Super Bowl Titles and High Salary Quarterbacks

With Aaron Rodgers now eliminated from winning the Super Bowl, it means that Steve Young’s record as the highest salary cap clogging QB to win a Super Bowl remains intact. Young’s cap figure that season took up 13.1% of the 49ers salary cap. That year was 1994, the first year the salary cap was in existence. So in 20 years no Super Bowl winning team has invested a higher percentage of their cap on a QB than the first team to ever win one in the cap era.  Yet teams continue to pour more and more money into that position each season.

Since Young’s championship in 1994, only three other quarterbacks have eaten up 10% of their teams salary cap- Eli Manning in 2011 (11.7%), Peyton Manning in 2006 (10.4%), and Brett Favre in 1996 (10.2%). The average spend on a Super Bowl QB has been just 6.4%. If Brady wins the Super Bowl his cap percentage will fit between the Manning brothers at 11.1%. Russell Wilson’s 0.49% would rank below all others except for Brady in 2001 who cost just 0.47% of the Patriots salary cap. If Brady wins he will become just the fourth QB to win a title after signing a large contract extension. The others to do so were the Manning’s and Ben Roethlisberger.

The funny thing about discussing Brady this way is that in today’s era Brady is considered “cheap” because he took a team friendly contract to allow the Patriots to build a team around him of talented players.  It’s a game of many moving pieces and too much investment in one player can often mean disregarding those other pieces whose role is also important to success. Brady and his team realized this and acted accordingly.

If we assume next year’s salary cap to be $140 million six quarterbacks will eat up more cap space than Young. Those players include Tony Romo, Drew Brees, both Mannings, Ryan, and Roethlisberger. Half of that group didn’t make the playoffs in 2014 and none advanced beyond the second round.

If we extend that figure out to the 11.7% mark set by Manning as the modern age high water mark then we add Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Philip Rivers, Sam Bradford, and Jay Cutler to the list.   That’s now 1/3 of the NFL that is already locked into more QB money than the most ever committed to a winning QB since 1995.  If we look at the average spent on quarterbacks of just 6.4% we are now eliminating every veteran long term contract in the league. Our list drops all the way down to Andrew Luck at 5% and RGIII at 4.8%.

I can understand the logic in paying Rodgers, Manning, etc… those big dollars. The regular season success of most of those players is off the charts and irreplaceable.  But if it compromises your ability to get better more and more teams need to question whether it is worth it or not.  This is what sets New England apart from so many other teams and will continue to set them apart over the next few seasons. They can build around their starting QB’s contract in a manner the most successful teams of the past have done.

It will be interesting to see if Brady wins if more of the veteran players consider signing lower cost contracts to try to gain a competitive advantage and win one more before they ride off into the sunset. Brady has alternate sources of income that dwarf the salaries of these players, but players like Brees and Peyton (who did turn down more money to play in Denver) have certainly done well for themselves. But if a change occurs at the top it will have to come from the players side as the team has no leverage to force a paycut. There is simply no better alternative available in free agency or the draft.

The changes should start with the mid range QB contracts that have now become cap cloggers.  The odds are strongly against winning with a Cutler type of player, but they become increasingly more difficult when you invest money in him as if he is a top tier player. That limits what you can do with the rest of your team.

One of the problems with the NFL is that everyone wants to follow a similar model of success. It’s very easy to say that the NFL has become a passing league and that we need to “get with the times” and get a modern offense in place. The NFL goes through trends like this all the time. The problem is there are only so many Aaron Rodgers out there, yet in today’s league little separates the Stafford’s and Cutler’s from the Rodgers’ of the league when we look at salary cap impact.

The trick in the NFL is when you don’t have that player that can drive the latest style to find a way to be unique and exploit mismatches. That’s one of the reasons why Seattle has been so successful.  As the Bears scrambled to turn a run based program into a downfield passing attack the Seahawks recognized whatever limitations existed and focused on building their defense and maintaining a power running game behind Marshawn Lynch. Invest heavy in a great safety that can shadow a great corner and shut off a side of the field. Nobody else does it and teams have a hard time with having a whole half of a field taken away. It’s something that hasn’t happened in ages. Its unique.

Now there is a great deal of luck in how the Seahawks found so much talent, but give them credit for recognizing that a player like Percy Harvin had no role and moving him out. That move extended their window of opportunity by a season. They know what they are and work within those parameters rather than investing huge cap room in a Stafford esque offense that runs in neutral and costs $20-$30 million more.  Maybe Seattle will fall into those problems when they do re-sign Wilson and pay him at the high end of the salary spectrum, but for now they have an identity that is so different few teams are equipped to deal with it.

We can all see the Patriots thinking outside the box for this year’s playoff run. They saved a number of plays and formations just for this run. A Julian Edelman pass to Danny Amendola? Shane Vereen offensive lineman?  Nate Solder down the field tight end?  Where was this during the year?  It was being saved to catch teams off guard when they were ill equipped to deal with it. Teams will all use it next season, we’ll all go crazy as soon as we see it happen, and very quickly all defenses will be ready to recognize it and stop it. Meanwhile the Patriots will be one step ahead and doing something different while everyone tries to imitate what New England thought had a shelf life of three games.

Teams in the NFL are not going to be successful by settling for Cutler and paying him and attempting to play him like he is Rodgers. That is the model that needs to stop. History more or less shows you are not going to win with this kind of investment specifically for this kind of player. The Bears have a top 10 draft pick that will  likely cost 1/3 or ¼ of Cutler. While there is no guarantee that the QB will be as good as Cutler right away I bet the added $10-14 million a season would go a long way towards building a team far better than the one on the field now.

But clogging the salary cap on this one position is not going to help a team win a Super Bowl. Eventually someone will but I can almost guarantee that it will be one of the players considered an elite level talent, not a second or third tier guy simply being paid like one.

% of Cap Spent on SB Winning QB

YearNameCap %
1994Young13.1%
1995Aikman6.7%
1996Favre10.2%
1997Elway5.2%
1998Elway5.0%
1999Warner1.3%
2000Dilfer1.6%
2001Brady0.47%
2002Johnson9.6%
2003Brady4.4%
2004Brady6.3%
2005Roethlisberger4.9%
2006P. Manning10.4%
2007E. Manning9.2%
2008Roethlisberger6.8%
2009Brees8.3%
2011E. Manning11.7%
2012Flacco6.6%
2013Wilson0.56%
  • Justme1966z

    Jason,

    Great analysis. Interesting that nine of the top ten QBs in terms of 2014 cap hits (The Mannings, Cutler, Roethlisberger, Brees, Bradford, Ryan, Rivers and Stafford) won a combined total of zero playoff games this year.

  • Anthony

    You missed 2010, Aaron Rodgers.

  • Anthony

    Excellent piece though. I would be very interested to see the cap breakdowns of the Super Bowl winners in terms of position $ distribution.

  • Pingback: New York Jets Flight Connections 1-21-15 - Sports Fire()

  • Pingback: New York Jets Flight Connections 1-21-15 - Sports Train()

  • Pingback: New York Jets Flight Connections 1-21-15 | nflfans247.net()

  • McGeorge

    Jason,
    You are over looking one thing. The game has become more of a passing league and less of a running game (due to rules changes and enforcement of pass interference and illegal contact). There is a QB shortage and the bottom 6-8 teams have very poor QBs, to the point that they cost the team 2-4 games per year. Swap Geno Smith for Aaron Rodgers and thats a big swing for Green Bay. This causes teams to over pay the 2nd tier QBs like : Cutler, Dalton, and Kaepernick

    I think there is too little pay difference between the top tier and 2nd tier. Aaron Rodgers on the Bills makes for a very strong team.

    I’d rather spend money on a QB and cut back a little on some of the other positions.
    I’d rather have a top tier QB than JJ Watt.

    There is a QB shortage, and no one is going to let a good QB go. If team lets a 2nd tier QB walk, they better have a replacement ready to go, with a years experience of sitting on the bench, learning the play book and blocking. If you let Stafford walk, and replace him with Geno Smith, you aren’t going anywhere.

    • Darnie Kris Glover

      If your goal is to win a lot of games, you pay big money to a QB. If your goal is to win a Super Bowl, you have to be responsible and hope for a stroke of luck.

  • Sperm Edwards

    Jason, I’d add that eating up a percentage of a salary cap in a given season isn’t necessarily indicative of the QB’s average yearly compensation on their existing deal (as you know better than most). A QB can be playing under a $15M/year contract but, in the 1 championship year, have a far lower cap number, like Roethlisberger in 2008. The QB may still make, and average, 10% or more of the team’s cap limit that season, but his cap number just for that 1 season will clearly be lower.

    It also doesn’t take into account unique situations a typical GM can’t account for or have access to, like a veteran Tom Brady* playing under a vastly below-market contract for most of his HOF* career. If he wasn’t willing to take a major discount with the Patriots (or anyone else) or didn’t make so much outside of the NFL, he’d have been be making (read: counting against the cap) nearly double. But in this unique case among star, veteran QBs, someone with Brady’s significant non-football income will still make more overall by staying in the limelight as a perennial SB contender (or winner) in NE than he would be if he was paid $6-8M more per season in Jacksonville, Oakland, etc. It’s an unusual situation and he’s the only one willing to take such a team-friendly deal and leave football money on the table. Most who perform like some the very best ever – Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, now Aaron Rodgers – expect to and do get paid like they are among very best ever. In other words, Brady is such an exception to the rule it’s difficult to count him as though he was typical, particularly when the sample size is so small (only 1 superbowl per year) and Brady’s teams have won* 25% of them over his career, even in the face of what has often/mostly been atrocious team drafting.

    Lastly, some teams won superbowls with big-money QBs while those QBs were still on their vastly cheaper rookie deals (Brady, Wilson, Roethlisberger, Flacco). The extremely low pay for these guys brings down both the mean and median cap percentage for winning QBs, particularly when one compounds that with QBs playing under a veteran deal and counting less than 50% of what would be his then-market value (Warner, Brady* 3x, and even Brees). If Brees hadn’t torn his labrum in a meaningless game he’d surely have gotten more than $10M per as a UFA 3 months later. Well into that contract when the Saints won their deal, if he’d signed a shorter/show-me contract he’d have been making double. Roethlisberger signed that $15M/year deal and they won a superbowl that same season, but since it was year 1 of that deal his cap hit was only $8M rather than the 50-125% more that it became on the balance of that same contract.

    The question this brings up (which I imagine is part of your article’s point) is that if these QBs were at their market earnings at the time their team won it all, would that team have won it all? If the 2001 Patriots had Tom Brady eating up an additional $11M of cap space like Favre or McNabb at the time, instead of just $300K, would they have been able to field the same superbowl-winning team around him that year?

    Will Seattle win (or nearly win) anymore superbowls once Wilson is gobbling up $18-20M/year instead of under $1M? As it is/was Seattle already needed (and still need) to get him major receiver upgrades and – drafting a fast-maturing, cheap, mid-late round beast notwithstanding – that ability is severely limited when they’ll have nearly or around $15-20M/year less to work with for Wilson alone in the coming years. Maybe not in year 1, the way deals are typically structured. But once they’re 2-3 years into Wilson’s new deal (and with Sherman’s cap numbers kicking into high gear starting in ’15 as well), it’ll really hit home for them and their fans, just how much harder it is to field a superbowl winner when their 2 best players aren’t counting $1.25M combined(!) like in 2013 (or still under $5M combined a year later). Those same 2 players will be eating up an additional $25-35M of their cap. Putting together a winner will be a lot harder with these 2 eating up 25% of their cap instead of the minuscule + insignificant 1-3% it’s been these past 3 seasons.

    Anyway it’s an interesting article, Jason.

    -SE

    * = cheaters, all 4 of NE’s rings are tainted, and every football fan who can properly pronounce “chowder” knows it. 🙂

    • All good points. I had an earlier article that actually touched on what you are talking about at http://overthecap.com/super-bowl-rings-and-the-overpricing-of-the-quarterback/ The format may be messed up a bit now but it looks at the APY at time of signing.

      Brady is basically the complete outlier and his willingness to do the wacky contracts has started to really turn fanbases against their guys. You see it today with people saying Manning needs to take a paycut and for the last few months Ive heard that Brees need to do the same. It wont happen in Green Bay but outside of it Id imagine at some point there will be a backlash against Rodgers since his teams playoff runs have been incomplete.

      I think for many teams now its about determining windows of opportunity and figuring out how best to manage it. Weve talked about that on the Jets for years really going back to their free agent frenzy of 2008. When you do something like that and have a clearly defined 3 year window you probably need to tailor your QB cap structure to maximize your chances. I mean you can say that about all positions I guess but at least in the case of QB they have really long careers and usually dont just fall off a cliff ala a Shaun Alexander type. I think you maximize what you can and then plan that the next window has to be a very young team to make up for the deferrments of pay.

      Defiitely some of those teams would not have won had they done contracts differently with those stars. Even the Ravens may have had issues if they did Flacco in 2012 rather than 2013. Overall they would have been better off since Flaccos deal is outrageous, but having him on that rookie contract helped that team keep a number of good players in uniform. Same with the Steelers. Had they used a more even term deal with Ben they may not win that second Super Bowl. They needed that structure to extend that window during that time period.

      I look at a team like Denver and say maybe they should have broken from their norms with Mannings contract and done more to open up the room especially in light of their direct competition having the Brady edge. It was such a short window of opportunity that they probably didnt take full advantage of it in 2012 and 2013. 2014 looks like it was a year to late.

      The supply of QBs is so poor but at some point I do think that prices will go down. The different rules eventully should make it easier for a bunch of average guys to look better. Maybe Cutler is the breaking point since for people to begin re-thinking their spending on the position.

  • Pingback: Catching Up On Legit Wilson Contract Stuff « CBS Seattle()

  • Pingback: Paying quarterbacks big can make winning in the NFL hard | Georgia World News()

  • Pingback: Paying quarterbacks big can make winning in the NFL hard | Twatchin()

  • Pingback: Paying Wilson May Hurt Seahawks Super Bowl Chances – Hawkblogger()

  • Pingback: Franchising Bradford Would Be Bad For Business – Eye Test Sports()