The Tuesday Toss: The MVP Minority Report
September 13, 2016 — By Evan Lepler
The Tuesday Toss Archive
When the Dallas Roughnecks completed their perfect inaugural season, it did not catch the ultimate world off guard. From the day that Dallas Owner Jim Gerenscer signed two-time AUDL MVP Beau Kittredge, it felt like prophecy that the first-year franchise would be among the league’s top title contenders. By the time the full roster was released, only a few observers failed to deem Dallas the prohibitive favorite.
Looking past the hype, the Roughnecks as a team fulfilled that forecast, a tribute to talent and chemistry. They overpowered every opponent on their way to the perfect season, mixing basic fundamentals and spectacular moments to ascend to their peak. Even though it was predicted—perhaps inevitable—it was still gripping to watch. And by the end of Championship Weekend, there was little dispute about which team deserved to win.
In contrast, when the AUDL named Atlanta’s Dylan Tunnell the MVP of the 2016 season, it was not nearly as expected. While his statistics sparkled and his highlights wowed, he was far from an obvious choice. Immediately, and understandably, many wondered how he was selected for this prestigious individual honor.
To put it simply, the league office bestows the MVP after a discussion and vote from selected media. In each of the past three seasons, since I started broadcasting AUDL games in 2014, I have been included in this process, along with Nathan Jesson and Adam Ruffner, two gentlemen who watch more game film than any other “media” I know. I certainly contribute opinions, though I am often inclined to lean on their expertise, cultivated from hours of study and analysis.
When Beau received back-to-back MVP nods, hardly anyone batted an eye. It was much more of a given, rather than a debate. Unanimity made it easy.
This time around, for a variety of reasons, there were a host of players who were in the thick of the conversation. But we lacked an obvious winner. Some of the gaudiest stat-stuffers lacked certain qualities like team success or overall versatility. Other talented stars did not play in enough games to merit deep consideration. Despite these muddy waters, the ultimate decision still would have been unanimous if I had wised up and agreed with my calculating colleagues.
Nathan and Adam both believed that Tunnell was the 2016 MVP. I respected their reasoning and think it is possible that they made the right choice. The race for the top individual honor, after all, was agonizingly close. I nearly went along with their determination; it’s not like I vehemently disagreed with it. But my personal definition of MVP compelled me to see things slightly differently than they did.
How do I define MVP? Unfortunately, it’s a combination of dozens of factors, a complicated formula that does not conveniently reveal itself in any quantifiable measure. Consequently, I cannot explain it precisely or succinctly. Really, it’s everything.
For my MVP, I want to reward talent, versatility, consistency, leadership, and, since it’s a team game, overall success. I want a great thrower, an explosive receiver, and a stingy defender. I want my MVP to win any one-on-one matchup, no matter whom he’s guarding. I want to reward the best ultimate player and the greatest season, which may be a tricky distinction to balance.
Especially when this perfect person may not exist.
Without a singular dominant choice, it becomes a battle of weighing all of these little things. It’s a game of comparisons, isolating one player against another to weigh responsibility, production, and impact.
Tunnell, a 32-year-old ultimate veteran and owner of two World Games gold medals, had a fantastic season for a very likable Atlanta team. He was the consummate quarterback, making superb decisions and putting the disc wherever it needed to be. His athleticism, though diminished from his prime, still accompanied his size and experience to make him a viable downfield threat. His commitment to his teammates could not be questioned. Overall, he put together an awesome individual year, and his likable personality made him an easy guy to root for. I think his wire-to-wire performance absolutely earned him a spot on the All-AUDL First Team.
But there were several things that I kept coming back to when I pondered whether he should be the MVP. First and foremost, his team went 7-7, winning three fewer games than it did the year before. That matters. Obviously, he is not personally responsible for the Hustle’s dip in victories, but as a bona fide MVP candidate, that is important to consider. If not for a relatively easy schedule—comparatively, Austin went 7-3 vs. non-Dallas teams compared to Atlanta’s 7-5 vs. everyone but the Roughnecks—the Hustle would have missed the postseason, adding further cloudiness to Tunnell’s candidacy.
Secondly, if suddenly everyone in the league became available for a spontaneous midseason draft, and each GM was tasked with creating the best team to win the 2016 title, I doubt he gets taken in the top five. This is to say, despite his undeniable production for Atlanta, I would not consider him one of the most overwhelmingly dominant all-around players in the sport at this current time. If this draft happened three to five years ago, he undoubtedly would be in this conversation. But even Tunnell has admitted he is no longer at the peak of his Hall-of-Fame powers. Despite his throwing prowess and splendid track record, there’s a batch of athletes in 2016 that Tunnell can no longer keep up with.
It undersells his 2016 performance to simply call him a savvy anchor. His throws remain special, as the highlight reel quickly reveals. He might have been the best pure quarterback in the AUDL this season, and he absolutely belonged in the MVP conversation. He certainly was a First Team guy. But was he really the single best player in the league?
Now, I know that Nathan, Adam, or someone reading might answer that question by saying, “It’s not about if he was the ‘best’ player; it’s about if he was the most ‘valuable’ player.”
And to that, I say this: I think that they are virtually the same. A great player brings great value. I have never loved the popular argument that dictates many MVP conversations: “If you remove player X from an average team, they would stink, but if you removed player Y from a great team, they would still be great.” In some cases, this ethos might enhance a player’s candidacy, but it should never be a primary tenet. To me, a side-by-side comparison of an individual’s strengths, weaknesses, and contributions is much more relevant. If a guy has excellent teammates, he should not be penalized for that, especially when fitting into a system is an essential part of ultimate. Sometimes, standing out in that situation might embolden and add value to a résumé, rather than detract from it.
If it’s not already obvious, I should just come out and say it: I voted for Jimmy Mickle to be the AUDL MVP in 2016. I don’t think it is egregious that he did not win the honor, but he is the one I would have narrowly chosen for a variety of reasons.
For starters, he was the best player on a historically great team. He led the undefeated Roughnecks in plus/minus, illustrating his tremendous versatility by contributing in virtually every facet of the game. Beyond the statistics, his play always passed the eye test. His throws were powerful and precise, his speed and quickness left him unguardable, and his aerial presence and timing let him menace any receiver who dared take him deep.
Mickle was the only player in the league to receive Player of the Week honors twice during 2016.
As I discussed with Beau during my Championship Weekend AUDL Podcast, Mickle was knocking on the door of being one of the sport’s best players heading into the 2016 season, but still had plenty of room to improve. By the time spring became summer, though, it was clear that the former Callahan winner had taken his game to the next level, mixing his explosive athleticism, pinpoint puts, and goofy yet focused attitude to become one of the premier players in the league.
More than anything, I had a tough time backing Tunnell over Mickle because, right now, in 2016, Jimmy is quite simply a better all-around player. I think that, game-in, game-out, his presence provided more value to his team. He could fill any role the Roughnecks asked, and from April through August, Dallas never faltered.
A confounding variable in this year’s MVP debate involved so many of the world’s best players taking time away from their pro teams to represent their countries in London. And I may be alone in this determination, but I do not think that games missed to compete in the World Championships are necessarily in the same ballpark as games missed for other reasons. In my mind, performing admirably with the national team should not be a disqualifying factor in a similar fashion as an injury or other obligation that caused one to be absent during the 14-game season.
If anything, after watching Mickle serve as one the Team USA's dominant O-line initiation cutters, I think his performance overseas is a boon to his candidacy. It illustrates how, even on the greatest ultimate team ever assembled, Mickle was a centerpiece. Almost always, his AUDL performance mimicked his masterful ways from Worlds.
Entering the 2016 season, Mickle trained differently than ever before. It did not take long for that preparation to pay off. In addition, some misfortune for his teammates helped clear the path for him to shine. In a way, he definitely got a little lucky in this sense, as Kittredge and Cassidy Rasmussen, two of the sport’s top five players in any draft, dealt with injuries throughout the spring and summer. When they were out or not quite 100%, Mickle stepped up significantly. If the dynamic duo of Kittredge and Rasmussen stayed healthy, perhaps Jimmy doesn’t stand out in quite the same way, either for the Roughnecks or for Team USA.
Regardless of which undefeated team he was leading, Mickle's play remained transcendent. He had the implicit trust of his teammates, but he stayed within himself and worked as a cog in the system. He often made both the routine and spectacular plays look similarly easy.
Mickle making it look easy by plucking this Brodie Smith huck out of the air.
When it came down to comparing his value to anyone else in the MVP conversation, I felt that Jimmy still reigned at the top of the pack. Mischa Freystaetter was certainly the most dominating downfield cutter in the league's history, a specimen of size and speed unlike anyone else. But it was impossible to ignore his team’s lack of overall success, and Freystaetter’s versatility as a thrower and defender remain unproven. That’s not to say he’s a slouch in either department, but personally, I would give Mickle the edge.
Mark Burton, like Tunnell, had an absolutely sensational season. Statistically, his performance popped with 60 assists and 40 goals during the regular season. His highlight reel backed it up, too.
Burton's Player of the Week highlights from the final weekend of the regular season.
But can you declare a guy to be the MVP of the league when it’s a stretch to call him one of the best two or three guys on his own team? With both Matt Rehder and Nick Stuart on the same team, it’s hard to argue against one of those two behemoths as the most feared member on the 2016 Seattle roster. Similarly, Peter Graffy’s status as Madison’s top threat is debatable, with reasonable arguments to be made for a host of other Radicals like Andrew Meshnick, Brian Hart, and Pat Shriwise. Burton and Graffy can play for my team any day, but if I could only have one of the aforementioned quintet, Mickle would be the easy choice.
Now, I fully realize that part of this argument is more complementary than direct. Saying that Mickle would be my choice to start a team does not automatically mean that he deserves the MVP nod for 2016. There were, after all, many other players in the team-starting discussion that did not make the MVP conversation cut.
If fully healthy, stalwarts like Tyler DeGirolamo and Mark Lloyd, not to mention Beau and Cassidy, are all among the top 10 players in the world. Ashlin Joye, a staple of San Jose’s success in 2014 and 2015, took the AUDL season off to focus on medical school. Toronto’s Isaiah Masek-Kelly and Raleigh’s Justin Allen were not nearly as individually dominant in 2016 as they were the year before, but are still young standouts to build a franchise around. In the postseason, Seattle’s Stuart flashed signs that he could be a pantheon player, but his minimal contributions in the regular season took him out running for MVP.
Frankly, Mickle’s teammate Kurt Gibson could make a case the top honor, in my opinion.
Gibson throwing a picture-perfect flick huck against Austin in Week 2.
But working against him are the facts that Kurt played in two fewer games than Jimmy, and, again, in my opinion, did not contribute quite as consistently or add the same intangibles that Mickle offered.
Several other players around the league had superb seasons. LA’s Mark Elbogen entered the MVP conversation with constant production for the rising Aviators, but landed just outside the list of five finalists.
Elbogen's Player of the Week highlights from Week 12.
San Francisco’s Greg Cohen energetically opened his season with a layout Callahan, setting the tone for his rising stature as an elite defender and All-League candidate.
Cohen's Player of the Week highlights from Week 12.
Dallas’s Dylan Freechild emotionally emerged as a beacon of competitive fire for the champs, proving that he could soon be considered one of the top seven or eight players in the world. In DC, both Alan Kolick and Nicky Spiva performed like franchise cornerstones, yet neither assumed such a massive responsibility to totally outshine one another or the rest of the Breeze’s stable of talent. New York’s Jeff Babbitt, if he had played more than eight games, might have contended for an MVP award, though hopefully the young, beastly UMass-product’s best days lie ahead.
When it came down to picking a Most Valuable Player for 2016, there were a large handful of great players who, for one reason or another, did not belong in the conversation. Plenty of good candidates remained, though arguably, no perfect one.
When Tunnell was told he was named the AUDL’s MVP, he laughed. He had an awesome season, but presumably the chuckle, aside from being an honest reaction from a humble competitor, was a realization that a lot of dominoes fell the right way for him to earn the votes.
I can guarantee you that Mickle’s "snub" has not cost him any sleep. He was an invaluable part of an epic team that lived up to the billing and played its best on the biggest stage. His steady contributions, both subtle and spectacular, meshed seamlessly with Dallas’s army of athletes, making the Roughnecks an unstoppable force in their first season as a franchise.
Rewarding "the best player from the best team" is not an absolute rule, but it’s always a decent place to start. Mickle may not be a perfect MVP candidate, but he fares well in a side-by-side comparison with every other nominee. By being so close in every statistical and eye-test evaluation, his stewardship of the eventual champs pushed him over the top.
I believe he was the AUDL’s Most Valuable Player in 2016.
Incrementally, Jimmy made great strides as a player from 2015 to 2016. If that pattern continues heading into next spring, he easily becomes the MVP favorite in 2017. And, possibly, for years to come.
Seven On The Line
1. In emptying out a few leftover thoughts from Championship Weekend, I must begin by praising the Friday night undercard. Overall, the innovative AUDL Fantasy Experience had to be considered a resounding success. When I signed on board to be a part of it, I must admit I was a bit skeptical of what the event could be. I have seen ideas like this fizzle in the past in other sports, but as the evening transpired in Madison on August 5, it turned into a pretty special scene. Ultimate fans from all around the country entered a dream world, where they were playing on an AUDL field with other professional players, broadcasted by the ESPN3 crew. This included guys in their 40s who have been playing ultimate forever and a handful of teenagers who hoped this opportunity was a preview of their futures. Considering that the league does not have an official All-Star game yet, this was also the first opportunity to see a bunch of top players from all different teams come together to compete in a fun exhibition. Raleigh’s Justin Allen, Indy’s Cameron Brock and Travis Carpenter, DC’s Brad Scott, San Francisco’s Patrick Bayless, Minnesota’s Ben Jagt, San Diego’s Will Griffin, Montreal’s Jean-Levy Champagne, with Mickle, Freechild, and Seattle’s Mario O’Brien serving as guest coaches. Seeing all the different jerseys on the same field was an awe-inspiring sight. As I watched the Fantasy Experience unfold, I found myself fantasizing about a future where it became a traditional part of the Championship Weekend experience, alongside an All-Star showcase where fans could see the top players from every team in the league all take the field together. This precursor to semifinal Saturday offered a tantalizing vision of what is possible in years to come.
Full game footage of the AUDL Fantasy Experience.
2. In a fairly impromptu maneuver, the Fantasy Experience, intended for recording only, was moved to a Facebook Live stream midway through the broadcast, giving ultimate fans around the world a glimpse of the unique developments that we were seeing in person. And over the course of the weekend, the Facebook platform gave us a home for additional content that, when I look back at it all, I really am quite proud of. Using the comfortable couches from Tim DeByl’s patio and the technological savvy of the Fulcrum Media crew, we created an AUDL Gameday studio at the field level for pregame, halftime, and postgame conversation. Alongside my talented crew of analysts and a cavalcade of special guests, we streamed live on Facebook to set the scene, react, debate, and immerse ourselves in the championship experience. We heard anecdotes that had never before been told, we discussed legacies, we argued about the future of the sport, and we attempted to put everything we had seen into a perspective and context that would enhance the viewer’s knowledge and overall enjoyment of the great weekend of ultimate. I loved listening to the halftime thoughts of guest analysts Charlie Eisenhood, Brad Scott, Ben Jagt, Justin Allen, and Mark Lloyd. And it was surreal to have Donnie Clark, Nick Stuart, Andrew Brown, Beau Kittredge, and Chris Mazur join us immediately after their emotional battles. On Saturday night especially, following the jaw-dropping final minutes of the Seattle-Madison battle, hearing directly from Clark and Stuart was exhilarating. Later, Brown’s understandably heartbroken tone was equally powerful. We appreciate all who tuned in for these informal, yet still substantial segments. I know we are not going to take TNT’s Inside the NBA Emmy just yet, but that is what we are gradually working towards. One day.
3. Since the end of the season, the biggest news to emerge from the AUDL offices has to be the contraction of the Charlotte and Cincinnati franchises. When a franchise shuts down or leaves a city, there is an inherent sadness to it. Players, volunteers, and fans can all feel a little bit like the rug was pulled out from under them. But in the competitive sports marketplace, contraction and expansion are both healthy dynamics for a young league that just concluded its fifth season. The AUDL remains a 24-team entity, with four divisions of six teams each, a nice equal balance across the quartet of regions. It is possible that the league grows again for the opening pull of 2017, though the current makeup is definitely solid in itself. With the departure of the Express and the Revolution, the South and Midwest divisions, respectively, each have become more competitive by losing one of the weaker teams.
4. Considering I live about 95 minutes away from both Raleigh and Charlotte, I have enjoyed having two AUDL teams in my extended backyard over the past couple of seasons. Several times, after seeing the Flyers compete on Saturday, I got to travel to watch the Express on Sunday. The Charlotte began with a promising start, pushing Atlanta to the brink before falling by one in their first game in front of lively inaugural crowd in April of 2015. In 2016, Charlotte greatly improved their venue, providing a scenic view of downtown and an excellent stadium infrastructure. The team did not have the same talent level as Raleigh, but it cherished its opportunity to compete, and the energy it battled with was genuinely fun to watch. With the Express halting operations, I will miss making the drive to watch them on that rare off weekend. But I won’t be surprised if several members of the Express land on other teams around the league. There were plenty of guys who could eventually make an impact on a championship-contending roster.
Will Jakeem Polk or other talented Express players filter onto the Flyers in 2017?
5. As the USA Ultimate club season peaks at the end of the month, it is very interesting to look at the Nationals landscape through the AUDL lens. Some cities, like Seattle and Madison, have great similarity from their pro roster to their club team. But the champs from Dallas are dispersed across a plethora of regions in the club field. Of the 16 men’s teams that qualified for Nationals in Rockford, IL, six of them—Boston, San Francisco, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, and Austin—have members of the Roughnecks on their rosters. Another member of Dallas’ pro squad is playing in the mixed division with the Northeast Regional champ. Unquestionably, adding the pro dynamics into the club narrative has enhanced the competitive storylines heading into the exciting weekend. As teams try to find the exact blend of chemistry and ability, having opponents that know you intimately only adds to the challenge. It remains to be seen how pro ultimate and club ultimate will evolve in the coming years and decades, but right now, they continue to build on each other in a way that is fascinating to follow.
6. As several trusty watchdogs pointed out via Twitter, my preseason column detailing the top 50 MVP candidates for the 2016 season certainly left out some noteworthy names. Most importantly, the only time I mentioned Dylan Tunnell in the preseason prose was in a section about Atlanta’s Robert Runner. When I created my list of a top 50, it really began with a list of about 125 names, on which Tunnell was included. And in retrospect, he obviously should have made the cut of the top 50, if not top 20. As I look back at my rankings, I realize that I shied away from elevating guys who fill primarily handler roles. I strove to evaluate the probability of making an impact, and my hunch was that stunning feats of athleticism would be more memorable than launching gorgeous hucks. In terms of labeling guys as the true quarterback of their team, no one in the top nine fit that description. Alan Kolick, at #10, was my highest-rated quarterback-y type. After that, Pat Earles (#12), Brett Matzuka (#15), Derek Alexander (#19), and Jonathan Nethercutt (#21) were the distributor-oriented players who sat decently high on the list. Looking back, it’s hard for me to think that I should have envisioned Tunnell having better seasons than anyone in this crew. But I have no problem being wrong and seeing these predictions go astray. Witnessing the unexpected remains a captivating feature of sports. Every season is new, and it truly is a meritocracy. Anyone can raise their game and, through their actions, put themselves in the ‘Player of the Year’ conversation.
7. Even with the benefit of some distance from the event, I still am wowed by the spectacle that I saw in Madison five weeks ago. As I wrote then, the crowd, the comeback, and the coronation were all dynamics that will sizzle in the memories of anyone who was watching. Since returning home and letting the weekend simmer in my mind, I have repeatedly revisited so many of the moments, especially from the climactic sequences of the Cascades-Radicals epic. I have told several friends and acquaintances, both ultimate and non-ultimate folk, that if you are looking for one game to watch, the Seattle-Madison semifinal is where you should start. When you are lying awake in the middle of the night and need something to watch, pull it up on YouTube. You will immediately find yourself immersed in an unprecedented atmosphere, accompanied by some of the greatest plays the sport has ever seen. It was breathtaking to be there and see it all unfold 38 days ago, and more than five weeks later, I still think about it almost every day. April will be here soon enough, but in the meantime, re-watching the Will Chen buzzer-beater or the desperation Donnie Clark bid won’t get old.
Playlist of Championship Weekend V.
The Tuesday Toss is published weekly on theAUDL.com during the season. Got a comment or question about the AUDL or the current state of ultimate? E-mail Evan Lepler at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. Feedback can also be levied on twitter: @EvanLepler