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 %
2006P. Manning10.4%
2007E. Manning9.2%
2011E. Manning11.7%