Did Titans Cost Themselves A Super Bowl Shot by Paying Tannehill?
NASHVILLE – Pretty much everyone agrees that Ryan Tannehill earned it.
Playing for a new team in a contract year he put up the best numbers of his career in 2019 and proved he could perform in the postseason. So, it made sense when he re-signed for four years and $118 million days before the start of the NFL’s new league year in March.
The question is, did the Tennessee Titans cost themselves a chance to win a Super Bowl when they decided to pay their quarterback that kind of money?
It is not as if the Titans re-set the market with Tannehill’s contract. In terms of total value and average annual spending, Tannehill is ninth among the NFL’s highest-paid quarterbacks for 2020. And eight of the top 12 contracts at that position are for guys 32 years old or older, Tannehill included.
The issue is the annual average of the deal, $29.5 million. As SI.com senior NFL writer Albert Breer noted in this week’s MAQB column, no quarterback playing on a $20 million (or higher) per year contract ever has led his team to a championship. Of the eight that currently have bigger contracts than Tannehill only two – Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Seattle’s Russell Wilson – have won Super Bowls. Both did so before they signed their current deals.
First to reach that line was Drew Brees with a five-year, $100 million pact in in 2012, two years after he won a Super Bowl with New Orleans. The Saints have been to the postseason just four times in eight years since and got as far as the conference championship once.
A Super Bowl victory with Baltimore in 2012 earned Joe Flacco a six-year, $120.6 million extension ($20.1 million per season) the following offseason. He won just one playoff game after that and currently is without a team.
Conversely, the Kansas City Chiefs won last year with Patrick Mahomes playing on his rookie contract. The same was true of Wilson and the Seahawks in 2013. Backup Nick Foles led Philadelphia to a championship in 2017 when starter Carson Wentz – still on his rookie contract – was injured.
Peyton Manning delivered one title to Denver (2015) playing on a deal that paid him an average of $19.2 million per season, and Tom Brady repeatedly reworked his contract with New England to keep his cost down and allow franchise officials to spend money elsewhere.
Eli Manning won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. After he won his first in the fourth year of his six-year rookie pact (2007) he signed a six-year extension worth an average of $16.25 million per season. He won his second in 2011 while playing under that extension.
And so on. And so on.
“Ryan is a veteran quarterback,” coach Mike Vrabel said this week. “I don’t think he tried to do anything differently last year other than to execute on offense and lead. That was plenty. I would anticipate him preparing to do the same type of thing (this season).”
Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota as the starter in Week 7 and led the NFL in passer rating (117.5) and yards per attempt (9.6) and was one of three quarterbacks who completed at least 70 percent of his passes (70.3, in his case). He led the Titans to seven victories in 10 regular season starts and helped them reach the AFC Championship for the first time since 2002.
All of that happened with Mariota earning $20.922 million on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract.
And there is more good news.
An oft-cited theory that if a team spends more than 13 percent of its salary cap on one player, that team cannot fill enough holes elsewhere on the roster to win big.
Tannehill’s salary cap number for 2020 is $22.5 million, which is 11.4 percent of this year’s $198.2 million limit. After this, his cap number jumps to $29.5 million in 2021, peaks at $34 million in 2022 and ends up at $32 million in 2023.
Plus, according to an analysis by The Athletic, the increased emphasis on throwing the ball in the NFL is changing the importance of the quarterback in a way that allows teams to compensate for the larger salaries. In the last nine seasons, five quarterbacks among the eight highest-paid in a given season played in the Super Bowl (one won). Over the same span, six Super Bowl teams featured quarterbacks on their rookie contracts (four won).
Then there is this: Quarterbacks are not the only ones deemed worthy of $20 million deals. Currently, there are 26 players at six different positions on deals that average or exceed that number. One is defensive end Frank Clark, who last season with the Chiefs became the first to be part of a Super Bowl champion while on a contract that paid an average of $20 million or more. It was the first of a five-year pact that averages $20.8 million per season.
So, it has been proven that it can be done.
“I’m thankful for the way it worked out,” Tannehill said. “I’m excited to be back. I wanted to be back. I love the guys on the team. I like the direction this program is headed with what we did last year and how I think we can build on that going into my Year 2 with this team.”
And maybe even do something no other quarterback in his financial class has done.