Cam Newton may be the only player in NFL history to accumulate at least 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in each of his first four seasons, but many fans were shocked to see the numbers on the contract extension the Panthers signed their star quarterback to last week.
Newton became the latest quarterback to land a contract that could earn him over $100 million, tying him to the Panthers through the 2020 season. The deal fully guarantees $31 million, and $60 million is guaranteed in case of injury, per NFL.com’s Albert Breer.
The nine-digit figures which typically reach the media before the guaranteed money and performance incentives leak out are often just window dressing that the player’s agent can show off as negotiating accomplishments to potential clients. Still, it is fair to question whether or not Newton and the other signal-callers who could earn up to $100 million in the next few years are actually worth that much money to their teams.
To try and provide some context, sports research engine PointAfter examined all 16 of the nine-digit contracts handed out to quarterbacks prior to this off-season and tried to evaluate whether the quarterbacks who received them lived up to their price tags.
Note: All contract values are according to Spotrac.
It’s easy to see why quarterbacks are taking up a larger percentage of their teams’ salary caps than ever before. The NFL has become an increasingly passer-friendly league, and top-tier quarterback play has become an entry-level requirement for playoff success. With that in mind NFL general managers have been less hesitant about committing to quarterbacks who have exhibited such promise.
Note: You can hover over each dot to see the franchise it corresponds to, then click through to view the team’s PointAfter profile page with unique performance visualizations.
Brett Favre became the first recipient of a nine-figure deal in 2001, when he inked a 10-year, $101.5 million contract to stay with the Packers. Roughly $10 million per year might not seem like much now, but the league's salary cap in 2001 was $67.4 million, less than half of what it is now.
However, the most surprising thing about that contract was that Favre actually played for another decade, something not even he was expecting at the time. Even though Favre did not play out the entirety of the deal for the Packers, it’s hard to argue Green Bay didn't get its money’s worth.
Favre made five Pro Bowls prior to his landmark extension and was named to six more in the next decade, including a 2001 campaign immediately following the extension that was one of his best single-season efforts.
The PointAfter graphic below illustrates that the quarterbacks who sign mega-deals above the revered $100 million line usually play well in the season right after an extension—and that’s even with three (Drew Bledsoe, Donovan McNabb, Aaron Rodgers) missing significant time due to injuries.
But not all were able to sustain their success for the duration of their colossal contracts. After all, not every quarterback is Brett Favre.
Fortunately for the teams involved, all these contracts are structured to safeguard the clubs from total catastrophe. All one needs to do is look at the moves made by the Eagles, one of three teams to hand out more than one nine-figure contract to a quarterback.
McNabb didn’t come close to finishing the 12-year, $115 million deal he signed with Philadelphia in 2002. The Eagles traded him in 2010 but handed another massive contract to Michael Vick the following year after Vick took hold of the starting job and led the team to a division title. Even though injuries and inconsistency kept Vick from justifying his six-year, $100 million contract, the Eagles weren't hamstrung by the deal and have finished in the top three of scoring offense three times while qualifying for the postseason twice in the last five years.
The overwhelming majority of these deals have one thing in common: They are rarely seen to completion.
In the event the quarterbacks don’t play up to their contract value, teams broker clauses that let them get out from under the deal's final years. If they continue to produce at an elite level, the contracts are re-negotiated to add years and ease the short-term burden on the team’s salary cap.
The best way to truly reach a verdict on the success of each contract is one simple question: was the team convinced to restructure the contract and extend the quarterback once again when the time came for such matters (or would they, if they had to come to a decision today)? Or did they move on to another option under center, given the chance?
Of the 15 quarterbacks and 16 contracts being analyzed in this piece (Michael Vick received two contracts with initial values reported to be worth more than $100 million), only five can be considered surefire successes in that regard: Favre, Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Eli Manning. It’s hard to envision Manning playing for anyone other than the Giants in two years despite his up and down 2014.
Seven of the big money signees (Bledsoe, McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Carson Palmer, Jay Cutler and Vick, twice) have to be considered relative failures. All except Cutler did not last through their full contracts with their original teams, and Cutler's leash in Chicago does not appear long enough at this rate to last him through 2020, when his contract runs out.
With those results, it seems that at best half of the nine-figure contracts handed out to quarterbacks have panned out for both parties in the long term. Don’t expect that uncertainty to spark a streak of frugality in teams with potential franchise quarterbacks on their hands, though. As the Cardinals learned last season, any team without a potential game-changer in the backfield faces an uphill battle in December and January.
Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, who narrowly missed the $100 million benchmark when they signed their last extensions but are both up for free agency next off-season, appear to be the next test cases for this franchise-altering decision, with young guns Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck also in line for substantial increases on their rookie deals.
Will the Giants and Chargers decide to re-commit to the guys they swapped for in the 2004 draft? Rivers is 33 and Manning is 34, so it’s unlikely they’ll command contracts north of $100 million. But in the climate of an ever-rising salary cap, anything is possible, especially in a league where long-term contracts are ripped up more often than they are seen to completion.
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