The NFL’s Era of Superstar Empowerment Is Coming

Watson, Wilson, Rodgers, Stafford ... this winter, top quarterbacks across the league came to realize the power they hold. It threatens to upend the NFL, while potentially ushering in an era of NBA-like player movement.
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It took three superstar quarterbacks, over seven days in January, to embrace the notion that they no longer have to be anchored to a franchise for life. Aaron Rodgers’s MVP season—which had started with an unfulfilled request for upgraded receivers—ended with an upset loss to the Bucs on Championship Sunday. In a postgame press conference laced with subtle, coded messages, he talked about a future in which he’d no longer be part of the Packers. Four days after that as the Texans prepared to officially announce an anonymous 65-year-old Ravens assistant as their new coach—and attempt to sell David Culley to an incensed fan base—Deshaun Watson’s rumored insistence that he won’t play another snap for Houston was confirmed publicly. Two nights later Matthew Stafford, a star talent long hamstrung by the Lions’ perennial dysfunction, had his request to move on granted: Detroit dealt him to the Rams for three draft picks and QB Jared Goff.

It was Watson’s demand for a trade, which arose out of a smoldering organizational tire fire in Houston and its owner Cal McNair’s inability to keep even the simplest of promises (We’ll keep you in the loop during our coaching search), that further eroded the remaining adhesive that was holding together the idea of a true franchise quarterback in the NFL right now. Rodgers, 37, despite earning his third MVP award in 2020, is entering the twilight of his career. Stafford, 33, is nearing the same phase. As is Russell Wilson, 32, who publicly aired his grievances concerning the Seahawks’ roster-building in the week after Super Bowl LV, raising speculation about his future in Seattle. Watson, though, is 25, and just five months removed from signing an extension with an average annual value of $39 million, the second-highest in league history. Not since Carson Palmer forced his way out of Cincinnati nearly 10 years ago—holding out for half the 2011 season before being dealt to Oakland—has even a mid-level starting quarterback under contract demanded a trade. But rather than a quarterback’s playbook, Watson seemed to be taking a page out of an NBA superstar’s: The money doesn’t matter—if you won’t build a championship-caliber organization around me, send me to a team that will.

SI Daily Cover: Deshaun Watson and the empowerment of star quarterbacks

One prominent agent who represents multiple top-tier passers in the NFL believes that quarterbacks’ collective realization of their own power will change the landscape around football. Along with Watson, Stafford, Rodgers and Wilson, Dak Prescott remains unsigned, as does a slew of lower-tier bridge and developmental QBs. Carson Wentz, once thought to be the long-term answer for the Eagles, was traded to Indianapolis. Goff is on the move, and any number of young quarterbacks whose teams have a chance to upgrade could suddenly burst from the board like plastic yellow shapes in a failed game of Perfection.

Mike Tannenbaum, the former Jets general manager who once added Brett Favre to his roster and was momentarily tangled in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes of 2012, says, “We could be on the precipice of a transformational era in the NFL. We could potentially see NBA-type movement. ... You could be looking at a new era where [franchise] quarterbacks determine where they want to play.”

And the consequences will be felt in every QB room, sideline, front office and owner’s box across the league.

What will happen to football once the franchise quarterbacks start to roam? For fans with an interest in other sports, it will feel eerily familiar—for NFL clubs, completely foreign.

Tannenbaum notes, for example, that some salary-cap tricks could become commonplace. Hypothetically, a quarterback who wants to leave town could propose a creative arrangement to his current and future team, perhaps repaying his bonus money, then have it reimbursed by the new club after the start of the following league year. This would help mitigate some of the “dead money” cap charge (a term used for the amount of money a club already owes a player but has not been reflected on a given year’s cap) endured by the trading team. That dead money is the main reason franchise quarterback trade conversations are typically reserved for Madden and subreddits.

While coaches will have to become recruiters of the league’s premium talent, stars like Watson could become kingmakers simply by tapping the promising coaches they would like to work with. (Watson’s recommendation that the Texans interview Robert Saleh fueled rumors that the Jets, Saleh’s new team, are a preferred trade destination for the signal-caller.) These trends could make even more valuable the quarterback-development credentials of coaches like Sean Payton in New Orleans, Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco and Sean McVay in Los Angeles.

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Owners, though, will endure the most seismic shift. The root of Watson’s unhappiness in Houston, for example, lies with McNair, who has failed to communicate with Watson on multiple franchise-altering decisions. After finding out via social media that star receiver and close friend DeAndre Hopkins had been traded to Arizona last March, Watson was promised a chance to give input on the team’s GM and head-coaching searches. Of the two coaches he suggested, one wasn’t interviewed by the Texans until late in the process (Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy) and the other wasn’t interviewed at all (Saleh, the 49ers defensive coordinator who interviewed with every other team that had a vacancy). And, like with the Hopkins trade, Watson found out about the hiring of new GM Nick Caserio in January via social media.

McNair can now bend to the whims of his quarterback or endure months of bad press and the inevitable moment when Watson loudly, finally forces his way out, sullying Houston as a future free-agent destination. Making a franchise a more hospitable place is no longer the problem of people owners constantly hire and fire. It is through their own words and actions—a new level of accountability.

While the drama unfolded in Houston, Les Snead, the general manager of the Rams, hinted during a postseason press conference that Goff’s spot on the roster was tenuous at best despite his signing a long-term contract extension on the eve of the 2019 season, seven months after he led the Rams to a Super Bowl appearance. Less than 17 months after signing that deal, the 26-year-old Goff was headed to Detroit, where he will presumably serve as a bridge to the Lions’ next franchise QB. Less than three weeks after that, a rift between 28-year-old Carson Wentz and the Eagles proved too much to overcome. An MVP candidate in 2017 before a torn ACL forced him to watch a Nick Foles–led Super Bowl run from the sideline, Wentz was benched in December, and a month later the team fired coach Doug Pederson. Rather than wait to see if new coach Nick Sirianni could unlock his MVP form, the Eagles decided to trade Wentz to Indianapolis, despite the fact that he signed his mega-extension a few months before Goff got his; neither deal kicks in until the 2021 league year begins in March. In other words, Goff and Wentz were shipped out before the long-term commitments they and their teams made to each other even began.

The fates of Goff and Wentz are a reminder that no matter the commitment you think the team has made to you, it can back out—that’s especially true for recent draft picks on much smaller contracts. Take Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who one minute is on a developmental track toward franchise status, then a few months later is mentioned as trade bait for Watson. The organization goes from showering you with praise to discussing you in legalese, like an item to be divided in a court-ordered separation.

Rams QB Jared Goff prepares to throw a pass during a game in the 2020 season

Goff was jettisoned to Detroit less than two years after helping them to a Super Bowl LIII appearance.

But the Goff and Wentz trades are also a reminder that there’s no such thing as an untradeable contract. It cuts both ways: If teams, like a devious accountant, can manipulate the salary cap to their advantage, players can use their leverage to convince a team to let them out of a long-term commitment, contract be damned.

The lives that will not change much are the ones of the young passers entering the league. As Jordan Palmer, a former NFL quarterback and high-profile predraft trainer of prospects (like presumed No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence of Clemson this year) notes: The NFL now has the same kind of football Darwinism these kids have seen since their first elite youth quarterback camp in middle school. At that level, the best quarterback always goes to the best team and receives the most visibility from scouts. Especially with the advent of the transfer portal in college football, there is an ingrained assumption that their job is constantly being sought after by someone else.

Increasing open-mindedness from NFL evaluators about the shape, size, style and source of a franchise quarterback has led to increasing impatience, making it harder than ever to hold on to one of the league’s 32 QB1 slots.

“It’s about how good can you get and how fast you can get there,” Palmer says. “I train 10-year-olds, too. Kids in other countries. The position has never been more equal opportunity. You used to have to be 6' 4" and from one of these 10 schools. Now it’s wide open. You have a 5' 11" kid from Hawaii, Tua Tagovailoa, going fifth overall. We’re about to have two quarterbacks from North Dakota State drafted in the Top 10 in the last five years.

Sam Darnold looks upfield after executing a play-action fake for the Jets

Darnold could be out after just 38 career starts for the Jets.

“There’s more talent. There’s a bigger pool. It’s going to get harder and harder to make it. Look at Joe Burrow; he couldn’t even get on the field at Ohio State. I don’t need to tell my guys that the hourglass is running out of sand. I don’t need to increase their sense of urgency. They need to have that already.”

Quarterback mobility creates dueling possibilities for football in the near future. One is a kind of top-heavy dystopian wasteland, where all the best players migrate to a few places already glutted with the type of resources needed to draw in top-tier stars. Not unlike in the NBA, the idea of a tattered NFL franchise picking itself up from rock bottom becomes more of a distant fairy tale, and the outlier franchises slowly starve for relevance and success. Like the era when a string of free agents signed discounted deals to join the Patriots, the few places capable and interested in amassing star power are continuously rewarded.

A side effect of quarterback movement, experts point out, is that the middle class—the players at any position who do not have affordable rookie contracts or the talent to warrant expensive veteran deals—will further shrink as teams try to create enough cap space to lure top quarterbacks. This year, a season when the salary cap could dwindle or remain flat, could be especially hazardous for those players on teams needing to sign or trade for a quarterback.

Aaron Rodgers looks to the stands during a break in the action of a Packers game

Aaron Rodgers probably won't be traded by the Packers—but he sent a message about what he ultimately wanted from the franchise.

The other world is more harmonious; a world in which owners create a level of stability; in which general managers, coaches and their staffers aren’t on a constant quest to either gain power or secure what is already won; in which the building becomes the kind of place where people want to work. Corporations and small businesses across the U.S. fight for top employees all the time with culture creation. No longer will the NFL be immune to basic human practices. Imagine the owner who, from the moment they draft the next Deshaun Watson, is terrified at the prospect of losing him. Imagine his becoming involved in the quarterback’s social and charitable causes. Imagine his getting input from the quarterback and his teammates on what kind of coaches they would like, on how they like to train, on the direction they’d like the organization to take.

While a handful of NFL teams already operate this way, the fact that this winter could completely upend the NFL, affecting the rosters and job security of dozens of quarterbacks (and consequently other players like offensive linemen, wide receivers, running backs and tight ends) shows how far the league has to go.

“It’s part and parcel of running a good organization,” Tannenbaum says. “A good leader is a good listener. Make sure your place is one where players want to play, where they’re happy and fulfilled and being given the best chance to maximize their career.”

So what happens when the quarterbacks start to roam? Will we find ourselves, collectively, as a football-viewing universe, happier? Will we laud its progressiveness, or will we weep for the days of the “hometown hero” under center? Will it please the younger generation, who grew up less interested in season tickets and more fascinated by constantly shifting Madden rosters and daily fantasy lineups? Will it alienate football’s already hot-and-cold relationship with the older portion of the fan base, which prefers players stay in place? The answer is undoubtedly yes. For the coaches, owners and fans who have a franchise quarterback they love, now might be a good time to let them know just how much.

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