The Economic Realities of Paying a Star Quarterback—and How It Relates to the NFL Playoffs

Three of the four AFC teams in the divisional round are led by quarterbacks still on their rookie deals. All four of the NFC teams have highly paid QBs on at least their second contract. What can we learn from these teams’ situations?
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There’s nothing more important to an NFL team than landing its franchise quarterback. And when a team finds its guy, the signing of his big second contract can seem like a knighting, an affirmation that the player has checked all boxes and the team wants to build around this player.

What’s rarely discussed on those days? The hurdles that are ahead beyond that signing.

Here’s a fact you may not be aware of: A quarterback on a deal worth $20 million per year or more has never won the Super Bowl. Drew Brees became the first player earn a contract of that value eight years ago. This year, 21 players were on such deals, 16 of them quarterbacks. Six of them are making $30 million per or more.

And proof that those contracts can fit into a winning formula for all but the super elite quarterbacks—the human erasers capable of covering up weaknesses—is scarce.

“I’m aware of that reality,” ex-Eagles and Browns exec Joe Banner said when I presented him with the $20 million oddity Wednesday. “I’ve described it as a picture in time, we’re in a moment where that’s the case but it won’t be forever. The reality is simple—[a big quarterback contract] absolutely makes it harder to put together the rest of your roster. But it’s also crazy to think there’s a direct cause and effect here. You want the quarterback.”

The facts, of course, are skewed by Tom Brady; the Patriots’ quarterback has played most of his career on a team-friendly discount, and has won three of the last five Super Bowls. But the Eagles won a Super Bowl while Carson Wentz was on his rookie deal (with affordable backup Nick Foles starting); the Broncos won one the year Peyton Manning took a pay-cut; and the Ravens and Seahawks won it all with quarterbacks on rookie deals just before that.

In fact, the last quarterback to hoist the Lombardi Trophy while playing on a big second contract was Eli Manning, four years into that deal. That happened in the first year of the current collective bargaining agreement, eight years ago.

“Having a veteran quarterback makes you that much more discerning,” ex-Jets and Dolphins exec Mike Tannenbaum said. “The easiest example to look at is Seattle, they did a great job building that defense through the draft with Kam [Chancellor], [Richard] Sherman, and could spend on guys like [Michael] Bennett as a result of that and having Russell [Wilson]. And you look at San Francisco now, and they paid [Jimmy] Garoppolo, but in that dominant front seven, Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander are the only two not on rookie deals.”

So what can we glean from this? And how does each team in this week’s divisional playoff round fit into this discussion?

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It’s the best weekend in football, and it’s capped off with the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night. We’ve got you covered on all of it here with …

• The divisional weekend watch list.

• The next great Clemson receiver prospect, and the next great LSU corner prospect.

• Power rankings!

But we’re starting with the realities—economic and other—of paying a quarterback.

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Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers

Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers shake hands after a 2018 regular-season game.

Back when Banner was running the Eagles, he says that as a group, they “used to talk about what positions we needed difference-makers at, and where we just needed solid players.”

Obviously, they wanted a star at quarterback. Also on that list were high-end offensive and defensive linemen, in addition to cornerbacks. After that, Banner said, the Eagles felt like there were places where they could cut corners—it might be with a safety or a guard or a third linebacker—to allow for the financials of players like Donovan McNabb. Rarely did they have a high-priced receiver. They almost always had affordable tailbacks.

Likewise, Tannenbaum said, those decisions “would all go back to the head coach’s interview, and knowing what they had to have, and what could be developed over time. You can’t pay them all, and each coach would answer that one a little differently.”

Along those lines, ex-Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome joked to Tannenbaum after he hired Rex Ryan away from Baltimore in 2009 that he was going to put his old defensive coordinator on I-95 with an “I need corners” sign around his neck. Newsome’s joke had truth woven through it—Tannenbaum found benefits in the clarity of Ryan’s desires. Accordingly, he’d wind up paying Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, and drafting Kyle Wilson in the first round. The flip side? The Jets went with a little less at safety.

These are the decisions every team that pays its quarterback has to make.

Half the teams (the four in the NFC) playing this weekend are already managing that reality. The other half (the four in the AFC), as the numbers below demonstrate, aren’t.

Russell Wilson, Seattle, $35 million APY
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay, $33.5 million APY
Kirk Cousins, Minnesota, $28 million APY
Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco, $27.5 million APY
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City, $4.1 million APY
Deshaun Watson, Houston $3.5 million APY
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore, $2.4 million APY
Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee, $2.0 million APY*

(*Miami gave Tannehill a $5 million signing bonus before trading him, so he’ll make $7 million this year, but the Titans are paying just $2 million, in addition to what benched former second-overall pick Marcus Mariota is making.)

The way those teams are constructed reflects the divide.

The Packers, while they were aggressive in free agency, only have two skill players making more than $3 million per year. The Seahawks only have one making more than $4 million per year. The Niners have made it work with that relatively cheap, productive front seven, and moderately priced skill players (only one-year rental Emmanuel Sanders is a on a deal worth eight figures per). All ask the quarterback to make up the difference, to some degree.

The Vikings are the one team paying a quarterback and guys all over the field. They have mastered handling the cap, with a bit of a crunch coming next year—they have 39 players signed and cap commitments exceeding $205 million for 2020.

Conversely, the AFC teams have spent freely. The Texans defense is loaded with pricey veterans and the team was aggressive in acquiring pieces for its offense (Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, Duke Johnson) this summer. The Titans have been active in free agency (Rodger Saffold, Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Adam Humphries, Cam Wake) while rewarding their own (Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold).

Meanwhile, the Ravens, out from under the Joe Flacco contract, broke character this offseason in signing Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram off other contenders’ rosters. And the Chiefs added two defenders (Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu) on top-of-the-market deals, months before rewarding Tyreek Hill with a new contract.

For three of those four teams, the reality is likely to change in a year or two, with Watson and Mahomes eligible for new deals this offseason, and Jackson eligible for one next offseason. And those teams will probably pay those guys, because each has shown an ability to carry a group past its flaws.

But should other teams think twice before opening the checkbook? It’s an interesting question.

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Back when the Seahawks were going to Super Bowls, I remember someone posing this fascinating question—Will someone eventually decide to churn quarterbacks?

The point was made because at the time, it was so clear that San Francisco and Seattle were reaping enormous benefits having their quarterbacks on rookie deals. The Niners were able to pay a robust core of young players like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Joe Staley. The Seahawks were able to supplement a growing defense with veterans Cliff Avril and Bennett and take a big swing on Percy Harvin.

Ultimately, both Wilson and Colin Kaepernick got paid, and one of the two worked out—Wilson proved himself capable of carrying a team that could no longer put quite the same team around him that it once could. A half-decade later, Wilson is making $35 million, and the Seahawks can withstand losing their left tackle and top two running backs right before the playoffs, because Wilson has become the kind of human eraser Seattle needs him to be.

“I would pay Russell Wilson in a second,” Banner said. “And I’d be very confident doing it.”

But there are other cases where such contracts have hung like nooses around their teams’ necks, like Flacco’s. The Ravens won playoff games in each of the five years he was on a rookie deal, making the AFC title game three times and winning the Super Bowl in the final of those seasons. Then, Baltimore paid him—and missed the playoffs in four of the next five years, only making it in the sixth year after Jackson entered the lineup.

And yet, it’s hard to fault Baltimore. Trying to replace a good-but-not-great quarterback on the fly, because that quarterback may not be quite good enough to make up for everything a team gives up by signing him to a mega-deal, is a scary proposition. Maybe that is coming. But what’s for sure is it’ll take a very bold team for it to happen.

Until then, there will be contracts like the one the Bengals did with Andy Dalton and the Dolphins did with Tannehill years ago. Or, at the very least, more teams will be like the Bucs and Titans this year, and maybe the Bears in a couple years, in letting their young quarterbacks play their rookie deals out.

“You’re asking a GM to put his career on the line,” Banner said. “If you have Joe Flacco, and the reality is he’s good enough to win with great people around him, and he has you in the final 4-to-8 on a consistent basis, it becomes almost impossible to do it. You better have guts to move on. It’s a lot to ask of the owner to take the risk, and of the GM to put career on the line, knowing you may or may not find the next guy quickly.

“Look at the Eagles—McNabb to Wentz didn’t happen overnight. … And because of that, you get this B-level quarterback getting paid like an A-level quarterback, and those aren’t going to win. The A-level, the Mahomeses, they’ll still win. But if you don’t have that, it’s hard.”

In three weeks in Miami, there’ll be an NFC team that’ll have fought off that reality, with its star quarterback, to climb on the sport’s biggest stage. It’ll be faced with a team from the AFC playing with a distinct roster-building advantage.

And this much we know already—when it’s over, the new champion will either have made history or repeated it.

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Rashaan Evans

DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF WATCH LIST

Titans LB Rashaan Evans: Evans was a menace against New England, particularly on a key series to force a field goal near the goal line just before the half. He’ll have be similarly disruptive, and quick to read what he’s seeing, against the Ravens run game. Since he’s in the middle of the defense, he will be key pre-snap against an offense that does a lot to cross up opponents.

49ers C Ben Garland: Weston Richburg’s replacement will be tested mentally in this one, with the volume that Vikings coach Mike Zimmer throws at an offense both in the run game and pass game. And it’s Minnesota front that comes into the game confident after bludgeoning New Orleans at the line of scrimmage.

Seahawks CB Shaquill Griffin: Griffin missed significant time in December, but he returned in Week 17 vs. the 49ers and played every snap last week against the Eagles. His presence, along with Tre Flowers, who was up and down against the Eagles last week, promises to be a significant factor in slowing Aaron Rodgers and Co.

Texans RB Carlos Hyde: Houston may be best slowing the game down to keep its defense’s fresh against Patrick Mahomes, and Hyde is the hammer they can do it with. The sixth-year back’s workload was up and down all year, but he did have 19 or more carries on six occasions and this feels like one of those weeks. He also did have some success the first time these teams plays, going for 65 yards on 9 carries.

Chiefs DB Tyrann Mathieu: Kansas City has deploy the Honey Badger as a spy at points this year, and it’d hardly be a surprise to see Steve Spanuolo assign Mathieu to Deshaun Watson in spots on Sunday. Mathieu’s also been a huge to key presnap in leading the Chiefs defense, which makes him key in Kansas City’s efforts to slow down the Texans’ explosive group of receivers.

Vikings LT Riley Reiff: Minnesota’s offensive-line renovation will get a big test in this round of the playoffs against the Niners’ first-round-pick-laden front, and Reiff will be tested with one of the best young pass-rushers to come into the NFL in years, in rookie Nick Bosa. How Reiff holds up out there will dictate, to some degree, how much Minnesota can do to contain the rest of the San Francisco crew.

Packers OLB Za’Darius Smith: Whether it’s a less-than-100 percent Duane Brown or George Fant, Seattle will be down a tick at left tackle, and that should put some opportunity in this Defensive Player of the Year candidate’s lap. Also worth noting: Smith’s had bursts in production over the course of his first Packers season, with five multi-sack games.

Ravens DT Brandon Williams: And really, this one is for both Williams and Michael Pierce, the two anchors in the middle of the Baltimore defense. Tennessee got real push against the Patriots, and Derrick Henry owned that wild-card game as a result. It’ll be on Baltimore’s big tackle combination to stop that from happened again on Saturday night.

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TWO FOR SATURDAY

LSU CB Kristian Fulton: Both LSU corners are going to be important in the matchup between Clemson star-studded receiver group and a tough crew of Tiger defensive backs. So you can throw true freshman Derek Stingley Jr., who LSU’s coaches have told scouts may be the best player on the team already, into this mix too. But as good as Stingley has been, offenses have targeted Fulton about half as much as his bookend.

“Good-sized corner that can run and cover,” said one AFC college scouting director. “Not as elite as [Jeffrey] Okudah, but he’s in that next tier, late [first-round], high [second-round potential]. Has to prove he can stay healthy. LSU staff really likes the kid.”

Indeed, there are some issues. He served a year-long suspension for a diluted drug-test sample in 2017 and suffered a season-ending injury last year. But the belief is that he’s not a bad kid.

“Really good kid actually,” said the college director. “Dumb mistake … [But he] took it like a champ, practiced his ass off during his suspension time, and got through all of that.” It’ll be fun seeing how he and Stingley hold up against Clemson’s guys.

Clemson WR Tee Higgins: Fulton will be up against Higgins plenty. The 6' 4", 216-pounder is the next in a long line of great Clemson receivers, following DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams as the next likely first-rounder. The true junior entered the Fiesta Bowl with 52 catches for 1,082 yards and 13 touchdowns through 13 games but was held to four catches for 33 yards against Ohio State, missing a good chunk of the game injured. So this one will give him another shot to shine against an elite opponent with elite defensive backs. 

“Long, athletic target that is a high-wire act,” said one NFC exec. “Big radius and he has excellent ball skills, body control and concentration. Outstanding down the field on 50/50 balls and he consistently wins in contested situations. Just not a guy with elite vertical speed or twitch, but that’s rare in that body type.”

Like Fulton, Higgins has an elite younger guys (sophomore Justyn Ross) in his position group, so seeing all these guys against one another should be fantastic. I expect Higgins to be part of the conversation with Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb to be the first receiver to go in April.

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POWER RANKINGS BALLOT

1. Baltimore Ravens (14-2): How sharp will Baltimore be going into Saturday night? The Ravens’ last meaningful game against a quality opponent was over a month ago (Dec. 8 in Buffalo). Keeping a team locked in through that time can be challenging—but I’d say John Harbaugh and his seasoned staff are up for it, though.

2. San Francisco 49ers (13-3): Maybe I’m alone on this one, but I think the Niners drew the short straw getting the Vikings—they’re a well-coached team that won’t shrink to the physical Niners. Kyle Shanahan’s crew’s in for a dogfight.

3. Green Bay Packers (13-3): We’re moving everyone up a spot with the Saints knocked out! I’m fascinated to see if Rodgers has another gear for this one – His regular season was just good, and the team around him is as good as it’s been in a while.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4): Similar to the Packers, if we suddenly get the Patrick Mahomes-fueled offense of 2018 again, look out. The defense is no longer a weakness, and the guys around Mahomes are as heathy as they’ve been all year.

5. Minnesota Vikings (11-6): Going into the Superdome and winning like that scores a lot of points with me. And now Shanahan gets to go head-to-head with the quarterback he originally wanted to bring to San Francisco with him.

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THE ONE THING NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The correction from the overreach for young offensive assistants over the last couple of years. We’ve had four hires thus far. Among them, a 13-year NFL head coach, a nine-year NFL head coach, and a college head coach who’s won in two places that aren’t easy to win in over the last seven years. The one young guy? He’d been a special teams coordinator for the last five seasons.

Why the paradigm shift?

There are two reasons, that I can gather. One, in what’s a kind of basic economic principle, teams recognized that if they kept tapping the same pipeline, in hiring offensive assistants as first-time head coaches, it would eventually run dry. Two, there was a recognition here that there are qualities that are more important than being able to call an offensive play—which is an important skill that people got carried away with a little last year after games like the Rams-Chiefs showdown on Monday Night Football.

And you can see it in the hires, with teams prioritizing leadership. Mike McCarthy and Ron Rivera have stood in front of NFL teams as the man in charge hundreds and hundreds of times over the last decade. Watch five minutes of new Panthers head coach Matt Rhule’s press conference from Wednesday, and you can see that won’t be a problem for him. Even the one surprise hire, Giants head coach Joe Judge, projects to be really strong in that area.

Now, as we all know, these things are cyclical, and maybe all it’ll take is another few prime-time games played in the 40s, and Rams’ trip to the Super Bowl, for this to all swing back.

But where the NFL is on this right now in hiring coaches, versus where it was a year ago, is a fairly logical place.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.