I just wrote about the Heisman pertains in some measure to NFL MVP.

To put it bluntly, it's become a popularity contest for passers. In a league where the passing game has become king, it's simply a measuring stick for which NFL quarterback did the best job guiding his team to the playoffs.

On some level, I get it. No position in football is as important as quarterback, and the current design of the league gives it more magnitude than ever.

On the other hand, it annoys me to no end that quarterbacks have won the last eight MVPs, as well as 13 of the last 14. That drastically overlooks some amazing performances, such as J.J. Watt's 2014 season that saw him make 78 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 29 tackles for loss to go with five fumble recoveries, 10 pass breakups and an interception return for a touchdown, helping to drag a 9-7 Houston team with mediocre quarterback play into the postseason.

Clearly, that one still bothers me, but I digress.

For all the flaws with the process, I can't deny that it's exciting to be sitting at the midpoint of this season and think that the Cowboys are as close as they've been to an MVP in recent memory.

That's not an exaggeration. Yes, I imagine some of y'all would reference Tony Romo's 2014 campaign. But at this point in the 2014 season, Romo was just coming back from his back injury and wouldn't catch fire until the final month of the season. As we've already said, the popularity contest nature of the award made him a longshot to ever win it, because people weren't talking about him until mid-December.

What's more popular than a 7-2 Cowboys team, quarterbacked by a guy who is fourth in the league in touchdowns, second in the league in both completion percentage and yards per attempt and first in the league in quarterback rating?

However you want to break it down, Prescott is in a small group of guys playing well enough to be considered. If he doesn't miss any more games, he's on pace to finish with 4,682 yards, 40 touchdowns and just 10 picks. Looking back through recent winners, that's more than a good enough statline to win the award.

The bigger issue, for better or for worse, is about wins. Only one quarterback in the last 12 years has won NFL MVP with fewer than 12 wins, and that was Matt Ryan in 2016. By and large, the threshold is 12 or more wins, with nine of the last 12 MVPs guiding his team to the No. 1 seed in his respective conference.

The takeaway is obvious. If Prescott can help the Cowboys win five or more of their remaining eight games, preferably helping them into one of the top two seeds in the NFC, it'll push him into the territory that's typically required for consideration.

There are other factors working in Prescott's favor. The brand power and popularity of the Dallas Cowboys speaks for itself. The last time they had this much potential, they took the NFL by storm – but Prescott was merely a rookie. He helped that team win plenty of games, but he wasn't developed enough as a passer to contend for this type of award.

That brings us back to Ryan, whose MVP candidacy may have had at least a few similarities to this one. Ryan's 2016 Falcons team finished with an 11-5 record, but his competition helped get him over the finish line. On one side, he was going against a 13-3 Cowboys team that didn't have a clear-cut MVP candidate. On the other side, he was also competing against recent winners in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers – who voters were likely tired of selecting.

Prescott is aided in this situation that he is not only good, but new. Only Arizona's Kyler Murray and Los Angeles' Matt Stafford carry the same combo of "playing like an MVP, while also being a new and interesting candidate." Even more fun: Prescott should have a chance to make a direct case against Murray when the two play in six weeks at AT&T Stadium.

Am I making too much of this at the midpoint of the season, maybe. There's a lot of football left to be played. But going back to my point about Burrow, the simple fact that Dak Prescott is in this conversation gives credence to this being a potentially special season.

Of those 12 previous NFL MVPs, five of them played in the Super Bowl. Eight of the 12 at least reached the conference championship game – that hallowed ground that the Cowboys haven't seen since 1995.

Then there are the personal implications for Prescott, who is starting to establish himself among the league's very best. I went back and looked through the 40 players who have won NFL MVP in the 52 years since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Of those 40 players, 22 are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Another three – Brady, Rodgers and Adrian Peterson – are locks to make the Hall of Fame when their careers are finished.

It's not an exact science, but playing well enough to win even one NFL MVP has a strong correlation to football immortality.

We're still a long way off from award season, and Dak Prescott would probably be the first person to say he has loftier goals in mind. But during seasons like this, these are the things you start to think about.

Just like I did with my man Joe, I'm starting to realize just how big that could be for Dak Prescott – and for the Cowboys as a whole.

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