In October 2016, shortly before his firing, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said the team’s defense was a “work in progress.” Because, well: “When you pay Andrew [Luck] what we did, it’s going to take some time to build on the other side of the ball,” Grigson said. This, of course, was ridiculous. Grigson had signed Luck to a $140 million extension in the offseason, but that contract was not at fault for the Colts’ defensive performance that season. It was Grigson, not Luck’s contract, who drafted NFL washouts like Björn Werner, D’Joun Smith, and T.J. Green. Set aside Grigson’s failings and get back to his excuse, which typifies a strange sort of thinking that has become popular in the NFL this decade: the idea that paying a quarterback a huge salary is automatically bad and an obstacle to winning.
This idea became popular after Russell Wilson helped the Seattle Seahawks win Super Bowl XLVIII while making $681,000, or 0.49 percent of the team’s salary cap. The long snapper made nearly $100,000 more than Wilson. The Seahawks’ success inspired teams like the Eagles, Chiefs, and Rams to build around a discount quarterback and use the cap money that typically goes to passers to supplement the rest of their roster. This phenomenon—a product of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, which limited rookie salaries—has been hugely beneficial for teams with players on cost-controlled contracts. In the meantime, Wilson’s price went up, and this week he signed his second extension with the Seahawks, the biggest in NFL history, a four-year, $140 million deal. Here comes the surprising part: Even in the so-called discount quarterback era, Wilson’s contract is worth every penny.
It’s pretty simple: The best thing to have in sports is a great quarterback making very little money, and the second-best thing is a great quarterback making a lot of money. There’s a significant drop-off from these two options and the next two scenarios: the third is a mediocre quarterback making little money, and the absolute worst thing is a mediocre quarterback making a ton of money. Wilson has been the first two things in his career. Most quarterbacks exist in the third and fourth categories.
The quarterback bubble is very real. Paying one what he’s worth is perhaps the biggest team-building question a franchise faces, but Wilson’s contract is a rare example of a quarterback megadeal that should be exempt from criticism. The problem is not paying quarterbacks; the problem is paying bad quarterbacks. Teams must understand there is a difference between paying a quarterback a lot of money and overpaying a quarterback. Each of the top five highest-paid players at the position by salary in 2018 missed the playoffs last year. That doesn’t mean a highly paid quarterback can’t win, but the people around him have to be smart. As former Packers salary cap guru Andrew Brandt tweeted Tuesday, the notion that a big quarterback deal prevents a team from competing is “an excuse and a cop-out.” (Speaking of which: The Colts made the playoffs last year with a $24 million cap hit from Luck and entered the offseason with historically high amounts of salary cap space.)
Luck was not overpaid when he signed his extension, because he’s capable of producing more value on his own than any players the Colts might acquire with the salary cap space committed to him. The Saints are probably satisfied with Drew Brees’s deal since they were a bad call away from the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan had the Falcons up 25 points in the Super Bowl two years ago. Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford are overpaid; Philip Rivers is not. Whatever amount Patrick Mahomes II eventually signs for will be better value for the Chiefs than not having the league’s MVP on their roster.
Before Wilson’s extension, Stafford and Kirk Cousins were scheduled to have the highest cap hits in the NFL in 2019. Eli Manning, Carr, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, and Alex Smith will each account for more than $20 million in cap hits. That’s your quarterback bubble. Wilson creates value by masking the Seahawks’ problems—he looked good when Seattle’s offensive line was terrible (that was mostly in previous years) and when the coaching staff employed an archaic, ground-and-pound offense (that’s happening now). RotoGrinders analyst Kevin Cole pointed out that the Seahawks have essentially been three different teams in Wilson’s tenure: conservative (2012-14), aggressive (2015-17) and run-heavy (2018). And Wilson has thrived in each scenario:
Seahawks offense has had three phases under Wilson: conservative 2012-2014, Russ unleashed 2015-2017, and 2018 going extreme run-first. Only consistent thing has been the efficiency Wilson provides pic.twitter.com/dtvjmYszLs— Kevin Cole (@colekev) April 15, 2019
Wilson has the most passing touchdowns since 2017, and although it’s not exactly a quarterback statistic, he has won 75 games in his first seven years, the most in NFL history. When he joined the Seahawks, they were stacked with talent. That’s not true of today’s roster: He basically is the talent.
The money in Wilson’s extension is notable because it marks the second year in a row that a quarterback’s contract extension was rumored to have the potential to change the paradigm of football contracts. Last year, Aaron Rodgers talked about pursuing “non-traditional” contract structures similar to other sports—maybe tying his salary to a percentage of the salary cap, which is rising at least $10 million a year, or negotiating opt-outs—but that the Packers weren’t ready to offer such incentives. Wilson was reportedly also looking for a percentage of the cap, too. Rodgers and Wilson became historically rich, but they were not contract pioneers. Still, Wilson’s four-year deal at age 30 is savvy. He’ll reach the open market again in his mid-30s and presumably get at least one more lucrative payday. Since Rodgers’s and Wilson’s deals are not strictly tied to the cap, they will eventually become manageable for their teams and, depending on the circumstances, be seen as bargains relative to their production. The franchise tag kills a large chunk of these stars’ leverage—even if the Seahawks missed Wilson’s deadline for a contract extension, he might not hit the open market for two or three years, depending on how often they used the tag on him. It would be an expensive strategy—Wilson would have made more than $30 million in his second year of playing with the tag—but it has the effect of keeping players from reaching the open market and receiving potentially earth-shaking contracts. The result is that nearly all deals for star players become relatively team-friendly.
A few days after his Super Bowl win in 2013, Wilson told me he wanted to own an NFL franchise when his career was over, and he wanted to make as much money as possible to put himself in a position to do so. You don’t do that by taking discounts on your contracts during your peak playing years. Wilson is probably going to keep making a lot of money—and being worth it. The ideal model for franchises entering contract negotiations with veterans has always been Tom Brady, the superstar who takes less and whose pay cuts benefit the Patriots greatly, which is something I’ve written about often. But Brady’s situation is unique in NFL history, and the vast majority of great quarterbacks will seek the richest contracts possible.
The Seahawks will pay Wilson $35 million a year under his new deal, which is $2 million less than the combined average salaries of the 16 skill-position players currently on the Seahawks’ roster. It’s a useful comparison because it shows where the cuts will have to come from as the team assembles its roster. Wilson can salvage a bad offensive line and is one of the most efficient passers in football. The Seahawks need to keep building through the draft and hitting on picks. It’s what the Saints have done since they started winning with Brees’s massive salary: They drafted Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and a handful of other rookies. The Seahawks won a Super Bowl when Wilson was cheap, but they also had Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Cliff Avril, KJ Wright, and Michael Bennett in their primes. A cheap quarterback helps, but so does drafting multiple future Hall of Famers.
There’s a theory that perhaps teams should always trade their quarterback once it comes time to pay him and replace him with a cheaper one. It’s a fine strategy for a team like the Bears, who could probably easily replace Mitchell Trubisky and pass the savings on to other skill-position players. But it wasn’t wise for the Seahawks. The rising cap means these so-called megadeals are barely that: Over The Cap has a clever metric that calculates the value of a contract adjusted the inflation of the salary cap. By that metric, Brett Favre’s deal in 1997, and Carson Palmer’s in 2005 were larger contracts than $35 million per season.
The Seahawks are paying Russell Wilson a lot of money, but they aren’t overpaying him. Those are two very different things, and they are the difference between winning and losing.