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The Curse of a Salary-Cap-Eating Quarterback

Big-money quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers are sitting at home during the playoffs, while the Rams, Chiefs, and Texans have built contenders around young starters still on their rookie deals. The lesson is obvious if NFL teams pay attention.

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In 1966, San Francisco 49ers star quarterback John Brodie received a contract pitch from the Houston Oilers: “We can set things up so that if you want to, all you’ll ever have to do is play golf and drink beer and gamble,” Oilers general manager Don Klosterman told him, according to the book America’s Game. A better offer has not been made to a quarterback in the five decades since, though teams have tried. In the era of the booming salary cap, quarterbacks are being paid a disproportionately high percentage of their team’s available dollars. They account for the 14 largest salary cap hits in 2018—in 2011, there were six QBs in the top 14. Denver quarterback Case Keenum has the same cap hit in 2018 as Houston defensive end J.J. Watt. San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s guaranteed salary this season is higher than the entire salary cap for a team in 1996. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is making $66.9 million this year as part of his new deal, which is $4 million more than a team’s entire salary cap in 2000.

The problem with teams committing so much of their cap space to quarterbacks is that it is clearly an unsuccessful strategy. None of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in 2018 by average salary—Rodgers, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, Garoppolo, and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford—made the playoffs. Only Cousins came close. It’s overly simplistic to say that paying a quarterback a lot of money prohibits a team from being successful. New Orleans’s Drew Brees, Indianapolis’s Andrew Luck, and Seattle’s Russell Wilson each make over $20 million a year. We’re dealing with a small sample size, but what is clear from the 2018 season is that there are too many quarterbacks being paid like superstars. And it’s very bad for team-building if your highly paid quarterback doesn’t play like a superstar.

The problem is simple: The more you give to a quarterback, the less you give to everyone else. This is fine as long as the quarterback plays to the value of his contract, or as long as a handful of cheap rookies come through to fill the gaps, as is the case in New Orleans and Indianapolis. When those things don’t happen, teams usually fail. Quarterbacks have been given huge extensions because teams deemed it risky not to, but it turns out going all in on a cap-eating quarterback is one of the riskiest propositions in the sport.

Rising league revenues have pushed the salary cap from $123 million in 2013 to $177 million this season, giving teams more freedom. “There’s just a lot more flexibility,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach told me. This era of salary growth came after changes to the value of rookie contracts. In 2010, no. 1 overall draft pick Sam Bradford received about $50 million guaranteed. A year later, after the new collective bargaining agreement, no. 1 pick Cam Newton signed for $22 million guaranteed. These changes have created unprecedented bargains. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes II, this season’s presumptive MVP, is earning $3.7 million this year, making him the 400th-highest-paid player in the league. He gets about $800,000 less than Falcons backup Matt Schaub and is under contract until 2021.

A consequence of these salary fluctuations is that NFL teams dump all but the top veterans once their rookie contracts are up. (This has had the added effect of lowering the average age of NFL players.) Just as there are more bargains to be found in the draft, there is also more money to spend, and a salary floor that requires teams to spend it. A lot of this money has gone to quarterbacks, and not always to good ones, which has created a disjointed, stunningly bad market for the position. Washington star cornerback Josh Norman told me this year that quarterback pay should be capped because not enough money goes to defensive players. (The real answer is for owners to pay every NFL player more money, but that’s a different issue.)

It’s easier than ever to play the position in the NFL, and innovative offenses are getting better at maximizing the value of young quarterbacks. Teams like the Rams, Bears, and Chiefs are in enviable situations with young quarterbacks who are under contract for multiple years. Making the wrong decision about paying a quarterback can have disastrous consequences. “Teams act out of fear with quarterbacks,” Zack Moore, a salary cap expert and author of Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, told me. “Once you decide a guy can’t win a Super Bowl, you should figure out how to get off that path with him. You cannot pay a middling starter like an elite guy.”

Contracts for NFL quarterbacks are generally thought to fall into two categories: less lucrative rookie deals and expensive veteran deals. This is not necessarily true. “There’s a third category,” said Jason Fitzgerald, the founder of Over the Cap, who has consulted for NFL teams. This category includes star players who have outperformed their deals as the cap has risen. Fitzgerald explained that players like Wilson and Luck, who signed new deals in 2015 and 2016, respectively, have become relative bargains as their deals age. Wilson and Luck are far better players than Oakland’s Derek Carr and Stafford, yet they make less. Stafford’s cap hit this year is $2 million more than Luck’s, $3 million more than Wilson’s, and $4.5 million more than Philip Rivers’s, who signed his deal with the Chargers in 2015.

“There was stagnation, and the quarterback market wasn’t moving, and then that thing jumped like crazy,” salary cap expert and former agent Joel Corry said. “Everyone became king for a day. Carr was the highest paid for 15 minutes, then Stafford, then Ryan, then Rodgers.”

Fitzgerald thinks the chaos started around 2013, when Rodgers signed a five-year, $110 million contract. Rodgers is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and could have demanded much more, but his deal came at a time when essentially all veteran quarterbacks were paid within the same range. For instance, Rodgers had the same cap hit in 2017 ($20 million) as Miami’s Ryan Tannehill.

“Ryan Tannehill is the perfect example of it. He was paid as a top quarterback only because he was a starter,” Fitzgerald said of that wave of extensions. “There was nothing in his body of work that showed he should be a $19 million quarterback. Those teams put themselves at a disadvantage and you won’t find too many of them in the playoffs.”

Joe Flacco’s contract extension in 2013, which paid him $52 million in guarantees despite his mediocrity, didn’t help matters. According to Corry, the deal that came to epitomize the NFL’s stupidity in awarding quarterback contracts was Jay Cutler’s seven-year, $127 million deal, with $54 million in guarantees, in 2014. “Jay Cutler was the quintessential ‘fear of the unknown’ quarterback,” Corry said. “I think as the cap continues to go up, the new Jay Cutlers of the world will benefit.”

The reason we know that fear of the unknown is still motivating decision-making in NFL front offices is clear: No team in recent memory has willingly given up on a healthy starting quarterback without spending a high draft pick on the position or bringing in a high-priced replacement. When Cousins left the Redskins last year to sign a three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed deal with the Vikings, Washington didn’t replace him with a low-cost option. It traded a third-round pick to the Chiefs for Alex Smith and signed him to an extension worth nearly as much as Cousins’s contract.

Teams can surely win with a high-priced quarterback. The Saints are not going to ask for their money back on Brees, nor will the Colts or Seahawks on their respective passers. What is important is how teams operate without the salary cap flexibility provided by a starting quarterback on a rookie deal. Moore, who studies how Super Bowl teams are built, said rookie contracts provide so much value that it’s changing the nature of how to build a team. It is not news to say that you need to hit on draft picks, but it’s arguably more important than ever. Get it right, and you can stack many more expensive players.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft told Sports Illustrated in 2013 that if Tom Brady made “elite” quarterback money, the team wouldn’t have been able to build a contender. His comments came before the great quarterback pay boom. Brady has taken less than his market value at basically every turn. A team can pay a quarterback a lot of money and win at a high level, but it becomes harder to build the rest of the roster.

The only team to win the Super Bowl while having its two highest-paid players make more than 21.6 percent of the salary cap is the 49ers in 1994 with Steve Young and Jerry Rice. Teams that spread the money around usually benefit. The two highest-paid players on the Eagles’ Super Bowl–winning team last year combined for 11.6 percent of the cap. The New York Giants paid Eli Manning and Olivier Vernon 22 percent of the cap this season. Moore points out that the 2017 Falcons came close to winning the Super Bowl with Ryan and Julio Jones accounting for nearly 25 percent of the cap, but Atlanta had a heavy concentration of talented rookie defenders on cheap contracts. The Saints pay Brees and Cameron Jordan slightly over 21.6 percent, meaning they could follow the example set by the 1994 49ers. That, of course, is made possible by the fact that Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Marshon Lattimore, among many others, are playing at superstar levels on rookie deals.

No team has a higher percentage of its cap tied up in rookie contracts than the Baltimore Ravens. The Colts are third. The Chargers are fourth. The Saints are seventh. It is undoubtedly a smart team-building strategy. However, before you assume it’s the only team-building strategy, note that the Patriots, one of the smartest teams in football, are … 32nd.

The lesson is obvious: don’t overpay. There are new, different ways to win in the NFL. The lesson of Mitchell Trubisky’s success in Chicago is that his contract allows the Bears to pay Khalil Mack. Jared Goff’s deal allows Aaron Donald and many other Rams players to get paid. It doesn’t mean that when the time comes, those teams should spend exorbitant amounts of money on Trubisky and Goff. Maybe teams will get smarter. There might be a test soon: Tannehill and Flacco could be hitting the market.

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