The QB Contract Decisions Facing the Jets and Broncos

I wanted to talk a little today about the quarterback decisions being made in the league. At the heart of this discussion are the decisions that have been made by two teams, the Denver Broncos and New York Jets, regarding their quarterback decision. Both teams made the decision to draw a line in the sand when it came to salaries and contractual structures they were willing to offer to the players everyone expected to be their quarterbacks this year. The Broncos lost their quarterback to the Texans and the Jets may lose theirs to another team, possibly even the Broncos. The fans are, of course, outraged and in a panic that the organizations are not signing these players and the impact it will have on the team next season. But are these teams making the right choice?

That panic that fans feel is no different than the panic that far too often drives NFL decision making. Front office jobs are always on the line and one bad season can pretty much sink a career. It’s that panic that drove the Houston Texans to sign Brock Osweiler to a contract worth $18 million a season despite having only played a handful of games in his career and being considered, just a few months ago, to be no different than a Ryan Mallet type of quarterback struggling for an opportunity to play. It’s that panic that drove the Giants to spend $17 million a year on a pass rusher that a few months ago was probably considered a tier two rusher and $12 million on a tier two cornerback.  Giving into that panic isn’t necessarily wrong but it’s also not necessarily right either.

We can all agree that winning in the NFL without a quarterback is difficult. However it’s just as difficult, if not moreso, to win when you have too much invested in a quarterback who doesn’t deliver on the field. One of the main things that NFL owners wanted to accomplish in the last CBA was the elimination of huge salaries for rookies, primarily quarterbacks.  Why?  Because it locked teams into players who had no ability to thrive on the NFL level.  JaMarcus Russel, Joey Harrington David Carr, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf, Kyle Boller, the list goes on and on. The NFL won that battle and gave themselves the financial flexibility to not get locked in on these types of players in the future.

The problem, now, is that we are asking teams to make those same mistakes except this time on a contract in free agency. Look at the dollars being thrown around.  $37 million guaranteed for Osweiler.  $17.5 million a year for Sam Bradford. $7 million a year for Chase Daniel to back up Bradford. Nearly $20 million for Kirk Cousins to play this season.

I know the salary cap has increased greatly in the last few years, but just a short time ago people were ripping contracts signed by Andy Dalton ($16M), Alex Smith ($17M), Jay Cutler ($18.1M), and Joe Flacco($20.1M) because they were not worth the money. Every one of these players was not only more proven than the above players but light years better. In a league where the top quarterback makes $22 million a year it is hard for a team with a long term vision to see Osweiler worth just around 20% less.

When you sign most of these players to the kind of money we are talking about you lock yourself into that player for a minimum of two years and in most cases three years. As a Jets fan do I want to see the Jets committed to Ryan Fitzpatrick for three years?  Absolutely not. Do I love the effort he gives and the way his teammates respond to him?  I absolutely do. It’s the first quarterback the Jets have had in 10 years that had that kind of connection with his teammates.

But I also know the history of Fitzpatrick. Hes been replaced by three teams in the last few seasons because there is a limit to what he can do. We saw that last year with a tough stretch in the middle of the year and then in the last game of the season when he struggled against the Bills. The reality of the situation is that its far more likely that four games into the season Jets fans, management, and ownership is going to be asking for him to be replaced than there is of him leading the Jets to a 4-0 start to the top of the AFC East. Except when you make that financial commitment you can’t replace him.  You are locked in.

Every team in the NFL has a budget to work with, both in real terms and in accounting terms. Every player needs to be valued in two ways. One is the market value of the player. For Osweiler that was $18 million. Fitzpatrick is hoping his number is close to that. The second is an internal evaluation that puts a price on the expected player performance. We can do that by looking at historical trends for both comparable players and the individual player himself. An optimistic view of Osweiler would probably carry an internal number of $13 million and a more neutral view around $8 million. Fitzpatrick would be far less than that though with a tighter range.

A team has to consider how they will allocate those resources they have to build a team. The Texans will likely be overpaying Osweiler by $5 million to $10 million a year over the next two seasons. $10 to $20 million over two buys you a few decent players, or one really good player and a pretty decent one. The Broncos made the decision that there is far too much risk in giving up that much of your budget to one player who you may be ready to pull the plug on in a few games. Better to use that money elsewhere. The Texans were willing to take on that risk of losing resources in hopes that he plays up to the contract because they were in a panic. They saw the way Brian Hoyer gave the team no hope so they went all in on Brock.

The Texans decision is nothing new in the NFL. Really it’s not even new for them. They went down this road with Matt Schaub, twice actually. In round one it worked as he was a relative unknown that they gave a decent contract too.   It wasn’t as big as this deal but relative to the time it was a pretty decent deal for a mid round pick who had never played much. That was more or less the Brock stage.

A few years later he was closer to the Fitzpatrick stage.  Decent stats, but physically limited. He seemed to have reached his ceiling as a player and would trend down. The Texans went all in on an extension that paid him near the top of the market. It sunk the team. Schaub couldn’t handle the pressure of the contract, the expectations it brought, and eventually found his way to the bench. The Texans took time to recover as they had to plan for his exit eventually earning the number 1 pick in the draft.

Schaub’s downfall and that of many others (for Jets fans Pennington would be the appropriate comparison) shows the far reaching impact beyond the contract itself. When teams get into these QB deals they build a roster to those perceived strengths of the QB. Often they overpay to fill those voids because they have to now surround the expensive piece with other pieces that can help justify the investment. This is when teams go from not just eating their cash budget but getting into salary cap problems that lock them into players well beyond the shelf life of the player.  What happens when the clock strikes 12?  The team falls apart, coaches get fired and a new front office is brought in to clean up the mess.

Both the Jets and Broncos have been more or less built without a quarterback in mind. John Elway has the foresight a few years ago to see where Peyton Manning was headed despite the gaudy statistics. He didn’t want to run the risk others did by backing himself into a corner and building a team strictly for Manning. They let key pieces walk away rather than being stuck on bad contracts that would carry even less value without Manning and ended up winning a Super Bowl without a quarterback .  If he had kept the Decker’s and Thomas’ of the world the odds were probably against the Broncos doing what they did last season.

The Jets were built to be QB proof out of necessity since they had nobody on the roster of merit when the new GM took the job last year. Though they are bit too veteran laden, they have a secondary and defensive line that is expected to carry the team. They have a bunch of big veteran wide receivers who they feel are capable of excelling with any player and a three player, versatile rushing attack that can do well on the ground and in the short passing game. To sign someone at $17 million is going to require reshuffling some contracts which is never good for an older football team. All they need is someone who isn’t a disaster to make it work. Last year that was Fitzpatrick. Maybe this year it will be someone else.

Long term I think the Jets and Broncos are both making the correct decisions. Maybe one of them will blink on a QB because of the panic but its far better, in my opinion, to take that extra “hope for the best” money you give to one of those players and use it to build a team that should function independent of a specific quarterback.  The odds are in the teams favor that they can get a close to equal performance at a fraction of the cost from someone else and maybe get a better overall team result by building a better team. The odds are basically equal that they will crash and burn with or without those quarterbacks. If I going to go 3-13 I would much rather do it evaluating a mid round draft pick than spending the year trying to understand why I made the decision to give $17 million to a journeyman quarterback.