The same season that the Seahawks wrecked the Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII, quarterback Russell Wilson was paid less money than Seattle’s long snapper. Wilson had the 948th-largest cap hit in the NFL and was the 994th-highest-paid player in the league that year. The winning quarterback in a Super Bowl for which a 30-second commercial slot sold for an average of $4 million made $526,217 across the entire season.
Wilson isn’t quite as underpaid now. He is the 14th-highest-paid player in the league after Seattle extended him in 2015, but he is entering the final year of his contract, and, according to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times, Wilson wants a new deal in place before Seattle’s offseason workout program begins April 15. The NFL quarterback market is a spiral staircase, so Wilson’s new deal will likely make him one of the three highest-paid players in league history, and he might even surpass Aaron Rodgers for the biggest deal ever. It’s ironic, considering Seattle laid the blueprint for roster construction this decade by building around Wilson’s cheap rookie contract with so much success that teams like the Eagles, Rams, Bears, and Chiefs all followed suit.
Seattle has been here before. The last time Wilson was entering the final year of his contract was in 2015, after he had just taken Seattle to back-to-back Super Bowls while earning roughly $1.2 million combined in the two seasons. Wilson signed a contract extension with Seattle that year for four years and $87.6 million, and the $21.9 million annual average value made Wilson the second-highest-paid player in the league by yearly salary, just shy of Rodgers’s $22 million per year. The franchise deciding to invest in Wilson rather than in its elite defense led to deep fractures in the locker room. Eventually Richard Sherman was released, Earl Thomas left in free agency, defensive end Cliff Avril and safety Kam Chancellor retired, and defensive end Michael Bennett was traded to save money. But Seattle’s amazing drafting from earlier in the decade didn’t carry over after Scot McCloughan left the front office in 2013, the team failed to replace the players it lost, and the defense disintegrated like Thanos snapped.
The teams that have made the Super Bowl this decade have rarely done so while committing big money to their quarterback. The salary cap has gone from $120 million to almost $190 million since 2011, which has raised salaries significantly, so comparing salaries across seasons is like comparing apples to, well, apples that are 58.3 percent bigger. But comparing the percentage of the salary cap that teams dedicate to their quarterback allows us to examine how much teams have truly invested in their quarterbacks. Looking at the teams that have made the Super Bowl this decade, it’s obvious that the Seahawks had a massive advantage when Wilson was playing so well for so little money.
Quarterback Pay for Super Bowl Teams
|Year||Winning Quarterback||% of Salary Cap||Losing Quarterback||% of Salary Cap|
|Year||Winning Quarterback||% of Salary Cap||Losing Quarterback||% of Salary Cap|
|2011-12||Eli Manning||11.6||Tom Brady||10.2|
|2012-13||Joe Flacco||8.6||Alex Smith + Colin Kaepernick||8.6|
|2013-14||Russell Wilson||0.49||Peyton Manning||12.4|
|2014-15||Tom Brady||10.6||Russell Wilson||0.6|
|2015-16||Peyton Manning||11.7||Cam Newton||8.7|
|2016-17||Tom Brady||8.6||Matt Ryan||15|
|2017-18||Carson Wentz + Nick Foles||4.4||Tom Brady||8.4|
|2018-19||Tom Brady||12.2||Jared Goff||4.2|
Wilson’s rookie deal was such a bargain that it laid the blueprint for team-building in the 2010s. The 2011 collective bargaining agreement standardized and suppressed wages for young players. The next year, Seattle stumbled into Wilson in the third round and showed that the easiest way to build a contender was to have players on those cheap contracts vastly outperform their salary and then spend the savings on filling out the rest of the roster. The Seahawks had key contributors on defense like Thomas, Sherman, Chancellor, and linebacker Bobby Wagner also outperform their deals, but Wilson proved there was no player more valuable on a cheap contract than a quarterback.
Coincidentally or not, the chart shows that no team this decade has won with an elite quarterback making tippity-top money. Tom Brady famously earns far less than he could in a given season to give the Patriots cap flexibility, which is a sacrifice you can afford to make when your wife is consistently among the highest-paid models on earth. Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl with Denver when he was the eighth-highest-paid quarterback. The rest—Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Wilson—signed big contracts after they had won the Super Bowl. Nick Foles just signed a big deal in Jacksonville two years after winning a championship, and the man he replaced in 2017, Carson Wentz, is due for a big contract extension in the next year or so. We have yet to see a team win the Super Bowl with a quarterback getting paid top money since the latest CBA was signed.
When Wilson made two Super Bowls with Seattle, he took up roughly one-two hundredth of their salary cap. When his new deal kicks in, he’ll likely be taking up about one-sixth of it. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan signed an extension last year for $30 million annually that made him the highest-paid player in football, and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers quickly topped it with a deal that put him at $33.5 million per year. Wilson’s deal is likely to top both or fall between the two, so they can be good guides for what Wilson’s deal will look like. Rodgers will earn roughly 16.5 percent of the Packers salary cap in 2020, and Ryan will earn about 17 percent of the Falcons cap. (Ryan’s cap hit is higher in 2020 because the Falcons spread Ryan’s cap hits out differently than Green Bay did with Rodgers.) Both of those figures would be the highest of any team in the Super Bowl this decade, and the only comparable figure is ... Ryan, whose 15 percent of the cap in 2016 is tops for a quarterback in the Super Bowl this decade.
This isn’t to suggest the Seahawks should not pay Wilson. By traditional stats, Wilson is nearly peerless. Here are the NFL quarterbacks with a minimum of 1,000 career pass attempts that have 7.8 yards per attempt and a passer rating over 100 through their age-30 season:
- Kurt Warner
- Aaron Rodgers
- Russell Wilson
Advanced stats also suggest Wilson is among the league’s best quarterbacks. Wilson had the highest percentage of “big-time throws” last season according to tape-grading website PFF, which defines the throws as “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window.” He also had the fourth-best grade from clean pockets and the sixth-best grade while under pressure, also according to PFF. He also leads the league in the advanced stat HSTITBNPMTISAY, which I just made up and stands for “Holy shit, that is the best non–Patrick Mahomes throw I saw all year.” It came on this pass to Tyler Lockett.
RUSSELL WILSON WHAT IS THIS pic.twitter.com/bdsvCcEfwH— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) December 24, 2018
On top of the numbers and highlights, Wilson has not missed a single start in his seven NFL seasons. In that time, the Seahawks have won double-digit games six times, made the playoffs in each of those seasons, and haven’t had a losing record. Wins are a team stat, but the Seahawks have disproportionately relied on Wilson in recent years as their defense has decayed. For the past two years, Wilson has been playing his best football yet—making himself a borderline MVP candidate. In 2017, Wilson led the league in touchdown passes (34) and was Seattle’s leading rusher, gaining 586 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, more than twice as many yards as Seattle’s closest running back. Wilson was tied for third in passing touchdowns in 2018, but the Seahawks made a stark change under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and leaned heavily on a woeful running attack, which doomed them in a wild-card-round loss to the Cowboys in which Wilson threw two passes in the first quarter and consistently waited until third down to pass the ball.
A lack of coherent central planning has been the bane of Seattle’s offense since Wilson signed the extension in 2015. The team’s offensive line, running backs, and receivers have been hampered by questionable depth and health for years. Seattle’s playbook seemingly had two plays: “Run for no gain” (called on first and second down) and “Do something, Russ” (called on third down). Wilson is one of the most spectacular players in the league, so more often than not, he can scramble in the backfield and pull some stuff out of his behind. When he can’t, the Seahawks lose. The team hasn’t been as successful as it was in the Super Bowl seasons since he signed his second contract, but it’s tough to fathom how bad the team would be without him. Not keeping Russ is not an option for Seattle.
But if the Seahawks are going to make Wilson a $30 million–a-year player, they need to surround him with better talent and, much more importantly, need to start calling plays like it’s the 21st century. The 2018 NFL season featured the fewest rush attempts per game per team on record, while also recording the most points and yards per team per game. Passing is clearly more efficient than running, but the Seahawks were the only team in the NFL that ran more than it threw last year. Seattle led the league in run-to-pass ratio overall and led the league on run-to-pass ratio on first down. The NFL has turned the rule-book faucets to open the passing-game floodgates, and Seattle is trying to swim upstream.
If the Seahawks insist on running the ball, perhaps they should hesitate to pay Wilson. But unless the team is willing to roll with backup quarterback Paxton Lynch, it should probably hang on to the best quarterback in franchise history. And if the Seahawks are going to pay Wilson the most money in NFL history, maybe they should join the other 31 teams in passing more often than they run. The Seahawks defense may have held Denver to eight points in Super Bowl XLVIII when Wilson was making $526,217, but if Seattle wants to get to a Super Bowl again, it’ll have to go through the air.