Watching David Johnson play football is like watching a futuristic top-secret military aircraft that is capable of hovering and moving laterally like a helicopter, cruising forward like a jet, and switching between both functions within a split second.

Le'Veon Bell is the most patient running back in the league, picking and choosing his moments as if the 300-pound tacklers surrounding him don’t pose a threat. Ezekiel Elliott jumps over defenders. Thomas Rawls hits the hole like he’s trying to run through a wall. Johnson simply glides over the turf, seamlessly switching directions without slowing. He’s so damn smooth for someone who’s listed at 6-feet-1 and 224 pounds.

And he deserves to be in the running for MVP.

The Cardinals are probably not playoff -bound. They’re 5-6-1 with four games to play. Their lackluster showing is stunning, really, considering they advanced to the NFC title game a year ago. It’s also stunning because the NFL’s best offensive player resides on their roster. Johnson, who emerged onto the scene late last year to seal countless fantasy football championships, has been the league’s most dynamic offensive force this season (both in fantasy and in real life football), but his historic run is being masked by the disappointing state of the Cardinals. And really, that’s the only argument that’s keeping Johnson out of the MVP conversation.

But that shouldn’t be the case. Johnson should be in the conversation, right there alongside Elliott, Tom Brady, and Insert Any Name of a Quarterback Who Plays for a Winning Team. This article will explain why.

To do so, I’m going to repeatedly compare Johnson to Elliott, because Elliott is the only running back in the MVP running. The lone notable difference (statistical, not playing style) between the two players is that Elliott’s team is 11-1. And if you think for a second that if the Cowboys swapped out Elliott for Johnson they wouldn’t have been the first team to clinch a playoff berth, you’re probably a Cowboys fan. But don’t worry, this story isn’t intended to take away from Elliott’s season. He’s a worthy candidate.

It’s just that Johnson is actually having the better season.

Yards/TDs from scrimmage

The NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage isn’t Elliott. It’s Johnson, who leads Zeke by more than 100 yards. He’s out in front of the next-closest player by nearly 300 yards.


Rushing yards Receiving yards Total yards
Johnson 1,005 704 1,709
Elliott 1,285 322 1,607
Melvin Gordon 992 419 1,411

Johnson is gaining 5.85 yards per touch. Zeke averages 5.52.

Johnson also leads the league in touchdowns from scrimmage.


Rushing TD Receiving TD Total TD
Johnson 11 4 15
Elliott 12 1 13
LeGarrette Blount 13 0 13

Over the course of 13 weeks, Johnson has been the best offensive player in terms of yards and touchdowns, which is to say he has been the best offensive player in football.

Historically consistent

Johnson has also been more consistent than Elliott. He’s on the verge of history.

As our Jared Dubin recently wrote, Johnson has gained at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game:

  1. 132 vs. Patriots
  2. 143 vs. Buccaneers
  3. 111 vs. Bills
  4. 124 vs. Rams
  5. 185 vs. 49ers
  6. 138 vs. Jets
  7. 171 vs. Seahawks
  8. 108 vs. Panthers
  9. 101 vs. 49ers
  10. 160 vs. Vikings
  11. 161 vs. Falcons
  12. 175 vs. Redskins

He’s the only player to have reached 100 yards in every game (12) this season. The NFL record is 15. So, he not only has a chance to break the record held by Marcus Allen, Edgerrin James and Barry Sanders, he also has a chance to hit the 100-yard mark in every single game. He has been the most consistent play maker in all of football and could experience the most consistent season of all-time.

Versatility

Given Johnson and Elliott are on top of the league in yards from scrimmage, they’re both obviously capable players in the passing game. But Elliott isn’t the same caliber receiver as Johnson.

Elliott is often used as a receiver in a traditional way: in the backfield and not far downfield.

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Pro Football Focus

Johnson is used as an actual receiver, which increases his degree of difficulty:

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Pro Football Focus

According to PFF, 38 percent of Johnson’s targets have occurred when he ran a “receiver route.” And when Cardinals quarterbacks have targeted him on those routes, they’ve posted a 116.2 passer rating. In all, quarterbacks have a 107.6 passer rating when throwing to Johnson, which is 8.1 points higher than the league average.

Johnson is second on the Cardinals in receptions (64), targets (84), receiving yards (704), and receiving touchdowns (4, tied with Michael Floyd). He averages more yards per catch (11) than Larry Fitzgerald (10), who leads the team in all of those categories above.

He’s tied with T.Y. Hilton (an actual WR1 on a team that has a legit QB1 in Andrew Luck) for a streak that should be reserved for wide receivers. Except, Johnson is essentially a receiver that plays running back -- and vice versa.

He’s the perfect hybrid.

Supporting casts

Unlike Elliott, Johnson doesn’t operate behind the league’s best offensive line.

That’s not an indictment of Elliott. It’s not his fault his offensive line is so dominant and it doesn’t mean he’s not a great player. But consider what happened in Dallas last year when Darren McFadden eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards and gained 4.6 yards per carry. The point being, a consistently mediocre-to-bad running back was able to excel behind the Cowboys’ line last year.

Again, I don’t want the supporting-casts argument to take away from Zeke’s season. It’s just worth pointing out that Johnson is doing what Zeke has done with lesser players around him. It’s an argument for Johnson, not an argument against Elliott.

Elusiveness, missed tackles

So, Johnson has been forced to do more on his own. He has generated 63 missed tackles, according to PFF. He leads the league by a wide margin. For the sake of comparison, Elliott has garnered 38 missed tackles.

PFF also tracks a statistic called elusiveness rating, which “attempts to distill the impact of a runner with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down.” Johnson’s elusiveness rating? 55.3, which is the fourth-best rating. Elliott’s rating? 37.1 -- the 15th best rating.

Again, none of this is intended to take away from Elliott’s season. But if Elliott is getting MVP buzz for his incredible season, then Johnson deserves the buzz, too.

Why he deserves to be in the mix

So, that leads us to the awkward topic of wins. More specifically, how much should winning factor into MVP? This will be brief, because arguing about the definition of “valuable” is like arguing about politics at Thanksgiving.

Wins obviously matter. Even if the Cardinals win out and sneak into the postseason, Johnson won’t take home the award because the Cowboys, Raiders, Lions, and Patriots will have gathered more wins. I do think, however, that we place too much emphasis on wins when it comes to MVP, especially considering football is such a specialized sport. Johnson doesn’t play defense or special teams, so he’s responsible for only one-third of the game. And this is where I point out Mike Trout just won MLB’s AL MVP award after the Angels’ 74-88 season.

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Graphic illustration by Mike Meredith

OK, pushing aside the topic of wins, let’s circle back to the record that Johnson has a chance to break. He has a chance to accomplish something that has never been done before in a single season. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a hybrid back/receiver like Johnson. On the other hand, while Derek Carr, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford have been magnificent this year, they aren’t experiencing out-of-this-world seasons. To put it another way, we’ve seen these types of seasons on an annual basis. And if Zeke wins MVP, he’ll do so without even being the best player at his position.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this: If the objective of football is to gain yards in order to score points, and if the most valuable aspect of football is touchdowns, I’m not sure how the league leader in both categories can be ignored by the award that is given to the most valuable player.