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The New Path to a Super Bowl

The last two Lombardi Trophies have been won by teams with veteran quarterbacks in their first seasons with a new franchise. What effect will the 2020 Buccaneers and 2021 Rams have on team-building around the NFL?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a quarterback league. It’s a quarterback league because it is a passing league, and it has been for a while. In the 2000s and into the early 2010s, changes in penalty rules and enforcements protected receivers and quarterbacks alike; with the 2011 CBA, the rookie wage scale was introduced, which predetermined a rookie’s contract size by the draft pick used to select them. That rookie wage scale was most impactful for quarterbacks. In 2010, before the change, first pick Sam Bradford signed a six-year, $78 million deal to become the quarterback of the St. Louis Rams; one year later, first pick Cam Newton signed a four-year, $22 million contract to become the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.

With this change, a good quarterback on a rookie contract suddenly became the single greatest advantage in the NFL. As teams quickly discovered, the “rookie contract” part was important—but the “good” part was a lot more important. Teams poured prime draft resources into the quarterback position after that 2011 CBA, but were unable to consistently hit on those rookie passers. In the same class as Newton was big, mobile, rocket-armed Jake Locker: He busted. Blaine Gabbert, Johnny Manziel, EJ Manuel, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota: lots of talent, little team success.

There were hits in the first few years of the new CBA: Newton, Andrew Luck, Blake Bortles (not a great quarterback, but a good quarterback for the price!), and Robert Griffin III (pre-injury, he was the truth). But those hits aren’t the important one. Kirk Cousins is.

After RGIII went down with injury, Cousins took over the starting job for Washington, and under then-offensive coordinator Sean McVay, fielded a competitive offense as a fourth-round pick. McVay moved to Los Angeles to create the same environment for 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff. They made a Super Bowl run and spent money in the window created by Goff’s rookie deal. Cousins and Goff weren’t so much developed as they were plugged into a system that didn’t ask them to be elite pocket passers like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or dominant dual threats like Newton. The system was so quarterback-friendly that they didn’t need time to develop, and that opened the competitive window for longer.

Other teams found similar avenues to early rookie production. Run-pass option plays burst onto the scene, leading to MVP-caliber play from second-year quarterback Carson Wentz in Philadelphia; for Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, it eased what could have been a rockier transition from Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense; for Kyler Murray in Arizona, it was literally the Texas Tech offense run by ex–Red Raider head coach Kliff Kingsbury. The Kyler-Kliff marriage in Arizona is a perfect example of a full throttle commitment to getting as much juice as possible out of a quarterback’s rookie deal. Build the entire plane around his skill set and spend the leftover money at whatever positions need help. Need proof? Just look at the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals, who ran the LSU playbook for QB Joe Burrow on one side of the ball and deployed a defense of free-agent signings on the other.

This team-building strategy isn’t going away anytime soon. But when every other team zigs, there’s value in zagging. We’re seeing the zag in the quarterback market unfold before us: It’s now the veteran quarterback market. The Buccaneers grabbed Brady in free agency and immediately won a Super Bowl; the Rams disposed of their rookie contract cheat code in Goff, who had since received a huge extension, and acquired Matthew Stafford from the Lions. Super Bowl for them, too.

It’s easy to track the falling dominos. Teams with rookie quarterbacks get cap space. They use that cap space to sign good, proven, veteran players. When they hit on those signings, they make playoff runs—but, unless their rookie contract quarterback is Russell Wilson, they struggle to survive once that rookie contract runs out. Once they get to the end of those rookie quarterback contracts, they’re faced with a daunting reality: The rest of their team is good. Really good. Maybe even be Super Bowl good. They just need to improve at one position: quarterback.

So the Bucs moved from Winston to Brady. Homegrown talent was a big part of their success, of course—their Lombardi run wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t hit on Tristan Wirfs and Antoine Winfield Jr. in the same draft. But the offensive line was shored up with deals for Donovan Smith and Ryan Jensen; the defensive front was reimagined with deals for Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, and Shaquill Barrett. The Rams did less in free agency and more in trades (acquiring Von Miller and Jalen Ramsey) while also doling out huge extensions to key players Ramsey, Aaron Donald, and Leonard Floyd.

Super Bowl wins will always take everything falling right: a good quarterback, good free-agent signings, good draft picks, and a whole lot of luck. But the late addition of the mercenary quarterback flips the team building order on its head. Instead of being bad enough to get a rookie quarterback, building the whole team for him, and trying to win in his rookie window, teams instead can draft a rookie quarterback, build a really good team around him with the extra money he affords them, and then plug a different quarterback into that environment if the rookie seems insufficient.

We can see teams lining up those dominos as we speak. The Broncos are the clearest example. Denver has tons of early drafted weapons on offense, an offensive line riddled with solid veterans, and a young defense that’s a star or two away from being elite. They also have had cheap players at quarterback in the past couple years, and with the hiring of former Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett, are positioned for a strong run at Aaron Rodgers. Why wouldn’t Denver commit themselves to this build? They were one of the first beneficiaries of a veteran quarterback changing teams in the early 2010s, when Peyton Manning’s neck injury put him on the market and gave Denver an immediate upgrade to a stacked roster that could drag Tim Tebow to the playoffs, but no further.

Washington is on the same precipice. If the Dolphins fix their offensive line, they’re there. The Panthers were there, and then got greedy thinking they could rehabilitate Sam Darnold. The Steelers didn’t have the advantage of a rookie contract quarterback, as they endured the final legs of Ben Roethlisberger’s career—but great cap management and drafting from GM Kevin Colbert has built a playoff roster with the 11th-most 2022 cap space in the league. The Eagles and the Lions are on their way, and both teams represent a critical link in this chain of quarterback movement: the dead cap hits. Of the five biggest single dead cap hits in NFL history, three came last season, and all three were quarterbacks involved in trades.

The Eagles sent Wentz, who was valuable on his rookie deal and a net negative on his second contract, to the Colts for first- and third-round picks—but in order to do so, they swallowed a whopping $33.8 million in dead money on the 2021 cap. The Rams took on a healthy $22.2 million to move Goff to the Lions for Stafford, who left behind $19 million in dead money of his own for the Lions to endure.

The Colts and the Lions both thought they could compete right now with a quality veteran quarterback, and both were right. One got the right quarterback; one didn’t. But in order to get those players, the teams with veterans needed to be willing to swallow significant dead cap hits. Previously, those contracts were viewed as untradable because of the size of the dead cap hits. Now, as teams become willing to move first-round picks for the mercenary quarterback that may push them over the edge, those dead cap hits become easier to swallow. The Lions were pretty bad this year, but the Eagles made the playoffs despite the $34 million they were paying Wentz to play for a different team.

Wanna know why? Rookie-contract quarterback Jalen Hurts was pretty good. Good enough to warrant a second contract? That doesn’t matter yet. All that matters is that he’s good enough to get Philadelphia to the postseason, and the Eagles can spend money elsewhere and build the roster necessary to eventually field a competitive team, with or without Hurts.

At least, that’s the plan. But the Eagles might get impatient. A lot of teams might get impatient. After the recent postseason success of mercenary quarterbacks and the ballooning of the 2022 cap space following the COVID adjustment to the 2021 cap, plus a terrible 2022 draft class of quarterbacks … the veteran quarterback market is suddenly looking good.

And I mean real good. Rodgers—the league MVP—could force a trade out of Green Bay, where he has been pretty successful but unhappy. Wilson, a Super Bowl champion with near-elite levels of play leading into last season, is in the same boat with Seattle. Derek Carr wants $35 million annually; that’s as much money as the Vikings can save if they trade Kirk Cousins. Jimmy Garoppolo will almost certainly be traded out of San Francisco a year after making the NFC championship game. Deshaun Watson has wanted out of Houston for more than a year, but the 22 civil lawsuits filed against him for sexual misconduct and assault make trade conversations around him a moot point.

Watson aside, those are five veterans with playoff experience. Wilson and Rodgers are clearly Super Bowl–caliber—but before Carr, Cousins, and Garoppolo are dismissed as below the bar of the acceptable mercenary quarterback, we should note that Stafford hadn’t won a playoff game until this season. He’s more talented than Carr, Cousins, and Garoppolo, sure, but postseason success is team-dependent, and if teams believe their entire roster is ready for that run, they may take the risk on any of those B-tier veterans.

The long and the short of it: It’s a quarterback league. Teams make the leap when they drastically improve their quarterback position. Sometimes that’s a leap from total ineptitude to sudden competitiveness (the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals or the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles). Sometimes it’s a leap that takes them over the hump (the 2021 Los Angeles Rams or 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Regardless, teams have to have the right quarterback.

The right quarterback is now just as easy to slot in as the final piece as it is to find the right quarterback as the first piece. The moment Rodgers leaves Green Bay or Wilson forces his way out of Seattle, a walking, talking Super Bowl ticket hits the open market—so long as the highest bidder has the necessary infrastructure to plug that final piece in place. Rookie quarterbacks zigged, and now veteran quarterbacks are zagging back.