Going into Thursday night’s NFL Honors, Aaron Schatz thought he was safe.

The chief analytics officer at FTN Fantasy knew he was in a stark minority with an unpopular opinion: Lamar Jackson was not the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. When All-Pro teams were released, Schatz saw that four other voters in the field of 50 didn’t have Jackson as their first-team quarterback.

“I thought, ‘I’m saved,’” Schatz told me on Friday by phone. “‘I’m not the only one.’”

Like the rest of the football world, Schatz assumed Jackson would win the MVP — the second of his career — by a comfortable margin. But he didn’t realize, when the ballots were tallied, his vote would be the only one keeping Jackson, 27, from becoming the first man to win unanimously twice.

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Oops. If you upset the Ravens Flock like that, you’re bound to get tarred and feathered.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, Schatz stood by his ballot. He monitors the MVP race throughout the season, agonizing over a number of statistics and metrics that he hopes will give him the best possible insight into who was the best player.

He doesn’t think the other voters were wrong to vote for Jackson, either. “I would never besmirch the other voters. I’m going to assume that everybody agonized over it the way that I did.”

Schatz invented defense-adjusted value over average, a statistic that compares team success based on down and distance to the league average — and that has been unfailingly flattering to the 2023 Ravens. He would argue they’re one of the best teams of all time, certainly one of the best not to win the Super Bowl.

But, when it came to evaluating the best player, Schatz determined, through a thorough analytical process, that Jackson was third, behind Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Dallas’ Dak Prescott. He used his statistics as a starting point, which he believes is a huge part of his role in the voting panel, but said in total process (which can and should be read at his website for his All-Pro ballot) that he didn’t think Jackson was the best player.

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“The goal was not to deny Lamar Jackson history,” he said. “I honestly thought I would not be the only one.”

When I reached out to Schatz, I didn’t hide my own agenda. I disagree with his ballot.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) reacts to the crowd after scoring a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second quarter of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
Bills quarterback Josh Allen received the MVP of Aaron Schatz, the lone dissenter against Jackson. (Adrian Kraus/AP)

I do think Jackson was the best player this past season, in large part because of his exemplary run that helped the Ravens clinch the AFC’s top overall seed. In head-to-head meetings with very good teams — at the Bengals, at the Browns, vs. the Lions, at the 49ers, vs. the Dolphins — Jackson was sensational. The gravity of his run threat and the strides in his passing game helped push the Ravens’ offense past the sum of its parts, and he did some of his best work without a No. 1 back (J.K. Dobbins) and his top receiving target (Mark Andrews).

But what’s that old saying: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? I think something like that applies here. Baltimore fans may have out their pitchforks, but hopefully no one actually uses one.

There’s a reason there’s a vote and not just Roger Goodell bestowing MVP on whoever public opinion seems to favor. Ideally, you incorporate many points of view.

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MVP criteria is left intentionally vague. Is it most valuable to his team? To the league? Is value about winning the most? Is it about having the best statistical marks? The debate can be invigorating and insightful, and a glance through history shows the definition can change year to year.

There is one constant. The voters rarely all agree.

I was surprised to learn that there have been more NFL MVP votes with a 49-1 tally than unanimous votes. Schatz’s dissenting opinion was the third time it has happened. Peyton Manning was one away from 100% in 2013, and inexplicably Tom Brady’s record-setting, 16-0 2007 season was a 49-1 vote (Boston media predictably went after voter Frank Cooney, who put Brett Favre atop his ballot).

Just last year, Patrick Mahomes secured 48 of 50 votes, the same tally Cam Newton got in his epic 2015 season. The unanimous votes (Brady in 2010 and Jackson in 2019) are, by far, the exception. It probably accelerates the discourse against Schatz that Jackson already had a unanimous MVP before.

Schatz has been a voter since 2020, and he takes the responsibility seriously. If he had a vote in 2019, you can bet he would have been part of the crowd.

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“I absolutely would have voted for Lamar Jackson in 2019,” he said. “I don’t deny his greatness.”

There are numerous parts of Schatz’s argument that I don’t agree with. I think Allen’s 18 interceptions should count against him more than Schatz, who gave them less weight because Allen was throwing farther downfield and not hurting his team so badly with field position. He acknowledged that some of his statistical measurements, including DVOA, were so influenced by the greatness of the Ravens’ defense that it was difficult to give Jackson as much credit for the team’s overall performance.

“The goal was not to deny Lamar Jackson history. I honestly thought I would not be the only one.”

Aaron Schatz, MVP voter

Schatz’s biggest concession was his written assertion that, “[Buffalo’s] Khalil Shakir is nice but I think we would all rather have Rashod Bateman.” Shakir almost doubled up Bateman in yardage this season, which Schatz admitted “was better than I realized.” He stood by his assessment that Stefon Diggs, who had 1,183 yards this season, “fell off” and that Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr. were both better than the Terps alum down the stretch of the season.

But, for all the points on which we differ, I agree with Schatz on one crucial point. Jackson’s MVP case this season was not as clear-cut as it was in 2019, when Jackson was lighting the league on fire. His 36 touchdown passes that season led the NFL and, combined with his dynamic rushing ability and the Ravens’ top record, it was a lights-out argument.

This year was not nearly as statistically dominant, and even I concede that the best argument requires the context of when Jackson played his best. He wasn’t even a leading MVP candidate until the Ravens knocked off San Francisco on Christmas, then all but sewed it up the next week against Miami. I think the end of the season should be given more weight with how much the Ravens had on the line against two contenders, but it’s not a slam dunk.

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This season, San Francisco’s Brock Purdy led the league in many flattering passing metrics. But, on Schatz’s ballot, he was fourth, below Jackson — in part because Purdy, to Schatz’s own eyes, was not as good as Jackson.

That’s right, Schatz isn’t just consuming through spreadsheets. He watches the games, too. He was stunned that anyone would assume otherwise — as some have asserted.

“My response to that is you should also watch Buffalo and Dallas,” he said. “I watched a lot of Baltimore Ravens football this year. I can spin you tales of Kyle Hamilton and Justin Madubuike and Roquan Smith.”

All three of those players, by the way, were on Schatz’s first-team All-Pro ballot. He doesn’t have it out for Baltimore. Honestly, the opposite.

“I was driving the Baltimore bandwagon all season,” he said. “Just not the Lamar Jackson one.”

It stings for Jackson and the Ravens because he was one vote away from making history. The first two-time unanimous MVP has a real ring to it.

Jackson needs one more MVP award to match Johnny Unitas for most by a Baltimore quarterback. The Colts star won in 1959, 1964 and 1967. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

But, if everyone saw the game the same way, there would be no need to vote, no need to debate, no need to parse. It would diminish any sense of meaning a unanimous MVP actually imparts to those lucky enough to earn the title.

Because he was kind enough to defend an argument that could get him dragged through the town square here in Baltimore, I told Schatz of a similar controversy I saw up close.

In 2012, the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn was the lone dissenter in LeBron James’ third MVP win, picking Carmelo Anthony instead. There has been only one unanimous MVP in NBA history, and it was not James, arguably the best player of all time. (It was Steph Curry in 2016.)

Eight years later in the NBA bubble, I learned just how long James can hold a grudge. After a press conference, James good-naturedly ribbed Washburn for his one dissenting vote. “I’ll never f—ing forget that,” James shouted behind him as he stalked off down a hallway. The entire media corps was guffawing, Washburn as much as anyone.

Schatz laughed at the anecdote, wondering if one day Jackson might give him the same treatment. He’s willing to take it.

“Just because I did not think he was this year’s greatest player did not mean I didn’t think Lamar is a great player,” Schatz said. “It just means, when it came to this award, I just felt he was third.”

Schatz and I parted on these terms: We agreed to disagree. That’s how it all should work.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum. 

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